Kunstsammlung NRW
Francisco Copello, Calendário, 1974, Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil

Worldwide: A Familiar Otherness – An Exhibition of Latin-American Art in Sao Paulo

Brazil is the world's fifth largest country by size, and occupies nearly half of the South American continent. With the exception of Chile and Ecuador, it borders every Latin American country. But not just vast (primeval) forests and swamps separate the country from its neighbours, but the linguistic difference between Portuguese and Spanish as well. from a Brazilian perspective, "Latin-American" refers to a familiar otherness.

The exhibition "Vizinhos distantes" ("Distant neighbours") at the Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of Sao Paulo reflects the hybrid, multicultural and heterogeneous diversity of artistic production in South America during the second half of the 20th century. The approximately 250 works in a range of media - from painting, sculpture, installation and photography to video - are part of the museum's collection.

Especially during the 1970s - a time when several South American countries were governed by dictatorships - numerous artists looked for alternative artistic forms of communication, for instance performances in public places or collaborative publications. The documentary character of some of the objects in the exhibition reflects a common artistic tendency: the use of limited means to pursue a strategy that is simultaneously aesthetic and political.

Melanie Vietmeier met Cristina Freire, the curator of the exhibition in Sao Paulo. An interview for #32.

#32: Can we speak of Latin American art in a general way considering the immense geographical area occupied by the continent, along with its cultural heterogeneity?

Freire: The category "Latin-American art" does not work well and cannot explain much. It is used as a working platform to consider many extremely divergent cultural backgrounds which have some connection in terms of a historical colonial past. I prefer to speak of art from Latin America...

#32: How would you define Brazil's relationship to the rest of Latin America?

Freire: In Brazil, the term "Latin America" refers to a sort of otherness. It is not a consensual category. We do not consider ourselves to be Latin Americans, to begin with, we do not speak Spanish like our neighbours, but Portuguese... I think that is part of an effort to make distinctions between diverse political, historical and social backgrounds, different cultures and so on and so forth. In the end, it is a question of the geopolitics of representation - and not just in art history.

#32: Do brazilian artists see themselves as Latin American artists?

Freire: I don't think Brazilian artists raise this question. It's is more like an external perspective that tends to homogenize differences. But of course these geopolitical issues are very important nowadays. Frontiers, immigration - all of these issues are very strong here as well as elsewhere. We are living in a country made up of immigrants from different places, Africans, and Amerindians. They are all constitutive parts of our mestizaje. All of these issues are related to a particular historical background, but are also connected to the dynamics of a global system of representation in a much wider perspective nowadays.

#32: In preparation for the exhibition, and under your direction, the research group GEACC (Study group of Conceptual Art and Conceptualism) reprocessed and published documentary material of the conceptual art practices of the 1960-80s in Latin America. To what extent does the exhibition reflect the results of the project?

Freire: The idea was not just to present the results of this extensive research project on the collection of the 1960s and 70s, but also to raise the question of the constructions and representations of Latin American art and culture, in Brazil and abroad, in the 20th and 21st century. So we have artists who were very important for Surrealism in Latin America, like the Chilean Roberto Matta, and Wilfredo Lam, a Cuban artist who is the subject of a major retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris at the moment. Then there is Antonio Segui, the well-known Argentinian painter, and Sérgio Meirana, a young self-taught Uruguayan artist. These two artists, for instance, are displayed side by side with the intention of highlighting issues like "high and low art." I've tried to raise this discussion as well in order to question the construction of a hegemonic art history based on Western canons.

 #32: The exhibition is structured thematically rather than chronologically. What are the underlying categories?

Freire: Our collection was the starting point for trying to make decisions about the different parts of the exhibition: Identity, followed by the issue of Constructivism, which encompasses the idea of building a new society, and which has to do with geometric Constructivism, but is also related to Op Art. So you have artists like Jesús Soto from Venezuela and Omar Rayo and Rafael Villamizar, both important Constructivist artists from Colombia. Some of the exhibited works won prizes at the Bienal de São Paulo in various years.

#32: Up until the present, research has often focused on the influence of the Northern Hemisphere (Europe and Northern America) on Latin American art. How can artistic and cultural exchanges taking place along a horizontal south-south-axis within the Latin American continent be described?

Freire: Of course, it is part of my political engagement as a curator and researcher to question this colonial past in the framework of the discourse. In other words, I believe we should try to implement theoretical fields and art historical research in the continent, and that with the help of these particular 'site-specific' instruments, we should try to understand the past and anticipate the future. That is part of my academic endeavour, particularly because the Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of Sao Paulo is the only public university museum in the country, and critical thinking is an urgent necessity against the background of the market-media network that rules the world.

The exhibition "Vizinhos distantes. Arte da América Latina no Acervo do MAC USP" will be on view at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo until July 31, 2016.


Prof. Dr. Cristina Freire is a professor at the University of Sao Paulo and a curator at the highly respected Museum for Contemporary Art of the University of Sao Paulo (MAC USP). Her research focus is on contemporary art, archives, and artists' networks, with a particular emphasis on Latin America. Currently, she is participating in several international projects, including "Connecting Art Histories" at the Getty Research Institute and "Glossary of Common Knowledge (GCK)" at the Moderna Galerija in Slovenia, the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands, and the Museum Reina Sofia in Spain.

 Melanie Vietmeier is an art historian who works for the Kunstsammlung research project "museum global?". At present, she lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and will be reporting regularly for #32 on art news from South America.

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