“Nobody is a prophet in his own land.” According to the Evangelists, these are the words pronounced by Jesus of Nazareth to condemn the lack of hospitality he received from the people of his hometown Nazareth. Often enough, the same holds true in the art world, too …
When I started my work in Latin America nearly 20 years ago, I witnessed a strong centrifugal pull away from Latin America and toward the centers in the United States—to New York, Los Angeles, even to Miami and Houston—as well as to Europe—to Paris and Madrid, increasingly to London, and recently to Berlin.
Paris was the mythically charged seat of European high culture, where the “flambeaux de la civilisation”, albeit slightly dimmed, were still being upheld; Madrid was chosen primarily for linguistic reasons, but otherwise hated as much as loved; London was hyped for a few years, taking the limelight from New York in its role as world art capital; and Berlin was suddenly attractive for its low prices. Lisbon no longer played a major role and hadn’t for a while, with the formerly colonized Brazilians bearing a somewhat derisive affection for the Portuguese capital.
Between Latin American countries, however, there was only scarce exchange and mobility; there was no such thing as a common feeling of identity. Quite to the contrary: there was but little awareness for what was going on beyond the own national borders—pretty much like in Europe. The own interests, as so often, took precedence over the interest in other people; distrust prevailed over fruitful cooperation. The idea of being stronger together apparently held no promise.
The situation in Latin America then is perhaps comparable to that in Africa now. I remember visiting a pan-African meeting in 2012, organized by Koyo Kouoh, the artistic director of the Raw Material Company, a contemporary art center in Dakar. Even among all those gathered heads and founders of new art spaces and alternative art centers, my offer to work together in the “global south”, exclusively on the southern hemisphere and thus beyond the northern hegemonies, met with friendly disinterest. Again, we see the same centrifugal forces at work as in Latin America, spinning all resources toward Europe and North America. Colonization revisited!
There were generally too few centers for presenting and disseminating art in Latin America, and those that existed were frequently in a poor state and definitely not state-of-the-art. Moreover, they depended far too heavily on the existing economic and political conditions. With regard to demand, there were neither enough collections nor collectors, neither private nor institutionalized ones, neither in quantitative nor in qualitative terms. Grosso modo, the domestic art scene simply did not seem to hold any attraction, so artists and art lovers—mostly members of the upper middle classes—sought their fortune elsewhere. This was certainly fostered by the universally applicable principle that the prophet is not honored in his own country—while everything coming from outside is valued all the more.
Isolated tamales in disparate worlds
Utter lack of mutual knowledge and cultural exchange also meant that art seldom transcended national borders. The interaction that did exist was marked by touristic, folkloristic, and exoticist stereotypes. To Brazilians of the white middle class from the wealthy regions of the country, the Amazon rainforest is at least as alien as to their European peers—and accordingly unalarmed are they by its progressive destruction. Much like “the Bavarian” is identified with the Oktoberfest, “Weißwurst” sausages, and lederhosen, “the Argentinean” is equated with meat-loving gaucho romanticism, and “the Peruvian” inevitably evokes the native pan flute player against the backdrop of Machu Picchu.
Ancient animosities between individual Latin American countries additionally have a share in heightening mutual alienation, such as in the war between Chile and Bolivia over the control of the saltpeter mines (Guerra del Pacifico) from 1879 to 1884, or in the latently persisting frictions between Chile and Argentina.
Particularly noteworthy to me is what I like to call “the isolated-tamal-syndrome”. The traveler through several Central American countries is likely to be told, over and again in each country on the itinerary, not only that the national recipe makes for outstandingly delicious tamales, but also that tamales as such are an indigenous dish invented in this particular country. The subtle hint that tamales actually have been encountered beyond the own country’s frontiers meets with authentic surprise bordering on incredulity. Horacio Castellanos Moya’s El asco is an enlightening as well as helpful read in this context and a substantial contribution to a deeper understanding not only of the Central American countries.
To make matters more complicated, traveling within Latin America was on the whole wearying and prohibitively expensive. Incomprehensibly, flights to Miami, Los Angeles, New York, or to a European destination used to be cheaper than to any of the neighbor countries within Latin America. Until very recently, it cost more to fly from Bogotá to Panamá, for instance, than from Bogotá directly to the United States or even to Europe.
The situation at the turn of the millennium was thus characterized mostly by mutual detachment, by political alienation at worst, and by cliché-ridden curiosity at best. Latin America existed as a conglomerate of disparate worlds and isolated cultures.