“Do you speak Spanish?”

None of my trips to Latin America went by without people asking me: “Do you speak Spanish?” or “Do you speak Portuguese?” Do I take my job seriously? What a silly question, I thought secretly, and felt insulted.

Claro que hablo español! Sim, eu falo português!

I already spoke Spanish long before I joined Daros Latinamerica, and I had learned Portuguese specifically for the job. How else was I to communicate, to make myself understood, to find out what I needed to know, to earn someone’s trust? How else would someone tell me anything of meaning at four o’clock in the morning after a drink too many, if not in his or her own tongue? Above all: How else could I acquire only the dimmest notion of the Latin American culture without possessing at least rudimentary language skills?

Certainly, I wouldn’t pass as a native speaker. I had learned Spanish in the late 1970s while I was studying art history at Bonn University, but then I stayed in Italy for several years in the 1980s, and my Spanish became a bit rusty. When I brushed it up, I was happy to replace the harsher Castilian by the soft Spanish spoken in Latin America. And I completed my first course in Brazilian Portuguese in Rio de Janeiro in May 2001. During those two weeks of intensive language training I was also able to pursue my professional projects. My travel log highlights my activities and encounters at the time:

 

Travel Log Rio de Janeiro

May 8 to 23, 2001 (written in June 2001)

The purpose of this trip was for me to become acquainted with the Portuguese language. Nine days of three-hour en-bloc lessons followed each day by practical exercises with outstanding teachers took me through nearly 200 pages in the workbook and made for a successful language course. I selected Rio as location so that I could continue to go about my usual activities. Also, Rio is still the center of artistic creativity in Brazil. After some galleries had left Rio for São Paulo years ago, Rio is recently becoming increasingly significant, with more and more (as yet) small galleries and artists’ spaces shooting up, forming a lively and bustling ambiance that is highly professional at the same time.

Meeting with Antonio Dias, one of the major Brazilian artists; he has put aside a few early works for us upon my advance notice; we will know more about prices soon (Dias is due for his international breakthrough any time now: LACMA exhibition, Los Angeles, 2003—we need to act by then, as we will see prices soaring astronomically).

Visit of the Galeria Laura Marsiaij. Young and dynamic gallerist who has made a very good name for herself in the course of a year and who raises hopes within Rio’s scanty art market. She informs me about her program of artists.

Visit of the beautiful School of Visual Arts, Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage; exhibition by the young artist Nelson Felix in the horse stable of the park.

Visit of the exhibition of the collection Marcantonio Vilaça in the “Paço Imperial”. All in all of rather provincial Brazilian character.

Studio visit with Cildo Meireles. We agree that he will produce a new version of the installation “Fontes” for us. This is technically elaborate and will take several months to realize. By the way, Cildo refrained from representing Brazil at the Venice Biennale on moral grounds. He did not want to be instrumentalized by the official cultural policy in Brazil.

Studio visit with Armando Mattos (photography); he manages the legacy of the artist Paulo Roberto Leal: interesting paper and textile works in a minimalist fashion.

Visit of the Instituto Moreira Salles in a mansion that is fully dedicated to the architectural ideals of modernism; not-so-convincing exhibition program.

Studio visit with Gabriela Machado; good painting.

Visit of the gallery of Anna Maria Niemeyer (daughter of the architect).

Collective exhibition in an abandoned house under the direction of the artist Marcia X; some contributions are quite smart and witty, site specific.

Exhibition opening Waltercio Caldas at the exhibition building of the Banco do Brasil; works of great aesthetic precision from the past 15 years. In a later talk, we agree to take over his artist’s books, which in my opinion represent the core of his artistic creation.

Studio visit with Lygia Pape, a doyenne of contemporary Brazilian art who has a prolific and interesting oeuvre, parts of which I already saw last winter in Oporto at the Fondação Serralves. We will talk about purchases.

Meeting with the artist Marcos Chaves; intense exchange of information and thoughts.

Studio visit Sonia Andrade, one of the pioneers of Brazilian video art, an educated and sophisticated lady; perhaps it will be possible to obtain some of the old video material.

Invitation to the home of an important collector of 19thcentury art with many artists present; meeting with the art dealer Jean Boghici, a merchant from the very beginning, with Katia Mindlin of Sotheby’s, and with the former director of the Bienal de São Paulo and now adjunct curator of the New York MoMA, Paulo Herkenhoff. We agree on the negative assessment of the Guggenheim project for Rio; Mr. Herkenhoff proves well informed about our acquisitions and compliments us.

Visit of Galeria Jean Boghici and purchase of two works by Antonio Dias from the early 1970s.

Studio visit with Ivens Machado who creates quirky concrete sculptures.

Talk with Miguel Rio Branco, an artist who will also be present at the Venice Biennale; discussion of technical details regarding our purchase.

Meeting with the gallerist and curator Ricardo Sardenberg.

I fly to Salvador de Bahia on May 19 to meet Mario Cravo Neto. He shows me mint-new photo prints of works that we have just purchased. Excellent!

I continue to Recife on May 20 to visit an exhibition with works by Miguel Rio Branco and José Damasceno at the Museu de Arte Moderna.

On May 21, I return to Rio to see an installation and a performance by Ernesto Neto (already part of the collection; also a Biennale participant) in the Galeria Marsiaij; highly impressive and suggestive, both playful and witty.

Exhibition opening of the Antonio Dias retrospective at the MAM (Museu de Arte Moderna); never before was his impressive oeuvre on show in Brazil in such comprehensiveness, and not only the artists present are impressed; Dias is of truly international significance.

 

You can’t hide anything from a taxi driver

Foreigners who speak the local language meet with more approval and respect. Considering all the different dialects and idiomatic variations within Latin America, this came as quite a feat to me. What a balm for my soul were such comforting situations as when I met the then just recently designated director of the future MALBA, Agustin Arteaga, in Buenos Aires. Himself Mexican, he confided to me that he frequently struggled with the Argentinean language version. Beyond that, I mostly resorted to the approach of making the best of the torrents of words that came rolling toward me everywhere I went!

Taxi, Panama City, 2018

It is more difficult for me to assess what kind of impression my Spanish or Portuguese may have left behind. While my language skills are perfectly sufficient for everyday communication purposes, I am not fluent in the array of potential alternative idioms with all their shades of meaning as are only available to the native speaker. In order to avoid misunderstandings, I, by contrast, had to talk turkey. Perhaps my lack of expressions, such as “entonces”, “así que”, “por lo tanto”, “o sea”, or “qué sé yo”, was also owing to my general dislike of empty phrases that I prefer to dispense with. I am sure that my Spanish and my Portuguese seemed rather simple, even impolite or coarse, and at best excusable by being a foreigner (“he makes an effort, at least”). Also, there is simply no escape from being German, as I was reminded by a taxi driver in Panama City in 2016:

I enter the car and announce my destination in my usual, precise manner. The taxi driver has understood all details clearly and perfectly. He asks me politely whether I work with the military. I answer in the negative, and then add, sociably, that I am from Germany, whereupon he replies: “Oh, that’s why!” …

 

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