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Who tells a tale adds a tail:
Latin America and contemporary art

[31 de julho de 2022]

There are endless ways of organizing a group contemporary art exhibition that has a geographic blueprint as a starting point. Working at the Denver Art Museum as a curator dedicated to the extensive and contradictory region of Latin America, I had many doubts regarding the format that this project should have, what subjects should be approached, and which artists should be invited.

Initially, it seemed interesting to depart from a curatorial approach that would complicate the notion of Latin America; many of the US projects regarding this region usually focus on artists with aesthetics that explicitly look at the pleasures and traumas of Latin America. In US museums and in the hegemonic Global North, the artists from the Global South usually are given more space when they speak explicitly about their cultures. In a globalized system of visual arts with radically opposing structures and financial capital, what interest would northern countries have in artists whose insights and artistic forms possess a visuality that doesn’t reveal immediately the artist’s cultural identity? This trap of visual cultural belonging that leads a group of people to quickly affirm “This is a Latin American artist” often becomes a cliché and is easily institutionalized, preventing other existential postures and approaches toward imagery.(1)

Wishing to escape as much as possible from these clichés of Latin America, two strategies were essential to this project. First was to shed light on artists from different places within the geopolitics of this region. It was important, therefore, to include artists from South America (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela), Central America (Guatemala), Mexico, the Caribbean (Haiti and Dominican Republic), and the Latinx community in the United States (with artists from Denver and Los Angeles). Just in this simple list of places we already find dissonant histories of colonization, linguistic groups, and topography.

These are places that also bring us doubts: could Haiti be considered Latin America? Often, the countries that are seen as part of the Global South are those that went through the violent colonization by Spain and Portugal. Therefore, how do we reflect on the region of the Caribbean, with its hundreds of islands, historic transits, and languages? A similar doubt can emerge regarding the Latinx community in the United States: Does the diaspora of the artists who migrated as youth to the country or those who are the first generation to be born in the United States consider themselves Latin American? What are the specificities of the different Latinx communities in the United States? And what of Brazil, a country so culturally self-centered and, proportionally, a continent within the South American continent? Can a country that has normalized the expression “I will travel to Latin America” when someone travels to neighboring countries who speak Spanish be considered Latin American?

Being born and raised in Brazil and having the opportunity to travel extensively, I would say that the answers are more complex than initially thought and tend to refuse binary thinking. Instead of dismissing them, I find it more interesting to bring these uncertainties to the public and make an invitation to reflect.

The second curatorial strategy was the need to gather artists who continuously doubt the certainties that the phrase Latin America can have. After much research and many conversations with artists from different generations, it seemed timely to dedicate this exhibition to the artists associated with the so-called millennial generation—people who were born between 1981 and 1996.(2) Working with these artists brought the opportunity to give space to names that have not yet been institutionalized—either by the market or by the museums and cultural centers—in the United States. Instead of bringing artists that regularly show their work in an explicitly—and sometimes in a folkloric—Latin American key in biennials and triennials around the globe, it seemed wiser to open the Denver Art Museum’s doors to artists who, project by project, just like little ants, keep experimenting and who are recognized by insiders.

The millennials saw the rapid transformation from an analog world to digital hyperconnection: from landline telephones in homes to beepers to cable TV and cellular phones. At first, those small computers were used to make voice calls and then to send text messages. Later, they acquired powerful cameras and, currently—echoing Michel Foucault from a few decades ago—they are true surveillance and punishing weapons.(3) If some of us—with all our different histories and personal narratives—did not witness armed conflicts or the violence of dictatorships first hand, surely we learned about them from our parents and grandparents, but in the first two decades of the twenty-first century we watch—frightened—on our smart phones how some leaders have brought back the ghosts of fascism in far-right speeches.

It is interesting to notice how this generation presents itself differently from the previous one, so-called Generation X (1965–1980); if we consult the different books that try to gather the “great names” of Latin American art from the end of the twentieth century, we will see a large majority of white, heterosexual, and cisnormative artists. In the last ten years—and especially in the last five—the winds of reflections on decolonization and identity have imbued artistic scenes across Latin America,(4) and questions not often asked before were blown to the four winds: Where are the Black Latin American artists? Where are the artists who are part of Indigenous populations and understand themselves beyond a national identity guided by the European colonization of a place? Where are the artists that subvert the gender binary so decisive in the prevalent machismo of this region? Far from wanting to give any definitive answer to these questions that many colleagues have investigated and explored, we appeal to the need of exhibitions where the diversity of voices is urgent.

After the names of the nineteen artists in this exhibition came together, a uniting aspect of their artwork became clear: an interest in the idea of fiction. All the artists gathered here depart from precise historical episodes of their countries’ macrohistories and/or from their intimate microhistories(5) and constantly play with the invisible limits between the notions of fact and fantasy: by appropriating preexisting images, by their interest in first-person, intimate narratives, by referring to surrealism, by echoing industrial objects to reflect on the failure of modern projects in Latin America, by questioning the ecological specificities of the Anthropocene, or by reviewing narratives of violence. In the era of post-truth, these are artists interested in the many political and existential possibilities that the invention of worlds, truths, and nexuses presents to the public.

One day, in a glance, I remembered one of the most-used Brazilian proverbs: Quem conta um conto, aumenta um ponto (who tells a tale adds a point). The expression is frequently used to refer to the act of narration; when I narrate a memory, I certainly alter something regarding the remembered facts. It is interesting to think how the proverb also relates to oral traditions, something essential to the many cultures that inhabit Latin America. Oral tradition—far from the normative and hegemonic systems of writing and reading that millions of people resist—tells stories about people, using their voices to compose, improvise, sing, and enchant.

While searching for an English translation, I found a curious possibility: Who tells a tale adds a tail. Instead of a point in the Brazilian version, which is directly associated with writing and punctuation, this tail arrives and brings something animalistic, inhuman, and surreal to the exhibition’s imagination. I could not think of a more appropriate title; the idea of tale refers to the first part of the subtitle of this exhibition, Latin America —that is, we must recognize that the notion of a geographic-cultural unit is an invention, a story. Additionally, the idea of tail relates to the second part of this subtitle, of Contemporary Art. Are not all of the artists in this exhibition agents who, just like children playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey or Capture the Flag, put on and pull off tails, inviting the spectator to their poetic deviations?

This publication is an extension of the exhibition at the Denver Art Museum. In addition to including images of the artwork exhibited, I invited nineteen authors who also belong to the millennial generation and who are from different parts of Latin America. Each author’s short text presents the artwork of an individual artist. In this way, in a subtle and unpretensious manner, we have a small archive of how part of a generation of writers and curators express themselves through the written text and regard artists who have various desires for fiction. Some of these authors have a more linear style closer to art history, while others write to deconstruct old ideas in a more literary way. Each may write in their own way; the most important thing is that we do not forget these artists’ and writers’ creations.

Finally, the wish remains that the readers of this publication may, in their own way as well, learn something about Latin American contemporary art and may also feel inspired, in the future, to tell their own tales and add their own tails.

[1] In a recent interview, the Cuban curator and critic Gerardo Mosquera spoke about the one-size-fits-all identity imposed on Latin America first by European colonizers and subsequently by the United States. These assumptions and stereotypes conceal real differences and contradictions present in Latin America. See Marcos Grinspum Ferraz, “Para Gerardo Mosquera, é preciso libertar-se de uma identidade latino-americana reducionista,” Arte!Brasileiros, 16 April 2021, https://artebrasileiros.com.br/arte/entrevista/e-preciso-libertar-se-de-uma-identidade-latino-americana-reducionista/.
[2] During the process of organizing this exhibition and catalog, an event worthy of attention occurred in Latin America: the election of Gabriel Boric as the new president of Chile. He earned the attention of international media, in part, because he was born in 1986. A quick search of his name on the internet shows that much of what was published uses terms such as “socialist millennial” or “millennial president.” Boric is the youngest elected president in the history of Latin America.
[3] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) (London: Penguin Classics, 2020).
[4] Among dozens of possible examples, I would like to call the reader’s attention to Los huecos del agua – arte actual de los pueblos originarios at the Museo Universitario del Chopo in Mexico City, curated by Itzel Vargas Plata, in 2019; the exhibition Véxoa – nós sabemos, at the São Paulo Pinacoteca, curated by Naine Terena, in 2020; the emergence of a space like Corredor Afro (Afro Corridor) in Loíza, Puerto Rico, in 2020; the exhibition Archivxs LGBTIQ+ at the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo in Quito, Ecuador, curated by Equipo Re (Nancy Garín and Linda Valdés), and Eduardo Carrera, in 2019; and Estamos bien – La Trienal 20/21 at El Museo del Barrio in New York, curated by Rodrigo Moura, Susanna V. Temkin, and Elia Alba, in 2020–21.
[5] See the series of books edited by Carlo Ginzburg and Giovanni Levi, between 1981 and 1991, titled Microstorie published by Giulio Einaudi Editore.

(texto relativo à exposição “Who tells a tale adds a tail”, no Denver Art Museum, nos Estados Unidos, aberta entre 31 de julho de 2022 e fevereiro de 2023)
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