Interview with Alfons Hug, Berlin, 13 June 2016

HH: I drew up a list of institutions and collections that all started around the year 2000.  Besides the Daros Latinamerica Collection, there is the Mexican Jumex Collection, Mari Carmen Ramirez with her great Latin American projects in Houston, the Halle collection in Phoenix, the Inhotim art project in Minas Gerais, Brazil, as well as MALBA in Buenos Aires plus the increasing activities of MoMA, Tate Modern, and the Centre Pompidou in the Latin American field. What do you think of this landscape? Is it still developing positively or is it already on the decline?

AH: Latin America’s conditions for the production and reception of modern and contemporary art are good simply because it is part of the Western world. «Somos occidente» is what Mario Vargas Llosa likes to say, and what he means is that for people living in the Western Hemisphere, which includes Latin Americans, it is easier to develop common concepts of modernity than it is for people in Asia, for instance, or perhaps in Africa. In this respect, the continent’s conditions are good for what we are doing. In addition, in the early 20th century, many relevant artists lived in Paris, and they brought back certain modernist ideas from there. This holds true for Brazil, but also for Uruguay and Argentina, and perhaps for Mexico too, although I don’t know the country so well. 

I have noticed that the smaller countries in the Andes or in Central America have also been catching up. It’s no wonder that Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico are taking the lead. But it does come as a surprise that Bolivia and even Paraguay and Central America have caught up by now. This can be attributed to the proliferation of art biennials, for example, particularly in Central America. There are remarkable activities in this part of the world, which essentially has little modernist tradition and took a nearly direct leap from the feudal period and colonial times straight into contemporary art. That is quite a feat for these countries. Perhaps it is even helpful that contemporary art was able to draw upon and productively process a certain indigenous heritage. This is true for Peru, Ecuador, and surely for Central America as well. I do have doubts when it comes to infrastructure. The continent could be doing better in this respect. We meanwhile know about the precarious situation of museums even in Brazil. But the Bienal de São Paulo and the Bienal do Mercosul in Porto Alegre are doing quite well and have a sound financial base. The same goes for the cultural centers of Banco do Brasil in four cities, the Banco Santander art spaces and other institutional spaces like SESC or Oi Futuro. But it is getting tight for everybody else, primarily, of course, for the smaller art spaces. The museums hardly have any resources for purchases and therefore depend on collectors.  

The impression over the past 15 years was that things have been continuously improving up to now because the young businessmen and the upper middle classes have started to collect art, which explains the success of the art fairs in São Paulo and in Rio, as well as the Buenos Aires fair, which has recently improved again. But these frequently turn out to be mere flashes in the pan and it’s ultimately the political and economic situation that immediately impacts the art and culture sector. We are currently witnessing this very dramatically in Brazil. It is not a long-term upswing, but rather an up-and-down experience. With regard to art production itself it has always operated at a relatively high level in Latin America and was certainly comparable with the best in European or North American countries, at least in Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, and formerly in Venezuela too.

This is an asset that Latin America can build upon. It must be said that being an artist there is associated with high prestige, which not only applies to visual artists, but also to musicians, actors, writers, and filmmakers. This is certainly a good precondition that does not exist in all cultures of the world. And nowhere else is the proportion of women in the visual arts as high as in Latin America. This phenomenon gives us reason for thought. The percentage of women represented in each and every group exhibition can reach easily 40 to 50%. The presence of Latin American artists at big international events is also something very positive. They show continuous presence at biennials and at the Documenta, ever since the postwar period and even before that at the Venice Biennale.

Alfons Hug, 2020, Berlin Hauptbahnhof

You are talking about the Latin American national pavilions? 

Yes, but they also participated in group exhibitions in the Italian pavilion as early as the 1920s and 30s. Artists from Latin America are being increasingly invited to the big biennials, in Asia and Africa too.

How do you see the social background of the artists in Latin America? Earlier on, they were mainly from the upper middle class. Can you see a change? 

The gallery owners are definitely a phenomenon of the upper middle class. This was true also for many artists. In recent years, however, various Afro-Brazilian artists and even indigenous artists have entered the Brazilian scene, which is very encouraging. 

I recall a conversation with Tunga years ago, when he told me something very intriguing: He said to me that education in Brazil did not need to be brought to the poor first, but rather to the rich. 

I doubt that US-American or German elites have better taste. The people who buy art in Basel and elsewhere are also very uncertain and tend to align with the mainstream specified by the big galleries and well-known curators. Independent thinking rarely takes place. 

In which ways has art criticism changed over the past decades?

Unfortunately, art criticism has not kept pace with the growing production. Specialized art criticism hardly exists any longer in Brazil. In Germany, art criticism at least still exists as a full-time profession with the most important newspapers and in specialist literature. In Brazil, it is constantly on the decline, in newspapers anyway, but also in professional journals. Art criticism simply did not grow along, and the young people don’t read it anymore. Everything revolves around social media fofoca. You can hardly motivate people to read a reasonable text anymore. In Lula’s times, the idea was to focus on art education in order to establish a leading position in this area for the Brazilian institutions. Enormous programs supporting art education were launched. 

Aesthetic experience, to me, is an individual experience where everyone has to sharpen his own ability to judge by standing in front of the work and contemplating it at leisure—without the insinuators. Only then will a political attitude evolve: when I can discern between what I like and what I dislike. Reflected upon society, a democratic attitude can be generated. That would be the political impact of art. 

What do you think, ex posteriori, about the concept of the Daros Latinamerica Collection? To serve as a platform for all of Latin America and the rest of the world— was a reasonable idea? 

As long as the countries themselves are not able to do that: yes. And the Latin American countries weren’t doing it, apart perhaps with the biennials in São Paulo and Porto Alegre. Your collection was one of the few ones with a systematic and scientific approach. 

Is it possible to characterize the various countries in Latin America in terms of mentality? 

To me, the Rio de la Plata is the most open-minded region. Brazil, as an Atlantic country with its relative proximity to Africa and Europe, has the predisposition to be a link to other continents. An immense artistic potential is currently developing in Africa, and Brazil would be a natural location to receive it. 

As a curator, what is your idea of a successful exhibition?

You can only organize an exhibition for the purpose of conveying your conviction, which is inherent in the concept, in order to transport a certain message of the world through the exhibition. And one has to work and play in an adequate manner with a given space. Spaces are more important than we think; this is something you come to realize at the biennials. The spaces have an authority of their own.

Alfons Hug, 2020, Baku

Alfons Hug, born 1950 in Hochdorf, Germany, studied Comparative Literature and Linguistics in Freiburg, Berlin, Dublin, and Moscow. He was director of the Goethe-Institutes in Brasilia, Caracas, Medellín, Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, Baku, Moscow, and Singapore. In 1994-98 he was head of the Visual Arts Department at the House of World Cultures in Berlin. In 2002 and 2004 he was curator of the São Paulo Biennial and in 2003 and 2005 of the Brazilian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, as well as the Latin American pavilion in 2011-15. He also curated the biennials of Curitiba, Mercosul in Porto Alegre, Montevideo, Fin del Mundo in Ushuaia, and the digital Invisible Biennale (2021). Hug spent more than 20 years of his professional life in Latin America, and has also done extensive research in Africa, and more recently in Asia and the Middle East.

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