Engaging with our neighbours in South America

What do we generally know about South America? In April I was able to spend a month researching art in three countries in South America in preparation for an exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery. This was a long awaited trip as my last visit to the continent was in 2006 when I co-managed the project TRANS VERSA, artists from Australia and New Zealand, with Danae Mossman, which resulted in the presentation of artworks at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Galería Metropolitana and Centro Cultural Matucana in Santiago, Chile. Apart from my ongoing research into art from that area from afar, my understanding of the South American continent was second hand. It had largely remained known to me though its ancient history (Rapa Nui, Incas), colonial settlement, the authoritarian regimes of the recent past and natural wonders that include the world’s longest mountain chain (the Andes) and features including the Amazon River, Atacama Desert and Galapagos islands.
I was eager to be reintroduced to art from neighbouring countries across the Pacific Ocean, and hope that this future exhibition project will find a similar sentiment amongst the New Zealand public. An exhibition of recent art from South America answers the Gallery’s vision of offering transformational experiences that strengthen and enrich our communities. While obvious cultural differences exist between New Zealand and South American countries, the South America–Pacific nexus is growing. Economically, both regions have thrived while most of the world is still under the throws of the global financial crisis. There is an increasing flow of South American citizens to New Zealand, especially from Brazil, and close trade partnerships exist between New Zealand and Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Yet New Zealanders have not been exposed to art from this region. Alongside the growing sense of collaboration in trade and policy on both sides of the ocean, collaborative art projects raise the possibility of enhanced cultural understanding between neighbouring countries.

My itinerary was devised to coordinate with my colleague in this project, independent Chilean curator Beatriz Bustos. We began at the SP-Arte Fair in São Paulo, Brazil, where over 120 galleries show their wares in the Biennial Pavilion in Ibirapuera, the fabulous pavilion designed by a team of architects including Oscar Niemeyer. Like all art fairs, SP-Arte only gave a taste of the rich and varied contemporary art practice represented by commercial galleries from around the continent. Photography and three-dimensional or installation based work was most attention grabbing, despite the presence of works demonstrating the legacy of geometric abstraction in Brazil and surrounding countries. The strong sensibility of memory, so present in the work of artists practising in the 1970s and 80s, had been replaced with new foci in the work of a younger generation.

Sp-Arte, São Paulo, Brazil
Sp-Arte, São Paulo, Brazil

Evident from this fair, and from our research in galleries, museums and visiting artists’ studios in Brazil, Argentina and Chile was the varied and exciting mix of artwork being undertaken by artists. While it remains impossible to categorise art being made in one city, let alone by country or continent, many works showed a clear engagement with local issues – including contemporary lifestyle, public and private corruption, the tension between religion and new freedoms, Indigenous issues, the changing state of the environment – alongside art that conveyed abstract and universal themes. Each country has its own distinct blend of cultures and Indigenous peoples, historical and contemporary culture, and rapid urbanisation in which raw life is intersected by new aspirations for lifestyle and different attitudes toward history. Demian Schopf’s image of one of the many homemade designs for a festival parade in northern Chile, Jukumari, 2011, clearly combining components from Asia with popular culture, gives a sense of the cultural mash-up at large.

Joana Vasconcelos, Casarão (installation view), April 2014, Casa Triangulo
Joana Vasconcelos, Casarão (installation view), April 2014, Casa Triangulo

The art of younger contemporary artists, growing up in the new ‘democracies’ in South America, naturally reflects their context, which includes greater access to and communications with the rest of the world. The sense of change is palpable in art as much as it pervades daily life and the broader political and economic spectrum. Transformation is precarious at the same time, as the situation in Argentina indicates and as was evident in the growing voice of the underclass in Brazil unhappy with their treatment in the lead up to the World Cup which acerbated the lack of public services and wealth inequalities in that country. Nevertheless, there is also much art which engages with beauty, pleasure and aspects of tradition, as evident in the new work by Joana Vasconcelos which we experienced at Casa Triangulo in São Paulo.

This research visit raised as many questions as it loaded us up with encounters with artists and artworks. Bustos and I have much to discuss in regard to the how we frame art from South America for audiences in New Zealand and which artists, writers, performers, film makers, poets and philosophers can join the project and enrich its experience in Auckland. We propose that an introduction to the recent history of the countries involved in the exhibition is as important as the public programme of film, music and discussion that accompanies the exhibition. I hope you will follow us on our journey of discovery over the coming months…

– Zara Stanhope, Principal Curator, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

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