• Oswaldo Viteri, Sol y Misterio sobre el Silencio, 2002

    Oswaldo Viteri, Sol y Misterio sobre el Silencio, 2002

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Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich

27 January 2004 - 21 March 2004

In 1921 David Alfaro Siqueiros famously declared that modern artists in Mexico should embrace the constructive vitality of the art of the pre-columbian past while avoiding at all costs what he calls 'those lamentable archaeological reconstructions' by which he means anything that smacks of the literal, the nostalgic and the picturesque. The problem of how best to draw on the non-Western artistic heritage of the Americas has preoccupied artists ever since and this exhibition explores some of their solutions.

Most directly, artists have drawn on the imagery and ideas of pre-columbian and popular art. Rufino Tamayo's work often takes the form of a dialogue between the present and the ancient Mexican past. Nadín Ospina from Colombia confronts Siqueiros' problem with archaeological reconstructions head-on by recreating pre-columbian stone idols in the form of modern icons such as Mickey Mouse or Homer Simpson. Raul Piña develops a contemporary visual language out of the imagery of the Mexican ritual books.

Pre-columbian artistic practices did not suddenly cease with the arrival of Columbus in 1492. On the contrary many survived to feed into what is now termed, for want of a better word, 'popular art'. Popular art in Latin America takes many different forms; vigorous local traditions of wood-carving in Brazil may mix indigenous and African motifs. But the division between high and popular art is in a sense illusory. Materials of all kinds including those commonly associated with craft practices are adopted by artists of all descriptions: pottery, tiles, cloth, tin and wood. These are as much the province of the avant garde as of the local artist.

Siqueiros's emphasis on the 'constructive' in ancient art is significant in highlighting its formal qualities, and many artists have discovered in the carving, textiles and architecture of pre-columbian civilizations alternative sources for non-figurative work. The tendency to abstraction in the art and architecture of the Incas and their forebears in Peru, the Chibcha and Muisca in Colombia, the Mayas and Aztecs of Mexico, has provided if not always a starting point, at least a point of reference. The Argentinian artist Cesar Paternosto has argued that pre-columbian technical and formal qualities created structural paradigms that still resonate in the art of the Americas. Certainly his own work bears this out as does the work of Colombian sculptors Villamizar, Negret and Castles. The strong and original patterns in the ancient stone architecture have contributed to the dynamism in these works, which often play with asymmetry and with the effects of light and colour, as in the work of Francisco Salazar from Venezuela.

Other artists engage in a type of collaboration between abstraction and aspects of pre-columbian and popular art. In some cases, as in the work of Peru's most distinguished contemporary artist, Fernando de Szyszlo, this is a collaboration between the visual impact of colour and painted surface of Abstract Expressionism and the emotional drama of sinister anthropomorphic beings from another world. Indigenous textile traditions resonate in the work of Teresa Pereda and Esteban Alvarez from Argentina, and the Ecuadorian Osvaldo Viteri juxtaposes rich fabrics with popular dolls in strikingly geometrical compositions.

Rooting abstract art in natural forms and natural processes offers an interesting contrast to the constructive and geometric. Although the link to pre-columbian art is less specific, nature was the source for much pre-columbian imagery and the inventive approach to its representation finds an echo in the work of Maria Fernanda Cardoso from Colombia.

Prof. Valerie Fraser and Prof. Dawn Ades, Chair and Founding Director, ESCALA

Latin American Art: Contexts and Accomplices video

Latin American Art: Contexts and Accomplices Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts 27 January - 21 March 2004 from ESCALA on Vimeo.

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