BUENOS AIRES — It’s impossible to overlook León Ferrari’s “Hongo Nuclear (Mushroom Cloud)” (2006) upon entering the second floor gallery of the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (MALBA). Made of enamel, foam, rubber, wire, and painted charcoal, Ferrari’s cloud is arresting in its size and literal in its subject: a memory of an atomic bomb that few global citizens can ever forget.
Ferrari’s mushroom is a violent, political addition to Verboámerica, the latest iteration of MALBA’s permanent collection. Reorganizing both iconic works and new donations made by founder and benefactor Eduardo Costantini, Verboámerica presents some 170 works that assign a new context for Latin American art and its movements.
he reorganization of MALBA’s permanent collection celebrates the museum’s 15th anniversary. Historian Andrea Giunta and MALBA’s artistic director Agustín Pérez Rubio embarked on a years-long research project that set out to repurpose the collection as a living history of Latin America. The resulting exhibition traces Latin America’s struggle for independence from its colonial past, while aiming to distinguish its artistic body of work from similar movements within the Western canon.
Instead of presenting the collection in a chronological fashion, Giunta and Rubio create a new lexicon with which to interpret Latin American art. Verboámerica breaks down Latin American art in the 20th century into keywords that are central to the region’s historical and social experiences — materiality, violence, migration, archives, politics, and narcotics — and traces how Latin American art has dismantled these power structures by challenging them systematically.
Several of the artists depart from traditional oil painting and experiment with materials as a way to articulate their critiques. Particularly, the artists draw on quotidian materials: Throughout Verboámerica, found objects, shape-shifting sculpture, and multimedia are tools to tackle the rippling effect of poverty and violence, the disorientation of migration, and the geopolitical implications of globalization.
Antonio Berni’s “La gran tentación o la gran ilusión (The Great Temptation or the Great Illusion)” (1962), a diptych illustrating icons of both poverty and wealth, embeds purse straps, rusted metal, and pieces of tin from Buenos Aires’ poorest neighborhoods into the canvas. Argentinian artist Jorge de la Vega‘s “El Dia Ilustrisimo (The Illustrious Day)” (1965) incorporates fabric, gemstones, and mirror glass on canvas, forming obscure, monstrous faces that evoke the silent ramifications of violence.
Violence is a consequence of migration, as Switzerland-born artist Claudia Andujar’s “Horizontal 3” (1981–1983/2015) points out. The series of photographs show indigenous peoples in Brazil with a number hanging around their necks, a mark of an NGO’s vaccination effort within the tribe. Anudjar organized the images into a grid as a symbol of the Western world’s attempt to ‘civilize’ native tribes.
Latin Americans have historically seen their economies, cultures, and art movements as inferior to their European and North American counterparts, as though the Latin American version were an inferior copy. The artists in this exhibition critically explore these assumptions. Peruvian artist Fernando Bryce, in “El Mundo Entero (The World Over)” (1929), produces a diagram that illustrates Latin America’s reliance on its northern counterparts, using maps and informational graphics detailing financial, agricultural, and industrial events that inevitably shaped Latin America’s dependence on globalism, such as Peru’s concessions to All American Cables, which strengthened the US communication company’s control over Latin American communications. Meanwhile, Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres García‘s “Universalismo Constructivo (Constructive Universalism)” (1944) posits an inverted map of the Americas, taunting the viewer to consider a new world order.
The use of otherwise categorical objects like maps and grids is a precursor to collage and archival photography as a means of political resistance, particularly among Argentine artists. Oscar Bony‘s portrait “La Familia Obrera (The Working-Class Family)” (1968) is an archival monument to the infamous performance piece, which paid a construction worker twice his usual salary to sit in a gallery for eight hours a day with his family, while sounds from their home life echoed in the background. Santiago Porter‘s “Evita” (2008), a portrait of a headless statue of Argentina’s former First Lady who was mutilated during a 1955 military coup, is part of a larger series in which the artist photographs and documents iconic historical monuments that unravel Buenos Aires’ sordid history.
Notably, dictatorships throughout the region spawned subversive groups that organized platforms for the marginalized. Chilean artist collective Yeguas del Apocalipsis, active between 1987 and 1997 and arising out of the Pinochet military dictatorship, depicts the artists in drag in a reinvention of Frida Kahlo’s painting, “Las Dos Fridas (The Two Fridas)” (1989). In the black-and-white photograph of Pedro Lemebel and Francisco Casas, they are dressed in skirts with exposed chests, emblazoned with a human heart and linked with a single vein. “Las Dos Fridas” references the militant homophobia that lingered during the transition of power from Chile’s dictatorship to a democratic society.
Verboámerica also touches upon artists’ experimentation with drugs and art, similar to the European Op and kinetic movements. In Latin America, artists like Julio Le Parc and Lygia Clark reasoned that narcotics and contemporary art could offer similar psychedelic experiences by creating moving objects and interactive sculptures. In Verboámerica, Argentine-born Le Parc’s “Trames Alterees (Universes in Universes)” (1968) is displayed along with two objects from Brazilian artist Lygia Clark’s “Bichos” (1960) series; both artists work with aluminum and create works that move and shift according to the viewer’s perception and interaction with the work.
Though once dismissed by the European and North American art world, Latin American art has steadily emerged as worthy of circulation, and Verboámerica declares that acquiescence. By underscoring the region’s artistic history and unique vocabulary, a visually stunning narrative springs to life.
Verboámerica is permanently installed at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (Av. Pres. Figueroa Alcorta 3415, C1425CLA CABA, Argentina).