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Latin American life through a lens

April 27, 2011

In the midst of a blooming market for Latin American art, Edel Assanti is showing Between Two Worlds, a group exhibition of contemporary Latin American photography that offers a new way of thinking about both the region and the art that it produces. Here Miriam Metliss discusses how the complex and multiple themes at play make this show a harbinger of things to come.

Edel Assanti’s current show comes at a timely moment for the market of Latin American art in the UK. In the last decade, the profile of Latin American art in the UK has greatly increased. Blockbuster exhibitions at Tate Modern have included a number of Latin American artists; major London auction houses such as Christie’s are selling the works of Latin American artists for record-breaking prices; the art fair for Latin American art, PINTA, arrived in London for the first time in June 2010 and will be returning again this year. Although in November 2010 Edel Assanti held a solo show of the work of Chilean artist Carlos Zuñiga, this is the first time the gallery has put together an exhibition which aims to draw specific attention to artworks which highlight rich artistic innovation from the region.

This exhibition has been promoted as a ‘window’ onto contemporary photography from Latin America, cleverly avoiding the over-simplified notion of a survey show and the implication of a complete representation of work from the region. The show’s ‘window’ features nine artists from a range of different countries in Latin America, including Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Brazil. The inclusion of the work of Dulce Pinzón, who reflects on the experiences of Mexican immigrants to the US, and Edouard Fraipont, whose photographs were taken during the artist’s residency in the UK, also highlight that the exhibition is not restricted to within Latin America but instead addresses a wider set of meanings, experiences, and aesthetic practice.

‘Between Two Worlds’ immediately, though perhaps unintentionally, engages with an ongoing debate in the field regarding the categorisation of ‘Latin American art’ and the curatorial strategies applied to its display.[1]  Can one and should one distinguish between art from Latin America and the international art world? Does the term ‘Latin America’ deny complex national cultural and racial identities in favour of a homogenous Latin American identity? Is there a necessity to locate contemporary Latin American art in the context of the reality of Latin American society and politics, and the context in which the art is produced and consumed? This exhibition gives the viewer the opportunity to consider such questions as well as the notion of stereotypes, cultural identity, and how everyday experience in Latin America can emerge through visual representation.

The exhibition emphasizes the juxtaposition of reality and fantasy present in this everyday experience. The idea of fantasy and reality co-existing is immediately suggestive of the concept of lo real maravilloso (magical realism). This has been present in Latin American art and culture since the 1940s, yet as Mari Carmen Ramírez highlights in her seminal essay Beyond the Fantastic, the role it has played within the Latin American tradition has often been misinterpreted as something ‘fantastical’ and ‘exotic’ which lies outside of the real, rather than an integral part of the real which exists within it ‘as a faith that carries the potential for a transformation of perception and thereby consciousness’.[2]  The works in ‘Between Two Worlds’ question the meaning of reality and fantasy, exploring how these elements manifest themselves in daily life and how they can be represented aesthetically. Edouard Fraiport’s Piel Island photographs, for example, reflect the artist’s lived experiences by constructing a haunting image which disturbs our notions of presence, absence, and truth.

The commentaries on everyday life displayed in the exhibition contain serious and critical undertones, even if this is at times only revealed through humour and caricature. The black and white portraits of Adriana Lestido depict poignant family scenes, whereas Dulce Pinzón’s series The Real Story of the Superheroes uses the familiar imagery of the North American superhero to engage the viewer with the plight of low-class Mexican workers in the US as they try to make a living.

Juan Pablo Echeverri also plays with the viewer in his masked self-portraits, where he mocks the mythologized concept of the ‘Latin American’ and comments on wider issues of macho culture and concealed identities. The photographs of Oscar Fernando Gomez Rodriguez highlight the contradictions and absurdities so apparent in everyday life in Monterrey, Mexico: Coca-Cola advertisements sitting alongside images of the sacred Virgin of Guadeloupe; a taxi parked under a bus [pictured right]; a lone cow walking along the highway. These images are the most explicitly ‘Latin American’ of the show, and although the viewer can laugh at the absurdities represented, the images also allow for further critical interpretations relating to the society, culture, and commonly assigned stereotypes of Latin America.

The works presented in the show encourage the viewer to engage with different realities and popular stereotypes, either as an outside onlooker onto a pictured reality or as an active recipient of the photograph’s urgent message. In Camila Rodrigo’s Zapatitos, the viewer is invited to look in on the life of others. In Marcos Lopez’s Carnicera [pictured above], however, the female butcher directly glares at the viewer and her inescapable gaze follows them around the whole second floor of the exhibition. She stands proud and defiant, covered in blood and sweat, and holding a sharp knife and fleshy bone. Almost life-size, she achieves iconic status, the wings of animal ribs around her reminiscent of the holy aura of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. The figures in Byron Marmol’s portraits are also defiant and self-aware in their gazes, proudly asking to be watched and analysed. Although they live the fantasies of Japanese Manga characters, their outward stares immediately confront any caricature or prejudice that might be assigned to them by the viewer.

‘Between Two Worlds’ creates a gripping journey through the gallery space by providing a colourful exhibition of costume, documentary, hyper-reality and violence. Mari Carmen Ramírez has criticised the way in which the promotion of Latin American ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ in opposition to the European/Western ‘centre’ in exhibitions of Latin American art has often limited any acknowledgement of the capacity for formal and aesthetic innovation from the region, beyond the inherited system of artistic conventions.[3]  ‘Between Two Worlds’, however, is an exhibition which promotes high quality artistic innovation from Latin America and invites us to question the complex layers of meaning and stereotype presented to us in the images displayed.  In this way, it avoids a reductive and clichéd curatorial narrative of artwork from Latin America, which is so often present in exhibitions of artwork from the region. The show will hopefully set the standard for future exhibitions in the UK of artwork from Latin America.

[1] See Mosquera, Gerardo (ed.), Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America,London: Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA), 1995.

[2] Ramirez, Mari Carmen, ‘Beyond “The Fantastic”: Framing Identity in U. S. Exhibitions of Latin American Art’, Art Journal, Vol. 51, No. 4, Latin American Art (Winter, 1992), pp. 63

[3] Ramirez, Mari Carmen, ‘Beyond “The Fantastic”: Framing Identity in U. S. Exhibitions of Latin American Art’, Art Journal, Vol. 51, No. 4, Latin American Art (Winter, 1992), pp. 66

Miriam Metliss is Learning Officer at the University of Essex Collection of Latin American Art.  She has previously worked as Client Liaison with Christie’s International Auction House, London (2008-2010) and at Visiting Arts, London (2007-8).  She graduated with a Joint Honours BA in Art History and Hispanic Studies from the University of Nottingham (2007), and is currently completing a Masters degree in Art History from the University of Essex. Miriam has worked and travelled extensively in Latin America and is a fluent speaker of Spanish and Portuguese.

Useful links:

University of Essex Collection of Latin American Art:

PINTA modern and contemporary Latin American art fair:

Auction houses:

Tate Modern:


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