SANTA MONICA — In 1935, a group of feminist artists founded an experimental art school deep within the Amazon jungle. The local wisdom and craft knowledge of the indigenous Makiritare, Ye’kuana, and Yanomami peoples who live along the border between Venezuela and Brazil informed the school’s art making. Modernist luminaries like Le Corbusier and Sonia Delaunay gave lectures at the school. All that’s left today of the Instituto Experimental Tropical del Amazonas, which shuttered in 1942, are a small sampling of documents and mixed media works that tell a partial story about the radical forms of art making and communal living that took place.
If the idea of an early 20th-century feminist art school in a remote jungle of South America seems unlikely, it’s because the school is a work of fiction imagined by artist Mariángeles Soto-Díaz in an installation at 18th Street Arts Center. The exhibition, featuring collage and drawings on paper, resembles a small university archive. One vitrine contains a spread of drawings and notes mapping out relationships between local materials and their creative and symbolic uses. Samples of achiote and coconut are displayed alongside works of geometric abstraction and collages paying tribute to indigenous groups and the Brazilian modernist poet Oswald de Andrade.
In Soto-Díaz’s manifesto for the art school, little is revealed about the individuals who founded the school itself, leaving its membership porous and undefined in contrast to the national borders that divide the Amazon. The installation is a compelling fiction of modernism’s collision with indigenous cultures and post-colonial histories. It applies a kind of retro-futurism to past modernist movements, imagining what might have been if a movement could center not just indigenous and feminist aesthetics, but also their ways of living and cohabitating.
Like the Bauhaus or Black Mountain College, the Instituto Experimental Tropical del Amazonas would ultimately come to an end, although in this instance, the vision for an ephemeral institution is written into the school’s imaginary manifesto. The artists would retreat to the jungle “until time comes for the Institute to decompose like fallen branches on the humid forest floor,” leaving behind a modernist ruin for others to contemplate a lost future.
Mariángeles Soto-Díaz: Instituto Experimental Tropical del Amazonas continues at 18th Street Arts Center (1639 18th Street, Santa Monica) through May 19.