É Is it possible to talk about Latin American art? Certainly yes, considering the production carried out in the various regions of the territory we call Latin America, with their historical, cultural and social characteristics that sometimes intersect, at other times they are distant. But is it possible to speak of “a” Latin American art? Not at all, according to the Cuban critic and curator Gerardo Mosquera, since a totalizing thought denies the space of plurality, of contrasts, differences, conflicts and contradictions.
“Of course, there is an identity, I don't deny it, but I see it as an open space, in process, relational and above all of self-awareness”, says Mosquera, 75, co-founder of the Havana Biennale in the 1980s, advisor to prominent institutions such as the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten (Amsterdam) and with important stints at the New Museum (New York) and PHotoEspaña (Madrid), among others.
If, on the one hand, Mosquera reaffirms the importance of the creation of an idea of “Latin American art” – as a result of colonial processes and the need to legitimize and oppose the world hegemonic centers -, on the other hand, he emphatically criticizes, a kind of neurosis that Latin American culture had in relation to identity. “It cannot be like a prison, something reductive, because that means denying this production the possibility of accessing a universal art”, he says.
The critic therefore proposes new concepts such as “identity liberation” and “from here”, which would be a position after anthropophagy, in which it is no longer necessary to look north to capture and re-signify references, but to start from the very local contexts – without the need to stamp or represent them directly. “The context becomes a loci centrifuge, from which the 'international' is built without constraints, with a sense of both belonging and agency", writes Mosquera in his intro text from the book 20 in 20, The Artists of the Next Decade: Latin America (organized by Fernando Ticoulat and João Paulo Siqueira Lopes, of Act.).
Mosquera spoke to arte!brasileiros due to the launch of the book, which is dedicated to the work of 20 artists from the continent: Ad Minoliti, Adriano Amaral, Alia Farid, Carolina Caycedo, Dalton Paula, Frieda Toranzo Jaeger, Gabriel Chaile, Gala Porras-Kim, Iván Argote, Jill Mulleady, Johanna Unzueta, Jota Mombasa, Katherinne Fiedler, Naufus Ramírez-Figueiroa, Pia Camil, Reynier Leyva Novo, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, Tabita Rezaire, Tania Pérez Córdova and Yuli Yamagata. But the curator also expanded the conversation to other topics related to his research and the current context of the coronavirus pandemic, also emphasizing the need for contemporary art to open up more and more to a non-specialized audience.
Living between Cuba and Spain, Mosquera has been in Madrid since the beginning of the pandemic, as he has not yet been able to return to Havana – “where I have my house and my library”, he says. The critic has just released the book Art from Latin America (and other global pulses) and signs the co-curatorship of the recently inaugurated Guangzhou Image Triennale, in China. Read the full interview below.
ARTE!✱ – In your intro text to the book 20 em 20, as in many other publications and lectures, you speak about the possibility (or not) of identifying a Latin American art. How to deal with this issue?
It is clear that there is a Latin American art if we call that art that is produced in the territory named Latin America. But to say that is a simplistic thing. The problem is whether we think of Latin American art as a distinct entity in itself. And then other questions arise, such as the territorial definition of Latin America itself, which is controversial. It includes, for example, the English-speaking Caribbean, the Dutch Caribbean, but also the Latin American diaspora around the world, mainly in the United States, which today has the second largest population of Spanish speakers, after Mexico. It is estimated that there are around 50 or 55 million Spanish-speakers in the US. There are still many Portuguese speakers.
That said, the definition of a Latin American art has been historically affected by a totalizing desire to create great stories and syntheses, not only with respect to art, but to the culture of the region in general. And this arises as a result of an attitude of self-affirmation, first in the face of the European colonial enterprise – because after the independences in the 19th century there were still several attempts to recover the colonies by the metropolises – and then, in the 20th century, in front of the USA, its power and interference in southern affairs. So these are the causes of the creation of this identity, but this led to a hyperbolization of these totalizing accounts that ended up hiding the differences, conflicts and contradictions in order to create a unique entity in Latin America. And nowadays we tend to think more about fragments, incompatibilities and contradictions, rather than trying to flatten and summarize.
I also believe that in the case of Latin American art there was a problem, which also affected other subaltern countries of the South, which is to place these artistic practices within a ghetto, of valuation, circulation and consumption. It is as if this production were denied the possibility of accessing a “universal” art – which would be the art of the hegemonic centers -, condemning it to a neighborhood, to a ghetto, classifying it only as Latin American art, Mexican, Brazilian art. As can be said of African art, Arab art, etc. And then there is a discussion that is not just of a cultural nature, but is also a practical problem, which is to fight for a general legitimation, not to leave this legitimation restricted to a hegemonic circuit, and to be able to participate in a truly international circulation of art.
And that does not mean to say that the art produced in Brazil should no longer be called Brazilian, but that it should not only be framed in this classification. I have insisted a lot, in my work, that one should first look at the art, the work, and only then look at the passport, and not the other way around. But I think we've come a long way at this point. And I think that the creation of the Bienal de Havana was an important milestone, in the sense of creating another space for valuing, investigating and launching the arts in what, at that time, was called the third world. And there are also the processes of globalization in the economy, in communications, as the situation has also improved a lot in this sense, based on the theoretical reflection of critics, curators and artistic practice itself.
At this point, I think Brazilian art was paradigmatic, because I think it had less of this preoccupation, this kind of neurosis of Latin American identity, and was able to think more in international terms. Perhaps as a result of the São Paulo Biennial, which began in 1951, but also for other reasons.
ARTE!✱ - In your text you cite the Argentine critic Marta Traba as one of the people responsible for the “invention” of the idea of a Latin American art. And despite reaffirming the importance of this perspective, you speak of its limitations and the subsequent need for “identity liberation” – a moment in which this totalizing idea of an art from the region was broken. Could you tell us a little more about this process?
Yes, that's precisely what we were talking about. It is clear that there is an identity, I do not deny it, but I see it as an open space, in process, relational, of self-awareness and above all as a place of elucidation. I don't see it as a prison, as something reductive, so it's about freeing ourselves from this obsession that Latin American culture had with identity, which is also the result of the complexities of our upbringing and concerns that come from the 19th century. Result of questioning whether we are Europeans, if we are second class Europeans, if we are indigenous, Afro-descendants, mestizos… and so on. There is a short story by [Argentine writer] Jorge Luis Borges in which a Nordic character asks a Colombian: “What does it mean to be Colombian?”. And he answers: "An act of faith." And I think it's a statement that can be extended to the whole of Latin America and that speaks precisely of this identity neurosis. Of course, this has been overcome over time and today, especially after the arrival of postmodern thinking – in which people think more in terms of fragments, micropolitics, etc. - things have changed.
ARTE!✱ - So this “obsession” with identity is still the result of colonialism, that is, a protection, an attempt to oppose the countries of the north…
Exactly. And that's why the importance of Marta Traba's work, in creating this identity, is also to legitimize the production here. For, from the hegemonic centers, a vision of Latin American art prevailed as a simple derivative of Western art. They didn't take themselves seriously, and Traba defended above all that characteristic of Latin American art, which was very important because it gave it value in the face of those who didn't see its importance. And this definition of “Latin American art” can still be of tactical use today, because of the solidarity it implies and as a launching pad. One example is the extraordinary work done by Mari Carmen Ramirez, a Puerto Rican based in the USA, who has created and headed Latin American art departments in important museums, creating collections and disseminating the art of the region. But she doesn't do it with a ghetto mentality, but as a platform to introduce this production into the North American universe – academic, institutional, etc.
ARTE!✱ - When you talk about the plurality, the diversity of Latin American production, you also present the concept of “from here”, which would be a new paradigm for thinking about the art of the continent. What would this concept be?
It is a notion in terms of cultural dynamics in an era of internationalization of culture. It is an idea that responds to what seems to me to be not only the most current practice of Latin American art, as can be seen in the book 20 on 20, but also the practice in other areas that are also subordinate to the great centers of power. And it means that instead of the strategies of cultural appropriation and resignification - which were synthesized in such a clear and poetic way by anthropophagy -, there is today a direct construction of an international art, which speaks a language that allows it to communicate around the world from a difference of cultures, experiences, contexts, imaginaries and agendas. That is, it is a projection, it is no longer a context as representation. And it is a practice that refers more to the way of writing texts than to representing the contexts. In many cases, I have the impression that I would be able to identify an installation made by a Brazilian artist, and not because it directly exposes Candomblé or samba, for example, but because of the way the installation is made, the way of making an artistic text. . Not least because the morphology of art installations received an extraordinary expansion of its communication possibilities by Brazilian artists. And that, for me, is what prevails today, and it is a different process from anthropophagy.
ARTE!✱ - It is no longer necessary to look to the North, to the USA or Europe, as a starting point…
Exactly. And notice that this was happening even in terms of physical, geographical positioning. It wasn't so long ago, something like two decades, that an artist who wanted to have a high-level international circulation had to live in New York, in London, in Berlin. And now this is less and less necessary. See in Brazil, for example, Cildo Meireles, Adriana Varejão, Ernesto Neto, José Damasceno and many others, they are artists who have a high level of international legitimacy and remain living in the country. And this has to do with this “from here”.
ARTE!✱ - Talking about the artists' research, such as those in the book 20 on 20, there are a number of very current and important themes that permeate contemporary production, including the colonial past, racism, gender issues, state violence, among others. You have criticized, at other times, art that becomes excessively illustrative or didactic, because it would become propaganda or pedagogy, but you have also always defended that art can deal with all themes. How have you seen the way these subjects have appeared in the works? Is there something pamphleteering or, on the contrary, an original point of view that could not exist in other non-artistic languages?
One of the values I see in this book is that the selection was concerned not only with an art that has a value in itself, with international circulation, but also with showing the diversity of artistic practices on the continent. Different experiences, imagery and artistic agendas, from an art that deals directly with social and political issues – but of course in an artistic, not pamphleteer way –, to artists interested in more formal investigations. And this is a diversity that we see in Latin America and also on a global level. Notice that the “isms” have disappeared, there are no more “isms”, and this has to do with the great diversity that exists. So, as a curator, I am not interested in following a closed line either, but precisely in resonating the polyphony of art. I am interested in this polyphonic sense, as well as the centrifugal character of art, its possibility of stepping outside itself and touching very different aspects of life, culture, society, nature, the planet, everything. And these characteristics make me identify a lot with the current practices of art in Latin America. Because there is also an art internationally that ends up closing in on itself. A type of “self-reference” that still exists a lot, even if less and less. And in Latin America I feel that there is less of that, perhaps because our context is so strong, culturally rich, but with so many problems, and artists tend to respond to that.
ARTE!✱ – About this “self-reference”, and perhaps because of it, there is also a custom of associating contemporary art with an elitist place. You yourself once said that contemporary art often ends up speaking only to initiates, but it has the ability to open up to a wider audience. How to face this challenge? Does it depend on the artists, curators, institutions?
It is a joint work, in which education has a very great weight. An education also around art. But I also think that artists and we curators sometimes forget to emphasize, to activate, this possibility that contemporary art has to open up to wider audiences, due to its methodological and morphological flexibility. So that art is not dogmatized in reductive canons, which are of interest only to a specialized elite, but that it be open. And it is indeed opening up, multiplying itself, and we really have to deal with this expansion and communication.
ARTE!✱ - In this sense, the art market is still a space further away from the general public, isn't it?
Yes, but we can also try to think of fairs as a space more shared with the public, where this communication is possible. Sometimes the fairs can be like an umbrella where other types of activities that go in a more cultural, not strictly market sense, fit. And we can also think that there are many independent spaces, made on the basis, let's say, by artists and curators. Non-profit spaces that even seek a greater social impact. And there is also a market that is good, good galleries that are trying to open up, to seek a greater reach.
ARTE!✱ - Speaking of this subject, I would like to go back to the book for a moment. 20 on 20 and ask about this link between the book itself and the “market”. The publication is financed by a bank (BTG Pactual) and organized by an art consultant (Art Consulting Tool). Can't it sound a little conflicting that the same people who invest and advise on collecting point out who the “artists of the next decade” are?
This type of debate can arise in several areas. This even appears in biennials, when one chooses artists who are very linked to galleries, with strength in the market, and one wonders if the biennials should not give more space to new searches, or to artists who do not yet have so much visibility... In a way, I think what this book does is to exercise a curatorial act, which even serves as a consultation – even considering the fact that there is a consultancy behind it. There's their signature, the specification that the choice of artists is a cut-off, so I don't think there's a conflict of interest, nor is it something that points to artists that they specifically work with, for profit. They are in fact very diverse artists and they already have a space in the market. And this is the proposal of the book.
ARTE!✱ - Yes, and this clipping you mentioned, the fact of choosing 20 artists and appointing them as “the” artists that will mark the decade, doesn't that sound a little dangerous, reductionist?
In my introductory text, I even say that other books could be made, including one with very important Latin American artists who have not had this success in the international market. But the book's own curators have publicly said that there could be several books like this one, that this is a possible cut. And I think it's also a way of giving projection to the book, after all we are in a very mediatic age, aren't we?
ARTE!✱ – Finally, speaking of the current context with the coronavirus pandemic, I wanted to ask you a little bit about how you have been working, as a critic and curator, and how you have seen the situation of the artistic class in general. At a time when health, economic and social issues become paramount, is there a risk of culture being seen as something secondary? Or on the contrary, does it show even more its importance?
I think, in fact, at this moment when we are living in confinement, with so many limitations, we have become more aware of how necessary art is. What would become of us, isolated, without literature, without music, without photos and images to see on our phones and computers… And the importance of art is very obvious so that we can even survive, in conditions as difficult as this. We know that in addition to the damage caused by the virus, depression has greatly increased among people, and culture and art are fundamental to help fight this. And of course, it affected us a lot not being able to go to a museum, to an exhibition. But notice that the art trade, even if it has fallen, has remained strong; museums opened their doors – with controls and audience limitation; online exhibitions were created; that is, ways were sought for the visual arts to circulate.
And even with such a difficult situation, I see that many artists and curators have maintained their practices. A few weeks ago, the 2021 Guangzhou Image Triennale opened in Guangzhou, in Canton (China), of which I am co-curator. And all the work of this triennial, focused on photography and video, I did from a distance. I couldn't even be there for the opening. Now, I think this also demonstrates how much, with all our greed, we were not using electronic and digital media in all their possibilities. We are in the age of distance communication and it became clear that we can do a lot with these resources. But of course they do not replace face-to-face contact with people and live contact with the work of art.