MADRID — Leading up to Spain’s national holiday, traditionally referred to as Dia de la Hispanidad, which commemorates Columbus’s arrival to the Caribbean, the community of Madrid inaugurated a program of arts and festivities called Hispanidad 2021. Originating in the 19th century, hispanidad is an ideology of shared language and culture among Spain and its former colonies that generally paints conquest as beneficial. Today, official city discourse rebrands hispanidad through inclusion; the program motto, “todos los acentos caben en Madrid” (there is room for all accents in Madrid), affirms varied Spanish dialects spoken by Latin Americans, one of the largest immigrant groups in Madrid and greater Spain.

Yet cultural fusion merely bandages colonial wounds, as displayed in the current exhibition Return Journey: Art of the Americas in Spain (Tornaviaje: Arte Iberoamericano en España) at the Museo Nacional del Prado. On the surface, the exhibition envisions a more plural art history by highlighting art exported from Latin American colonies to Spain, the majority by Indigenous and mestizo, or mixed-race, artists. Many works were once in royal collections, alongside the Velazquezes familiar to Prado visitors, yet they ended up in ethnographic rather than art museums. For example, an iconic 1599 portrait of Afro-Indigenous leader Don Francisco de Arobe and his sons, painted by Andean artist Andrés Sánchez Galque in Ecuador, was loaned to the Prado from Madrid’s Museum of the Americas. Before donning silk and gold for this diplomatic portrait, the Arobes had exchanged allegiance to Spanish authority for governance of Ecuador’s Esmeraldas region. While filtered through a colonial optic, their piercing gaze offers a rare glimpse into Maroon resistance within an exhibition that placidly reinforces the status quo.

José Ignacio Lequanda (texts and visual discourse), Louis Thiébaut (painter), “Picture of the Natural, Civil, and Geographical History of the Kingdom of Peru. Year 1799. Dedicated to the Supreme Secretary of the Royal Treasury of the Indies” (1799), oil and ink on canvas, 115 x 325 cm. Madrid, Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (CSIC) 

The Arobes join a sampling of representations of peoples of the Americas, allowing viewers to visualize social classifications while glossing over their continued enforcement. Mexican casta paintings foreground the valuing of Spanish blood over Indigeneity and Blackness. José Ignacio Lecuanda’s 1799 tableaux of Peruvian society further plots race and animal species by economic value. Drawings grid cities; a painting of a sprawling plaza exudes calm. Like a queen’s magic mirror, art reflected colonial desires to control unfamiliar but resource-rich colonies. 

Devotional paintings showcase how Afrodescendent and Indigenous painters mastered European techniques amid sweeping catechization, but including artworks differs from centering perspectives. Artists identified as “mulatto,” such as Juan Correa, are lumped together with Spanish emigrants as “American artists.” Emphasis on material adaptations, like a saintly mosaic using Aztec feather techniques, excludes forms of spirituality that fell outside the bounds of European aesthetics. Dizzying silver sculptures commissioned by Spanish emigrants flaunt New World fortunes; in an altar stand, an Indigenous artist carved a flowering representation of Potosí mountain in Bolivia, where laborers mined silver for the Viceroyalty of Peru. Opulence in this exhibition eclipses the exploitation of land and people that reverberates today, valorizing cross-cultural flows while muffling ruptures. Only a 1696 biombo, or colonial folding screen, visualizes the conquest of Tenochtitlan. Its bloody horror vacui opens into a city on the reverse side, tamed like the taxidermied crocodile that closes the show.

Installation view of Mercedes Azpilicueta: Katalina, Antonio, Alonso at Galerías NoguerasBlanchard in Madrid (photo by the author)

By contrast, two contemporary art exhibitions critique Hispanic legacies to investigate how art history occludes power. Katalina, Antonio, Alonso, Argentine-born artist Mercedes Azpilicueta’s recent project at Galería NoguerasBlanchard (September 9-November 13, 2021), focused on the mythic figure of Catalina de Erauso. De Erauso escaped a Basque convent in the early 1600s to become a conquistador in present-day Chile. According to the exhibition press, the fugitive Catalina refashioned her nun’s habit into men’s clothes. The artworks expand this vulnerable limbo between identities, questioning the malleability of historical truth and gender. In “Abya Yala (Tierra Madura)” (Land in full bloom, 2021), the Guna name for indigenous people’s homeland in the Americas, a biombo-like textile sculpture cordons off a space to suggest canonical and marginal histories. The digitally woven surface is a collage of colonial icons; Maroon leaders, angels, Inca royalty, military troops, brides, and priests swirl across a barren pink and blue landscape. From the back, the figures disappear into reds and greens, faint metallic threads shimmering.

Soft wall sculptures poke fun at codpieces, the 16th-century garments for male genitals that asserted manhood. Red bulbous forms slouch; chainmail-like knits reveal their softness up close. These carnivalesque symbols of masculinity seem to hunger for corporeality, like the wood sculpture in the gallery center evoking a human bent backwards and clad in bizarre underwear. De Erauso’s slippage between garments and identities is an ephemeral act that challenges the colonial authority of visual and written evidence, but her creative performance of masculinity oppressed African and Indigenous peoples. Azpilicueta’s feminist commitments to marginalized histories bypass race, while the humor in her work humbles masculinity’s defenses, its claims to body, territory, and history as property.

Installation view of Sala de Mirages (Mirror Room) in Sandra Gamarra Heshiki: Buen Gobierno at Sala Alcalá 31 in Madrid (photo by the author)

Peru-born, Madrid-based artist Sandra Gamarra Heshiki’s exhibition, Buen Gobierno (Good Government), at Sala Alcalá 31 speculates on what could happen if official histories admitted to their blindspots. The show deconstructs realist painting and European museum displays to interrogate how viewers have been trained to look at work in these collections. In the opening gallery, eight reproductions of history paintings from Spanish and Peruvian museums line the walls; in the center is a silver sculpture resembling a security stanchion. With rust washes and gold leaf, doubles of the same paintings accentuate or obscure different gendered and racial elements, treating historical idealization as a form of amnesia that willfully forgets marginalized histories.

The 160 potato varieties painstakingly rendered in the series Cuando las papasqueman (patata caliente) (When potatoes burn [hot potato], 2021) censor pages of Quechua writer Felipe Guaman Poma Ayala’s manuscript Primer crónica y buen gobierno (First Chronicle and Good Government, c. 1615), which denounced Spanish abuses in the colonies, and which titles the exhibition. Similarly, the surfaces of four vitrines, collectively titled Expositores (2021), are painted with images of Andean objects from the Madrid National Anthropology Museum’s Pre-columbian collections to conceal empty interiors. For “Tierra Virgin” (Virgin Land, 2021) canvases are balanced into a towering triangular altar so that the images of the Virgin de Cerros on their surfaces can only be viewed from oblique angles. Gamarra Heshiki collaborated with, and credits, the Cuzco artists who produce these syncretic icons en masse for tourists.

Sandra Gamarra Heshiki in collaboration with Mario Lezama, Nely Pumayali, and Sergio Collanque. “Tierra Virgin” (Virgin Land), oil on fabric and false gold leaf. Background on wall: Sandra Gamarra Heshiki, “Cuando las papas queman (patata caliente)” (When potatoes burn [hot potato]) (2021), oil on paper (photo by the author)

Hierarchies of artist and artisan further dissolve in the installations collectively titled Gabinetes de Incomodidades Coloniales (Cabinets of Colonial Discomforts) that snake around the upper patio. Gamarra Heshiki’s paintings join objects, such as Peruvian folk art or colonial documents, to conjure colonization’s afterlives across space and time; art history bears witness to collective memories of violence. Fake gold leaf obscures a painting of the Cerro de Pasco, a mine active since the colonial era that has continually exposed the surrounding community to toxic metals. Like ancestors in a family tree, casta paintings loaned from the Madrid Anthropology Museum hang above state archival portraits of individuals who were forcibly disappeared during the 1980s internal conflict in Peru, which disproportionately claimed Indigenous lives. These painted faces stare out from the center of vibrantly colored concentric squares that reference the work of Josef Albers and, more generally, Modernist appropriations of Aztec architectural forms. Works by Peruvian artists preserve pre-conquest traditions; carved mates, or dried gourds, recount festive harvests, and a painted wood tablet documents military abuses. The wool ponchos of “Gradación ” (Gradation, 2021), dyed a range of skin tones and stretched taut on canvases, are abstract embodiments of racialization. In Reconstrucción (Reconstruction) (2021), painted fragments of Pre-columbian museum objects conceal ethnographic botanical illustrations. Between displaced shards, we glimpse germinating seeds.

Unlike Tornaviaje, Katalina, and other exhibitions by Spanish and Latin American artists, Buen Gobierno was excluded from the city’s Hispanidad program. The artist also complied with a request from the Culture Ministry of Madrid, which funded the exhibition, to remove the words “racism” and “restitution” from the entrance text. Such censorship suggests how contemporary art can attempt to confront colonial violence and cultural exchange, rather than justifying the former with the latter. The excised words echo in the empty spaces of Gamarra Heshiki’s art, amplifying their critique of erasure. In Chakana (2015-21), flea market paintings overturned on the floor of the northern apse form Andean crosses that embody the interdependent forces of the universe. Shadowy brushstrokes on blank walls project the patterns into the distance, evoking the grounds of desecrated sites. We may wander into the centers, which invite us, from sacred points of union, to meditate on loss.

Return Journey: Art of the Americas continues at the Museo Nacional del Prado (Calle de Ruiz de Alarcón, 23, Madrid, Spain)through February 13, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Rafael López Guzmán, senior professor at the Universidad de Granada, with Jaime Cuadriello and Pablo F. Amador, members of the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas of the UNAM in Mexico City.

Sandra Gamarra Heshiki: Buen Gobierno continues at Sala Alcalá 31 (Calle de Alcalá, 31, Madrid, Spain) through January 16, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Agustín Pérez Rubio.

The Latest

Emily Sun

Emily Sun is an educator and writer from Colorado currently based in Madrid. She received her BA in Ethnic Studies from Brown University and has worked at the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design...