DETROIT — The central piece, and the one that immediately draws the eye when entering the main gallery of United States of Latin America at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), is a full wall mural by Minerva Cuevas entitled “America.” The 2006 painting is a mash-up of two images — in the background, a colonial painting of an indigenous Mexican person, who seems to glance bemusedly into the foreground, where a giant overlay shows Scrooge McDuck frolicking playfully in a puddle of gold coins. This literal negotiation of the divide between two American realities is at the heart of the show, which presents 30 artists from all the Americas — not only the America that United States citizens tend to think of as being the whole of America.
This co-opting of American identity is a pain point for MOCAD Curator-at-Large Jens Hoffman (also deputy director of the Jewish Museum in New York) and his longtime friend Pablo León de la Barra (UBS MAP Latin American curator at the Guggenheim). “I don’t think it’s the United States versus Latin America, but even the exhibition’s title plays a little bit with the idea that the United States has almost taken the name of America — which is a continent — for itself,” de la Barra said in a recent interview. “You have Europe trying to create a whole European community — so what would happen if Latin America started to work in a more unified way?”
“Even if you call it Latin America, you’re referring to a language from somewhere else, culture from somewhere else,” Hoffman added “but there have been many Latin American movements about a unified vision for the continent. The whole show is based on the impossibility of defining that region.” The attempts at self-definition are as diverse as the countries and cultural traditions that this group of contemporary Latin American artists bring to the table, with bigger names from more established art locales — like Mexican artist Pedro Reyes and Clarissa Tossin from Brazil — presenting work side-by-side with relative unknowns who are rarely included in shows featuring Latin American artists.
Tossin’s piece, “Fordlândia Fieldwork,” draws a direct link between Detroit and Brazil, tracking the efforts made by hometown magnate Henry Ford to exploit rubber from the Amazon, in the form of a large-scale map folded to create origami-like structures. Tossin overlays Detroit’s city plan with that of the abandoned city of Fordlândia, which was a failed rubber plantation established by Ford in the Amazonian rain forest. There is power in creating such a literal connection between this obscure, failed city of Ford’s dreams and Detroit — an empire that rose and fell guided by the same vision. Other pieces merely allude to the connections between these two sides to the American divide. A series of 10 photographs by Colombian artist Nicolás Consuegra, for instance, focuses on the ghostly traces of letters removed from signs on the facades of failed businesses in Bogotá. Felipe Arturo’s mandala-like bed of white and brown sugars appeared pristine and separate at the opening, but is merging gradually during the run of the exhibition as visitors are invited to walk across the piece. It is titled “Trópico en Trópico” (“Entropic Tropics”) in reference to the place where the Rio Negro meets and mingles with the Solimões in the Brazilian Amazon, but also as a metaphor for miscegenation.
Taking representative samples from such a large number of countries in an attempt to form a unified picture of Latin American identity is perhaps biting off a bit more than can be chewed by a single exhibition, but where United States of Latin America cannot help but fail to present a totally cohesive picture, it does successfully bring to light and to the United States an interesting array of rarely seen artists. There is an unspoken rule in the art world, according to de la Barra, that in order to have a successful art career an artist needs to speak English. The truth of that assertion cannot be officially confirmed, but its implications are a bit daunting; considering the vast swaths of the world that are not English-speaking, it represents a small gateway through which to pass in order to achieve success. The cultural obliviousness of the United States to an entire region with which they share the mantle of “America” is, in the end, perhaps the most distinctive regional trait of all. As artist Runo Lagomarsino puts it, on a stack of posters that visitors at MoCAD are free to take: “If you don’t know what the south is / It’s simply because you are from the north.”