Travel log Central America, October/November 2005, part I

All in all, with the benefit of hindsight, this was an interesting, illuminating trip. Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panamá were the only countries still missing on my list, apart from Bolivia, so the trip was also necessary. Even if these countries are “small” in terms of their size on the map and often neglected, they are nevertheless highly relevant for Latin America as a whole. I noticed both their similarities and their differences, their individuality and their common traits.

Different cultures

Panamá differs clearly from the other countries, as does Belize. In the latter instance, this is also due to the language—an English-based creole called Kriolis spoken in Belize—and the predominantly black population. There is also a certain phlegmatic calm frequently to be found in British ex-colonies, even in Gibraltar. Spanish-speaking people tend to be more agile, mas listo, simply quicker. These are really two different cultures.

Belize is linguistically isolated from its neighbors. Decent references or connections reaching into Belize do not exist; reaching out from Belize, however, they interestingly do exist. There is Joan Duran, who lives in México. He is currently involved in a large-scale exhibition series called “Landings”. In January 2006, “Landings 2” will start in Mérida, then continue to New York, among others, subsequently to the Dominican Republic, and finally even to the Museo de Arte y Diseño in San José, Costa Rica. It is an incredible feat to organize something like that from Central America! On the other hand, Duran told me about a talk he had with an industrialist from Nicaragua who co-founded the Central American Biennale some ten years ago, which takes place over and above the national biennales in a different country every other year. During this conversation, Duran asked if the industrialist would be willing to include him with Belize in the biennale cycle. As a reply he was told that Belize was Caribbean—which, of course, is not true; it belongs to Central America—and that he could participate if he would make an appropriate financial contribution. In that case it would be possible to show the biennale in Belize after twelve years or so. The Spanish-speaking people are reclusive toward Belize; they do not particularly like the country; the reason why is not quite clear. There just seems to be no real interest.

The benefits of teaming up

With regard to “politics”, I should mention the interesting role Virginia Pérez-Ratton has. She put Central America on the map, all of it. For many years, she has been devoting immeasurable, even exaggerated effort to networking and marketing, in particular for Costa Rica. It is remarkable that the Ticosand Ticas, as the Costarricenses call themselves, appear to have the most arrogant attitude of all Central Americans. This dates back to the times when Costa Rica was called the Switzerland of Central America. Those times are long past; at the moment, El Salvador seems to be leading. There is no reason whatsoever for Costa Rican self-conceit. Virginia, however, also has this tendency, by which she has marginalized her compatriots, in particular, from the neighbor countries. She acts in a downright dictatorial manner in many respects. There are all kinds of minor fallouts between the countries, petty jealousy, and the like. On the other hand, it turns out that Virginia’s doings have also led to a greater exchange between the individual countries, the Central American Biennale being a case in point. This is something that benefits all. But not all have understood yet that they have to close ranks on many more levels in order to become a common entity to be reckoned with. There are still too many particularistic interests, so it will take some time, if it ever happens at all, but in terms of culture and politics it would be reasonable to form a type of Central American confederation.

Virginia Pérez-Ratton (1950-2010), San José

Organizing my journeys

In each of the countries, I create a contact, someone to organize things for me. Such an approach is based on experience and works everywhere. In some countries, I meet and communicate directly with a number of people that I acquaint myself with. In this way I find out what is currently going on, what has happened before, what has changed, what I should look into, and so on. This is absolutely necessary. The person acting as my liaison on the one hand benefits from the prestige and reputation attached to this role; the drawback, on the other hand, is that he or she never knows exactly what I am looking for and will then offer me a full range of meetings with artists and show me dossiers and catalogs of many more. I will flick through it immediately and decide whom I’d like to meet; my contact then arranges everything. This basically “good job” can be double-edged, because the artists who were not included then ask: “Why did you introduce the others and not me?” For me, however this sort of introduction is preferable. If I realize that I had the wrong person, I will look for the right liaison for next time while I am still in the country. Certain names gradually crystallize over the years. I have talked to so many people by now that I usually manage to find the right person. And if I can’t assess the situation at all, as was the case in Central America, it would not be helpful in the least to have more contacts. That would just result in even more commotion and crowding, which would serve neither the cause nor my job.

Since I had already been to Costa Rica, I was not planning to go there this time. I also didn’t visit Guatemala, even though there are very interesting people there, Rosina Cazali and Regina Galindo, for example, strong women who drive matters forward. I will go there another time. My plans were to continue immediately to Nicaragua, only stopping over between flights in Costa Rica. We were already on the descent, when we were suddenly redirected to Panama for technical reasons. We had to stay there overnight, and everything was delayed the next day.

Nicaragua

So instead of arriving in Managua at noon, it was already late in the evening. I first contacted my liaison there, the artist Patricia Belli. She had gathered all artists for the afternoon and had had to cancel that meeting. Now they were sitting in a bar and waiting for me, but I unfortunately had to call it off because it had become too late. Patricia is a well-known artist and quite famous for her installations. On my last day—I stayed in each country for two to three nights—she asked me: “How do you like my art? Please be honest.” She was straightforward, so I told her that she could concentrate more and focus on thoroughly penetrating the formal realization of her ideas. She was happy about the sincere criticism. She wants to establish a foundation or a high-level academy of arts in Nicaragua. Her approach is highly professional; so is her spirit: we should consider supporting her.

Patricia Belli, Managua, 2017

Before this conversation, she took me on a drive. Nicaragua is like a mix of Cuba and Paraguay. It is also relatively poor and “Cuban” with regard to the Sandinism, to the faded sepia quality of everything. Managua is terrible, a nondescript city topographically defined by vast, rotting traffic circles and a small hill, where the statue of Sandino, the Nicaraguan revolutionary hero, stands like a silhouette. Significantly, an exhibition was currently being held, “Murales de Octubre”, to which various artists had been invited. They had reinterpreted the former Sandinist muralesand applied their own instead. The old ones had been removed in a rather perfunctory manner—who cares, really?—when they were no longer popular. It is typical of Nicaragua to handle matters like that. The people there are relatively grave; grim would be too strong a word. No one was particularly cheerful in Central America, which quite surprised me. When we were in a group of people, nobody laughed or goofed around, as I was used to elsewhere. Everyone was always serious, there was always this sense of being hermetically self-absorbed that I not only encountered in Nicaragua.

We visited a number of artists, among them Raúl Quintanilla at his home. He is about fifty and intellectual. As an artist, he is not unlike the Cuban Tonel whom I hope to meet in Vancouver in April 2006. Quintanilla is pleasant, clever, educated, and witty.

David Ocón is an older artist dealing with religious matters. Gabriel Sierra is very young; he has just started with photography. He might grow into an interesting artist. At the moment, he is on the path of self-exploration and rather harmless. What is strange, though: Everyone seems extremely self-confident. They do not shy from any comparison. That may be good for them, but it is not wholly beneficial to their art.

We also joined a discussion on the murales, which was at such a low level that listening turned into a tedious task. Two native curators, Alicia Zamora and Estafeno Questioli, had organized the exhibition. I met Alejandro Ramírez at the subsequent dinner. He is from Costa Rica, aggressively tattooed, and draped with objects. A closer look reveals that his tattoos are executed at an above average quality. He comes across like someone from the mara gangs of repatriated, exiled, formerly US-based Latinos who spread crime and brutality throughout all of Central America. Ramírez has adopted their behavior without being like them. He is a very likable and quick-witted person. I have to take a closer look at his work some time. He and Wilbert Carmona, whom I also met there, are into social interactions, smart and amusing. A pleasant encounter! The next day, Patricia Belli bestowed an overwhelming amount of CDs on me. I have a big stack of them right here, and that is only a part of it. CDs are not my type of media, anyway, and most of it is not exactly technically perfect.

El Salvador

From Nicaragua, I flew to San Salvador, where Ronald Morán, a very nice artist, picked me up from the airport and escorted me. We went for dinner first to get to know each other. On the next morning, I met Ricardo Poma, one of the major industrialists in Latin America and very sophisticated. He had his supermarkets designed by a Mexican architect. He also runs a notable foundation for all sorts of matters. He showed me his classical modernist collection of carefully selected works from Latin America. Together, we visited the current exhibitions of the MARTE Museum of Art (Museo de Arte de El Salvador), which was established one or two years ago. The manager is an artist who paints. He fills the house in a decent manner and is not unwise. It is a good place to accommodate art, it seems to be well visited, and it is beautifully situated. Ronald Morán joined us, which pleased Ricardo Poma, who, due to his social position, usually has no contact with “normal” people. All Central American countries are extremely conservative in terms of the social structure that appears to come straight from the 19thcentury.

Afterward, Ronald and I went to his studio. He is currently working on installations with interiors of kitchens and other rooms. He covers the furniture with a white fleece, giving them a very specific appearance. He does not know that others have also done this, so it works well for him. He then copies the objects in a large format. He paints well. It was at his studio that I met one of his colleagues, Walterio Iraheta, and for the first time witnessed an artist painting in my presence. Both of them are very casual and pleasant. Walterio does variations on Superman and works that are not unlike Liliana Porter’s. They are inventive and quite good, although the final kick is as yet missing.

We drove out to this place located on a hillside above the city. El Salvador is much wealthier than Nicaragua and the other Central American states, and the US-American influence is clearly perceptible. San Salvador is beautifully situated. It’s only about 25 to 35 kilometers, a forty-five-minute drive, to the seaside. The city is hilly and located at a high altitude, almost at 1000 meters, so it is not too hot. The light is beautiful there, and it is altogether a very pleasant place.

We went to an academic event at the Spanish Cultural Center in the evening. Similar locations exist in many places, usually with clever managers and decent programs in the style of the British Council. Both are high-quality institutions with integrative approaches for the local population. Rosina Cazali, a curator from Guatemala, was holding an art-historical lecture on 20thcentury art; it felt a bit like evening classes and dragged on.

The following visit at the private home of the artist José David Herrera was a lot of fun. The artist had used his girlfriend’s apartment as location for an exhibition; about seven artists had placed one or more objects somewhere in the small home. There were objects in the washing machine, in the kitchen sink, everywhere, down to the smallest detail; it was very cleverly and beautifully carried out. The exhibition lasted for three days. We went there again on the next day. A lady from the press was there, too. Art is usually only covered in the society pages in Central America; feuilletons or cultural pages do not exist. I saw the article on my departure: On the left side, a First Lady was seen at an habitual opening, and next to that, there was a picture from the apartment exhibition with a work by Walterio Iraheta. He had placed a Superman figurine in the kitchen sink that was puking all over it.

The day after that, Ronald and I went to see a very witty artist, Teyo Oriana, who made photos with an obsession for fat women. I thought they were good; fat women, tied up with measuring tape or unleashed. While one work on its own is rather anecdotic, three such photos would make a good presentation. Afterward, we met Rudolfo Molina, the curator of the next biennale to take place there. He had a bad day, or no ideas, I don’t know. He makes collages with and about architecture. I thought his art was very weak, but he has a say in his country.

  1. interesting to see how sure you are your connections in every country give you the right perspective and right selection of artists to visit to see the “REAL ART”. I guess one has to start somewhere and you certainly have lots of experience.

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