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MEXICO CITY — Memories of Underdevelopment: Art and the Decolonial Turn in Latin America, 1960-1985 at Museo Jumex begins with an elegantly curated hallway of black-and-white photographs depicting Latin America’s urban development in the decades after World War II. Photographer Emilio Duhart captures the construction of the headquarters for the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in Santiago, Chile, while Armando Salas Portugal shows Mexico City’s intense urban development in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s: university buildings, monolithic public works projects, and social housing units in various states of construction in the newly modernized metropolis. Thomaz Farkas tracks the erection of Brasilia, the utopian modern city, which became a symbol for the incomplete and ultimately failed nature of Latin America’s modernist project.
In this introductory section, Julieta González, the show’s curator and the curator-in-chief at Museo Jumex, summarizes the exhibition’s central premise: to articulate an “aesthetics of underdevelopment” as a form of “epistemic disobedience,” or a “decolonial turn” in the region’s art history.
Named after Tomás Guttiérrez Alea’s seminal film on post-revolutionary Cuba, Memories of Underdevelopment traces a regional history of artistic resistance. Its geographical and chronological perspective emphasizes connections between distinct movements in artistic production that emerged in the 1960s and ’70s. It examines a “major paradigm shift in culture and the visual arts,” as stated in the introductory text, in which cultural actors “posited underdevelopment as part and parcel of the modern capitalist world system that, far from being eradicated, would only be perpetuated and maintained by the implementation of developmentalist models.”
The sprawling (if slightly disorienting) selection of nearly 400 politically and socially charged artworks features frenetic rhythms, chanting crowds, and chirping birds. Organized into thematic constellations, the exhibition includes emblematic and lesser-known artworks that represent what González calls a regional “decolonial” art and cultural history. These artworks articulated a response to oppressive states of poverty and the authoritarian political regimes that assumed power throughout Latin America during crucial decades of supposed modernization and development.
The “decolonial turn” begins in Brazil in the 1960s, with critics and artists such as Mário Pedrosa, Ferreira Gullar, Ana Bella Geiger, Lygia Pape, and Hélio Oiticica. These figures belonged to an avant-garde that repudiated the American and European conception of the art-object alienated from the surrounding world. As exemplified by Hélio Oiticica’s series of Parangolé paintings (1964–79), made from painted fabric and other materials and designed to be worn or carried, these artists sought to generate a practice founded in popular cultural consciousness and formed from local, lived traditions.
Works by Pape and Oiticica are paired with two pieces by Venezuelan artist Eugenio Espinoza. Espinoza’s corporeal “tropicalization” of the gridded canvas (Hélio Oiticica’s term to define an anti-art practice, which placed the avant-garde within the sociopolotical context of Latin America) transforms it into a hammock meant to hold coconuts. In “Participaciones y Localizaciones” (1973) Espinoza has individuals wear the gridded canvas, underlining the minimalist object’s relationship to the body through its use as a performative element or prop. These reflect an artistic rebellion against Venezuela’s conceptual and geometric abstract traditions, parallel to that of the Brazilian practice of “new objectivity” — a reimagined anti-art tradition, meant to reincorporate a viewer alienated by the country’s political climate.
This pairing is one of many throughout the show where, by means of excellent curation, Memories of Underdevelopment posits a groundbreaking genealogy of Latin America’s contemporary art history. The show unites the diverse practices that preceded Latin America’s entrance into a contemporary art landscape, now part of our globalized cultural landscape. In the section titled “Marginality as Structural Problem,” González includes ruthless explorations of the intersection of creative production and poverty in Chile under Agusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. In the video and photographic documentation of “Para no morir de hambre en el arte” (1979), the Colectivo de Acciones de Arte (CADA) employed public space and popular consumer products to comment on the deficits faced by the Chilean population; in the photography series Todas las de la ley (1980), Eugenio Dittborn overlaid archival images with text to document the country’s rate of criminal activity; and in the video work “El beso (Zona de dolor II)” (1981), writer Damiela Eltit stages a kiss with a homeless man as a form of protest against the oppressive dictatorship. These works demonstrate how writers and artists used language, popular culture, and public space to mobilize a Chilean public.
A section on radical pedagogy includes similarly exciting works by Brazilian educator and theorist Paulo Freire, as well as posters from Mexico’s Escuela Popular de Arte and Lygia Pape’s stunning, three-dimensional book “Livro de criação” (Book of Creation) (1959), in which colorful, folded, and cut-out abstract forms narrate the creation myth without the use of written language.
The section on Peruvian Pop artists particularly stands out, with prints from a series of posters titled Afiches de difusión de la Reforma Agraria (1969–1972) by Jesús Ruiz Durand, as well as documentation of the installation “Sarita Colonia” (1980), by the iconic Peruvian collective E.P.S. Huayco. The works demonstrate how artists in Peru melded a popular vernacular and political subject matter with an international Pop aesthetic.
Memories of Underdevelopment traveled from the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, where it was part of the Getty Foundation’s most recent Pacific Standard Time (PST) initiative, in which institutions across Southern California opened exhibitions dedicated to Latin American and Latino art. The exhibition, like others in PST, places a network of artists whose practices have long been on the periphery of international arts discourse at the center of the art institution. It is undoubtedly a watershed moment in the scholarly pursuit of Latin America’s contemporary cultural identity. It challenges typical explorations of Latin American art, which often come from a US perspective, and instead brings together distinct scholarly and curatorial voices from individuals who live and work in the represented countries.
However, certain terminology used in exhibition texts, particularly the central term “decolonial,” felt unexplained. In her catalogue essay, González explains that the term was intended to emphasize the structures of “Modernity,” “Coloniality,” and “Decoloniality,” as developed in the past two decades by thinkers such as Walter Mignolo, Aníbal Quijano, Ramón Grosfuguel, and Enrique Dussel, in a historical reappraisal that focuses on the “role of underdevelopment and the agenda to decolonize from imposed cultural models as key factors in the artistic production of the period.” However, there is no apparent effort to situate the term in the show. This begs the question: What are the decolonial histories that are erased when a term created in reference to specific sociopolitical movements is brought into the museum context, with little or no explanation? Why use a term like decolonial rather than adopt one of the many terms created in conjunction with these different movements, particularly the use of “new objectivity” by Brazilian artists or that of a non-object-based practice, championed by Peruvian critic Juan Acha and adopted by artists and collectives throughout Latin America? If the curator’s goal was (as it seems) to propose that these practices were cultural predecessors to the community that would take up the idea of decoloniality as a social and political process — which is a compelling argument — the exhibition could have benefited from more clarification.
That said, Memories of Underdevelopment is a historic feat. It is the first show of its scale to distinguish between the region’s many practices, arguing for a greater understanding of the works within the sociopolitical contexts from which they developed, and with which they sought to engage.
Memories of Underdevelopment: Art and the Decolonial Turn in Latin America, 1960-1985 continues at the Museo Jumex (Blvd. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 303, Granada, Mexico City) through September 9.