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Going South

Cooperation between institutions will reveal to the United States texts about the vanguards of the 20th century

DisseminationO atirador de arco (The bowman), by Vicente do Rego MonteiroDissemination

With their eyes turned on the war in the Middle East, the oil price, and the swings in the international markets, the United States probably do not realize. But a silent occupation is under way in the country, which should, at the least, expand the knowledge of the Americans about the cultures of the neighboring nations in the continent. Without arms or blood, the modern and contemporary artistic production of a Latin American origin is arriving, to reveal its wealth of colors, shapes and contents.

In a pioneer venture, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, (the MAFH), Texas, joined institutions from nine Latin American countries, with the objective of putting right the dearth of information about the plastic arts of a Latin origin, for a public that has greater familiarity with European, Asian, and African art.Entered into in the first half of this year, this partnership provides for meeting at least two targets.

The first is to recovery the main documents that present, interpret, and analyze the Latin American vanguard movements in the plastic arts – some of them out of circulation in their own countries, like the work of the Brazilian architecture Luís Saias about the African influence on the production of wooden ex-votos (paintings offered out of thankfulness), published in 1939 and out of the catalog since then. The second is to publish this reference material in the form of books in English, or in texts on the Internet in trilingual versions – Portuguese, English, and Spanish.

Conceived by Peter Marzio, a director of the museum in Houston, this multi-institutional effort – which was given the title of Recovering the critical sources for Latin American art and Latino art (the latter referring to the production of Americans of a Latino origin) – should benefit a very broad public: researchers, artists, professors, and visitors to museums, in particular the members of the Latino community in the United States, which grows year by year. The team from the Houston museum – the fifth largest in the United States, with a collection of 45,000 works of art – also intends to insert the information recovered in the project or shown in new studies into the American basic and university schooling education and history of art programs.

“In the United States, there are almost no books available in English and Spanish about Latin American art and the art of American of Latino descent produced in the course of the 20th century”, explains the museum’s director. “In a few years, teachers will no longer have any excuse for not teaching Latino art”, says Marzio, who calculates that ten years will be needed to meet these targets and to expand the museum’s Latino art collection, at a cost of US$ 50 million.

More than disseminating the art produced to the south of the frontier with Mexico, Marzio hopes to create an on-going communication channel between American and Latino artists. “It is an ambitious venture, but one that is totally viable, because of the cooperation agreements that we are entering into”, says Mari Carmén Ramirez, the MFAH’s curator of Latin American art. In April, Peter Marzio and Mari Carmén were in Brazil, where they signed a five-year cooperation agreement with FAPESP, which will centralize the activities related to Brazilian art.

The collaboration between the museum and the Foundation provides for the implementation of joint research projects, the promotion of scientific events and exhibitions, the interchange of information and academic publications, besides the interchange of teaching staff, researchers, and students. The approval of the Brazilian studies will follow the procedure for the projects funded by FAPESP. That is, the Foundation will analyze each proposal presented and, when there is merit, it should meet the costs of the work.

“This venture has plenty to do with FAPESP, in its role of stimulating the development of science, technology, and culture in the country”, says Carlos Vogt, the president of the Foundation. Ana Maria Belluzzo, from the School of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP) and the coordinator of the Brazilian participation, points to what she regards as the principal gain: “Besides a selective survey of the documents from each period of modern and contemporary art, we will indicate the issues that need to be investigated, for a deeper comprehension of art on the continent”.

Peter Marzio began to imagine this project almost 20 years ago. Shortly after taking on the management of the MFAH, he traveled over the United States in the company of a specialist in Hispanic literature, Nicholas Kanellos, in search of the best works by American artists of a Latino origin, the so-called Latino art. Marzio found that the production was large, but little was known about this contemporary artistic movement. It was the indication that it would be necessary to invest in Latin American art in the following years. In 1986, Marzio set up a great exhibition of Latino art at the MFAH, but other priorities meant that the project would have to wait.

Three years ago, the museum created the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), currently run by Mari Carmén, and brought together over three days 30 art curators and historians from the United States and Latin America – and amongst them was Ana Maria Belluzzo. From this encounter came the guidance about how to give an impulse to Latin American art and Latino art in the United States, the origin of the project for recovering and disseminating the critical material on the subject.

Only this month, the 20-year dream is beginning to take shape with the exhibition Inverted utopias, which from June 20 to September 12 will exhibit at the MFAH about 250 works by 67 artists from Latin American countries – Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Venezuela. According to the team from the museum, this is the first large scale display of the Latin American vanguard movements, as distinct as they are distant from those that took place in Europe and the United States.

Organized by Mari Carmén and Héctor Olea, the exhibition covers the period from 1920 to 1970 and brings the works together in six thematic groups: the universal and the vernacular, which contrasts national works with universal ones; the playful and the mournful, which rejects art for art’s sake and sets out for the criticism of social and political injustices; progression and rupture, with abstract geometric works that incorporate the active participation of the spectator; the vibratory and the stationary, in which vibrant colors, contrasted or not, give the sensation of movement; the optic and the haptic, which plays with touch and sight; and the critical and the engaged, in which the works flee from the traditional means of expression, like painting and sculpture, to escape from the political oppression of the dictatorships of the 1960’s and 1970’s, in countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.

“In the 50 years scrutinized by the display, Latin American artists kept up a simultaneous dialog with the modern art of Europe and of the United States”, says Peter Marzio. “However, for many Americans, Inverted utopias offers the first look at the geniality of these artists.” According to the curator of the display, Puerto Rican Mari Carmén, the objective of the exhibition is to bring to light what escapes the official history of the vanguards known over there. The visitors to the may be surprised when they come across the robustness of the canvas O Atirador de arcos [The Bowman], by Vicente do Rego Monteiro, a painter from Recife little known over here and probably unknown to the American public.

As in a large part of his work, Monteiro uses in this painting the geometric traces typical of the cubism of Picasso, to exalt the Brazilian people of mixed blood, which gains body and volume colored in ocher. Also present in the work of several other Latinos, like that of the Uruguayan Torres-Garcia and the Argentinean Xul Solar, this subversion is the cry for the freedom of art on the continent, which, after centuries of European influence, becomes mature and autonomous.

Brazil is well represented at the exhibition. The progression and rupture group is one of those that has the largest number of representatives, with works by Lygia Clark, Waldemar Cordeiro, and Hélio Oiticica, for example. Brazilian works, like those from Cildo Meirelles and Antonio Dias, also appear in weight under the critical and engaged theme. Ana Maria Belluzzo regards the Brazilian participation, both in the exhibition and in the recovery of the critical works, as an opportunity without any equal.

“This is the chance for Latin American art to establish itself in the United States in a way that has not been seen before, with authority”, she explains. Perhaps they now understand over there what the father of Latino constructivism wanted to say, when he designed a map of Latin America in which the South points to the top, claiming, almost six decades ago: “Our direction is the South”.