Based on the 1993 book Walking Words by Eduardo Galeano, a new exhibit at The Norton takes its cue from the tome’s literary and visual sources.
“The Church says: The body is a sin.
Science says: The body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business.
The body says: I am a fiesta.”
The word fiesta in English generally means a party, but here it is meant to suggest a sacred celebration that, for Galeano, cannot be properly translated.
“The Body Says, I Am a Fiesta” exhibit explores the Latin Americas as they relate to South Florida’s diverse community through the work of 28 artists from 10 countries, from the early 1900s to the present. Artworks from Norton’s permanent collection (some on view for the first time) are exhibited along with select loans to examine the portrayal of the human form both visible and invisible.
Curator Rachel Gustafson has pulled together works of visceral power that include religion, sexuality, death, and joy that fill two galleries, one on the ground floor in the American Art wing and a larger space on the second floor.
“I felt it was important to have Latin American art included in the space where American art is,” Gustafson says. “These are artists of the Americas too, with overlap.”
Galeano’s words implore the influences of various kinds of power on humankind. In Latin America, politics and religion push their narrow views, while artists attempt to make emotional and visual sense of it all.
The smaller main floor Docter Gallery focuses on artwork made after the mid- to late-1960s, with paintings and works on paper by the key figures of the Mexican Muralism movement. Drawings examine the strong dark forms of Diego Rivera, the cosmopolitan elan of Miguel Covarrubias, biting social commentary by José Clemente Orozco and a striking painting by Amelia Peláez del Casal.
Casal’s painting, Mujer (1943) in particular reveals much about the decorative flair of tropical architecture and fauna, while the condition of the painting with its cracked lower third belies the poor quality and scarcity of materials that were available to artists in Cuba in the 1940s.
The exhibition continues on the second floor and includes a room devoted to books that inspired the exhibit, animated video taken from illustrations in the Galeano book and a wall where viewers can post notes that answer the question as posed by the exhibit’s premise. The main gallery features works from the late 1960s to the present by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Ana Mendieta, Rufino Tamayo, and Oswaldo Vigas.
The show is using the term “Latinx”, a gender-neutral word to refer to people of Latin American descent, an alternative to the more gender-specific Latino or Latina. In September 2018, it was added in English to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
At the shows, entrance is a trick of the eye work by César Cornejo (American, born Peru, 1968) called Calamina Drawing, 2011. While at first glance it looks likes two figures painted on a large sheet of corrugated metal, the type used as housing material in low-income areas of Peru and across Latin America. Look again and it is actually acrylic and aluminum leaf on laminated paper, curved to form the look of aluminum sheets.
Calamina or calamines is the Spanish word for a corrugated metal sheet, the two figures peer over the side of a building “a scene of everyday life that also represents the social unrest and poverty in the region” the artist says. Above their heads electric wires string in the air. This is a personal image, for, since 2007, Cornejo has led Puno MoCA, an alternative, community-based museum project in Peru. Part of their work is repairing low-income homes in exchange for the short-term installation of works of art. As in North America, artists regenerate neighborhoods with murals and using formerly empty warehouse space for studios.
I particularly liked the photos from Ana Mendieta (Cuban, 1948 – 1985) whose depictions of the body both present and absent work in ghostly ways. In one image she is in a shallow grave partially covered in white flowers; in another, the angelic outline of her body is embedded in the sand while waves of water filled in the crevice. Red pigment is strewn across the shape, giving a jarring sense of violence.
Mendieta was forced from Cuba at a young age, later creating “earth-body works.” She is best known for this Silueta series where the absence or covering of the body is a mark of Santería, a religious practice in Cuba.
Two striking works by Rufino Tamayo (Mexican, 1899 – 1991) stand at the far end of the gallery, one strong rusted sculpture, Hombre Rojo (Red Man), 1989 that features his interpretation of his Zapotec heritage as well as his exposure to Modern art. Through the curved arms of the tall figure, one can see his painting El Hombre (The Man), 1962 which echoes the same forms and colors.
In a controversial 1957 interview, Tamayo questions such realistic mural painters as Diego Rivera saying: “I don’t understand how, in a country like ours which is so rich in visual traditions, not only in terms of sheer amount of production but in terms of limitless variety of pre-Columbian styles, how they can pretend in the name of patriotism to say that art must be realistic, and thereby reduce Mexican art to such a narrow framework.”
A very strange pair of boots made from polyester fiber sit in a lighted plexi box by Ronald Morán (Salvadoran, born 1972). Botas (Boots), 2005. These white empty work boots are eerie in their weight and presence, the contrast of the white fiber covering military-style boots are those of a ghost emanating from El Salvador’s sociopolitical environment and violent history. Morán says she wants them to be “understood by a variety of cultures without losing sight of their meaning in my own culture, a common thread in all my series of work is the need for social reflection or human reflection, a social factor will always be there as the conditions in which we live in El Salvador are always present, and I think it will always be present in the artwork produced in this country.”
Other strong works from Felix Gonzalez-Torres (Cuban, active United States, 1957-1996) of his deceased lover’s weight in green wrapped candies sit at the entrance.
While María Martínez-Cañas (American, born Cuba, 1960) exhibits Flight [Hospital Bed]: VII, 1998, an image of herself wrapped in a blanket and laid down on photosensitive paper along with flowers and leaves. Mourning a friend, she stated “getting close to the organic became a way of exorcising the nightmares and became a testament to the memory of our relationship. I started thinking about vulnerability and the passing of time, about our existence and the human connections we experience in our lives. This forced me to look to nature for inspiration – to deal with the present and my surroundings.”
A darkness hangs over the show underscoring that while the body may be a “fiesta”, the realities of death and human nature cannot be avoided. The body is a cipher, and all parties end.
“The Body Says I Am a Fiesta: The Figure in Latin American Art” runs through March 1, 2020. If you visit, the Norton Museum of Art is located at 1450 S Dixie Hwy. For hours and more information, visit www.norton.org