Latinamerican Art

Interview with Santiago Olmo 

Madrid, 22 February 2017

When did you first travel to Latin America?

In the mid-1990s. One of my first contacts with Latin America was through the Havana Biennial. Since its founding in the1980s, it had a great appeal; it was a magnet for curators, artists, and museum directors, especially Europeans. Gerardo Mosquera’s approach was very novel: a third-world biennial, marking a moment prior to “Magiciens de la Terre”. The biennial was even interested in crafts and in the relationship between high and low art. It was also important for me as a space to establish relationships with other Latin American curators and artists.

Before that, I had worked on different Latin American projects at the CAAM [Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno] in Gran Canaria, with Orlando Britto. The Canary Islands have always been very receptive towards Latin America. I also went to Brazil in 1997 with Rosa Olivares to produce a special issue of Lápiz magazine. In those days, Brazil was very closed in on itself. Despite the Sao Paulo Biennial, the Brazilian art world was very endogamous, very rigid. Brazilians have long been fighting for greater visibility and openness. And they have largely succeeded.

When do you think that a change in Latin America’s art scene began to be felt?

Towards the end of the 1980s there were already certain expectations. However, the most visible Latin American art in those days was mostly commercial. The challenge at that time was to reveal powerful art, since those mediocre works were obscuring the really interesting manifestations. Aside from this, it was an outdated and not very dynamic scene. Art collections were exclusively local. The political situation was very complex, fragmented, atomized.

Take the example of Central America, a region that I’m very familiar with. They suffered bloody civil wars, with a lot of repression, and that background naturally determined the course of art in those countries. The 1990s sparked a moment of discovery and dialogue. Artists began to travel more to neighboring countries and other Latin American regions, allowing them to absorb reality more directly, without European or North American mediations. The biennials of Sao Paulo and Havana fostered many Latin American encounters. With the entry of Europeans, subordination to the United States was somewhat halted. A kind of non-binary, non-subordinate, multiple relationship finally began to emerge. A subordinate relationship with Europe was not established, contrary to what had happened with the United States.

Why not?

The first Europeans to visit Latin America attracted by its contemporary art were more independent and progressive. They tried to understand the phenomena instead of imposing their ideas.

Besides you, who else was traveling to Latin America during that time? 

Orlando Britto, of course. José Jiménez and Fernando Castro from the academy. Also, from very early on Antonio Zaya and María Luisa Borrás developed several projects that dealt with the Caribbean. The MEIAC [Museo Extremeño e Iberoamericano de Arte Contemporáneo] in Badajoz emerged as a project closely linked to the figure of Salvador Allende and the Chilean resistance, but the project did not take off, despite the efforts of its director, Antonio Franco [who died in 2020]. It was left in total budgetary abandon. The public acquisition of what could have been a very interesting Latin American collection was cut short by the negligence and mediocrity of politicians, as has happened in many parts of Spain: large structures have been created and not given proper continuity. As for the CAAM, its approach to tricontinentality with Latin America, Africa and Europe was very successful, based on geography and colonial relations from 1492 until the present in relation with multiculturalism, decolonization, and postcolonial movements.

All this also coincided with a feminist assessment of history in the Anglo-Saxon academy, which also led to regarding Latin America in a different way. These perspectives have been changing Europeans’ mentality. Before there was the feeling that Latin American art was very essentialist, very political, and that it only consisted of manifestations such as muralism. With the boom in travel, new interpretations have been evolving. In addition, there has been a generational change.

The series of five exhibitions under the title «Versiones del Sur» also took place at the Reina Sofía in 2000/2001.

I think they were decisive due to the perspectives formulated by the curators [Ivo Mesquita, Adriano Pedrosa, Gerardo Mosquera, Octavio Zaya, Mari Carmen Ramírez, Carlos Basualdo and Mónica Amor] and to the artists they selected.

We must also talk about the fairs. ARCO began with a lot of energy and driven by the idea of building a bridge to Latin America, but the Spanish market is very weak and was not able to take advantage of this opportunity. The landing of Art Basel in Miami marked the end of ARCO as the only fair dedicated to Latin American art.

In what year did you meet the Costa Rican curator Virginia Pérez-Ratton [1950-2010]?

That was in 1997, at the VI Havana Biennial. In Costa Rica, the most stable country in the region, very important initiatives were produced thanks largely to Virginia; first as the director of the MADC [Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo] in San José between 1995 and 1999, and later with her own foundation, TEOR/éTica, from 1999 on. All her efforts to establish international contacts gave visibility and structure to Central America. Before, these countries used to live behind each other’s backs. People did not travel and there was no interest nor a need to understand their neighbors. She also connected them with the Caribbean, which was absent in the Central American frame of reference. That had enormous value. She was very much in charge of the international circulation of artists from that region. At the São Paulo Biennial in 1998, for example, Virginia managed to curate a section on Central America and the Caribbean in a single exhibition format. It was not easy to unite all these countries in one project. She has been an extraordinary model of how it is possible, with few resources and a lot of enthusiasm, to build a regional scene. She trained and supported people, movements, and groups.

The cohesion that Virginia achieved was admirable, no doubt. That was also one of our goals in Daros, by the way. What scene interested you the most in Central America? 

I was especially interested in Guatemala, a very dynamic place that nevertheless had received scant attention at that time. I delved into its past, the civil war, the ways in which certain colonial structures still remain… I got to know all the Central American context thanks to Virginia. In fact, because of my previous knowledge I was invited in 2010 to curate the Pontevedra Biennial, which was dedicated to art from Central America. I invited Virginia to collaborate with me, but she was already ill. She helped in whatever she could from a distance. Unfortunately, she was unable to travel to see the show. However, I did work with Tamara Díaz Bringas, who had worked closely with Virginia since the early days of TEOR/éTica.

Do you still maintain a close relationship with Central America and the Caribbean? 

Yes. When I became the director of the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporáneo in Santiago de Compostela I invited Luis González Palma to exhibit under the curatorship of Alejandro Castellote. I keep trying to generate projects with artists such as Garaicoa* and Bruguera, or the Guatemalans Regina José Galindo and Aníbal López [1964-2014], although the ownership of Aníbal’s work got complicated after his death.

And how do you see the field of art collecting?

There is a new generation of corporate collectors in Latin America or those interested in Latin American art in Spain who have completely changed the artistic landscape. They are the ones responsible for many awards, and are members of the boards of trustees, committees, and boards of directors of museums both here and over there.

You come from the art criticism and publishing spheres. What do you think of what has happened to criticism in both Latin America and Europe?

Art criticism is much more than what is written in magazines or newspapers. It’s also in the work of the curators and even in the programming. We need to research the criticism in recent history and create, from that basis, a discussion about what is happening today. We have a much faster consumption now, and therefore magazines in print are almost unfeasible. Even so, publications in print are a must. We cannot limit ourselves to blogs for our research. The market sanctions, but criticism articulates through publications.

In Brazil, when we did the Lápiz edition, there was not a single specialized magazine. There were very good writers, many of them linked to the academy. Many more books were published than catalogues. As more and more debates were generated in the media and more texts written, Brazilian art began to grow in tandem. The relation between criticism, magazines, and a consistent art scene is immediate.

How do you see the future of online criticism?

There are critics who are writing on Facebook. A specific type of rigor has now failed. This will force a reorganization of the media. People need public debate! And those discussions should be recorded and uploaded to the web. The voice of the public must also be present. This demands a great effort, but it’s the responsibility of institutions such as museums. 

What did you think of the concept behind Daros Latinamerica?

It was a space for research that fostered reciprocal relationships. Relationships that did not exist before. Until very recently, Latin Americans did not know much about the countries in their own region. They knew the United States and Europe, but not their neighbors. More initiatives are still needed to connect them. It’s a bit like what happened in Europe before. Again, Central America is symptomatic: people did not travel from one country to another. For this reason, Virginia’s project, which could be encompassed under the name of «Estrecho Dudoso» (Doubtful Strait) and which was sustained by the work of small regional groups, has been extremely important.

Santiago Olmo, curator and independent critic since 1986, works in the editorial boards of specialized magazines such as Lápiz and Artecontexto in Madrid, and since 2015 he is the director of the CGAC (Centro Galego de Arte Contempránea) in Santiago de Compostela. Olmo was the curator of the XXXI Biennial of Pontevedra, dedicated to Central America and the Caribbean (2010, with Tamara Díaz Bringas as adjunct curator), of the XVIII Paiz Biennial in Guatemala (2016), and of the Spanish representations at the XX International Graphic Arts Biennial in Ljubljana (1993), the XXIV Sao Paulo Biennial (1998), and the XXI Milan Triennial (2001). Olmo has curated retrospectives of artists such as Adriana Lestido, Jürgen Partenheimer, Javier Vallhonrat, Miguel Ángel Campano, and Soledad Sevilla, among others. Group shows in collaboration with Virginia Pérez-Ratton include «Between the Lines» at La Casa Encendida, in Madrid (2002) and «All Included» at Conde Duque-Museum of Contemporary Art in Madrid and MADC / TEOR/éTica in San José (2004). Between 2003 and 2015, he collaborated closely with Rafael Levenfeld and Valentín Vallhonrat on projects at the Photographic Fund and the Museum of the University of Navarra, in Pamplona. Recent exhibitions curated by Olmo at the CGAC include those dedicated to Luis Gordillo (in collaboration with Juan Antonio Álvarez Reyes), «We Refugees» (with Piedad Solans), Stefan Brüggemann, René Heyvaert (with Anne Heyvaert), Cabrita Reis (with Susana González), Julião Sarmento (with David Barro), Antoni Socias, Javier Riera, and Louise Bourgeois.


 

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