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Cold War Legacies Otherwise:

Latin American Art and Art History


in Colonial Times

by

Victor Manuel Rodriguez-Sarmiento

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment

of the

Requirements for the Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Supervised by

Professor Douglas Crimp

Department of Art and Art History


Arts, Sciences and Enginnering
School of Art and Sciences
University of Rochester
Rochester, New York
2009
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Curriculum Vitae

Víctor Manuel Rodríguez-Sarmiento was born in Bogotá, Colombia, on

December 12, 1959. After attending the Universidad Pedagogica Nacional and

studying a joint major in History and Sociology, he graduated with a Bachelor of

Arts degree in 1981. He became an art practitioner and a professor of Art, Art

History and History at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and the Universidad

Pedagógica Nacional. He received a British Council Fellowship to pursue graduate

studies in the History and Theory of Art (Twentieth Century) at Goldsmiths’

College, University of London, UK, where he was awarded a Master of Arts degree

in 1994. After returning to Colombia, he coordinated the Art Studio program at the

Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. In 1997, he received a Fulbright

Fellowship to undertake graduate studies in the Visual and Cultural Studies

Program of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Rochester.

He pursued his research in Latin American artistic practices and cultural studies

under the direction of Professor Douglas Crimp and received the Master of Arts

Degree in 2000. He received the Celeste Heughes Bishop Award from the

department in 2000. The University of Rochester and University of Cornell

awarded him a fellowship to attend the School of Theory and Criticism in 2000. He

teaches courses in cultural studies at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana and

participates in interdisciplinary cultural and artistic projects in Bogotá, Colombia.


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Acknowledgments

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Douglas Crimp for his

friendship, guidance and support in pursuing this project. Throughout my studies at

the Program of Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester and the

development of this project, Douglas was always enthusiastic, challenging and

supportive. He encouraged me to take risks and to truly apprehend the academic

and political significance of a cultural studies project which combines intellectual

work and political activism. I also want to thank Joan Saab and Daniel Reichman

for their interest and kindness as readers and committee members. The Program of

Visual and Cultural Studies and the University of Rochester gave me the best

academic, personal and financial conditions for carrying out my studies. I would

like to name Janet Wolff, Michael Ann Holly, David Rodowick, Kamran Ali, Lisa

Cartwright and Trevor Hope for the opportunities both personal and intellectual

they gave me to undertake my studies. I am also grateful for receiving the Fulbright

Fellowship, the Celeste Heughes Bishop Award, and the University of Cornell’s

School of Theory and Criticism Fellowship.

Antonio Caro, Beatriz González, and the Projéto Hélio Oiticica were always

generous, providing me with information and material to expand my study of the

link between artistic practices and cultural studies. Catherine Walsh and Santiago

Castro-Gómez gave me the opportunity to present this work at various conferences

devoted to Latin American Cultural Studies and to give courses at the Universidad
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Andina Simón Bolívar (Quito, Ecuador) and Universidad Javeriana (Bogotá,

Colombia). They gave me invaluable feedback on my research and the opportunity

to share my concerns with students and colleagues. During my studies in Rochester

Ami Herzog, Matt Reynolds, Leesa Phaneuf, Jonathan Finn, Marc Leger and

Daniel Palmer offered me their friendship. Thanks to Jimmy Weiskopf for helping

with his editorial expertise. Juan David Giraldo, Carolina Castro, Santiago Monge,

Marcela Rozo, Sanjay Fernandes, Jaime Cerón, Nadia Moreno, Catalina Rodríguez,

Mónica Páez, and Nicolás Consuegra were always willing to collaborate and help,

offering me their friendship, patience and encouragement. Victor Manuel and Olga

María, my parents, have always given me all the support I have needed. I owe to all

my family more than I could ever express. Maria Claudia Angel-Solano

accompanied me in developing my interest in the cultural field and becoming an art

practitioner and cultural activist. This project is dedicated to her memory.


v

Abstract

Art historians and social scientists have understood the political and cultural

struggles in Latin America during the sixties and seventies as an expression of the

binary context of the Cold War and as mainly based on utopian, humanist and

leftist models of cultural production. Drawing on the work of Arturo Escobar, I

consider these struggles as part of developmentalism: a discursive formation that

colonized African, Asian and Latin American realities after World War II, and gave

shape to the invention of the Third World. This project explores the way in which

conflictive dialogues among artists, art historians, and critics are representative of

the emergence of other forms and scenarios of power and resistance in Latin

America, different from the either/or approach hitherto used to understand the

period.

Considering the consolidation of studies of Latin American art to be a

strategy of this discourse, I examine a group of artistic projects which, by using

strategies of appropriation, mimicry and cultural anthropophagy, among others,

resisted developmentalism and the modernist rhetoric of art history. In so doing,

they anticipated feminist, non-national, non-modern, and queer strategies and

explored other forms of subjectivity which enable the colonized to live in

conditions of adversity.

In particular, I study the use of American formalism in Latin America in the

work of Beatriz González (Colombia, 1938) and the local use of conceptual art in
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the work of Antonio Caro (Colombia, 1950). I also investigate the Parangolé of

Hélio Oiticica (Brazil, 1937-1980), his revision of the Brazilian anthropophagite

tradition and his critique of the avant-garde rhetoric about bringing together art and

life. I also explore Eroticica: the queer world of lust, solidarity and affection

Oiticica produced in New York through the creation of environments, installations

and film projects. Finally, I move to the present to investigate the recent

development of cultural studies in the Andean Region, calling attention to some

dangers this project may face with regard to its understanding of local cultural

struggles about the global condition of modernity.


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Table of Contents

Curriculum Vitae ii
Acknowledgments iii
Abstract v
Table of Contents vii
List of Illustrations viii

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 The Artifices of Marble: Beatriz González’s


Mirrors and the Politics of Erasure 24

Chapter 2 The National Mummy: Antonio Caro’s Un-Art


and the Politics of Conceptualism 78

Chapter 3 Covering the Land of the Present:


Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolé 133

Chapter 4 Eroiticica 200

Chapter 5 “Thinking otherwise” otherwise: Towards a Critical


(Re) thinking and (De)colonization of Latin American
Cultural Practices. 255

Bibliography 304

Appendix 1 Imaginaries of Revolution:


Interview with Antonio Caro 323

Appendix 2 Public Interview 343

Appendix 3 Manifesto Antropófago 368

Appendix 4 Anthropophagus Manifesto 374

Appendix 5 Illustrations 379


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List of Illustrations

0.1 Pedro Manrique-Figueroa. Exhibition Catalogue. 1996. 379

0.2 Pedro Manrique-Figueroa, La vaca sagrada, collage,


15 x 12 cm., 1973. 379

0.3 Joaquín Torres-García, Upside-down Map, ink on paper, 1943. 380

0.4 Pedro Manrique-Figueroa, San Benito o mame nene que yo ta


mame, collage, 15 x 12 cm., 1972. 380

0.5 Cover Prisma magazine. 1957. 381

0.6 Arnold Bode, Christian Sörenson, and Alfred Barr in the IKA
Offices during the jury deliberation for the Third Bienal
Americana de Arte (Kaiser), 1996, Córdoba published
in Andrea Giunta, Avant-garde, Internationalism, and Politics:
Argentine Art in the Sixties (Durham & London: Duke
University Press, 2007), p. 225. 381

1.1 Beatriz González, La última mesa [The Last Table], industrial


enamel on a metal surface assembled on a metal table,
105 205 x 75 cm., 1970. 382

1.2 Beatriz González, Naturaleza casi muerta


[Almost-Morte Nature], industrial enamel on a metal surface
assembled on a metal bed, 125 x 125 x 95 cm., 1970. 382

1.3 Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Rendition of Breda,


oil on canvas, 307 x 367 cm., 1634-1635. 383

1.4 Beatriz González, Rendición de Breda 4 (detail), oil on canvas,


1962. 383

1.5 Jan Vermeer, The Lacemaker, oil on canvas transferred to panel,


23.9 x 20.5 cm. 1669-1670. 384

1.6 Beatriz González, Encajera [The Lacemaker], oil on canvas,


100 x 70 cm., 1963. 384

1.7 Beatriz González, Encajera Almanaque Pielroja


[The Redskin Calendar Lacemaker], oil on canvas,
100 x 85 cm., 1964. 385
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1.8 Beatriz González, Encajera Negativa [The Inverted Encajera],


oil on canvas, 100 x 85 cm., 1964. 385

1.9 Pielroja [Redskin] Calendar. 386

1.10 Pielroja [Redskin] Calendar. 386

1.11 Beatriz González, Jackeline Oasis, serigraphy on paper,


50 x 50 cm., 1975. 387

1.12 Beatriz González, África Adiós [Africa, Goodbye], oil on canvas,


120 x 100 cm., 1968. 387

1.13 Beatriz González, La Reina Isabel se pasea por el Puente de


Boyacá [Queen Elizabeth on an outing to the Boyacá Bridge],
oil on canvas, 100 x 120 cm., 1968. 387

1.14 Beatriz González, Los suicidas del Sisga [The Sisga Suicides],
oil on canvas, 100 x 85 cm., 1965. 388

1.14a Newpaper picture, El Tiempo, 1965. 388

1.15 Beatriz González, Peinador Gracia Plena [Gratia Plena


Vanity Table], industrial enamel on a metal sheet assembled on a
wooden vanity table, 150 x 150 x 38 cm., 1971. 389

1.16 Raphael, The Virgin of the Chair, oil on panel, 71 cm. diameter.,
ca. 1513. 389

1.17 Beatriz González, El baño turco artífices del mármol [The Turkish
Bath Marble’s Artifices], industrial enamel on a metal sheet
assembled on a wooden table, 137 x 121 x 155 cm., 1974. 390

1.18 Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Turkish Bath,


oil on canvas on wood, 108 x 110 cm., 1862. 390

1.19 Beatriz González, Nací en Florencia y tenía veintiseis años


cuando mi retrato fue pintado: esta frase pronunciada en voz
dulce y baja [I was Born in Florence and I was 26 Years Old
when My Portrait was Painted: This Sentence Pronounced in a
Sweet and Low Voice], enamel on a metal sheet assembled on a
wooden coat-stand, 200 x 90 x 24 cm., 1974. 391

1.20 Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa, oil on poplar, 77 x 53 cm.,


ca. 1503-1506. 391
x

2.1 Bernardo Salcedo, Lo que Dante nunca supo (Beatriz amaba el


control de la natalidad) [What Dante Never Knew:
Beatrice Loved Birth Control], assemblage on a wooden box,
122 x 80 x 50 cm., 1966. 392

2.2 Espacios Ambientales Exhibition Invite. 393

2.3 Alvaro Barrios in a newspaper picture denouncing the attack


against the exhibition. 393

2.4 Antonio Caro, Amigos y Amigas: Homenaje tardío de sus


amigos y amigas de Zipaquirá, Manaure y Galerazamba
(Cabeza de sal) [Friends: Late Homage to Your Friends from
Zipaquirá, Manaure y Galerazamba (Head of Salt)],
assemblage, 1970. 394

2.5 Antonio Caro, Defienda su talento [Defend Your Talent], 1973. 395

2.6 Antonio Caro, Maíz, drawings on the gallery’s walls, 1973. 395

2.7 Antonio Caro, Maíz, serigraphy, 56,3 x 75,9 cm., from 1973. 395

2.8 Antonio Caro, Colombia-Cocacola, enamel on a metal sheet,


70 x 100 cm., 1976. 396

2.9 Antonio Caro, Todo está muy Caro [Everything is so Caro


(expensive)], poster, 102 x 81.5 cm., 1978. 396

2.10 Antonio Caro, Proyecto 500 [Project500], various formats, 1992. 396

2.11 Antonio Caro, Homenaje a Manuel Quintín Lame [Homage to


Manuel Quintín Lame], various formats, from 1972. 397

2.12 Antonio Caro, Homenaje a Manuel Quintín Lame [Homage to


Manuel Quintín Lame], various formats, from 1972. 397

3.1 Nildo de Mangueira with Parangolé P4, Cape 1, 1964. 398

3.2 Poster and album cover of Opinião 64. 399

3.3 Inauguration of the Parangolé in Opinião 65 showing Cape 1


(1964) at the Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, 1965. 399
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3.4 Nildo de Malgueira with a component of P08 Parangolé,


Tenda 01during the exhibition Opinião 65 at Museu de Arte
Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, 1965. 400

3.5 Hélio Oiticica, P 03 Parangolé Tenda 01, 1964. 400

3.6 Hélio Oiticica, Cosmococa 4 NOCAGIONS, installation,


Centro de Arte Hélio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro, 2002. 401

3.7 Hélio Oiticica, B 15 Bólide vidro 04 “Terra”


[B 15 Glass Bólide, 04 “Earth”], 1964. 402

3.8 Hélio Oiticica, B13 Bólide caixa 10 [B 13 Box Bólide 10], 1964. 402

3.9 Hélio Oiticica, Tropicália Penetrables PN2 e PN3, 1967. 403

3.10 Hélio Oiticica, Eden Penetrables, 1969. 403

3.11 Cover. Revista de Antropofagia, 1928. 404

3.12 Cover. Mario de Andrade, Macunaima, 1928. 404

3.13 Tarsila De Amaral, Abaporu, oil on canvas, 85 x 75 cm., 1928. 405

3.14 Hans Staden, Tupinamba portrayed in cannibalistic feast,


in Hans Staden's True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity
in Brazil, trans. and ed. Neil L. Whitehead and Michael Harbsmeier
(Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2008). 405

3. 15 Peformances of the Parangolé in Opinião 65 at the Museo de


Arte Moderna. Rio de Janeiro, 1965. 406

3.15a Peformances of the Parangolé in Opinião 65 at the Museo de


Arte Moderna. Rio de Janeiro, 1965. 406

3.16 Hélio Oiticica, Parangolé, Nildo de Mangueira with P 15


Cape 11, I Embody Revolt, 1967. 407

3.17 Hélio Oiticica, Parangolé, Nildo de Mangueira with P 14


Cape 1, Of Adversity We Live! 1967. 408

3.18 Johan Froschauer, Amerikaner, in Mundus Novus,


Ausburgh, 1505. 409

4.1 Helio Oiticica, Grande Núcleo [Grand Nucleus], 1960-66. 410


xii

4.2 Hélio Oiticica, B 17 Bólide vidro 05 Homenagem a Mondrian


[B 17 Glass Bolide 05 Homage to Mondrian], 1965. 410

4.3 Hélio Oiticica, CC5 Hendrix-War (detail), installation, 1973. 411

4.4 Luis Fernando Guimarães with Parangolé Cape 2, M’Way Ke,


New York, 1972. 412

4.5 Romero with Parangolé, Cape 25, New York, 1972. 412

4.6 Exhibition Catalogue Cover of Information, New York, 1970. 413

4.7 Oiticica’s statement. Exhibition Catalogue Information,


New York, 1970. 413

4.8 Hélio Oiticica, Whitechapel Experience, Whitechapel Gallery,


London, 1969. 414

4.9 Tropicalist Album Covers. 415

4.10 Hélio Oiticica, Homenagem a Cara de Cavalo Bólide Caixa 18


[Homage to Horse-Face Box Bolide 18], 1966. 416

4.11 Hélio Oiticica, Seja marginal, seja herói


[Be marginal, be a heroe], 1968. 416

4.12 Helio Oiticica in his Babylonests, New York, 1973. 417

4.13 Hélio Oiticica, Babylonests, 1974. 417

4.14 Oiticica’s friends in his Babylonests, New York, 1971. 418

4.15 Hélio Oiticica, Babylonests, 1970-1974. 419

4.16 Hélio Oiticica’s notebook Nitro Benzol & Black Linoleum, 1969. 420

4.17 Hélio Oiticica’s notebook Boys and Men, 1970. 420

4.18 Hélio Oiticica’s notebook Babylonests, 1971. 421

4.19 Hélio Oiticica’s notebook Jorge Brasil [Brazil Jorge], 1971. 421

4.20 Hélio Oiticica’s notebook Neyrótika, 1973. 422

4.21 Hélio Oiticica, Neyrótika, 1973. 423


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4.22 Hélio Oiticica, Neyrótika, 1973. 423

4.23 Hélio Oiticica, Neyrótika, 1973. 423

4.24 Hélio Oiticica, Neyrótika, 1973. 424

4.25 Hélio Oiticica’s letter to Torquato Neto, 1971. 425

4.26 Mario Montez, Christiny Nazareth and Antonio Días in


Agrippina e Roma Manhattan, 1972. 425

4.27 Christiny Nazareth in Hélio Oiticica, Agrippina e


Roma-Manhattan, 1972. 426

4.28 Mario Montez and Antonio Días in Hélio Oiticica,


Agrippina e Roma Manhattan, 1972. 426

4.29 Mario Montez and Antonio Días in Hélio Oiticica,


Agrippina e Roma Manhattan, 1972. 426

4.30 Photography of Mario Montez as Carmen Miranda, 1971. 427

4.31 Back of photography of Mario Montez as


Carmen Miranda, 1971. 427

4.32 Hélio Oiticica, CC1 Trashicapes, installation, 1973. 428

4.33 Hélio Oiticica, CC3 Maileryn, installation, 1973. 428

5.1 Exhibition view of Un caballero no se sienta así


[A Knight Does Not Sit that Way], Galería Santa Fe,
Bogotá, Colombia, 2003. 429

5.2 Luis Caballero, untitled, charcoal on paper, 160x120 cm., 1978.430

5.3 Luis Caballero, untitled, charcoal on paper, 160x120 cm., 1978.430

5.4 Luis Caballero, untitled, charcoal on paper, 160x120 cm., 1978.430

5.5 Luis Caballero, Gran Telón [Great Curtain], oil on canvas,


470 x 580 cm., 1990. 431

5.6 Luis Caballero drawing sketches for the Gran Telón


[Great Curtain], 1990. 431
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5.7 Video still from Luis Caballero’s personal videos.


Luis Caballero 1990, Galería Garcés Velázquez, Bogotá, 1990. 432

5.8 Photos of young men violently murdered in Bogotá. Published


in El Espacio, 1990. Luis Caballero’s personal archive. 432

5.9 Luis Caballero, untitled, charcoal on paper, 105 x 75 cm., 1986. 433

5.10 Reproduction of a Luis Caballero’s drawing. Offset print.


100 x 70 cm., 1986. 433

5.11 Poster within a domestic environment, Bogotá, 2003. 433

5.12 Elias Heim, Dotación para museos en vías de extinción


[Equipment for Museums in Extinction], sculpture,
120 x 70 x 50 cm., 2003. 434

5.13 Miguel Ángel Rojas, Toho, photography and semen,


21 x 25 cm., 1979. 434

5.14 Juan Mejia’s collection of works produced in collaboration


with Wilson Díaz. 434

5.15 Exhibition view from Yo no soy esa I am not she,


Galería Santa Fe, 2005. 435

5.16 Miguel Ángel Rojas Serie Faenza (detail), 1979-2003. 436

5.17 Miguel Ángel Rojas, Sobre porcelana [On porcelain] (detail)


0,5 x 0,5 cm., 1979-2003. 437

5.18 Pictures of the most famous drag queens from Bogotá,


exhibited in Yo no soy esa. 438

5.19 Costume and crown brought to the exhibition by a drag queen. 438

5.20 Exhibition view from Yo no soy esa I am not she,


Galería Santa Fe, 2005. 439
1

Introduction

In 1996, a group of Colombian artists organized an exhibition at the Santa Fé

Gallery in Bogotá to pay homage to Pedro Manrique-Figueroa, the precursor of

collage in Colombia.1 (Fig. 0.1) While none of Manrique-Figueroa’s work was

present, the exhibition showed artworks based on his collages as well as objects

and historical documents about his life and the intellectual atmosphere that

surrounded him. On display were some of his shoes, clothes, personal belongings,

and favorite books: The Communist Manifesto, Psychology of the Masses, The Joy

of Life, Sigmund Freud: His Work and His Mind, and How to Read Donald Duck:

Imperialist Ideology and the Disney Comic. Although Manrique-Figueroa’s name

and collages had already appeared in journals such as Historia Crítica2 and

Valdéz,3 he was relatively unknown and his name was all but forgotten by art

history.

In the absence of his work, his personal possessions and the local character

of his collages drew the attention of journalists, artists, and art historians who, in

turn, came up with contradictory interpretations of his work. For some, Manrique-

Figueroa was the quintessential Latin American artist. He seemed to be the solution

to the modernist concern with the originality and autochthonous character of Latin
1
Lucas Ospina, Bernardo Ortiz, and François Bucher initially organized the retrieval of Pedro
Manrique Figueroa from oblivion. Most of Pedro Manrique’s accounts are from Lucas Ospina,
Exposición Homenaje a Pedro Manrique Figueroa: El Precursor del Collage en Colombia (Bogotá:
Galería Santa Fé /IDCT, 1996).
2
Historia Crítica 11 (July-December 1995), 4, 19, 20, 36, 37, 38, 52, 62, 78, 80, 93.
3
Valdéz 1 (1995), 31-32.
2

American art. Proof of this was found in the fact that Manrique-Figueroa was

producing collages long before any other Latin American artist and reinventing

Surrealism in line with local concerns. In his collages, Manrique-Figueroa, in a

surrealist fashion, juxtaposed the beautiful and the ugly, the brilliant and the stupid,

the normal and the repugnant, the sacred and the pagan, while proclaiming “All

rubbish is writing,” an echo of Artaud’s famous saying: “All writing is rubbish.”4

(Fig. 0.2) He appeared to be one of the many sources of the fascination with Latin

America of Artaud, Bataille, Métraux, and Rivet. Manrique-Figueroa gives an

endless twist to Joaquín Torres-García’s inverted map of Latin America. (Fig. 03)

Art historians used Manrique-Figueroa as a pretext to apply their methods,

attempting to prove his existence and artistic originality and thereby secure a place

for him in the history of Latin American art. Were these works—"trimmings" as he

lovingly called them—his original collages? His work was found scattered among

his belongings and the places where he had lived and worked. Some were

mysteriously inserted into books in public and private libraries. Others were

mingled with his clothes, and some were found in the archives of galleries and

cultural institutions under the label of “plagiarism.” He never signed his work, but

his style was unmistakable. Further investigations discovered his unique technique

of cutting and pasting. Beyond his authorial originality, the question remained:

4
Antonin Artaud, The Peyote Dance (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1995), p. 105.
3

Were these collages stylistically original? Were they authentic avant-garde art and

autochthonous Latin American cultural expressions?

The issue of originality raised many questions and debates. Martina

Diatribhe, one of Latin America’s most important art historians, briefly quoted

Pedro Manrique-Figueroa in her series of lectures about Latin American and

Colombian art in The National Library in Bogotá between 1974 and 1978. She

mentioned him to explain the modernist distinctions between high art and popular

culture, avant-garde and kitsch, international and provincial culture. She argued

that, sadly, the old-fashioned European avant-garde and German kitsch had an

unfortunate influence on his work; therefore, he was not worthy of commentary.

She stated that he was a typical example of what the Argentinean critic Marta Traba

called the mistakes of the Colombian superstructure, which, “fascinated by

melodrama, baroque, excess and kitsch, was condemned to underdevelopment and

third world-ism.”5 Consequently, Manrique-Figueroa was doomed to anonymity by

the universalistic and formalist pretensions of modernist Latin American art

history.

His career as an artist was persistently marked by failure and frustration. His

work was rejected seven times by the Colombian National Artists’ Salon. He

participated in very few group exhibitions and, in fact, the homage paid to him in

1996 at the Santa Fe Gallery was his first solo exhibition, though, unfortunately,

5
Marta Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González (Bogotá: Museo de Arte Moderno, 1977), p. 40.
4

none of his work was shown. He provoked a scandal at the Salon of 1968 when, to

protest Manrique-Figueroa’s exclusion, Alvaro Barrios decided to cover his own

work. The most credible version of the reasons for his rejection came from Barrios

himself, who claimed that the person in charge of receiving submissions to the

Salon thought of Manrique-Figueroa’s work as an unfortunate joke. She filed it

under her desk and forgot about it. She only found it on the day the jury was

making its final decisions, but the jury categorically rejected his work.

Accounts of Manrique-Figueroa’s life are contradictory. They are the result

of recent investigations and interviews with people who knew him, shared his

political concerns, and witnessed his misfortunes. According to the parish records

of the church of Choachí, Cundinamarca, a small town close to Bogotá, Pedro

Manrique-Figueroa was born on February 27, 1929. We know, from the same

records, that he helped the priest with various tasks but was not a sacristan, as some

art historians state. We also know with absolute certainty that he appeared on the

list of “boys” working for the Trolley Company in Bogotá. One of his various jobs

was that of cutting and pasting timetables and public announcements at the station.

Some art historians now argue that this was the source of his formal and visual

concerns and may well explain his fascination with and accuracy in making

collages.

His reasons for going to Bogotá remain obscure. The assassination of Jorge

Eliécer Gaitán, a popular candidate for the Presidential elections of 1948, provoked
5

a riot in the city. People from lower-class barrios took to the streets, destroying

stores and stealing goods. Soon, downtown Bogotá was in flames. With the

destruction of the trolleys, Pedro Manrique-Figueroa lost his job and was forced to

find a new way to make a living. He set up a stand in San Victorino, a popular flea

market in downtown Bogotá, where he sold religious cards. During his free time,

he cut pieces of religious pictures out of the Bible. He placed everything in a

rectangular format, a format he would maintain throughout his career. He had to

abandon this job when his stand was set on fire. Some historians have argued that

the culprits were members of “Tradition, Family and Property,” an extreme right-

wing movement, who were offended by Manrique-Figueroa’s vernacular use of

religious images.

He also worked as a graphic designer for the Communist Party. He created a

promotional card for the National Congress in Cucuta in 1973, which juxtaposed a

swastika with a picture of the people attending the meeting. (Fig. 0.4) For this, he

was immediately fired. On lonely rambles through the streets, Manrique-Figueroa

realized that his “trimmings” were only causing him problems and did not relate to

any ideology. Like a jealous lover, they were isolating him from his time, place,

and friends. He was 44 years old and his sole possessions were a small group of

cards, just papers that any wind could blow away. To avoid additional political

problems and fit into the demands of art critics and historians, Manrique-Figueroa

decided to become an artist.


6

For some, Manrique-Figueroa was a fabrication, a montage of true and false

stories and images which mimicked art history and revealed its “facies

hippocratica.” As a fraud, an invention, Manrique-Figueroa provoked contradictory

responses. In Semana No. 726, April 1996, Eduardo Serrano, curator of the

Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá, attacked the Santa Fe Gallery homage by

stating: “Pedro Manrique-Figueroa is a fake, he is not an artist, and he did not

exist.” Almost everyone knew this. However, for those who knew it, the homage

was a collaborative project that mimicked the rhetoric of Latin American art

history, bringing to light its obsessive emphasis on connoisseurship, authorship,

and authenticity and its links to modernist discourse. Latin American art history

persistently insisted on linking Latin American art to national identity and culture,

turning art practices into forms of social and textual affiliation that attempted to

anchor them to the linear time of modernity. Yet, during the period there were also

artistic practices that challenged the emergence and consolidation of modernist

discourse by exploring other forms of linking art, politics, and local cultures.

Manrique-Figueroa was a performance which revealed how Latin American art

history participated in the creation of narratives for the Latin American nation and

art and the ways in which those narratives were simultaneously threatened by local

and disjunctive forms of cultural signification. It was a metaphor of the ways in

which national texts are continuously constructed and, at the same time, disrupted

by the repeated emergence of local/partial accounts which challenge the validity of


7

establishment notions of culture and modernity’s pretension of being truly

universal.

In the same way that the performance which featured Pedro Manrique-

Figueroa exposes concerns about the politics of modernist art history and vindicates

local strategies to resist it, this dissertation is about the poetics and politics of Latin

American art history and its role in the emergence and consolidation of the

developmentalist discourse that governed relations between the U.S. and Latin

America after World War II. Following in the footsteps of the Pedro Manrique-

Figueroa project, it will call attention to the configurations of power and knowledge

that gave shape to a specifically Latin American art history during the Cold War. I

will contrast it with local projects which, by mimicking the discourse of that

discipline and appropriating Western languages of art, created new forms of

struggle against developmentalism, modernist rhetoric, and the art institution in

Latin America.

During the Cold War, Latin American nations witnessed the emergence of

the field of art with its related institutions, professions, and practices. Latin

American art history took shape during the sixties and seventies in the bipolar

context of the Cold War. Gerardo Mosquera has argued that its rhetoric was marked

by the “key concepts of ‘resistance,’ ‘socialization,’ ‘anti-colonialism,’ and


8

‘revolution,’ and strongly influenced by the political climate of the Cold War.”6 It

amounted, he believes, to a “boom” of Latin American critics “that involved such

great names as Juan Acha, Aracy Amaral, Damián Bayón, Fermín Fèvre, Néstor

García Canclini, Mirko Lauer, Mario Pedrosa, Marta Traba, and others who

responded to Acha’s plea for the production of theories."7 This “boom” marked the

end of the literary or poetic approach which had dominated art criticism up to then

and the emergence of a new discipline. Mosquera considers Marta Traba’s La

Pintura Nueva en América Latina to be crucial, since it was the first book “to

approach Latin American art in a global manner, attempting to give the subject

some conceptual unity.”8

Latin American art history during the sixties and seventies, he argues, was

based on social theories and an affirmative notion of Latin American identity which

gave extreme importance to the ideological character of art. Its backbone was a

strong opposition to new forms of colonialism, based on Marxist theory, a social

approach to art, and an examination of the cultural and historical dependency of

Latin America. For him, the Cuban Revolution, American support for dictatorial

regimes, and doubts about developmentalism gave art history a radical character

6
Gerardo Mosquera, Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America
(London: INIVA, 1995), p. 10.
7
Mosquera, Beyond the Fantastic, p. 10.
8
Mosquera, Beyond the Fantastic, p. 10.
9

and made it part of the “Sixties Spirit”: a utopian agenda that saw Latin America as

“the forum for every hope and every failure.”9

In the catalogue of the exhibition Conceptualism: Points of Origin: 1960-

1980, held at the Queens Museum of Art in 1999, Mari Carmen Ramírez refers to

this oppositional character when she speaks of conceptualism in Latin American art

during the sixties and seventies. Ramírez draws attention to the misunderstandings

of conceptualism caused by the "Cold War legacy, of which Marta Traba’s biased

‘thesis of resistance’ is representative,"10 that is, Traba’s opposition to foreign

influences, especially from the United States. She states: “From the very beginning,

Traba zealously denounced conceptual practices as ‘imported fads’ whose

emergence revealed the degree to which a sector of our artists had ‘surrendered’ to

North American cultural imperialism.”11 In the chapter “La Resistencia”

[Resistance] of her book Dos Décadas Vulnerables en la Artes Plásticas

Latinoamericanas [Two Vulnerable Decades in Latin American Art], Traba

denounced “American aesthetic colonialism,” which, during the sixties, annihilated

movements like Mexican Muralism. She argued that artists such as Oswaldo

Guayasamín (Ecuador, 1919), Fernando de Szyszlo (Peru, 1925), and Alejandro

Obregón (Colombia, 1928) “resisted” American cultural imperialism by creating

9
Mosquera, Beyond the Fantastic, p. 11.
10
Mari Carmen Ramírez, “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity: Conceptualism in Latin America,
1960-1980,” in Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin: 1950s-1980s (New York: Queens Museum
of Art, 1999), p. 54.
11
Ramírez, p. 54. She refers to Marta Traba, Dos Décadas Vulnerables en las Artes Plásticas
Latinoamericanas (México: Siglo XXI Editores, 1973), p. 87-153.
10

indigenous images that reflected the cultural and social reality of Latin America.

She called for an authentic modern Latin American art that would resist bourgeois,

imperialist trends. Ramírez questions Traba’s “passionate claims for continental

autonomy,” in the light of the end of the Cold War and new trends in critical

thinking.

Shifra Goldman also gives importance to a group of Latin American

thinkers who, in the same period, combined rigorous social history with a Marxist

approach:

Marta Traba became the most important critic promoting modern art

in South America from the 1960s until her premature death in 1983 .

. . She vehemently attacked social realism, and opted to support a

uniquely Latin American art which would not mimic that of U.S.

materialism and false values. On the whole, however, her criticism,

while of high caliber and much respected in Latin America, was

definitely idiosyncratic.12

By stressing Traba’s rejection of socialist realism and her promotion of modern

art—in fact, Traba co-founded the Museum of Modern Art in Bogotá in 1964—

Goldman subtly suggests that, despite Traba’s support for an indigenous Latin

American art and her opposition to U.S. materialism, her criticism was somehow

contradictory. Both Ramírez and Goldman seem to identify a sort of contradiction

12
Shifra Goldman, Dimensions of the Americas (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994),
p.11. She also refers to Dos Décadas Vulnerables en las Artes Plásticas Latinoamericanas.
11

in the bipolar approach used by Mosquera to understand the emergence of Latin

American art history as being fully aligned with the political left.

Arturo Escobar has argued that instead of approaching these cultural

struggles as the results of the bipolar context of the Cold War, with the political left

at one pole and the right at the other, we should understand them as conflicts that

constituted and were constituted by developmentalism: a discursive regime that

invented the “Third World” and colonized Asian, African, and Latin American

realities. Building on the ideas of Valentin Y. Mudimbe,13 Timothy Mitchell,14 and

James Clifford,15 Escobar argues that developmentalism was an academic,

economic and military investment which produced a world order divided into

developed and underdeveloped countries, leaving behind the European civilizing

mission and reflecting the divergences between the two power blocs led by the U.S.

and the U.S.S.R. He maintains that: “Through the creation of a domain of thought

and action, development achieved the status of certainty in the social imaginary and

made the invention of the Third World possible.”16 As developmentalism was

indisputable and at the very basis of the political and social goals of both power

blocs, for some being developed meant taking the route of socialism, while for

others it meant raising the level of the lower classes and consolidating a liberal

democracy.
13
Valentin Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).
14
Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
15
James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988).
16
Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World
(Princeton: PUP, 1995), p. 5, 10.
12

Developmentalism followed modernity’s regime of order and truth which

divided the world into two: “a realm of mere representations and a realm of the

‘real’; into exhibitions and an external reality; into an order of mere models,

descriptions or copies, and an order of the original.”17 In line with these precepts,

developmentalism depicted the Third World as a copy attempting to become an

original, thus justifying its own configuration of power and knowledge.

Developmentalism was based on the assumption that all the peoples of the world

could reach development. However, in order to exercise its disciplinary power, this

discourse needed to invent an “other;” that is, it had to explain why not everyone

was able to achieve it. Pervading the international affairs of the two power blocs

and all social sectors from the left to the right in the developed and underdeveloped

countries, its purpose “was quite ambitious: to duplicate the world based on the

image of the developed world at the time.”18 It had such an influence on the

collective imagination, Escobar agues, that people came to think of themselves as

“developed” or “underdeveloped.”19

In Latin America, while the left promoted socialism by organizing political

parties and labor unions, promoting intellectual and artistic trends, and supporting

armed movements diversely sponsored by the USSR, U.S. policies combined

diverse strategies grouped under the rubric of modernization policies. In 1948,

17
Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, p. 8.
18
Escobar, Encountering Development, p. 8.
19
Escobar, Encountering Development, p. 8.
13

during his inaugural speech as President of the United States, Harry Truman

announced what would be American international policy towards “poor countries:”

More than half the people of the world are living in conditions

approaching misery. Their food is inadequate; they are victims of

disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty

is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous

areas. For the first time in history, humanity possesses the

knowledge and skill to relieve the suffering of these people . . . I

believe that we should make available to peace-loving peoples the

benefits of our store of technical knowledge in order to help them

realize their aspirations for a better life . . . What we envisage is a

program of development based on concepts of democratic fair

dealing . . . Greater production is the key to prosperity and peace.

And the key to greater production is a wider and more vigorous

application of modern scientific and technical knowledge.20

Modernization policies focused on the need for an entire transformation that

would enable the Latin American countries to achieve development. In the social

and economic fields, U.S. developmentalism attempted to harmonize Latin

American economies with the demands of North-Atlantic economies, to raise the

educational level of the poor and establish the democratic values of American

20
Quoted by Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development, p. 3.
14

society, even if that included promotion of military dictatorships or populist

governments. A growing interest in “poor countries” after World War II resulted in

academic studies of underdevelopment, under the assumption that an understanding

of its causes would help to strengthen the economies of Latin America and check

the Communist threat. Like earlier approaches, modernization theory argued that a

preliminary period of tutelage was necessary, which would end with the

transformation of third-world countries into civilized and independent societies. As

history was regarded as linear, the underdevelopment of Latin America was

thought to be the result of traditional colonialism rather than indirect forms of it

which emerged during the Cold War. In particular, modernization emphasized the

establishment of local industries to provide pre-manufactured natural resources for

North-Atlantic industries and allow the expansion of the exchange of finished

goods provided by developed economies, while keeping an interdependent system

of international labor division with clear distinctions between developed and

underdeveloped economies. In the social field, it contemplated the establishment of

institutions and programs devoted to eradicating illiteracy and training a cheap

labor force, believing that education would transform a Latin American population

seen as handicapped by superstition, ignorance, and Catholicism.

The implementation of modernization theories in the economic and social

fields throughout Latin America was accompanied by the materialization of

modernist art institutions and practices. During the early Cold War period,
15

museums of modern art were enthusiastically founded in Latin America’s major

cities. To name a few, the Museum of Modern Art of Buenos Aires (MAMBA) was

established in 1956, the Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro in 1948, and the

Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá in 1958 (not inaugurated until 1964), among

others. Of particular interest, the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo, founded in

1954, was inspired by the New York Museum of Modern Art and received

financial and technical support from Nelson Rockefeller.

In line with American universities, new art schools were actively created or

transformed in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and México, displacing the French

model of Beaux Arts academies which had dominated the practice of art education

since the nineteenth century. Among others, it is worth mentioning the creation of

the Art School of Universidad de los Andes in Bogota in 1955, the Art School of

Mexico in 1966, the integration of the Fine Arts School of Rio de Janeiro—

founded in 1931—with the University of Rio de Janeiro in 1965, and the creation

of the Art School of Chile in May 1959, under the sponsorship and guidance of

Yale University.

Art criticism became a priority within the field of art and a number of

publications devoted to art criticism emerged between 1955 and 1965. Among

others, there were Ver y estimar [See and Appraise] in Argentina, directed by Jorge

Romero Brest; Prisma [Prism] in Colombia, directed by Marta Traba; (Fig. 0.5)

and Plástica [Plastic], also in Colombia, directed by Judith Márquez. The


16

emergence of the field also included an abundant exchange among scholars and

critics from the U.S. and Latin American countries. Promising art critics from Latin

America paid several visits to major centers of art in the U.S., sponsored by the

Fulbright Program established in 1946. Likewise, important critics like Clement

Greenberg, Alfred Barr, and Harold Rosenberg, among other prominent American

scholars in the field of arts, were invited several times to lecture in Latin America

and to be judges at Salons or Biennales of visual arts in Latin America.21 (Fig. 0.6)

My main argument is that the consolidation of the field of art, with all its

institutions and practices, and the emergence of art history as a discipline in Latin

America during the Cold War, might be seen as an integral part of

developmentalism. The consolidation of the field of art based on modernist values

and practices was the cultural counterpart of modernization theories and practices

in the economic and social fields. Modernist Latin American art history reflected

the strategy of developmentalism insofar as it created representations that portrayed

Latin American culture as the utopia of an alternative modernity, but as an

underdeveloped one, relegating it to inferiority by the modernist polarities of

original and copy, avant-garde and kitsch, cultivated and primitive, universal and

local, international and provincial. For instance, Traba’s pleas for resisting foreign

influences and for promoting indigenous cultural values for Latin America to
21
Clement Greenberg participated as a judge of the IDTD (Institute Torcuato Di Tella) and
International Prize Competition in1964. Alfred Barr was member of a team of judges in 1966. The
debates surrounding Greenberg’s and Barr’s insights regarding the competitions are explored in
detail in Andrea Giunta, Avant-Garde, Internationalism and Politics (Durham & London: Duke
University Press, 2007).
17

become modern were combined with her appreciation of Latin America as a culture

fascinated with “the baroque, excess, melodrama and kitsch,” condemned to third-

worldism. Thus, modernist Latin American art history turned Latin America into

both the subject and object of a modernist discourse which helped art history both

define itself and create its cultural other. In other words, it facilitated the creation of

the cultural conditions for developmentalism to become a regime of truth which

determined colonial relations, cultural struggles, and subjectivities of both

developed and underdeveloped societies. It attempted to integrate Latin American

culture into the discourse of developmentalism, yet it excluded it by explicitly

laying down a clear distinction between modern culture and Latin American culture

and, more subtly, relied on representations of Latin America that attempted to

include the population in the dream of developmentalism and yet excluded them as

forms of class, sexual, ethnic, or gender difference.

In his article “On Mimicry and Man,” Homi K. Bhabha has explored this

ambivalent form of representation in colonial relations through the concept of

mimicry. He argues that mimicry is a discursive strategy that determines colonial

relations of power and resistance whereby the colonized is depicted as similar, that

is, almost the same. Yet, in order to be effective, the colonizer needs to portray the

colonized as its other, that is, to disavow it as almost but not quite an equal.

Although based on principles of resemblance and likeness, mimicry is a form of


18

appropriation of the colonized which is in itself a process of disavowal.22 However,

mimicry can also be a form of resistance in which the colonized deploy disguises,

appropriates and desecrates the official culture to disrupt the effects of the

discourse.

In line with these theoretical precepts, I will explore the cultural struggles

that surrounded the emergence of the field of art in Latin America and its links to

developmentalism. Instead of concentrating exclusively on texts produced by art

historians, I will examine them through the debates and interchanges between art

historians and creators regarding some artistic projects in the sixties and seventies. I

will argue that these projects did not deploy an oppositional politics which located

them on one of the political poles art historians have put them in order to apply

their binary theoretical framework. These projects did not oppose developmentalist

and modernist discourse head on or provide a dialectical, essentialist or utopian

alternative. I believe they undermined modernist and developmentalist discourses

by creating a rich scene of experimentation that appropriated and/or mimicked it,

anticipating forms of cultural struggle that expressed profound distrust in

modernity and modernism. They insinuated themselves into the discourse,

disrupting its formulations in order to free the way for “other” collective

statements, those denied by the dream of making Latin America developed, white,

heterosexual, and masculine. Although it is not my primary concern to argue

22
Homi K. Bhabha, “On Mimicry and Man,” in The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha (London:
Routledge, 1994), p. 85-86.
19

against the specific battles fought by art critics and historians of the period, I would

like to bring to light other forms of cultural power and resistance that not only

challenged but also complemented the approaches used by Traba, Mosquera,

Ramírez, and Goldman.

In Chapter 1, I explore the work of Colombian artist Beatriz González,

specifically her versions of the icons of Western art painted on beds, tables, vanity

tables, and coat-trees. I am particularly interested in the connections between Marta

Traba, González’s work, and Clement Greenberg’s distinction between avant-garde

and kitsch. I will argue that Traba’s modernist interpretation of local cultures and

González’s work contradicted her alignment with the political left. On the one

hand, it linked her with the need for developmentalism to produce representations

of Latin America as a backward and underdeveloped other that needed a total

reconfiguration of its cultures in order to reach modernity. On the other hand, it

encouraged Latin America’s local governments to implement American

modernization theories in the field of art and culture.

Despite Traba’s attempt to put González’s work in the context of American

formalism, González seemed to perform a kind of formalism in reverse by

displaying local ways of living the universality of modernity. As González usurps

and appropriates Western art according to its local uses, she also discusses the ways

in which its imagery sets in motion representations of women, Latin American

women and women artists as underdeveloped. Following Judith Butler’s and Diana
20

Fuss’s works on mimicry and identification, I will consider the series of mirrors

González produced between 1970 and 1978 as profound reflections on identity

formation within colonial contexts whereby, I believe, she contests modernist and

masculine discourses on art and culture by producing an “under-painting” for

under-developed countries through the eyes of an under-artistic woman.23

In Chapter 2, I examine the reception of conceptualism in Colombia and

Latin America in general by discussing Mari Carmen Ramírez’s text, “Tactics for

Thriving on Adversity: Conceptualism in Latin America, 1960—1980” published

in the catalogue of the world-wide exhibition Global Conceptualism: Points of

Origin 1950s—1980s. I will argue that her valuable insight is trapped within the

multiculturalist claim for the insertion of Latin American conceptualist practices

within the general history of the movement. Instead, I will propose to see them as

practices that anticipated a profound critique of modernity but from a perspective

that investigated and contested the colonial condition of modernity.

I will explore the work of Colombian artist Antonio Caro as representative

of an approach that can be identified in a variety of Latin American individual and

collective projects. Luis Camnitzer has called Antonio Caro a visual guerrilla.24

Caro’s work took on the construction of narratives about the nation and his

strategies functioned in local environments, penetrating the institutional networks

23
Carolina Ponce de León, “Beatriz González in situ,” in Beatriz González: Una pintora de
provincia, ed. Marta Calderón (Bogotá: Carlos Valencia Editores, 1988), p. 18.
24
Luis Camnitzer, “Antonio Caro,” in Ante América (Bogotá: Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, 1992),
p. 54.
21

and hiding behind their frames. Antonio Caro’s work, I believe, appropriated

conceptualist strategies to supplement the cultural construction of the Latin

American nation, which, in order to keep its unity and coherence, had to expel non-

national narratives and their social subjects. Caro, I will argue, reinserts those signs

of difference in the national grammar, challenging the dream of a homogeneous

and unitary nation.

In Chapter 3, I discuss the Brazilian notion of anthropophagy: the

cannibalism, deglutition, vomiting, and defecation of Western traditions. In

particular, I explore the line of dis/continuity that links Oswald de Andrade’s

Anthropophagite Manifesto of 1928 to Hélio Oiticica’s artwork and writings about

modernism in the seventies. I will also explore how these anthropophagite

strategies gave shape to Oiticica’s Parangolé, which employed banners, tents, and

capes worn and displayed by the people of Rio’s favelas. Oiticica discussed the

ways in which modernism depicted popular culture as non-modern, turning the

poor into subject and object of political projects from the left and the right.

Through appropriation and mimicry, the Parangolé as performance enabled

popular sectors to swallow the representation of their cultures as underdeveloped

and create new strategies of survival.

In Chapter 4, I explore Oiticica’s work on sexuality, produced in the

seventies while he was living in New York. The relationship between his sexuality

and artwork has been persistently ignored by art critics and historians, an omission
22

which I would like to correct. I will relate his sexuality to the environments he

created and his questioning of representations of Latin America, popular culture,

and sexuality. I will explore his Babylonests, the name Oiticica gave to the refuge

for friends and lovers he built in his apartment in New York. I will also examine his

Quasi-cinemas, room-size installations with slide-projections, music, and films.

Some of the latter were started but never finished or were just written outlines

inspired by the New York artistic underground scene. I will argue that during his

stay in New York, Oiticica integrated all these components—films, room-size

installations, and shelters—to create a world of pleasure, lust, affection,

experimentation, and solidarity, which I call Eroiticica.

Finally, in Chapter 5, I move to the present, giving an account of recent

cultural studies of colonialism, culture and politics in the Andean Region. I begin

with the emergence of Project Modernity/Coloniality, which brings together

scholars and social activists who analyze culture and politics from a Latin

American perspective. I will discuss some of its main assumptions through case

studies which I believe call attention to the political dangers the Project may face

regarding its representation of local cultures and its cultural and political agendas. I

will take into account the recent cultural policies of government agencies and the

responses to them by cultural studies practitioners, scholars, and members of social

movements who are concerned about the persistence of colonialism in the form of
23

globalization in the arts. In particular, I will deal with some community initiatives

which seek to take art out the hands of the art institution.

As Escobar put it, there is no inside or outside in the globalized world we

live in. The Modernity/Colonialism project attempts to heed the need for a Latin

American perspective which does not posit an ontological outside, but “refers to an

outside that is precisely constituted as difference by a hegemonic discourse.”25 In

this light, the field of Andean cultural studies is situated on the border of modernity

as its difference. It attempts to change the terms of the current geopolitics of

knowledge and decolonize our thinking, doing and being to “make the struggles

against colonialism visible.” 26 It aims to create a “de-colonial attitude” which

posits new perspectives of thought different from the colonialist paradigm, basing

its approach on the social, epistemological and political practices of the people.27

25
Arturo Escobar, “Worlds and Knowledges Otherwise,” Cultural Studies, 21, 2, (2001), p. 186.
26
Pensamiento crítico y matriz (de)colonial, ed. Catherine Walsh (Quito: Universidad Andina
Simón Bolívar, 2005), p. 24.
27
Walsh, Pensamiento crítico y matriz (de)colonial, p. 24.
24

CHAPTER 1

The Artifices of Marble: Beatriz González’s Mirrors and the Politics of


Erasure

I have been tracking the transformation suffered by universal


culture within a so-called underdeveloped country.1
Beatriz González

Modernism and the Colombian Cultural Climate

A wave of impassioned comments filled the columns of Colombian newspapers

and magazines when Colombian artist Beatriz González first exhibited some pieces

of her furniture at the 2nd Coltejer Biennale in 1971 in Medellín (Colombia).

González presented La última mesa [The Last Table] (Fig. 1.1) and Naturaleza casi

muerta [Almost-Morte Nature]. (Fig. 1.2) The former is a version of Leonardo Da

Vinci’s The Last Supper painted on the surface of a metal dining table, while the

latter is an image from a popular print of Christ dying, painted on a metal sheet and

installed as a mattress on a metal bed. Both the metal dining table and the bed were

originally made by Colombian artisans. Except for the surface of the dining table

and the “mattress” of the bed, González kept the original materials and decorations

1
Francisco Célis Albán, “Beatriz González: Creo que soy un pintor de la corte,” Vanguardia
Liberal (November 5, 1981), sec. B, p. 3.
25

made by artisans whose works are, in turn, imitations of wood or glass. Some

journalists, members of the Catholic Church and the Colombian Academy of

History felt outraged by her work: “The author failed entirely”; “for elemental

decorum, it is not worth commenting on” (regarding the representation of Christ);

“La última mesa is a monstrosity.”2 One of the best-known attacks was made by

Arturo Abella, a very well-known TV journalist, who accused González of

disrespecting the history of art, religious imagery, and Colombian history just for

the sake of irony and due to a misguided idea about the true meaning of art and

culture.3

Since 1962, González had been producing versions of Western art

masterpieces and religious imagery. Of particular note, she produced versions of

Diego Velázquez’s The Surrender of Breda (Fig. 1.3) while she was a student at the

Studio Art School of the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá from1959 to 1962.

González’s versions of The Surrender of Breda consisted of a series of paintings

based on fragments of Velázquez’s work. (Fig. 1.4) After seeing a poster of an

exhibition of Velázquez, she decided to reproduce a part of it, adding spots and

drips to it, which were typical techniques of abstract expressionism. In a catalogue

of González’s exhibition in Caracas in 1994, Katherine Chacón argued that

2
Quoted by Marta Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González (Bogotá: Museo de Arte Moderno,
1977), p. 66. She refused to quote the sources.
3
Although Abella’s attack has been widely cited by art historians, the actual reference does not
exist. It only appears in Traba’s reference to González’s version of a portrait of Simón Bolívar by
Pedro José Figueroa in the nineteenth century. She said, “Every time I see González’s Bolívar, I feel
more and more satisfied with it. For me, Arturo Abella’s diatribe, coming from him, is exaltation.”
26

González’s choice of Velázquez during her studies can be seen as “a justified move

to demonstrate some sort of originality.”4 Chacón specifically refers to González’s

response to the changing atmosphere at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. At

the time, the School counted among its professors the Catalan painter Juan Antonio

Roda, who came to Colombia in 1955 after a successful career in Barcelona and

Paris; the Colombian artist Carlos Rojas, who by that time was a promising local

artist and whose work was informed by cubism and abstractionism; and the

Argentinean art critic Marta Traba, who moved to Colombia in 1955. They brought

to the school new perspectives regarding not only the changing conditions of

artistic practice in the international scene but also contemporary ways for art to be

taught.

Before these new academic conditions came into being, the program was

given the designation “A School for Upper-Class Ladies” by some people from the

artistic milieu, as they thought of its students as a bunch of women who wanted to

take drawing and painting lessons for the sole purpose of finding a husband.

González remarked on the unequal number of women studying Studio Art School

at Los Andes at that time. There were almost ninety women enrolled, and the ratio

of women to men was ten to one, she said. Conversely, the number of women

practicing art and being recognized in the field of art as professional artists was

approximately the opposite. The artistic scene was dominated by the already

4
Katherine Chacón, “Beatriz González: Pintora Colombiana, Nacida en Bucaramanga en . . .,” in
Beatriz González Retrospectiva, ed. Katherine Chacón (Caracas: Museo de Bellas Artes, 1994), p. 5.
27

overwhelming figure of Fernando Botero, who by that time was the Colombian

artist most recognized on the international scene and quickly became a kind of role

model for young Colombian artists. As the National Salon of Colombian Artists

was perhaps the most important venue whereby the arts were made public, the list

of its participants during 1957-1964 is representative of the unbalanced relationship

between men and women in the field of arts in Colombia during that period. The

works presented in the Salon were in their majority produced by men and the prizes

were mostly given to their works. The presence of women was scant and only a few

were recognized as artists. Among them were Débora Arango, Beatriz Daza, Alicia

Tafur, Judith Márquez, and Lucy Tejada, whose work, Mujeres sin hacer nada

[Women Doing Nothing], was awarded a prize in 1957.

González was actively involved in changing this representation of both

women artists and the art school of Los Andes. During her studies and along with

her constant research on masterpieces of Western art, she and three other women

students created a group to challenge perceptions and to situate the works of

women artists within the artistic field in different terms. González said: “There

were four of us among ninety women who thought of art differently: Camila

Loboguerrero, who is today a very well-known filmmaker; Gloria Martínez, who

became an unrecognized painter, and Ligia Jiménez, of whom we never heard again

after school.”5 They opened their own atelier and promoted discussions about their

5
Chacón, Beatriz González Retrospectiva, p. 2.
28

works among their professors and art journalists. She says: “Having our own atelier

was a fundamental change in our careers . . . We tried to change the things we were

taught in class. We talked, researched and had important visitors like Marta

Traba.”6

The apparent contradiction between a school full of women being trained to

depict landscapes, fruits, and flowers and a field of mainly masculine art may have

been a sign of González’s interest in being part of the “movement” promoted by her

professors to change the school’s orientation. She became highly interested in

revisiting European painting from a modernist viewpoint according to the

framework brought to the School by the faculty. Particularly, in relation to her

experiment with Velázquez’s painting, she said:

I was not interested in Velázquez as such, but in the hats his

characters wore. The hats are very pictorial since they are usually

made with just one stroke . . . After graduation, I did Fragment of

the Surrender of Breda, which meant a lot to me since I

demonstrated that I was ready to work without any supervision . . .

That year [1963] I received a letter inviting me to exhibit at the

recently founded Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá as the young

artist of the year.7

6
Chacón, Beatriz González Retrospectiva, p. 10.
7
Chacón, Beatriz González Retrospectiva, p. 10.
29

After the credit she gained among her professors due to her experiment with

Velázquez’s work, she started to produce appropriations of Western art

masterpieces. The exhibition as the young artist of the year was entitled

Lacemakers and showed her versions of Jan Vermeer’s The Lacemaker (Fig. 1.5)

as it was the final project she presented for her BA in Fine Arts at the Universidad

de los Andes. (Fig. 1.6) Among others, there were her versions Encajera

Almanaque Pielroja [The Redskin Calendar Lacemaker] (1963), (Fig. 1.7)

Encajera negativa [Inverted Lacemaker](1963), (Fig. 1.8) Encajera roja [The Red

Lacemaker] (1963), Encajera dinámica [The Dynamic Lacemaker] (1963),

Encajera cinematográfica [The Cinematographic Lacemaker], and La última

vermeeriana [The Last Vermeerian] (1963). Using Vermeer’s piece as a motif,

González’s versions are constructed by flattened and contrasted colors that attempt

to reveal the pictorial structure of the character originally depicted by Vermeer.

Omitting the details of the background, González’s lace-makers seem to have been

created to mark a distinction between her work and abstractionism, widely

practiced by her male contemporaries, while exploring other forms of figuration.

González’s research on The Lacemaker progressively changed from an

interest in exploring color and painting as such—in accordance with her professors’

advice—to an examination of modern art as a cultural referent situated within other

symbolic and geographic coordinates. As the titles of her versions indicate, her

appropriations of Vermeer are combined with a poignant humor and mockery of


30

Western art’s pretensions to universality, enlightenment, and refinement. In her

Encajera Almanaque Pielroja, for instance, González departed from Vermeer and

transformed his work by using local cultural referents, like the colorful images used

to advertise Pielroja—a very traditional brand of Colombian cigarettes.

As a marketing strategy during that period—which is still used today—

every year a calendar promoting Pielroja cigarettes was given away and gradually

became part of the visual atmosphere of Colombian homes. (Fig. 1.9) In the upper

part, the calendar depicted a woman smoking, while the lower part contained the

actual calendar with sayings such as “Light a Pielroja” or “Pielroja is so pleasant.”

(Fig. 1.10) About the choice of Vermeer as the subject of her series and the relation

of his versions to the local atmosphere, she said: “I do not know why I chose The

Lacemaker. I always liked it very much . . . I think it had to do with the fact that we

had framed posters of artworks at home. My mom had posters of artworks she

liked, and The Lacemaker was there.”8 Playing with universal cultural icons,

González took them out of their original context and placed them in other cultural

practices of signification and visual atmospheres. She says: “Owing to my

obsession with Vermeer’s accents, his defined yet sfumato shapes, which remind

me of Pielroja [Redskin] calendars, I transformed The Lacemaker, severing her

from Vermeer, from her ambience, from herself.”9

8
Chacón, Beatriz González Retrospectiva, p. 11.
9
Quoted by Marta Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, p. 20.
31

González said that her appropriations of Western cultural icons and their

local uses were part of an effort to measure the “temperature” of the Colombian

cultural climate. During the sixties, this study of the local conditions that gave

shape to the uses of Western heritage took form on the basis of two main sources:

Western art masterpieces and popular imagery (which in Latin America indicates

both mass culture and popular culture coming from the lower classes). González re-

used images that were published in art books, newspapers, magazines, postcards

and posters. These images depicted artworks, religious imagery or simply

photographs illustrating ironic situations reported in the newspapers. Always using

sarcastic titles in a tone of mockery, González, for instance, transformed newspaper

pictures of important members of the international jet-set. There are her versions of

a picture of Jackie Onassis visiting Cairo, which González entitled Jackeline Oasis

(1975), (Fig. 1.11) and her version of Queen Elizabeth posing for the camera in her

full royal costume, which she entitled Adiós África [Goodbye Africa] (1968). (Fig.

1.12) But there are also versions of these international figures inserted into local

landscapes, such as the picture of Queen Elizabeth riding a horse across the Boyacá

Bridge, where the final battle for Colombian independence took place in 1819. She

entitled her work La Reina Isabel se pasea por el Puente de Boyacá [Queen

Elizabeth on an outing to the Boyacá Bridge]. (Fig. 1.13)

In 1966, she was awarded a prize in the National Salon for her work Los

suicidas del Sisga [The Sisga Suicides], (Fig. 1.14) inspired by a photograph
32

published in national newspapers of a couple who decided to take their picture just

before they committed suicide. (Fig. 1.14a) González recalls: “One day I opened

the newspaper and I found the picture. The story was about a gardener who went

crazy and told his girlfriend, who happened to be a maid, that the world was full of

sin and that it would be better to cease to exist. They decided to jump into the icy

waters of Sisga Lake.”10 Regarding the importance of Los Suicidas in defining her

approach to the uses of universal cultures by local cultures, she stated:

Since Los Suicidas, I knew I had to work on taste and that it was

going to be one of my most important subjects. It was not about

good or bad taste. It was about the reasons people chose particular

themes, why people decorated their homes with certain kinds of

images. It was then that I made the link between art and sociology. I

was not as interested in formalist explorations as I was in taste, in

part because I always rejected refinement. Colombian art critic

Germán Rubiano had written an article about my work and stated

that I sacrificed the formal, the pictorial, the good school. He was

right: I rejected pictorial qualities in the search for visual effects and

coherent accounts.11

Returning to the two pieces shown at the Biennale Coltejer in 1971, they can be

understood as a continuation of González’s exploration of the uses of Western

10
Chacón, Beatriz González Retrospectiva, p. 13.
11
Chacón, Beatriz González Retrospectiva, p. 14.
33

cultural imagery by local cultures, an interest she was pursuing during the sixties.

Naturaleza casi muerta is a metal bed in which she conflates a popular image of

Christ based on a European pictorial tradition with furniture decoration reflecting

popular taste, which includes simulated wood and glass. Of her choice of a bed to

frame her painting of Christ, she commented: “The use of beds in my work may

have emerged from a resistance to my mother’s inclination to see bad taste

everywhere.”12 Accordingly, she stated: “Whenever I saw a popular bed made of

fake materials, I thought: ‘I have to have one of those.’ When I finally got one, I

went home and realized that the painting [of Christ dying] would fit in perfectly. I

put it on the bed and it was then that my whole period of beds and furniture

started.”13And she adds: “If I see Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, I cannot see

anything but a table. If I find a towel rack made of a fake shell, I cannot help

thinking of Botticelli’s Venus.”14 The Last Supper image, in turn, has been

extensively transformed by Colombians, who use it on greeting cards, posters, and

magnetized images stuck on their front doors to magically ward off attacks by

burglars or demons. Regarding this transformation, González said:

I was interested in exploring a cultural phenomenon whereby the

values of a culture are radically changed when its icons or products

are inserted into new cultural contexts. It is a sort of transmutation.

12
Chacón, Beatriz González Retrospectiva, p. 15.
13
Chacón, Beatriz González Retrospectiva,p. 15.
14
Célis, “Beatriz González: Creo que soy un pintor de la corte,” p. 3.
34

All I have done is to look at European culture from a provincial

viewpoint, through images in books, illustrations, museum

catalogues and tourist guides. For me nature itself is nothing else but

a large background curtain for that culture.”15

The transformation of the European art heritage into goods used for practical

purposes by Colombians is converted back into art by González in an attempt to

situate her work within the debates and cultural struggles that were taking place in

Colombia and Latin America during the Cold War, owing to the implementation of

educational and cultural programs that aimed at putting traditional Latin American

cultures at the service of progress.

Marta Traba, who at the time had written one of the most influential studies

of González’s work, opposed the attacks on Gonzalez’s Naturaleza casi muerta and

La última mesa at the Coltejer Biennale, arguing that it was a response ‘polluted’

by ideological considerations and therefore unable to approach art with the

disinterest appropriate to an aesthetic object. Discarding González’s contempt for

formalist readings of her work, Traba said:

Those who are incapable of reading the true significance of this

meta-language, which proposes a semiotics of semiotics, have

already been corrupted by the first fundamental desecration of art,

by which consumer society transformed art into mere ideology, and

15
Beatriz González, “Letter to the Reader,” in XVIII Venice Bienal (Exh. Cat), 1978.
35

have lost the capacity to read its message . . . art criticism aids the

comprehension of artistic expressions; this is indisputable, so long

as the work can be analyzed according to its operating

mechanisms.16

Born in Buenos Aires (Argentina) in 1923, Marta Traba played a very

important role in the dissemination of modernism in Latin American art and art

history in the fifties and sixties. She studied literature at the University of Buenos

Aires and began her career as an art critic there under the influence of Jorge

Romero-Brest, who was a highly-regarded Latin American art historian during the

fifties and sixties and recognized as a promoter of modern European art. In 1948,

Traba moved to Paris and occasionally attended courses in art history given by

Pierre Francastel and Giulio Carlo Argan, among others. During her stay in Paris,

she published articles and exhibition reviews in Ver y Estimar [See and Appraise],

a journal founded in 1948 and edited by Romero Brest. In 1954, after she met and

married the Colombian intellectual and writer Alberto Zalamea, she moved to

Colombia, where she quickly became a prominent figure in the Colombian artistic

milieu. Deeply interested in stimulating the activity of art criticism in Colombia,

she gave courses on art criticism at the Universidad de America and organized a

group of promising young professionals who were interested in art criticism. She

also founded Prisma [Prism], a publication devoted to art criticism that disappeared

16
Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, p. 66.
36

after eleven issues. Along with her activities as a TV journalist, novelist, lecturer,

and writer of books and articles on Latin American and Colombian art, she co-

founded the Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá in 1964, known today as the

MAMBO.17

Traba participated in the formation of this cultural and political atmosphere

through her writings on art. These were mostly published in the magazine La nueva

prensa [The New Press], which was founded by her husband, who publicly

criticized the political and economic context that governed Colombia at the time.

Always threatened by bankruptcy and by boycotts orchestrated by right-wing

cultural movements, La nueva prensa periodically published chronicles and articles

about the Cuban Revolution and became an important opponent of the Alliance for

Progress, the United States foreign policy initiative for Latin America during the

Cold War.

Traba progressively radicalized her political opposition to American

economic and military intervention in Latin America as well as the spread of

American cultural and artistic modes of production. In 1966, she visited Cuba and

became a public defender of the Cuban Revolution, giving lectures and writing

articles promoting socialism. Noting that she was a foreigner, right-wing politicians

and intellectuals increasingly accused her of interfering in domestic concerns and

17
In particular, she was the author of books such as La pintura nueva en Latinoamerica (1961), Seis
artistas contemporáneos colombianos (1963), Los cuatro monstruos cardinales (1965), Historia
abierta del arte colombiano (1974), Art of Latin America 1900-1980 (1994), among other books and
articles.
37

promoting revolts and leftist movements in the universities where she was a

professor. The public debate that dominated media attention reached a scandalous

point when, in 1966, Colombian president Carlos Lleras Restrepo issued an

ultimatum for her to leave Colombia. Traba stayed, however, but resigned all her

public positions and almost completely retired. She became deeply involved in her

literary writing, for which she won several prizes, including the Casa de las

Americas prize given by the Cuban government.

In 1973, her book Dos décadas vulnerables de las artes plásticas

latinoamericanas, 1950-1970 [Two Vulnerable Decades in Latin American Art,

1950-1970] was published. It is a revision of her previous writings and considered

to be Traba’s definitive statement against American cultural imperialism. For her,

Latin America was divided into open and closed cultural areas. Open areas, like

Venezuela and Argentina, were those which had received important European

immigration and where the influence of native cultures was low. By contrast,

closed areas, like Colombia and Peru, had seen insignificant immigration and their

native cultures had had remarkable effects on their daily life. Open areas, according

to her, were condemned to imitate foreign cultures, while the closed ones had the

responsibility of promoting an authentic Latin American modernity by encouraging

and enhancing native values. When Traba called attention to Latin America’s

helplessness in her book Two Vulnerable Decades, she felt that not even the closed

areas escaped the growing influence of American culture, since artists and
38

intellectuals had already assimilated artistic trends coming from New York and had

abandoned a critical viewpoint. She perceived that the possibility of modernity

growing from Latin America’s native roots was being discarded.

Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera has recognized Traba as a pioneer of

Latin American art history, arguing that she “published the first book to approach

Latin American art in a global manner, attempting to give the subject some

conceptual unity.”18 Although Traba herself related her work to French sociology

of art and social art history,19 Mosquera situates her work in the confrontational

political climate arising from the bipolar nature of international affairs during the

Cold War. At that time, according to Mosquera, Latin American art and art history

were mainly informed by leftist modes of cultural critique and opposed to

American cultural, military, and political intervention. In particular, the Cuban

Revolution, the emergence of local guerrillas, and social movements of various

kinds caught the attention of intellectuals and artists, who, in turn, were under

surveillance by the U.S and local governments. However, when analyzing

González’s artwork, Traba stated:

Wherever it goes, her work will be read as a great work of art,

without considerations of its national or provincial background

18
Gerardo Mosquera, ed. Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America
(London: INIVA, 1995), p. 10. He refers to Marta Traba’s La pintura nueva en Latinoamerica
(Bogotá: Ediciones Librería Central, 1961).
19
In fact, when asked about her approach, she answered, “Sociology of art, exactly the way Pierre
Francastel thought of it: A sociology that is interdisciplinary, that investigates the profound
structures of both the art object and the social context, without abandoning the visual field.” Quoted
in Emma Araujo de Vallejo, Marta Traba (Bogotá: Planeta Editores, 1984), p. 340.
39

affecting its standing . . . To suppose that her work’s close relation

to local idiosyncrasies might diminish its importance and condemn it

to anonymity is to ignore that a work of art triumphs solely to the

degree in which it is supported by a sufficiently valid formal

structure.20

When carefully read, however, Traba’s approach to González’s work seems to be

mainly guided by the principles of American formalism which Traba had

supposedly rejected. By considering the purpose of art to be the achievement of a

valid formal structure, Traba seemed to echo American formalism’s central

argument that art is a formal practice that takes its own methods and rationale as its

subject matter and whose relevance lies almost exclusively in its relation to an

autonomous artistic tradition of visual and formal issues. Even more, when

exploring the local character of González’s work, Traba paralleled formalist

arguments—proposing that a successful artwork must avoid any local or national

reference and achieve the level of the universal. Finally, when opposing responses

to González’s work “polluted” by ideological considerations, Traba seemed to

follow the modernist demand for an objective and neutral art history whose main

concern was to maintain the disinterest appropriate to aesthetic objects, apart from

ideology and politics.

20
Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, p. 9-10.
40

Traba’s reading of González’s work raises important questions about the

ways in which the politics of art and art criticism was framed and understood

during the Cold War period in Latin America. For example, how, I wonder, are we

to reconcile Gonzalez’s interest in drawing attention to local uses of Western art

and Traba’s attempt to displace her work from the local to the universal, using a

formalist and modernist rationale? Furthermore, how are we to link Traba’s leftist

activism and her public disavowal of what she perceived as the American cultural

project with her enthusiastic use of American high modernism? It seems to me that

the oppositional framework that has been used to understand these issues—with

socialism situated at one pole and capitalism at the other—is not sufficient. Despite

the politically-charged public responses by art critics and historians on both the

right and the left, all seem to stem from the very same origin: Art is above all a

formal and universal matter and it has to be read and talked about from and through

modernism. It is as if those involved in the cultural sphere had placed the politics of

art in a realm beyond what is considered to be properly artistic—a formal

proposition—where the modernist reading of art is taken for granted and is not

political. Clearly, during the Cold War there was a mode of thought, a regime of

truth, in which everyone operated but could not give an account of it in terms

different from those of the binary rationale that dominated the period. Within the

context of growing American hegemony, a new order of things emerged, insofar as


41

the distinctions between the Latin American left and the right no longer described

the positions in which their very practitioners were placing themselves.

In this chapter, I will explore the conflicting dialogue that took place

between Traba and González regarding the appropriation of modernism in Latin

America within the context of the implementation of modernization theories and

practices during the Cold War period. I will analyze Traba’s book Los muebles de

Beatriz González [The Furniture of Beatriz González], which is strongly influenced

by Traba’s reading of Clement Greenberg’s approach to kitsch and folklore. Just as

Traba attempted to discredit local cultures in order to fit González’s work into the

dictates of American formalism, I will place her uses of Greenberg within the

context of the U.S. search for cultural hegemony after World War II. I will argue

that Traba’s interpretation of local cultures and González’s work linked her with

the construction of representations of Latin America as a backward and

underdeveloped other that needed a total reconfiguration of its cultures in order to

reach modernity. In spite of Traba’s alignment with the political left, her use of

high modernism achieved the opposite: It helped create representations of Latin

America as an underdeveloped culture and encouraged its local governments to

implement American modernization theories in the field of art and culture.

In order to discuss Traba’s formalist reading of González work, I will argue

that González’s appropriations of the local uses of Western cultural heritage should

be understood as a reflection of her interest in being part of the cultural struggles


42

about the implementation of modernizing theories in the field of art that took place

between non-modern cultures and modern culture during the Cold War. In other

words, González was exploring and contesting the colonial condition of modernity

within the context of developmentalism. Instead of being an artistic and universal

reflection on popular culture—as Traba interpreted it—I will argue that González’s

work performs an American formalism in reverse. That is to say, instead of

universalizing local cultures, her work localizes the universal pretension of

modernity. Through the exploration of the dissemination of Western traditions

across different signifying systems, she explores local ways of experiencing the

universality of cultural modernity.

Furthermore, when revising González’s interest in the struggles over the

cultural translation of the Western heritage into non-Western local cultural

contexts, one cannot help noticing that González gave special emphasis to the ways

in which that imagery could construct representations of Latin American women.

González appropriated not only the local appropriations of Western art

masterpieces that use women as their subject—Vermeer’s The Lacemaker, Da

Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Raphael’s The Virgin of the Chair, for instance—but also

pictures taken out of newspapers and magazines that were about popular and mass

culture’s references and constructed representations of the Latin American woman.

Along with the works I referred to above—her Jackeline Oasis or Queen Elizabeth

being portrayed in Africa, Goodbye —her investigation also included, among


43

others, representations of women participating in beauty pageants eagerly reported

in all the media. It seems then that González’s appropriation and deliberate

falsifying of the Western canon of art and culture is a critique of the colonial

condition of modernity and of high modernism as a primarily masculine condition.

In other words, González seemed to localize the universal pretension of modernity

through an examination of the construction of both Latin America and women as

underdeveloped or, better, Latin America as an underdeveloped woman.

In order to explain this affirmation I will explore her series of mirrors

produced between 1970 and 1977. In this series, González appropriated the

imagery of women produced by Western art and re-framed it by using popular

furniture made by local artisans. For this analysis, I will also take into account

Diana Fuss’s important work on identification. I will also borrow the figure of

catachresis deployed by Judith Butler to interpret Luce Irigaray’s attack on the

masculine discourse that has dominated Western philosophy. By convention,

catachresis designates the wrong or improper use of a word to create a paradoxical

figure of speech. Just as Traba interpreted local cultures catachrestically, that is to

say, Latin America as an improper modernity, I will likewise argue that González’s

work usurps and re-uses this approach through a catachrestic representation of

women, women artists, and Latin America, that is to say, as figures representing the

improper and the property-less. Paraphrasing González, I would say she produced
44

an under-painting for under-developed countries through the eyes of an under-

artistic woman.21

Avant-garde and Kitsch: The Vital [Modernist] Center

Journalists, artists, critics, and art historians have called González’s artwork pop

and populist, modernist and kitsch, local and universal, in good taste and in bad,

false and real art, too Colombian and not Colombian enough. Although one of the

most frequent descriptions applied to González’s artwork has been that of “cursi”

or kitsch, González herself has said, “I do not believe that the Colombian society

on which I work is kitsch, but a society ‘without measure,’ in all proportions and

senses of the word.” 22 In his definition of kitsch, Clement Greenberg states:

The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would

be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured

cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected

self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It

borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes,

converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life

blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience.”23

21
Carolina Ponce de León, “Beatriz González in situ,” in Beatriz González: Una pintora de
provincia, ed. Marta Calderón (Bogotá: Carlos Valencia Editores, 1988), p. 18.
22
Quoted by Marta Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, p. 13. In Spanish, the use of “cursi”
and kitsch is undifferentiated.
23
Clement Greenberg, “Avant Garde and Kistch,” in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and
Criticism, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1955), I, p. 12.
45

As Serge Guilbaut has pointed out, Greenberg’s concern with kitsch was part of the

realignment of the intellectual left in the United States. In particular, the U.S.

intellectual left perceived the Soviet Union’s socialism as being as totalitarian as

fascism. As has been widely noted, the invasion of Finland by the Soviet Union and

the German-Soviet pact between Hitler and Stalin provoked a strong feeling of

disillusionment among members of the American left, including writers, critics, and

artists.24 Within this context, some intellectuals found in Trotsky’s ideas a defense

of a critical art that should remain independent of any authority other than its own

rules and principles, which was a precept that would facilitate the transition of

artists from figurative to abstract art and from a committed art to art for art’s sake.

As Trotsky said:

Art, like science, not only does not seek orders but also by its very

essence cannot tolerate them. Artistic creation has its own laws—

even when it consciously serves as a social movement. Truly

intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy, and the

spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of the revolution

only insofar as it remains faithful to itself.25

Greenberg’s rejection of kitsch helped establish a formalist theory of modern art

that lacked the revolutionary principles that informed classical Marxism: “We no
24
Serge Guilbaut, “The New Adventures of the Avant-garde in America: Greenberg, Pollock, or
from Trotskyism to the New Liberalism of the ‘Vital Center,’” in Art in Modern Culture: An
Anthology of Critical Texts, ed. Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris (New York: Phaidon Press
Ltd., 1992), p. 239.
25
Leon Trotsky, “Art and Politics,” Partisan Review, 5, 3, (August-September 1938), 3.
46

longer look toward socialism for a new culture—as inevitable as one will appear

once we do have socialism. Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation

of whatever living culture we have right now.”26 For Greenberg, modernist avant-

garde culture had the task of preserving the innovative spirit of modern culture

from the growing influence of the culture industry and intimidating fascist and

communist forces: He said: “Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch

is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style but

always remains the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of

our times.”27

Articulated by the principles of free artistic expression and the universalism

of human aesthetic experience, American formalism conceived of art as a field

whose main concern was the practice of art itself. Its canon of creative freedom was

intended to differentiate American art from both European avant-garde—which

was then regarded as an exhausted academicism still interested in the representation

of reality—and Socialist Realism and Kitsch, the latter considered to be a complex

product of the culture industry and fascism as well as a degeneration of high art and

culture. American formalism achieved this ideal of universalism through a

transition, on the part of critics and artists, from nationalism to internationalism to

universalism; that is to say, from a national art to a socialist art to a universal art, a

26
Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Clement Greenberg: the Collected Essays and
Criticism, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), I, 22.
27
Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kistch,” p. 12.
47

process which “illustrates how the American avant-garde rid itself of the idea of

any claims to be local or political.”28

The disenchantment of leftist intellectuals, artists, and critics and the

emergence of formalism need to be seen, in turn, within the climate created by the

“new liberalism” that gave shape to American foreign affairs after World War II.

Guilbaut states that this “new liberalism” was mostly grounded on the book The

Vital Center by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., which created an agenda for American

hegemony where liberal democracy and ceaseless technological, social, and

political innovation were fundamental priorities. As Guilbaut states, it was this

context that led to a peculiar alliance among American intellectuals, artists, and

politicians: “It was a slow process by which the emerging avant-garde elaborated,

in 1947 and 1948, a new ideology in tandem with a new mode of cultural

production. Fluid at first, ideology and style solidified quickly.”29 Art as a formal

practice expressing the “universal” was a reconciliation of avant-garde ideology

and the ideology of postwar liberalism. It was an agreement that combined

American ideals of freedom with the idea of an art that surpassed national

boundaries and expressed the universally “human.” As Robert Motherwell put it:

“Art is not national; to be merely an American or French artist is to be nothing; to

fail to overcome one’s initial environment is never to reach the human.”30

28
Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1985), p. 174.
29
Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, p. 2.
30
14 Americans, ed. Dorothy Miller (New York: MoMA, 1946), p. 36.
48

Although Traba recognized González’s rejection of kitsch as useful to

explain her artwork, Traba stated:

From the many explanations of kitsch, I prefer to use that of

Clement Greenberg to describe González’s work as a product of

kitsch. A careful examination of this [Greenberg’s] statement shows

that it may be applied, point by point, to the tendencies of Beatriz

González. It is not applicable in its negative sense, in the way that

Broch, Adorno, Macdonald and Greenberg himself, among others,

have used it when they refer to kitsch as the alteration of values

explicitly promoted by the culture industry.31

In order to apply Greenberg’s definition of kitsch to González’s artwork, Traba

characterized González’s work as a formalist reflection of kitsch, using kitsch

merely as a source and, therefore, transforming it into a universal artwork. She

wanted to avoid regarding González’s work as non-art or, at least, as a vulgar

expression of culture, precisely the sort of expression criticized by American

formalism. Thus, Traba invoked two Greenbergs: First, the early Greenberg who in

1939 defined, formalized, and launched an ideological project for American art by

establishing distinctions between it and European avant-garde, kitsch, and socialist

realism, which in turn, were seen as the cultural expressions of regions threatening

American hegemony. Also, the early Greenberg provided an agenda for artists,

31
Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, p. 13-14.
49

based on a notion of art detached from any political commitment. She also invoked

the late Greenberg of 1948, when he promoted Abstract Expressionism and the

principles of freedom of expression and universal art. As Guilbaut states: “In this

respect, postwar American culture was placed on the same footing as American

military strength: In other words, it was made responsible for the survival of

democratic liberties in the “free” world.”32

Traba considered González’s meditations to be part of the artistic

movements of the sixties and seventies that were deeply concerned with art’s loss

of meaning as well as with the growing fetishization of the artist with the

emergence of post-World War II consumerism. By reinterpreting Western artistic

representation, Traba argued, those movements sought to re-consecrate the work of

art while avoiding ideology by “assigning art a specific and differentiated field of

action,” that is, differentiated from other cultural expressions.33 Following

Adorno’s rejection of an idealist rehabilitation of the artistic theme, Traba preferred

to define art as a “settled social content” situated between social and autonomous

facts: art is a concrete mediation between the structure of the work and that of

society.

Within this context, she distinctly linked González’s work to the values of

flatness and the optical, the very terms with which American formalism defined the

32
Serge Guilbaut, “The New Adventures of the Avant-garde in America: Greenberg, Pollock, or
from Trotskyism to the New Liberalism of the ‘Vital Center’,” October 15 (Winter 1980), 177.
33
Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, p. 53.
50

nature and rationale of painting, in order to place it within the modernist mode of

cultural production. Traba writes:

In Last Table and Nature Almost Morte, Beatriz González paints

“traditionally” on metal sheets. The term “traditional” can only be

permitted in relation to the technique of applying enamel with a

brush. For the rest, her painting as a visual proposition is strictly

modern: The space only refers to the surface, as opposed to the

traditional concept of illusionistic painting.”34

Traba seems to reject some of the results of the American cultural ideal which

surfaced in the artistic trends of the sixties, and yet she does not seem to reject

modernism itself nor its rationale. One difficulty with her use of modernist

formalism to explain González’s work is that González explicitly dealt with mostly

modern Western artistic iconography. González made versions of Picasso,

Gauguin, and Renoir, among others, installing them on beds, tables, coat-stands

and dressing tables. Of particular note, she produced a version of Renoir’s Dance at

the Moulin de la Gaulette, reproducing a detail of the Renoir painting on ten meters

of paper. She named this work Diez metros de Renoir [Ten Meters of Renoir] and

sold it by centimeters or meters, according to the buyer. She signed the work on the

edge of the canvas, similar to industrial trademarks stamped on the borders of

fabrics.

34
Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, p. 67.
51

González’s versions of Western art forced Traba to revise her use of the

term kitsch in relation to González’s work by establishing a distinction between the

appropriation of high culture by kitsch (which, according to Greenberg,

irremediably falls into repetition) and by avant-garde artists whose aim is to

produce something new. Employing Greenberg’s definition of an autonomous

avant-garde that regards art itself as its main object, she considered González to be

an avant-garde artist, since her procedures, her methods, and her reflections on the

practices of art enabled her to make art progress. Traba wrote:

In the face of past cultural production, an artist has two choices: to

revise culture and take any cultural production in order to rework it,

as Picasso or [Mexican artist] José Luis Cuevas did, for instance, or

to use a past cultural product, taking it out of its context and giving a

place to the anachronism of kitsch . . . In the first case artists use the

cultural fact in the same way as reality, dreams, or geometry: as a

starting point to produce something new.35

Traba shifted kitsch from its early associations with art to popular cultures of the

underdeveloped world which appropriates high art, while at the same time, and in

an opposite direction, she attempted to shift González’s work from the category of

kitsch and popular culture to that of avant-garde art, in line with the aims of

American formalism. Traba argued that González’s work illustrated “the mistakes

35
Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, p. 15.
52

of the Colombian superstructure, which, fascinated by melodrama, baroque, excess

and kitsch, was condemned to underdevelopment and third world-ism.”36

Traba’s continuous substitutions and displacements of the meanings of

formalism, kitsch, González’s work, and popular culture mean that her ideas

persistently overlap, slip into another and redefine themselves. In this respect,

consider this statement by Traba:

The importance of . . . kitsch is to locate it as a cultural

epiphenomenon . . . It feeds on something that culture has already

produced, representing it once without regard for temporality. While

identifying itself with repetition by putting the past into the present,

it necessarily falls into the category of parody. The problem of

kitsch is above all a temporal one.37

By convention, epi is a prefix meaning: “upon,” “on,” “near,” “at,” “before,”

“after,” “in addition to.” “Epiphenomenon” means, for example, “a secondary or

additional symptom or complication arising during the course of a disease.” As a

prefix, epi might mean something that is constituent and additional, fundamental

and yet menacing. Latin America and all non-modern cultures, as epiphenomena,

define modern culture and yet threaten it to the extent that they call into question all

disciplinary traditions that naturalize Western culture.

36
Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, p. 40.
37
Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, p. 15.
53

The Ignorant [Latin American] Peasant

Along with the distinction between avant-garde culture and kitsch, Greenberg

presented an important analysis of folk culture and its role within modern societies.

For him “Kitsch has been not only confined to the cities in which it was born, but

has flowed out over the countryside, wiping out folk culture.”38 Greenberg

considered kitsch to be the only universal culture and showed how it could attack

both high culture and folk culture. However, what seemed to interest Greenberg

was not to protect folk culture from the threat of kitsch but to mark a distinction

between avant-garde and folk cultures.

Greenberg perceived important differences between two cultural

expressions in pre-urbanized social life: formal culture and folk culture. Formal

culture is the culture of those who are able to read and write and who “could

command the leisure and comfort that always goes hand in hand with cultivation of

some sort.”39 Although the advent of universal literacy and urbanization blurred the

distinction between those who did and did not have access to high culture,

Greenberg emphasized a new distinction: It was not enough to read and write but to

experience culture in a particular way. Since the new proletarian and urban middle

classes “did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the

city’s traditional culture,”40 a new social distinction appeared: The upper class,

38
Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” p. 13.
39
Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” p. 11.
40
Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” p. 12.
54

middle class and lower class “could” gain access to high art and culture, but they

did so in very different ways.

Traba established the same distinction in order to apply the categories of

folk and kitsch to Latin America, acknowledging the difficulties of using a notion

of the popular in Latin America societies, as the word “popular” does not refer to

mass culture, but to the culture of the poor:

The variety of resources deployed by González allows us to group

them into two “families,” one constituted by autochthonous

expressions of the people and the other by those imposed on them . .

. It is necessary then to distinguish between what a community has

produced, ever more mediated and deteriorated, and what mass

culture has imposed on it, ever more imperative and alienating.41

The two meanings of the popular are used by Traba as an attempt to distinguish

mass culture from folk culture. The social sciences and political parties,

acknowledging the absence of proper proletarian and urban masses in the social

history of Latin America, have validated an undifferentiated use of the term

“popular.” Like Greenberg, Traba recognized “the experience of culture” as a way

of creating and enhancing social differences. For her, the situation was different

from that of Greenberg’s society since the expansion of literacy was, and still is, a

41
Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, pp. 32-33.
55

major problem in Latin America. Nevertheless, she used the notion of “taste” to

mark a distinction between the upper and middle classes:

In this middle-class furniture, themes vary and respond to a

fetishism of beauty . . . They are epidermal cultural preferences that

ennoble the middle class and attempt to accentuate them. That is

why [González] works on dressing tables and coat-stands, because

they are superficial and ridiculous, with an undefined function for

the furniture, especially made for giving “status.”42

To establish these distinctions, Traba also used the same allusion to taste, but she

provided an analysis of the character of popular artisanship, giving it the same

character as kitsch: a cultural product that falls into repetition and lacks the critical

character of an artwork:

The beds and tables chosen as frames for González’s paintings in the

seventies expressed another popular choice: furniture. In them, the

Colombian people fully deploy their preference for colorful things

and, above all, their inclination for shiny fabrics, false textures, and

adornments . . . people who purchase this kind of furniture are the

only authors of such products: Their taste has determined their

existence, which is promoted by small factories of popular origin.43

42
Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, pp. 78-79.
43
Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, pp. 35-36.
56

In his famous example of the ignorant Russian peasant, Greenberg differentiated

folk culture from formal culture, privileging avant-garde culture as a movement

inspired by “a superior consciousness of history.” Although folk culture existed, it

could not be a model for the kind of culture he had in mind. He said: “There has

been an agreement then, and this agreement rests, I believe, on a fairly constant

distinction made between those values only to be found in art and those values

which can be found elsewhere.”44

Along with the distinctions between formal and folk culture in terms of

each culture’s character and ways of experiencing culture, Greenberg considered

the universalization of literacy to be an important condition for kitsch to be born.

Kitsch thus found its origins in the pressure exerted upon society by the urban and

proletarian masses who “having lost their taste for folk culture from the

countryside, demanded a kind of culture fit for their own consumption.”45 Kitsch

found its way not only through fascism and red totalitarianism but also through the

proletarian and urban classes. Here Greenberg seems to perform a theoretical and

political leap which defines the popular as a cultural expression that needs to be

contained. Greenberg’s account of folk culture and the role of the proletarian

“masses” facilitated policies and cultural practices that tended to replace traditional

“cultures” with modern and avant-garde culture. As Andrew Ross notes, containing

culture in the Cold War had two different meanings:

44
Greenberg, “Avant Garde and Kistch,” p. 152.
45
Greenberg, “Avant Garde and Kistch,” p. 153.
57

The first speaks to a threat outside of the social body, a threat that

therefore has to be excluded, or isolated in quarantine, and kept at

bay from the domestic body. The second meaning of containment,

which speaks to the domestic contents of the social body, concerns a

threat internal to the host which must then be neutralized by being

fully absorbed and thereby neutralized.46

Traba explained González’s uses of popular culture as a formalist source as an

effort to “convert into art what is a spontaneous manifestation of the collective

imaginary.”47 She considered González to be an artist who lucidly developed an

understanding of the popular, giving revealing accounts of the backward character

of the Colombian cultural superstructure. She stated: “Popular art does not give any

data about popular creativity, which is generally spoken by using a romantic

exaltation of the collective soul, but does give information about the level of

underdevelopment suffered by that community.”48

The disenchantment of the American left, the intellectuals’ inclination

towards Trotsky’s ideas of art as an autonomous fact, Greenberg’s formalism, and

Traba’s radical leftism informed by modernism are all symptoms not so much of a

bipolar struggle between diametrically opposed ideas as the emergence of new

forms of struggle within a new order of things. While American uses of the avant-

46
Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals & Popular Culture (New York & London: Routledge,
1989), p. 46.
47
Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, p. 40.
48
Traba, Los Muebles de Beatriz González, p. 40.
58

garde need to be understood as an ideological tool that favored a new hegemony,

Traba’s leftist activism and her modernist interpretation of Latin American art and

culture should be framed within that hegemony’s need for Latin America to be its

other. In spite of Traba’s public repudiation of the American cultural mode of

production, high modernism as a tool for understanding art remained intact in her

approach. Traba’s ideas about the relationship between art and politics seem to

echo the statement by Trotsky I quoted earlier: “Art can become a strong ally of the

revolution only insofar as it remains faithful to itself.”49 Art in itself is then

understood through the principles of American high modernism. While high

modernism became the regime of truth which organized the field of art and linked it

to politics, modernization was its counterpart in the social and economic fields.

Both helped construct American hegemony and its other.

The Specular Feminine

As I have already stated, González’s exploration of the cultural transformation

suffered by Western traditions when they are appropriated by non-modern cultures

intersects with her concerns about the representations of Latin American women or

Latin America as a woman. In this light, her series of assemblages produced

between 1970 and 1977 are of particular interest. Dressing tables and coat-trees are

transformed into altars, and mirrors are decorated with her versions of Raphael’s

49
Trotsky, “Art and Politics,” pp. 3-10.
59

The Virgin of the Chair, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and Ingres’s The Turkish Bath.

González has said that her use of this kind of furniture might have been influenced

by the big frames used during the Latin America’s colonial period for pictures of

the Madonna. She pointed out:

The furniture I produce begins with a painting, which is nothing

other than a representation of something already given: pictures or

reproductions of artworks . . . That is to say, it is a representation of

a representation . . . Then I frame those using huge frames, like

altar-frames. What else would Rafael like for his Madonna but a

cubist dressing-table which reflects on her beauty?50

At first glance, González’s mirrors seem to call attention to the cultural struggles

taking place as a result of the complex and conflictual processes of identification

within the colonial context of Latin America. Aníbal Quijano has insisted that, in

contrast to Asia and Africa, where the indigenous populations survived and were

converted by the Eurocentric look as “exotic,” Latin America suffered one of the

biggest genocides known until today. Not only were its indigenous people almost

extinguished but its territories were reduced to small resguardos.51 Consequently,

its native populations were turned into an uneducated peasant labor force and lost

their original cultures, economies, and languages, which were replaced by Western

50
Quoted by Marta Traba, “Beatriz González,” in Beatriz González: Una pintora de provincia, p.
35.
51
Resguardos: Strongholds where Native American people have been confined by the government
as their lands have been expropriated by colonizers.
60

patterns of social organization and power. In regard to their cultural traditions,

Quijano adds: “The survivors would have had no other modes of intellectual and

formalized, objectified artistic or visual expressions but the cultural patterns of the

rulers, even if they subverted them in certain cases to express other needs.”52 As

has been argued by scholars working on coloniality, Europe’s colonial enterprise

led to a primordial encounter with the other and the emergence of modernity as a

colonial regime. Although the point is sometimes overlooked, colonialism was the

basis from which modernity emerged and its illusion of universality and pretension

to be the origin of all cultures was built. In other words, colonialism is not an

unintended and accidental accessory of modernity. Since the construction of the

Western self was closely related to the colonial encounter with America,

colonialism should be seen as the dark side modernity.

From the outset, the replacement of the mirrors by González enacts a simple

yet categorical rejection of the Western metaphysical tradition of identity which

considers mirrors to be surfaces that authentically reflect a focused image of the so-

called universal human subject. Within that tradition, the reflection of light proper

to mirrors has been the basis of metaphors about self-reflection, introspection, and

discovery, which speak of a true image of identity or of true identity as an image. It

seems unnecessary to quote the multitude of references to mirrors in Western

philosophy, literature, and art, which have used them to call attention to the process

52
Aníbal Quijano, “Coloniality and Modernity Rationality,” Cultural Studies, 21, 2-3 (March 2007),
170.
61

of forming a sense of a total and secure identity, not to mention the strong

association between the very act of painting and mirroring. Mirrors have been used

as metaphors to create the fantasy of a centered subject and a unitary identity and

underline the fascination of self-reflection, the process in which an image of the

self endlessly repeats itself.

In his explanation of the formation of the self, Jacques Lacan pointed out

that the process of identification that takes place in the mirror-phase inaugurates a

dramatic cycle in which the self that emerges from the reflection of his/her image in

the mirror will forever move between the need to secure that ideal form of the self

and the alienating assumption of that image. As opposed to revealing the true self

of human nature, the mirror-phase produces an idealized identity, which is

perceived by the viewer as a unitary and self-completed entity. The “jubilant

assumption” of that image, as he called that experience, “will mark with its rigid

structure the subject’s entire development.”53

Instead of depicting mirrors as glassy and transparent surfaces for the

subject to be reflected and discovered, González’s assemblages display scenarios

where seductive effigies and silhouettes insist on being appropriated or followed. In

Peinador Gracia Plena [Gratia Plena Vanity Table] (1971) (Fig. 1.15) González

appropriated Raphael’s The Virgin of the Chair. (Fig. 1.16) Gratia Plena Vanity

53
Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,” in Jacques Lacan.
Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977),
p. 4.
62

Table is an art-deco vanity table whose mirror has been covered with a circular

metal sheet on which González has painted, in industrial enamel, her version of

Raphael’s painting of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and John the Baptist. Raphael’s

original sfumato has been transformed into flat primary colors, thus losing, through

that transformation, all the facial expressions and classical perspective of the

original. The virtuous, angelical and, at the same time, universal features of the

original are transformed into something found in the reservoir of images which

express Latin American notions of the feminine: pictures in fashion magazines, the

faces of top models, and popular depictions of the Virgin. As the Colombian

feminist writer Penelope Rodríguez-Shek has pointed out, the strategies behind the

representation of Latin American women are widely determined by a discourse that

she calls "Marianismo" [Marianism].54 It combines traditional Western

representations of women, discourses about motherhood by the Catholic Church,

and the projection of desire by the masculine gaze.

González’s mirrors, however, do not seem to depict the discovery of an

image of identity through a reflected self. Latin America’s “jubilant assumption” of

an identity is not the result of a reflection in the mirror which allows the subject to

recognize him/herself, but of an image previously constructed by Western

colonialism. For Latin American women or Latin America as a woman, the fictive

image of self-recognition is replaced by a predetermined colonial one, which

54
Penélope Rodríguez-Shek, “La Virgen-Madre: Símbolo de la feminidad latinoamericana,” Texto y
Contexto 7 (Enero-Abril 1986), 73-90.
63

prevents Latin America from coming to terms with itself and inhabiting a feigned

identity. The image of the Latin American self has already been constructed from

without.

Before Europe encountered its distant other, its ideas of otherness were

shaped by fantastic stories and anecdotes about its close mysterious other. As Peter

Hulme and Peter Mason, among other authors, have pointed out, before its

encounter with the New World, the European self had taken shape through stories

about extraordinary creatures and unspeakable customs found in southern Europe.55

In particular, there were prolific tales about the supposed cannibalism, sodomy, and

bizarre appearance of the people of southern Italy, Spain, and Greece. This fictive

image of an other within Europe influenced Europe’s encounter with the other

which lived outside it. Or to put it differently, America was invented before its

discovery and became the repository of Western fantasies, fears, and desires.

Successive waves of colonial domination produced their particular forms of

economic, military and cultural occupation. However, the physical and cultural

extermination of the natives was always accompanied by Western representations

of Latin America as a disavowed other which justified Western claims to cultural

superiority. Instead of a reflection of a true image of Latin America, the

impossibility of self-reflection and self-recognition in González’s mirrors “reflects”

instead the colonial experience of being constructed from without. As Franz Fanon

55
See Peter Mason, Deconstructing America (New York: Routledge, 1990) and Peter Hulme,
Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean 1942 – 1797 (New York: Routledge, 1992).
64

has said in Black Skins, White Masks: “The elements I used [to construct my

corporal schema] had been provided . . . by the other, the white man, who had

woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories.”56

Through a close reading of Fanon, Diana Fuss has developed an important

analysis of the process of identification within colonial contexts or, even more

significant, the colonial condition of identification. She states that it is not possible

to think of the relational identities produced by the interplay of cultural differences

without taking into account “their historical genealogies, including colonial

imperialism.”57 The jubilant assumption of an image of the self, that is to say, the

assumption of a fictional identity, is followed by the continuous play of differences

that not only challenges that identity but also transforms it through its permanent

encounter with the other. As Lacan stated, after the mirror-phase—when the subject

enters the dynamics of identification with the other and language assigns it its

function as a subject—the ephemeral image of a total self becomes fragmented by

the threatening and unexpected presence of the gaze of the other. This splitting, he

said: “Enables us to apprehend the real, in its dialectical effects, as originally

unwelcome.”58 In other words, the emergence of an image of the self prefigures the

subject’s play of identification with the other as well as his/her entering as a subject

into the symbolic.

56
Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967), p. 111.
57
Diana Fuss, Identification Papers (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 143.
58
Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis, trans. Alain Sheridan and
ed. Jacques Alain-Miller (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1973), p. 69.
65

According to Fuss, in colonial contexts the denial of the colonized’s right

to, as it were, a fictive sense of self in the mirror-phase denies alterity and prevents

the colonized from using that detour through the other which produces

subjectivity.59 That is, the system of differences which turned Latin America into

the Western other does not work the other way around. As Western culture held on

to its cultural supremacy by excluding and exterminating Latin American forms of

signification and modes of cultural production, it prevented Latin America, which

was already a Western construct, from thinking of Western culture as its other.

While Latin American culture has to define itself as a non-Western culture,

Western culture does not define itself as a non-Latin American culture.

Paraphrasing Fuss, Western culture operates as its own other, freed from any

dependency upon the sign “Latin America” from its symbolic constitution. As

Western culture occupied all possible spaces of signification and “other” ways of

thinking and living were impossible, the Western became both the self and its own

other. As the mirror-phase that allows for the emergence of a sense of self is

denied, the interplay with the other that produces subjectivity becomes almost

impossible, and the consequent objectification of the colonial other is inevitable.

Fanon expressed this experience by stating that this over-determination left him as

“an object in the midst of other objects.”60 As Fuss noticed, Fanon concludes, in

opposition to Lacan, that the colonized as a subject begins and ends in a violently

59
Fuss, Identification Papers, p. 141.
60
Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 109.
66

fragmented state.61 The impossibility of a fictive unity of the self becomes the

impossibility of subjectivity.

Luce Irigaray explored this genealogy of identification in the construction of

women, arguing that the Western metaphysical tradition of the human subject is

deeply related to the supremacy assumed by masculine representations of women.

For her, the specular image of the feminine that emerges in the mirror, which

represents an ontological search for the universally “human,” is always the

masculine construction of women. As she stated: “The subject, fascinated with his

own image, with the illusion of a mirror that catches his reflection, is already faced

by another specularization: the inability to represent what he is not.”62 For her, in

mirrors:

The quest for the “object” becomes a game of Chinese boxes.

Infinitely receding. The most amorphous with regard to ideas, the

most obviously a “thing,” if you like, the most opaque matter, opens

up a mirror as being all the purer because it knows and is known to

have no reflections. Except those which man has reflected there but

which, in the movement of that concave speculum, pirouetting upon

itself, will rapidly, deceptively fade.63

61
Fuss, Identification Papers, p. 143.
62
Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), p.
134.
63
Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, p. 135.
67

Irigaray considers mirroring to be trapped within the notion of a subject who is

always masculine. Therefore, the search for a feminine subject is considered for her

to be a useless task, as it is already inscribed within masculine discourse. Irigaray

stated:

Any theory of the subject has always been appropriated by the

“masculine” . . . The “subject” plays at multiplying himself, even

deforming himself, in this process. He is father, mother, and

child(ren) and the relationships between them. He is masculine and

feminine and the relationships between them. What a mockery of

generation, parody of copulation and genealogy, drawing its strength

from the same model of the same: the subject.64

In El baño turco artífices del mármol [The Turkish Bath Marble’s Artifices]

(1974), (Fig. 1.17) based on Ingres’s The Turkish Bath, (Fig. 1.18) González used a

dressing table often found in the bathrooms of middle-class Colombian homes. On

top of the table there is a sink made of fake marble, and the actual furniture is

painted in red and white triangles. The mirror is replaced by a circular plate painted

with industrial enamel. It is covered by images that have been extensively used on

calendars, magazines, and reproductions which Colombians frame and use to

decorate their bathrooms. Only four odalisques remain of the crowd depicted in the

original Ingres’s painting. Their skin color has been changed from the sensual and

64
Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, p. 136.
68

warm tones of Ingres to a flat, cold violet and green. The background of Ingres’s

painting has been replaced by a flat black surface.

González’s appropriation of Ingres’s women emphasizes the connection

between colonialism, sexual desire, and representations of Latin America. Ingres’s

The Turkish Bath is an image in which sensuality is unquestionable, but the desire

to see, to penetrate, seems to be postponed, deferred: The bathers’ senses, perfectly

attuned to their environment, are attentive to silences and sounds that our senses

cannot share. Ingres’s painting expresses the masculine power to see and penetrate,

yet it also expresses the impossibility of achieving either, since the object desired

by the masculine gaze is only a metaphorical representation.

González’s appropriation of Ingres’s painting calls attention to the Western

construction of Latin American women or Latin America as a woman as a desirable

other. What seems to appear in her work on Ingres’s painting is the masculine look

that erases the feminine and converts it into the subject of his desire; that is to say,

it depicts the construction of the feminine from without. However, her cold and

distant representation exacerbates the metaphorical character of representation,

reminding the spectator of the impossibility of his desire. González’s representation

of a representation, as she called the ways in which her work operates, produces a

metaphorical representation of representation as a metaphor. This metaphorical

representation depicts the erasure of the feminine, yet by representing the

representation, she erases that erasure, that is to say, she erases the very system by
69

which Latin America becomes an object of desire. The impossibility of desire

implicit in all identifications becomes the total impossibility of the whole system of

representation that creates the other as an object of desire. The mirror that formerly

acted for the viewer as a speculum “to dilate the lips, the orifices, and the walls,”65

becomes a barrier that prevents one from penetrating to the interior of the object

and its representation.

In Nací en Florencia y tenía veintiseis años cuando mi retrato fue pintado:

esta frase pronunciada en voz dulce y baja [I was Born in Florence and I was 26

Years Old when My Portrait was Painted: This Sentence Pronounced in a Sweet

and Low Voice], (Fig. 1.19) González appropriates Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona

Lisa. (Fig. 1.20) To frame the work, she used a heavily ornamented art-nouveau

wooden coat-stand that combines different kinds of artisanal woodwork. In the

upper part, in place of the mirror, there is a painted sheet of metal which fits its

original shape. As in the other dressing tables, all naturalistic depiction has been

replaced by flat colors and delineated shapes. Details have been abolished. The

original darkened atmosphere has been changed by the use of bright colors,

creating a kind of tropical Caribbean landscape. The legendary and enigmatic smile

of La Gioconda has disappeared. The accentuation of disturbing racial and cultural

differences situates the West’s pretension to a universal human subject within

65
Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, p. 147.
70

tropical zones. The pale skin of Leonardo’s original La Gioconda has been

transformed into that of a mestizo.

González’s colored La Gioconda appears to be nearly but not quite a

Western woman, to paraphrase Homi Bhabha’s famous saying. As I have said, in

all identifications, self-recognition is produced by a reflected image that will be

permanently negotiated in the play of cultural differences. In colonial contexts,

however, as the image of the self is imposed from without and the West claims for

itself the right to be self and other at once, resemblance and likeness become the

only place for the play of subjectivity. “You can be like me” is an expression

whereby the dream of recognition becomes the cultural condition which makes

colonialism possible, yet it is also its disavowal, since it implies that you never will.

In other words, for colonialism to function, it needs the other to identify with the

image the colonizer has narcissistically constructed, sanctioning the other so that it

may become the self. However, it is a disavowal of the other, as a bad copy of the

original, perpetuating colonial discourse’s power, because the disavowed other has

to keep working to improve resemblance and likeness.

As Fuss points out, while mimicry is a deliberate exaggeration of a cultural

role, mimesis is the unconscious assumption of a role. Both are intrinsically related

to power relations and produce forms of resistance when mimicry and mimesis get

beyond the control of the existing power structure. González’s representation of La

Gioconda as almost Western and not Western enough visually translates the very
71

title of the piece that has to be pronounced in a sweet and low voice: I was born in

Florence and I was 26 years old when my portrait was painted. González’s title

functions as an enticement: “You can be like me” which is transformed into “You

look like me,” “I look like you,” and “We are alike.” In doing so, she lets us know

that power produces both resemblance in order to be exercised and strategies of

disguise that shatter the system of identification and subjectivity the West uses to

control the other. The system of vision and surveillance that identifies and keeps

apart notions of self and other is now in danger. The missing part which the other

needs to be perceived as a total self becomes what the self needs to keep its fictive

and unitary narrative of identity since it confirms that the other is a disavowed

other different from the self. Yet, since the other resembles the self, s/he becomes

the excess or supplement which threatens and deconstructs the self’s pretension of

supremacy and originality.

In her discussion of Irigaray’s work on the role of mimesis and mimicry in

the construction of a Western philosophy of feminism, Judith Butler has stressed

Irigaray’s attention to the outlines of a phallocentric economy which defines the

meaning of the feminine.66 For Irigaray, Butler writes, the feminine always appears

in catachresis, that is to say, as a figure of impropriety, the improper, and the

property-less.67 In turn, Butler argues that it is precisely through the “radical

66
Judith Butler, “Bodies that Matter,” in Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex,”
Judith Butler (London, New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 37.
67
Butler, “Bodies that Matter,” p. 37.
72

citational practice” of Western philosophy that Irigaray herself performs a

catachrestic usurpation of the “proper” for fully improper uses: “to haunt the very

language from which the feminine is excluded.”68 The politics of this strategy of

mimicry is paraphrased by Butler in these terms:

Irigaray’s response to this exclusion of the feminine from the

economy of representation is effectively to say: Fine, I don’t want to

be in your economy anyway, and I’ll show you what this

unintelligible receptacle can do to your system; I will not be a poor

copy in your system, but I will resemble you nevertheless by miming

the textual [and visual] passages through which you construct your

system and showing that what cannot enter it is already inside it (as

its necessary outside), and I will mime and repeat the gestures of

your operation until this emergence of the outside within the system

calls into question its systematic closure and its pretension to be

self-grounding.69

Borrowing and expanding on Butler’s use of the term, I understand González’s

appropriation of Western art to be a “radical citational practice” of the Western

system which depicted Latin America women or Latina America as a woman as

underdeveloped and backward during the Cold War. As Irigaray does, González

practices a mimesis and mimicry of the system from which Latin America has been

68
Butler, “Bodies that Matter,” p. 37.
69
Butler, “Bodies that Matter,” p. 45.
73

both included and excluded in order “to haunt” its very language. Whereas Traba

interpreted González’s work as an artistic representation of Latin American

cultures, supposedly full of figures of impropriety, the improper, and the property-

less and therefore condemned to underdevelopment and backwardness, González

undertook a catachrestic usurpation of the “proper” Western artistic and cultural

tradition for fully improper uses.

González’s catachrestic usurpation of Western traditions is manifold: First,

González appropriates the appropriations of Western art made by local cultures,

miming their depiction as under-cultures that aim to be original but are nevertheless

just a bad copy of modernity; that is to say, Latin American under-cultures are

almost modern and yet not modern enough. Second, her representation of Latin

America as a woman establishes a parallel between masculine domination of

women and Western domination of Latin America. Her colorful tropical

appropriations of the women depicted by Western art call attention to the

representation of Latin American women or of Latin America as a woman as man’s

other or under-woman, that is to say, Latin American women who are not yet

universal Western men or women where the category of race prevents them from

being totally Western. Finally, she usurps the system of art that has treated her as

an under-artist by miming the achievements of the Great Masters. Her painting

resembles a child’s painting-by-numbers game where colors are filled in

accordance with a fixed format in order to repeat the representation. González is a


74

female artist who “paints” women depicted by men and mimes the discursive

operation whereby Latin America, Latin America as a woman, and Latin American

women are constructed as under-developed, under-women, and under-artists. She

has given her artwork the name of under-painting, presenting it as a prototype of

Colombian art, “a provincial art that cannot circulate universally except as a

curiosity.”70

The dialogue I have been exploring reveals the disjunctive forms of cultural

representation which arise from the dissemination of modernity among non-modern

cultures within the context of the developmentalist dream of creating a world of

progress. Traba’s explanation of González’s artwork was a theoretical formulation

strongly related to American formalism and the discursive strategies of

developmentalism. While Traba publicly rejected the American mode of cultural

production, she also used high modernism to explain what she called the pre-

modern and underdeveloped character of Latin American art and culture. By

deploying Greenberg’s distinctions between avant-garde and kitsch as well as

formal and folk culture, she participated in the American modernist project for

Latin American culture. Her interpretation of art as an autonomous, self-reflexive,

and universal practice followed American formalism’s agenda and its relation to

the search for American hegemony after World War II. Similarly, by representing

Latin American culture as backward, pre-modern, and underdeveloped, Traba’s

70
Quoted by Marta Traba “Beatriz González,” in Beatriz González: Una pintora de provincia, p. 36.
75

reading of González’s work also fitted into the dominant discourse of

developmentalism that gave shape to the notion of the Third World.

As Guilbaut has stated, artistic and art historical practices are political not

necessarily because they intentionally support a dominant ideology but because

they systematically produce representations which both emerge from the

hegemonic values of any given period and, by the same token, help support the

construction of that hegemony.71 However, if there was a link between high

modernism and American hegemony during the Cold War, there was also a

difference, which depended on whether formalism and modernism were promoted

from the U.S. or from Latin America. Traba was not intentionally “tied” to

American imperialism, and yet her use of formalism connected her to the American

search for hegemony, insofar as her writing helped construct representations of

Latin America as the third-world other of the American hegemony. In other words,

Traba’s modernism helped construct notions of both hegemony and subalternity

that were used by American cultural imperialism. Thus, her interpretation of Latin

American art was not so much related to the fascist or communist threat as it was to

her view of the traditional cultures of Latin America as the expressions of “poor

countries” which needed to be developed. However, I believe Traba’s continuous

shift between recognition of and contempt for Latin American culture was partly a

result of the issues of identification and colonialism González herself was

71
Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, p. 3.
76

exploring. As she defined Latin America as composed of open and closed areas in

relation to the American mode of cultural production, Traba, coming from an open

area like Argentina, moved to a closed area like Colombia. Her perception of the

relationship between universal and local cultures is caught in the middle of a

battlefield where she perceived Latin America as both: the Western’s other that can

put the culture of the closed areas at the service of an alternative modernity and the

Western other condemned to backwardness and underdevelopment. González’s

recurrent re-framing, displacement, and combination of modern and local traditions

localize the universal pretensions of modernity and display the continuous struggle

by local cultures to critically dialogue with the cultural strength of

developmentalism.

To conclude, I would like to return to González’s Gratia Plena Vanity

Table. In this assemblage, what once was an image is now a scenario where the

struggle of identification takes place. By replacing the mirror with “clumsy” and

“childish” representations of the Western heritage, González hits back at

modernity’s illusion of universality, because what it reflects is not a fulfillment of

the Western desire for grasping the other and making it its own but a fragmented

and split image of the Western self.

As Freud explained, identification reveals the workings of mourning

whereby the subject tries to deal with the loss of its love-object. For Lacan, this

process takes the form not so much of an object as of a spectral image one keeps
77

inside oneself, to replace the one that is no longer outside. Once again, González’s

mirrors seem to reverse the usual depiction of identification, where the mirror

reflects the fictive image of the self. What seems to appear in the mirror is not the

image of a Latin America that recognizes itself as a bad copy of modernity, but the

spectral image modernity keeps inside itself in order to deal with the impossibility

of its being universal. González’s appropriation of the local cultures’ appropriations

of Western heritage does not reflect the under-development suffered by Latin

America but the ghostly images which modernity keeps to itself in order to deal

with the loss of its illusion of being self-grounded.

The “universality” of modern culture was based on the fantasy that its

spread would change cultures everywhere and yet remain “true to itself.” However,

the very proclamation that modernity is the only truly universal culture worthy of

dissemination also becomes a threat to it. Its local uses remind us of the fact that all

cultures are permanently subjected to translation. Local uses of modernism would

prove the impossibility of its remaining “true to itself.” González’s work reminds

us that cultural difference is not so much that which almost looks like the self but

the fragments and patches that hang from the hegemonic borders of modernity and,

precisely because of their adjacency and “untranslatability,” operate as a critique of

progress, homogeneity, and cultural organicism.


78

CHAPTER 2

The National Mummy: Antonio Caro’s Un-Art and the Politics of


Conceptualism

Anti-discursive Strategies

In her article “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity: Conceptualism in Latin America,

1960-1980,” Mari Carmen Ramirez explores the routes taken by conceptual art in

Latin America. She summarizes her interest in this matter by formulating three

central questions: How are we to understand a group of Latin American artworks as

“conceptualist” when even their original authors do not designate them as such? Is

it possible to argue for regional, autonomous versions of conceptualism, which

could be or has been perceived as a global movement? If so, what are their

specificities and characteristics?1

Ramirez suggests that in order to answer these questions one should

approach Latin American conceptualist projects as a group of heterogeneous

collective and individual works whose particularity is framed by two main features:

their ideological and local references and their critical relationship to global

conceptualism. These two main boundaries, Ramirez argues, may well explain how

1
Mari Carmen Ramirez, “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity: Conceptualism in Latin America,
1960-1980,” in Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s—1980s (New York: Queens
Museum of Art, 1999), p. 53-70.
79

Latin American conceptualism not only paralleled the global conceptualist

questioning of the “preciousness of the autonomous art object inherited from the

Renaissance but also transcended” those North Atlantic trends that gave shape to

such a questioning.2 She states that “it is from the shifting boundaries of this

utopian search that the eclectic practices constituting conceptualism [in Latin

America] should be approached.”3

She considers it crucial, however, to discuss two common trends of thought

in the interpretation of conceptualism which, according to her, have obstructed such

an analysis:

On the one hand, there is the prevalence of an extremely reductive

and self-serving art historical framework that . . . continues to

privilege a small, iconoclastic group of North American and British

artists . . . On the other hand, there are the misunderstandings

generated within our own countries by the Cold War legacy, of

which Marta Traba’s biased “thesis of resistance” is representative.

Traba zealously denounced conceptual practices as “imported fads”

whose emergence revealed the degree to which a sector of our artists

had “surrendered” to North American cultural imperialism.4

2
Ramirez, “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity,” p. 53.
3
Ramirez, “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity,” p. 53.
4
Ramirez, “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity,” p. 54.
80

Ramírez suggests then that conceptualism, more than a style or artistic movement,

should be seen as a “strategy of anti-discourses whose evasive tactics call into

question both the fetishization of art and its system of production and distribution

in late capitalist society.”5 Understanding conceptual art in these terms, she argues,

would allow for an accurate examination of the specific condition of Latin

American conceptual practices in a way that such an assessment would go beyond

the crass reductionism of metropolitan accounts, as well as the

commonplace dichotomies of the center/periphery model. That is, it

will enable me to engage the work of these [Latin American] artists

not as reflections, derivations, or even replicas of center-based

conceptual art but, instead, as local responses to the contradictions

posed by the failure of post-World War II modernization projects

and the artistic models they fostered in the region.6

The specific condition of Latin American conceptualist projects were a result of

implementing a pattern of assimilation/conversion largely guided by the internal

dynamics and contradictions of the local context.7 It would be precisely this pattern

or dialectic exchange, as she calls it, that helped Latin American conceptualist

practices anticipate important developments of center-based conceptual art. By

taking ideology and politics as their starting point, Latin American conceptualists

5
Ramirez, “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity,” p. 53.
6
Ramirez, “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity,” p. 54.
7
Ramirez, “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity,” p. 54.
81

“produced some of the most creative responses of our century to the question of

art’s function first raised by Marcel Duchamp.”8

Ramirez’s project of re-writing the history of Latin American conceptualism

is part of a broader attempt made by scholars, critics, and art curators from the

“Third World,” and U.S. academics working on Latin American art and cultures, to

confront the Eurocentric perspective from which the global history of art and

culture has been written. Back in the early nineties, this group began a critique of

exhibitions and texts about Latin American art in the U.S. and Europe. Art of the

Fantastic: Latin America, 1920-1987, an exhibition organized by the Indianapolis

Museum of Art and curated by Hollyday Day and Hollister Sturges, initiated this

debate. The exhibition summarized, according to its critics, the typical

reductionisms and homogenizations that have constructed representations of the

Latin American other as the real maravilloso (marvelous realism), the exotic, and

the tropical. “Beyond the Fantastic” is the title of Ramirez’s pioneering article, in

which she states the most important issues surrounding this debate:

At stake is not only the question of whether the image of the Latin

American or Latino “other” that emerges from these shows truly

engages the cultural constituencies it aims to represent, but also how

museums and the art establishment at large respond to the cultural

demands of an increasingly influential community . . . The

8
Ramirez, “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity,” p. 54.
82

elaboration of an effective agenda for the nineties, however, requires

that we step beyond denunciation of the neocolonial politics at work

in Latin America/Latino exhibitions boom and focus more precisely

on the ideological and conceptual premises that guided the

organization of these art shows.9

One of the most comprehensive attempts to develop this viewpoint has been

Gerardo Mosquera’s work on the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam and his relationship to

surrealism, which has been presented in various international meetings and

published in several versions.10 Mosquera questions the ways in which Lam’s

artwork has been represented in art history and world collections as an “exotic”

quotation of international surrealism. He argues that a better understanding of

Lam’s Cuban context and his African roots may well explain how his use of

surrealism functions as an appropriation whereby surrealism has been devoured and

spit out again, producing profound questionings of modernism and modernity.

Beyond the Fantastic was also the title of a collection of essays edited by Gerardo

Mosquera, in which artists, critics, and curators attempted to approach Latin

American art from this new political position. Mosquera writes in the introduction:

New criticism puts forward particular strategies, working on the

margins, deconstructing power mechanisms and rhetoric,


9
Mari Carmen Ramírez, “Beyond ‘The Fantastic:’ Framing Identity in U.S. Exhibitions of Latin
American Art,” Art Journal 51, 4 (Winter 1992), 60-61.
10
See for instance, Gerardo Mosquera, “Modernism from Afro-America: Wifredo Lam,” in Beyond
the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America, ed. Gerardo Mosquera (London:
INIVA, 1995), p. 121-132.
83

appropriating and resignifying. This agenda is related to the

development of a socially, politically and culturally aware

conceptualism that has sophisticated the symbolic resources of this

type of art in order to discuss the complexity of Latin American

societies. It is also related to artistic tendencies that cynically

proclaim their customary Latin American freedom to take from the

centre and freely and often “incorrectly” readapt. The complex of

being “derivative” has been transformed into pride in the particular

skill of appropriating and transforming things to one’s own benefit,

encouraged by a postmodern breaking-down of the hierarchies

between the original and the copy.11

I would like to point out the ways in which Latin American stories of

cultural struggle and resistance are represented through the figures used by Ramirez

and Mosquera. I am interested, for instance, in pondering the former’s attempt to

re-write the history of conceptualism in Latin America within a broader framework

such as the need for an “image of the Latin American or Latino ‘other’ that . . .

truly engages the cultural constituencies it aims to represent” or, as Mosquera puts

it, the urgent need to transform “the complex of being derivative . . . into pride in

11
Mosquera, Beyond the Fantastic, p. 13.
84

the particular skill of appropriating and transforming things to one’s own

benefit.”12

In my exploration of the politics that mobilizes Ramirez’s art historical

explanation, I would like to propose an approach—neither dialectical nor utopian—

to some conceptualist practices in Latin America, with a different reading of both

the regional political context and the politics of these conceptualist artistic

practices. In respect to the former, I wonder to what extent Ramirez’s interpretation

of Latin American conceptualism continues, as much as it attempts to rupture, the

legacy of modernist art history during the Cold War which she seeks to criticize.

Her model of assimilation/conversion remains within the dichotomies and

oppositions that have framed our interpretation of cultural dialogues between the

First and Third Worlds. These do not allow us to explore the ways in which

modernist art history and academic practices took part in the political and cultural

context they attempted to criticize. In respect to the latter, I propose to approach

Latin American conceptualism within the context of new forms of colonialism that

emerged during the Cold War that radically changed both the old cartographies of

power based on a center/periphery model and the ethics and aesthetics of cultural

struggles taking place in both center and periphery.

Ramirez’s reaction to Traba’s interpretation of conceptualism as “imported

fads” is to discard it in order to propose an alternative model of

12
Mosquera, Beyond the Fantastic, p. 13.
85

assimilation/conversion that overcomes the reductionisms and dichotomies of the

center/periphery model. Nonetheless, her approach seems to differ from that of

Traba not so much in actually overcoming those dichotomies and oppositions as in

displacing Latin American conceptualism from the political right—where she

assumes Traba put it—to the left. She interprets conceptualism as a strategy of anti-

discourses that criticized and transcended North Atlantic conceptualism. She also

argues for a real representation of the Latin American other and for the insertion of

those anti-discourses within the leftist critique of the “fetishization of art and its

system of production and distribution in late capitalist society.”13 However, she

seems to echo the interpretations North Atlantic critics and historians have made of

conceptualism. Benjamin Buchloh, for instance, has argued:

What Conceptual Art achieved, at least temporarily, however, was

to subject the last residues of artistic aspiration toward

transcendence (by means of traditional studio skills and privileged

modes of experience) to a rigorous and relentless order of the

vernacular of administration. Furthermore, it managed to purge

artistic production of the aspiration toward an affirmative

collaboration with the forces of industrial production and

consumption . . . Paradoxically, then, it would appear that

Conceptual Art truly became the most significant paradigmatic

13
Ramírez, “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity,” p. 54.
86

change of postwar artistic production at the very moment that it

mimed the operating logic of late capitalism and its positivist

instrumentality in an effort to place its auto-critical investigations at

the service of liquidating even the last remnants of traditional

aesthetic experience.14

Buchloh also locates the politics of conceptualism within the leftist critique, despite

the fact that he seems to be disturbed by the conceptualists’ abandonment of the

left. He does state, however, that such a critique was made by confronting the ways

in which conceptual art, by “purging art of any collaboration with the forces of

industrial production and consumption,” linked the art institution with late capitalist

society. Thus, conceptualism was political in the sense that it carried out a profound

critique of the art institution and its role in “the operating logic of late capitalism

and its positivist instrumentality.”15 For Ramirez, by contrast, Latin American

conceptualism was political because:

From its earliest manifestations, conceptualism in our countries

extended the self-referential principle of North American conceptual

art to a reinterpretation of the social and political structures in which

it was inscribed . . . Thus, while North American artists . . .

addressed their criticism to the institutionalized world of art, Latin

14
Benjamin Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the
Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (Winter 1990), 142,143.
15
Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969,” 143.
87

American artists, for the most part, made the public sphere their

target. Thus, not only was the work intended to operate at the

ideological level, but ideology itself became the fundamental

“material identity” for the conceptual proposition.16

According to Ramirez, it was precisely this combination that lead Latin American

conceptualists to produce “some of the most creative responses of our century to

the question of art’s function first raised by Marcel Duchamp.” By working at the

ideological level and making ideology the “material identity” of the conceptual

proposition, Latin American conceptualism not only participated in the

development of global conceptualism but also transcended the North Atlantic’s

narrow interest in the institutionalized world of art. She seems to repudiate what

she calls the self-referential principle of North American conceptualism—as

Buchloh also seems to do—in order to suggest, on the one hand, that the so-called

self-referential principle of North Atlantic critique did not work “at the ideological

level.” On the other hand, Ramirez implies that what also made Latin American

conceptualism political was the nature of its subject, that is to say, the ideology

behind the modernization project implemented in Latin America during the Cold

War. This, of course, is based on her postulation that the institutionalized world of

art was outside ideology.

16
Ramirez, “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity,” p. 55.
88

Ramirez’s initial critique of the “reductive and self-serving art historical

framework” attempts to recuperate the role that Latin American conceptualism

played in the construction of global conceptualism, which has been denied.

Ironically, however, her attempt “to engage the work of these [Latin American]

artists not as reflections, derivations, or even replicas of center-based conceptual

art” ends up assimilating the former within the same master narrative she seems to

question. In other words, her claim that Latin American conceptualist practices are

“the most creative responses of our century to the question of art’s function first

raised by Marcel Duchamp” seems to look for the inclusion of Latin American

conceptualist practices within the “institutionalized world of art,” situating Latin

American conceptualism within the general history of the movement, as well as to

reinstate the very same dichotomy that gave shape to Latin American modernist art

history, based on the polarities of center/periphery, dependence/autonomy, and

original/copy. Ramirez’s inverted model can be seen then as a rotation, by means of

a multiculturalist claim, of the polarities that framed specific ways of understanding

the politics of culture during the post-World War II period, including what she calls

“the Cold War legacy.” Despite the differences between Buchloh and Ramirez’s

arguments, both insist that what made conceptualism “the most significant

paradigmatic change of postwar artistic production” was the oppositional, leftist

character of its critique.


89

I am not interested in arguing that both conceptualisms—global and Latin

American—were critical or radical in essence. The issue at stake here is how a

model of contradictions and oppositions prevents us from seeing other modes of

cultural critique and struggle. Instead of seeing the Third World as constructed

within a set of dichotomies, where Ramirez’s approach inevitably falls, I suggest

that we consider it to be built within a system of differences, that is to say, to see

the Third World as the First World, or North Atlantic’s other, as well as to register

“other” strategies of struggle and resistance. As Trinh T. Minh-ha put it:

‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ must be understood not merely in

terms of oppositions and separations but rather in terms of

differences. This implies a constant to-and-fro movement between

the same and the other . . . No system functions in isolation. No First

World exists independently from the Third World; there is a Third

World in every First World and vice-versa.17

During the Cold War there was a radical change in terms of cultural

geographies of power. As I have previously pointed out, in the early post-World

War II period, a series of discourses and practices were initiated in order to create

the Third World as the North Atlantic hegemony’s underdeveloped other.18 Owing

to the fact that the terms of Ramirez’s dichotomies were no longer in the places

17
Trinh T. Minh-Ha, “Of Other Peoples: Beyond the ‘Salvage’ Paradigm,” in Discussions in
Contemporary Culture, ed. Hal Foster (New York: DIA Foundation, 1987), p. 138.
18
See Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World
(Princeton: PUP, 1995).
90

they used to be, she seems to assume that all center-based conceptual art is aligned

with the political right, while all Latin American periphery-based conceptualist

practices were leftist and critical in essence. Left and right, north and south, center

and periphery—terms used to explain power relations during the period—were

transformed within the context of the emergence of both a new imperialism without

colonies and new strategies of cultural resistance.

Instead of cartographies based on the center/periphery model, during the

Cold War the world was constructed in terms of relations of power/resistance that

occupied all territories, including center and periphery, as Trinh reminds us. These

new scenarios of power allowed the emergence of forms of cultural activism, based

not so much on a territory as on a locus of enunciation inscribed within the

contingencies of specific cultural, social and geographic territories. Both Latin

American and North Atlantic conceptualism put forward a critique of modernity

which later found its way into postmodernism and feminism, among other critiques.

However, unlike its North Atlantic counterpart, Latin American conceptualism

delineated a locus of enunciation from a colonial position whereby the art

institution was linked to the discursive regimes that emerged after World War II

and the colonial condition of modernity and modernism was contested and resisted.

Although it is possible to demonstrate how Ramirez’s model applies to

some Latin American conceptualist practices, I would like to explore “other”

cultural and artistic practices that displayed non-humanist, non-dialectic and non-
91

utopian strategies of cultural activism and carried out a profound critique of the

colonial condition of modernity. If it is true, as Ramirez argues, that Latin

American conceptualism anticipated a radical critique, it is possible to examine

such a radicalism not so much by inverting the dichotomist model as bringing to

light the ways in which some conceptualist strategies set in motion a critique of the

system of differences that gave shape to the colonial world after World War II.

Ramirez calls Latin American conceptualism a strategy of anti-discourses,

where the term “discourse” is translated as a textual proposition used as an

“artistic” medium to put forward a critique of the political context of Latin America

during the sixties and seventies. Instead, I suggest we explore some Latin American

conceptualist projects as practices interested in investigating and contesting the

discursive colonial condition of Latin America where the term “discourse” is

understood as the configuration of knowledge and power that gave shape to Latin

America after World War II. I propose, then, to view Latin American

conceptualism not so much as a strategy of anti-discourses, but as an anti-

discursive strategy that put into question the disciplinary modes of modernity and

modernism coming from both the political left and the right.

Following this first section, I will revisit some of the facts surrounding the

reception of conceptualism in Colombia at the end of sixties. Taking into account

articles, newspapers, and books regarding some of the first conceptualist

exhibitions held in Colombia, I will examine Ramirez’s understanding of Latin


92

American conceptualism in relation to Traba’s, within the framework of the

broader cultural struggles taking place in Latin America at the time. It is not my

intent to reproach Ramirez’s and Traba’s insights as mistaken or incorrect versions

of Latin American conceptualism. Rather, I will put them into a dialogue to

delineate some conclusions about the politics of Latin American art history.

Secondly, I will concentrate on some of the artistic projects undertaken by

Colombian artist Antonio Caro. Even though the colonial perspective of Latin

American conceptualism can be identified in a variety of Latin American artistic

practices, I would like in particular to explore those anti-discursive strategies

implemented by some of his artistic projects that took on the construction of the

Colombian nation, which, despite being born at the beginning of the 19th century,

became particularly relevant during the Cold War. Antonio Caro’s work, I believe,

developed conceptualist strategies that supplemented the cultural construction of

the Latin American nation, which, in order to keep its unity and coherence, had to

expel non-national stories and their social subjects.

What Dante Never Knew

The work Lo que Dante nunca supo (Beatriz amaba el control de la natalidad)

[What Dante Never knew: Beatrice Loved Birth Control], (Fig. 2.1) from 1966 by

Bernardo Salcedo is considered by most art historians working on Latin American

art to be the first conceptual artwork in Colombia. Lo que Dante nunca supo
93

consisted of a wooden box full of eggs all painted white. The work was first shown

in the exhibition Tribute to Dante Alighieri by Colombian Artists organized by the

Italian Embassy in Colombia. The exhibition displayed works that were included in

a competition—the Dante Alighieri Award—celebrating the date of the poet’s

seventh hundred birthday. The organizers invited both artists and poets to

participate in their respective categories. Bernardo Salcedo won the first prize. The

contest provoked a public dispute among the organizers and the jury. Giulio

Corsini, a member of the jury for the Italian Embassy, protested, arguing that

Salcedo’s work “does not fit the concept of painting, and also does not fulfill the

invitation’s conditions, which clearly stated that the subject should be inspired by

Dante’s life and work.”19 The rest of jury argued that:

The new tendencies of art around the world have allowed for the

creation of ‘objects’ similar in technique to those used by Mr.

Salcedo. Of course, these objects do not belong to traditional

painting but have been accepted by art critics as part of the realm of

plastic arts . . . In regard to the conditions established in the

invitation, the term “inspiration” refers to the subjective sphere of

the artist and does not imply, in consequence, the need to “illustrate”

passages of [Dante’s] work or his life.20

19
Álvaro Barrios, Orígenes del Arte Conceptual en Colombia (Bogotá: IDCT, 1999), p. 12.
20
Barrios, Orígenes del Arte Conceptual en Colombia, p. 14.
94

Although Salcedo’s work could be viewed as an amusing comment on the modern

obsession with birth control due to the “demographic explosion” in

“underdeveloped countries” during the Cold World, Marta Traba commented on

the incident in El Espectador, a national newspaper, in this way:

Last year, Bernardo Salcedo exhibited his first boxes and objects in

The Museum of Modern Art in Bogotá . . . His work What Dante

Never Knew (Beatrice Loved Birth Control) and the deafening

laughter that emerged from it did not bring Dante or Beatrice down

from their heavenly pedestal. It demonstrated, instead, the

impossibility for a twentieth-century artist to pay homage to the

greatest lyrical genius of the sixteen century without being absurd

and almost irreverent.21

For most art critics and historians in Colombia, however, the first truly

conceptualist show was the exhibition Espacios Ambientales [Ambient Spaces] held

at the Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá in 1968. (Fig. 2.2) Contrary to Ramirez’s

statement regarding the Cold War’s legacy established by Marta Traba, the show

was in fact organized by Traba herself and others and presented the work of some

artists that would later be labeled conceptualists.22 Most of the accounts of the facts

surrounding this exhibition, as well as the early reception and subsequent

21
Quoted by Álvaro Barrios, Orígenes del Arte Conceptual, p. 17.
22
The exhibition included works by Álvaro Barrios, Ana Mercedes Hoyos, Felyza Bursztyn and
Bernardo Salcedo, among others.
95

developments of conceptualism in Colombia, have been compiled by Álvaro

Barrios in his book Orígenes del arte conceptual en Colombia [Origins of

Conceptual Art in Colombia]. Regarding the exhibition, Barrios states that the idea

to put on a show of this kind was inspired by his experience in Italy, where he had

the opportunity to visit the show entitled Lo Spazio dell’Immagine in Foligno. Lo

Spazio consisted of a series of interventions in a medieval building by a group of

Italian artists and bears a resemblance to the curatorial concept of Espacios

Ambientales. Along with interviews with the leading artists of conceptualism in

Colombia, the book also compiles press reviews, clippings, and pictures about the

main events regarding the stories of conceptualism during the sixties and seventies.

An excerpt of a press review from the national newspaper El Espectador caught my

attention. Traba promoted the exhibition in these terms:

I would like to make an announcement about an exhibition which,

according to my judgment, will be the most important event of the

year. The show Espacios Ambientales will be held between

December 10 and 23 at the Museum of Modern Art, which is now

located in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia [National

University of Colombia] . . . I am organizing the exhibition, which

gives me great pleasure. The exhibition intends to attack the

spectator’s passivity as well as to demand his/her attention. It is

impossible to continue to insist that the relation between spectator


96

and art has changed. It needs to be demonstrated. This is the first

attempt to do it. When the indignant or amused spectators’

inevitable “what-is-this?” arises—looking for definitions such as

“this is a painting,” “this is a sculpture,” “this is a cow,” “this is a

butterfly”—different answers will be given. We intend, on the

contrary, to demonstrate that (1) What the spectator searches for in

contemporary art will never be found and (2) The spectator will find

what he/she was not looking for and, even more, what he/she never

thought existed.23

The exhibition opened on December 11, 1968. During the opening, at the entrance

to the Museum, a group of students demonstrated against the exhibition, loudly

chanting, “Art is for the people not for the bourgeoisie.” Late at night, two students,

Iván Ramírez and Pedro Berbesí, from the Schools of Medicine and Law of the

National University respectively, broke in and attacked the exhibition, destroying

two works, including that of Álvaro Barrios.24 They also left cards, spread all over

the floor, which clearly displayed their impression of Espacios Ambientales

through their statement: “After this shit, art is in mourning.”25

As Barrios himself recalls, “The culprits were caught by the security guards

as they were destroying my own piece, Pasatiempo con luz intermitente [Hobby
23
Marta Traba, “Defensa del sí y defensa del no,” El Espectador Lecturas Dominicales (December
8, 1968), p.14.
24
Elkin Mesa, “Declaración de protesta de Álvaro Barrios contra los izquierdistas que destruyeron
su trabajo en el MAM,” El Siglo (December 13, 1968), p. 5.
25
Marta Traba, “Destruída exposición,” El Espectador (December 12, 1968), sec. A, p. 9.
97

With Intermittent Light], and Víctor Muñoz’s Bogotá, una ciudad en marcha para

beneficio de todo el país [Bogota: A Progressing City for the Benefit of the Whole

Country].”26 (Fig. 2.3) Marta Traba, as director of the Museum, brought charges

against the students, and they were put in jail. El Siglo, a national newspaper,

concluded an article concerning the attack by stating:

We hope that it won’t be the same as it was a few years ago when a

member of the group “Amauta,” Naftalí Silva, was arrested for the

damage he caused to a group of valued artworks from the same

Museum of Modern Art [at that time located in the National

Library], and he was released a few days later.27

In regard to the repeated attacks against the Museum of Modern Art, one week after

the story surrounding the opening of Espacios Ambientales, Traba wrote in El

Espectador,

In a country like Colombia, where every hour a child dies because of

hunger or hunger-related diseases and where illiteracy prevails, it is

normal that the majority of people who read and write completely

ignore that they are living in the twentieth century, with its

particular culture and original world view. It is also logical that a

privileged sector of the population that has access to education

despises all forms of knowledge that would allow them to situate

26
Barrios, Orígenes del Arte Conceptual en Colombia, p. 18.
27
Mesa, “Declaración de protesta de Álvaro Barrios,” p. 5.
98

themselves in this century. They consider this to be pointless,

ignoring what matters and what does not.28

Traba repudiated the attack in these terms,

I am concerned with the ways in which these experiences of

knowledge, devoted to enriching the vision and understanding of

cultured people, can be considered for some students to be an art

exhibition uninterested in the problems affecting Colombians. It is

sad to see that they do not understand that the escape from

underdevelopment, regardless of the political situation that our

country may be in, capitalism or socialism, totalitarianism or

popular revolution, cannot be possible without employing various

strategies. That is why, when we educate, we have to stimulate a

creative culture; we can build dams, but we also have to have more

and better museums. Any other conduct furthers the economic,

cultural, and political status quo that has governed Colombia since

the colonial period.29

Among the artists included was Bernardo Salcedo, whose work consisted of a

proclamation by which he declared as his own work the Museum’s toilet, as it

resembled his previous white boxes and objects. The Colombian artist Ana

28
Traba, “Destruída exposición,” sec. A, p. 9.
29
Marta Traba, “Reflexionando después de las batallas,” El Espectador, Lecturas Dominicales
(December 22, 1968), p. 14.
99

Mercedes Hoyos constructed a wooden labyrinth where, suddenly, through a

window, mail envelopes came into the room. Traba described Hoyos’ work, which

won first prize,30 not as a conceptual artwork, or an imported fad but as a formalist

piece: “The space created by Hoyos is rhythmically articulated, passing through

dark and light zones as well as from lucid to oppressive situations in order to

convey the surrealist atmosphere of her paintings. Art becomes a livable place. It

embodies plasticity and practicality.”31

Taking into account Traba’s response to the attack, as well as her

explanations of the works shown, we might wonder about the specific conceptual

character of this exhibition. It is clear that Traba did not consider the works shown

to be conceptual art, nor did she endorse the students’ attack as if it was a reaction

to the ways in which “a sector of our artists had surrendered to North American

cultural imperialism.” Instead, an argument for developmentalism can be read in

every single word of her rejection of the students’ action that night. For the

moment, and based on my examination of the accounts from the original

newspapers surrounding the opening, I am tempted to argue that the show’s

conceptualist character was clearly emphasized not so much by Traba and the

curators or by the works shown as by the students’ action outside the Museum as

30
The idea of giving a prize emerged during the organization of the exhibition and was an attempt to
motivate artists to participate. Marta Traba accepted the offer by Lía Ganitsky, art collector and
patron, of 25,000 Colombian pesos.
31
Juan Calzadilla, “Razones de un jurado: Soy espectador de un funeral,” El Espectador (December
16, 1968), sec. A, pp.1-4.
100

well as the cards left by the culprits after the assault.32 This is not to argue, as

Ramirez would, that the conceptual aspect of the show has to do with the leftist

character of the students’ performance, but that their performance, working at the

margins of the exhibition, raised the question of the cultural condition of art, that is

to say, its inscription within broader cultural and political contexts, institutions,

practices and disciplines.

At the risk of being too general, I propose that whenever the artistic nature

of a work is questioned, the conceptual aspect of art is underscored. That is to say,

every time the question “What is this?” is asked in front of an artwork, one is not

looking for an explanation like “this is a painting” or “this is a cow”—as Traba puts

it in order to accentuate the underdeveloped character of “the Colombian people”—

but, on the contrary, it is a questioning of the status of art and, in turn, an

exploration of the institutional conditions that make the art institution, and society

in general, name, display, and value objects and practices in such a way.

Following this rather general definition of conceptualism, the label

“conceptual art” does not define any particular entity or essence of the work—in

terms of the medium used, style, or artistic movement—but rather calls attention to

the cultural component of every artwork whereby a complex of institutions,

practices, and professions creates social distinctions and gives some objects a
32
Álvaro Barrios and I have started an artistic project to declare Ivan Ramirez and Pedro Berbersí
the first truly conceptualist artists in Colombia. The project initially involves the publishing of a
note in newspapers and television and radio news in an attempt to find them and an exhibition that
will bring together Colombian artists that have worked or are working with conceptualist strategies,
emphasizing the critique of those artworks to the colonial condition of modernity.
101

particular value. I think this was precisely the component emphasized by the

culprits at this exhibition as well as by a quite heterogeneous group of artistic

projects during the sixties and seventies that established a critical relationship with

the cultural conditions inherited from modernity and modernism. Following this

approach, Salcedo’s appropriation of the Museum’s toilet may be as conceptualist

as the culprits’ performance. If we follow the conceptualist fascination with

tautology—for instance, Art as idea as idea—the legend “After this shit, art is in

mourning” could be read differently.

Both the performance and the cards brought together a conceptualist agenda

not necessarily by denouncing the local political context, as Ramirez argues, but,

perhaps, by highlighting the cultural contingency that linked the art institution with

late capitalist society, which Ramirez also argues. However, Traba’s response to

the assault contradicts Ramirez’s viewpoint regarding her rejection of

conceptualism as an “imported fad.” Traba’s critique of the assault seems to relate

not to a subtle imperialism beneath conceptual art but to a need for a strong

harmonization of the art institution with developmentalism, performed through the

ethics and principles of artistic modernism.

The National Mummy

In search of “other” strategies of cultural struggle within this context of either/or

politics practiced by the left and the right at the time, I will examine some works of
102

Colombian artist Antonio Caro, who has pointed out that his first encounter with art

and conceptualism was marked by the two exhibitions I have just described, which

clearly express the ongoing debates about art and politics at the time. “It was

absolute Manichaeism,”33 Caro has said in one of the public interviews he and I

have produced as a collaborative project between art and cultural studies.34

Regarding the political atmosphere he encountered once he enrolled in the National

University to pursue his BFA, he also stated:

At that time being from the left was like a pleonasm because it was

assumed that politics had to come from the left. Those who knew

what was going on had to be political and had to be from the left . . .

One was political, obviously from the left, clearly very intelligent,

evidently living according to one’s principles or one was a lackey to

imperialism, a pariah, revolting, reactionary, a stupid idiot. In fine

arts, there was also Manichaeism of this style . . . I was from the

33
Víctor Manuel Rodríguez, “Entrevista a Antonio Caro,” Valdez 2 (2007), 339.
34
During the last years, Caro and I have been working on a collaborative project which consists of a
series of public interviews and discussions regarding the reception of conceptualism in Latin
America, the political character of his artistic project within the context of the cultural struggles in
the Cold War period and the role of art within the social conditions of Latin America. The project
attempted to address these issues by creating a dialogue that brought together two different
perspectives: artistic practices and cultural studies. It tends to explore diverse ways to relate them
with one another–different from art history’s and criticism’s approaches—while giving special
attention to the politics of the artistic and intellectual work. These interviews took place in Bogotá,
Cali and Tunja (Colombia) and in Quito and Guayaquil (Ecuador). The whole collection of
interviews will be published shortly. Two of these interviews have been published and included in
this dissertation. See Appendix 1 and 2.
103

Manichaeism epoch and was studying in the National University,

where everything was political in the leftist sense.35

Caro’s first known work, Amigos y Amigas: Homenaje tardío de sus amigos y

amigas de Zipaquirá, Manaure y Galerazamba (Cabeza de sal)36 [Friends: Late

Homage to Your Friends from Zipaquirá, Manaure y Galerazamba (Head of Salt)],

was exhibited in the Salon Nacional de Artistas of 1970 in Colombia. (Fig. 2.4) It

consisted of a head made of salt, outfitted with spectacles, and bearing a strong

resemblance to Carlos Lleras Restrepo, a former president of Colombia. It was

placed inside a glass box where drops of water slowly dissolved it. Owing to

technical difficulties, the box was poorly sealed, and the salted water ran all over

the Museum’s floor. Some art critics and the left interpreted the work as an

amusing critique of the political establishment in Colombia and of the ways in

which the ruling class had caused the deterioration of our social condition, as the

spreading of salt all over the Museum was read as a bad omen for our country.

Eduardo Serrano, a well known Colombian art critic, wrote in 1976 about

Cabeza:

In 1970, Caro made his first public appearance with his work

Cabeza de sal, with which he put into question our artistic values.

There is no need to emphasize the lack of understanding with which

35
Rodríguez, “Entrevista a Antonio Caro,” 339-340.
36
He refers to the Colombian zones devoted to salt exploitation originally occupied by native tribes.
The style mimicked a presidential speech.
104

the work was greeted by the art critics of the time. In our context, art

seems to mean mastering a technical difficulty or reaching a

profound expression of our emotions . . . The radical change Caro

proposed as an alternative to our usual approach to art as a technique

was perfectly obvious, despite the confusion.37

In 1980, Miguel Gonzalez, another well-known Colombian critic and curator,

wrote:

[Cabeza de sal] was a work-game, whose ephemeral condition and

the artist’s performance inaugurated a new era in our national art. A

molded figure that dissolves shows a radical jump between a

traditional understanding of art as manual training and the genuine

comprehension of an avant-garde fact. The deployment and

exploration, up to the last consequence, of the physical properties of

the material, were turned into an irony that put into question the very

definition of art as well as its integrity, expressivity, and

permanence.38

Both critics underlined at that time what would be one of the most often employed

approaches by Colombian art historians to understand conceptual art and Caro’s

work. Being framed within a formalist, avant-gardist mode of artistic production,

37
Eduardo Serrano, “Antonio Caro,” in Un lustro visual (Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores, 1976), p.
141.
38
Miguel González, “Todo está muy Caro,” Arte en Colombia 13 (October 1980), 39.
105

conceptualism has been mainly read as a style or a medium, that is to say, as a

modernist way of producing artworks. In this sense, it is important to return to the

ways in which Ramirez highlights the political character of conceptualism, even if

her approach needs to be revised.

I want to stress, however, the reading of Cabeza by the Venezuelan critic

Juan Calzadilla in 1970. Calzadilla was a member of the jury of the Salon in which

Caro’s work was first exhibited. He stated: “This work is an original idea, wisely

resolved using an anti-artistic approach, which is part of what has been called the

political art of our times.”39 My interest in Calzadilla’s assessment lies in the ways

in which his definition of conceptualism and Caro’s work suggest a politics of art

that is based not so much on quoting the political context—even if in Caro’s work

there is a clear relationship to it—as on an anti-artistic approach, understood as a

profound critique of the art institution. In regards to this work, Caro has said:

Cabeza was done with a little luck and just a little bit of tenacity, but

in reality, in simple terms . . . Juan Calzadilla, the Venezuelan critic,

published the first critique of Cabeza in a newspaper. Only after

reading what he wrote did I understand what I had done . . .

Calzadilla said: It’s povera art, it’s a conceptual expression and it’s

political . . . Later, in 1976, they asked me about Cabeza and I

responded that it questioned Colombian politicking . . . An

39
Calzadilla, “Razones de un jurado,” sec. A, p. 1. My emphasis.
106

important fact is that, because of the fortuitous accident of the water

that spilled and the journalistic news on the Cabeza piece, I was

catapulted very quickly to a certain level of artist.40

As I have said, Cabeza was first exhibited in the National Salon of 1970. The

exhibition was held at the National Museum of Colombia, which is one of the most

visible icons in the cultural construction of Colombia as a modern nation. The

Museum was established on July 28, 1824, under the denomination “Natural

History Museum and Mining School.” The creation of a museum that, along with

the display of its collection, would house a school to educate the population in the

new disciplines had been planned in 1819, a few months after independence from

Spain was declared. As Benedict Anderson has remarked, museums, along with the

pilgrimage of functionaries of the Spanish Crown, print capitalism, the census, and

the map, played an important role in the narration of the modern nation, in the

creation of imagined communities. He says: “The census, the map, and the museum

. . . profoundly shaped the ways in which the state imagined its dominion—the

nature of human beings it ruled, the geography of its domain, and the legitimacy of

its ancestry.”41 In particular, museums allowed new nations to create foundational

myths of origin and collect the past in order to provide a sense of the wholeness of

the newly constituted nation.

40
Rodríguez, “Entrevista a Antonio Caro,” 340.
41
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism
(London: Verso, 1991), p. 163 - 164.
107

The following note appeared in the government journal on July 18, 1824,

announcing the foundation of the National Museum of Colombia on July 4:

We are pleased to announce that . . . the Museum of Natural History

has opened to the public. In its early days, the museum already

possessed some strange things; the following are the most important:

A collection of minerals, organized according to the celebrated

system of Hüy [sic], within which are unique specimens due to their

crystallization and richness. Most of these minerals come from

Europe and other remote parts of the world. The new Museum also

has pieces of meteoric iron, found in different parts of the Republic

by Mr. Rivero and Boussengoult [sic]. There are many bones of

unknown animals, extracted from Soacha, which are very curious

because of their size. It also contains a mummy found near Tunja,

with its very well-preserved blanket, which might be 400 years old,

and some insects of extraordinary beauty. It also possesses some

mammals, reptiles, fish and some very well-made tools. It also has a

laboratory and a drawing room. Since the government wishes to

support an institution that helps propagate enlightenment and at the

same time to see all republican goods reunited, it invites governors,

priests, judges, and local authorities to send all curious things like

minerals, animals, insects, reptiles, fish, and sea shells. It will be


108

appreciated if they arrive alive. If this is not possible, they must be

sent in the best possible way, always taking care to send the animals

with their heads and feet; the reptiles and fish may be sent in spirits

and the insects fixed by pins. They must be put into a box along with

some tobacco and pepper to avoid the skeleton being injured. We

hope that with the help of the people, Colombia can compete with

the cabinets of European nations.42

Despite the Creoles’ persistent rejection of the Spanish Crown, the nation they

imagined was precisely based on the expeditionary tradition created by the Empire

to which they were subjected. It was a tradition whereby the New World was

narrated as a natural, exotic place, ready to be rediscovered in all its natural

richness. As Benedict Anderson argues, however, what really produced a sense of

bond among the Creoles was not so much their rejection of Spain—as usually

understood—as the need to control the nation’s inner difference, mostly

characterized by indigenous and African peoples. As he has noted, before the Wars

of Independence, functionaries of the Spanish administration in the colonies had to

face the emergence of various subversive movements coming from the indigenous

populations and African slaves. In Venezuela—indeed, all over the Spanish

Caribbean—planters resisted the law and procured its suspension in 1794. The

revolt of the Comuneros in Colombia arose in response to the application of new

42
Quoted by Martha Segura, Itinerario del Museo Nacional de Colombia 1823-1994 (Bogotá:
Museo Nacional de Colombia, 1995), p. 52.
109

taxes and produced an enormous mobilization to Santa Fe de Bogotá in 1781.

Bolivar himself once claimed that a “Negro revolt was a thousand-times worse than

a Spanish invasion.”43

The Creoles used the representation of the New World constructed by the

Spanish Crown in order to translate internal difference into exotic nature. It was an

attempt to exclude from national history its non-national histories coming from the

indigenous peoples and African slaves in an attempt to contain the heterogeneity

proper to its population—its discontinuous time and its local disparity—and to

control the arbitrariness of the national space. Ernest Gellner has pointed out that

“The cultural shreds and patches used by nationalism are often arbitrary historical

inventions. Any old shred would have served as well . . . nationalism . . . is itself in

the least contingent and accidental.”44 The collection, heterogeneous in itself, was

translated into a homogeneous series of “minerals, animals, birds, insects, reptiles,

fish, sea shells, etc.” as an attempt to materialize the Creoles’ illusion of a whole

and united nation. Gellner adds: “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to

self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.”45 The Creoles’

nation is then invented by the Museum’s collection as a succession of natural

plurals, securing the homogeneity and linearity of the nation’s space and time as

well as placing the newly-born nation within the world order at the time.
43
Quoted by John Lynch, The Spanish-American Revolutions 1808-1826 (New York: W.W. Norton
& Company Inc., 1984), p. 192.
44
Quoted by Homi Bhabha, “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern
Nation,” in The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 142.
45
Quoted by Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 6.
110

The Creoles’ anxiety about the non-Creole population created the nation as

a community composed of a succession of natural plurals that would replace the

indigenous peoples and African slaves with the minerals and animals that populated

the territory. At the same time, the collection, by constructing the nation as a series

of “natural” objects, also expressed the Creoles’ anxiety over the emptiness of the

national. In other words, the Creoles imagined its community by accumulating

objects in the Museum’s collection, and yet this cultural operation reveals that

something is missing in order for the nation to be complete. The supplementary

character of the addition of objects threatens the very coherence of the national

imagination simply because it demonstrates to us that accumulating does not

always add presence. The succession of plurals makes us fully aware of the absence

of a unique and metaphysical principle that gives coherence to the nation’s past.

Thus, anxiety about internal difference was accompanied by anxiety about

the impossibility of representing the nation as a whole and united community. The

article regarding the opening of the National Museum not only represents the

nation but also conjures it by inviting the population to add more and more objects

to the series: “Since the government wishes to support an institution that helps

propagate enlightenment, and at the same time to see all republican goods reunited,

it invites governors, priests, judges, and local authorities to send all curious things

like minerals, animals, insects, reptiles, fish, and sea shells.”46 The Creoles’

46
Segura, Itinerario del Museo Nacional de Colombia, p. 52
111

containment of and anxiety about internal difference are revealed not only because

the very collection deconstructs itself but also because it includes an object which

reenters the national imagination and reestablishes the heterogeneity of the nation.

The collection included a “mummy found near Tunja, with its very well

preserved blanket, which might be 400 years old.”47 Heterogeneity disrupts,

obviously, not just because the mummy adds to the series—understood as a natural

sequence—a “cultural object,” but also because it reintroduces the history and

culture the Creoles tried to make us to forget. The Creoles’ national imagination

attempted to create a nation whose territory was inhabited by minerals, animals,

insects, reptiles, fish and sea shells. In doing so, they wanted to exclude not only

the stories of those whose lives needed to be exterminated for the nation to be born

but also the Creoles themselves as those who were responsible for such genocide.

The idea of a collection organized as a succession of natural plurals attempted to

hide the Creoles’ locus of enunciation in order to present the invasion and

colonization as something also natural. The presence of a mummy in the collection

reveals the absence of a nation and reestablishes the heterogeneity of the nation’s

time and place.

One hundred and fifty years later, by the time of Caro’s Cabeza, the

Museum’s collection counted among its belongings more mummies and objects

coming from the Pre-Columbian past. The rooms were organized temporally. On

47
Segura, Itinerario del Museo Nacional de Colombia, p. 52
112

the first floor, there was the Pre-Columbian past, whose material culture vanishes

as soon as one ascends to the succeeding floors and enters into the space of the

nation. The second floor displayed an endless series of portraits of the former

Presidents of Colombia. The third and last floor was devoted to art that was

regarded as the highest expression of the Colombian nation. The history of the

nation was narrated as if the indigenous people and African slaves had disappeared

after the Conquest and during the Colonial period to give way to the modern state

incarnated by the portraits of Colombia’s governors and modern culture embodied

by art.

Caro made Cabeza of salt and intentionally used ancient indigenous

techniques to produce it, the intention being to remind us that this mineral was and

has been a very important cultural and economic resource for the lives of the

indigenous people from Colombia before, during, and after colonization. In fact,

salt was their currency, used to exchange goods instead of gold, which was

exclusively used to talk to their Gods. What we see is the head of a former

President of the modern Colombian state, wearing spectacles, drawing our attention

to the visual and pedagogical devices used by the Museum to create a continuous

and uniform national time-space. The head of a former President constitutes a

metonymy of all the Colombian Presidents who, according to the Museum’s

narrative, gave birth to the nation. It is a repetition of the Museum’s strategy to

represent the nation through a series of portraits. The salt constitutes a metonymy
113

of the indigenous population, which was represented as a succession of natural

objects. It is a repetition of the Museum’s strategy to represent internal difference

as nature. By adding water to it—that is to say, by reversing the process of the

fabrication of salt—Caro makes the head disappear. Caro’s Cabeza inverts the

process of the nation’s formation. The disappearance of the head reveals the

absence of the nation and the appearance of the salt reveals the nation’s forgotten

stories. As Cabeza repeats the discourse’s operation that creates otherness

metonymically, it re-introduces those signs of difference that dislocate the nation’s

time and space and reveal the contingent and exclusionary character of the nation.

Cabeza becomes the national mummy to the extent that—in the same way as the

mummy found near Tunja—it deconstructs the national imagination and brings to

light both the stories of the people excluded and those who exclude them. As

Cabeza re-introduces other stories into the symbolic nation’s time-space, the

National Museum of Colombia, as a metonymy of the nation, is cursed, dislocated,

and knocked off center.

Visual Guerrillas

I have argued that the either/or approach that has been used to understand the

cultural struggles that took place during the Cold War has impeded us from

exploring other non-dialectic, non-humanist modes of cultural critique. In

particular, regarding the emergence of conceptualism in Latin America, I have


114

pointed out that some artistic projects that have been labeled as such elaborated a

profound critique of the art institution from a colonial point of enunciation. This

questions not only modernity and modernism but also the ways in which the art

institution was linked with the construction of colonial power. Approaching

different ways of understanding the role of conceptualism in Latin America, Luis

Camnitzer called Caro’s artistic strategies those of a “visual guerrilla.” He wrote:

Caro certainly fits into the artistic current which since the 1960s has

called itself conceptualism, but he also fits into something much

vaster and culturally more important. Caro is in a very particular

way a visual guerrilla. He carefully points to the targets that are

defined and beloved by the art world power structures . . . Caro is

probably the most subversive artist working in Latin America in

these times, and an unavoidable point of reference for many of us.48

By definition, guerrilla warfare is a form characterized by irregular forces

employing unorthodox tactics to fight small-scale, limited actions against orthodox

forces. Regarding this designation, Caro has said: “In a very reductionist way it

is—and this will concur with what Luis Camnitzer says: ‘a visual guerrilla.’ With

very few theoretical elements, with very few resources and the managing of very

few material elements, I attack and act. Yes, it’s a way to attack.”49 Camnitzer

48
Luis Camnitzer, “Antonio Caro: Guerrillero visual, visual guerrilla,” Polyester 4, 12 (Summer
1995), 44.
49
Rodríguez, “Entrevista a Antonio Caro,” 348.
115

relates Caro’s work to that of guerrilla warfare based on the ways in which his

artwork “points to the targets that are defined and beloved by the art world power

structures.” However, I would like to stress some other features of guerrilla

strategies that give shape to not only the ways in which Caro operates as a visual

guerrilla, but also his work’s ethics. In particular, figures such as repetition,

camouflage, masquerade, and deception, which are forms of “artistic” struggle

typically used by Caro, would help us understand the materialization of proper

tactics from a colonial perspective that emerged during the Cold War period. In

defining the configuration of power/knowledge that creates colonial relations,

Homi Bhabha wrote of mimicry as a relationship between power and resistance,

whereby self and other are constructed in representation within a system of

differences rich in figures such as trompe-l’œil, irony, and repetition.50 In order to

be productive, colonial discourse needs to create its other, which is both its double

and its slippage and excess. Mimicry deploys disciplinary powers to produce a

recognizable other within discourse, and yet, as it repeats more than represents, it

sets in motion the proliferation of differences which threaten the discourse’s

authority. Understanding Caro’s work as a strategy informed by mimicry allows me

to clearly underline an ethics of a myriad of strategies that emerged during the Cold

War. These do not necessarily translate into a utopian and humanist rationale but

into the use of unorthodox forces to fight small-scale and limited actions that

50
Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” in The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha (London:
Routledge, 1994), p. 85-92.
116

undermine the effectiveness of the knowledge/power apparatus of colonial power

and weaken its authority.

Caro’s work Maíz, consisting of a series of images and several

performances regarding the maize plant, has been shown repeatedly in different

formats in various public places, including museums. The first works of this series

were shown in 1974, three years after his work Cabeza. In 1973, Caro’s work was

not selected to be included in the National Salon. The work he had offered

consisted of an installation based on Marlboro boxes. Eduardo Serrano, whose

insight regarding Caro’s Cabeza I quoted above, invited Caro to exhibit Marlboro

in San Diego, a very well-known gallery at the time. The opening of Caro’s

exhibition was planned by the critic to occur on the very same day the Salon was

supposed to open in the National Museum, just few blocks away from the gallery.

On that day, San Diego Gallery was almost empty in comparison to the crowd who

went to the opening at the National Salon. Caro, in despair and frustration, decided

to go to the National Museum, get the attention of the media, approach jury

member Germán Rubiano, and slap him. After this scandal he decided to produce a

work entitled Defienda su talento [Defend Your Talent], which later became the

title of the exhibition where the first version of Maiz was shown. (Fig. 2.5)

The exhibition Defend Your Talent in the Belarca Gallery opened to the

public on January 18, 1974. It consisted of images of the plant, cobs, and arepas (a

kind of bread made from maize-flour) drawn directly on the gallery’s walls. (Fig.
117

2.6) The exhibition was widely debated among critics and visitors. In fact, there

were visitors who wrote pejorative comments about the images that occupied the

whole gallery: “This is not worth it,” “Talent?”51 In an interview for El Espectador,

Caro responded, “My works are based on what has been called conceptual art since

I depart from an idea and develop it, using the possibilities I have at hand.”52 For

him and the press, the conceptual character of this exhibition lies in the fact that he

produced a work in situ, a performance, which was ephemeral and impossible to

sell and, therefore, was understood as a critique of the art market and the ways in

which it created a form of cultural production. Regarding the transitory nature of

the work, as well as the inconvenience of having to clean the walls in the gallery,

he said “I do not think my works are to be bought. Usually, they are big placards or

huge cardboards that certainly do not fit in a house. I do not care much about

selling my art; my purpose is to communicate with people using a message, an

idea.”53

The Maíz project has changed over the years. (Fig. 2.7) Caro’s first

approach was to depict images of the plant, trying to represent it in a sort of

naturalistic way. However, as he has said repeatedly, his talent was not so much

based on a gift or virtuosity to depict reality as on the ways in which he used

whatever he had at hand to convey meaning. Maíz as we know it today it is a sort of

51
Nohra Ramirez, “Defienda su talento,” La República (January 27, 1974), sec. A, p. 5.
52
Ramírez, “Defienda su talento,” p. 5.
53
Ramírez, “Defienda su talento,” p. 5.
118

indigenous seal that clearly reminds us of Amerindian Colombia was mediated by

Caro’s training in advertising. Although he prefers not to talk about it, he thinks

that it was advertising that gave him the opportunity to get rid of the artistic

formalism that dominated art schools in Colombia and to learn how to “get to the

point.” As he has said:

I didn’t do academy . . . Life brought me to work in a publicity

agency, a fact that is very important in my work. There I acquired

many work elements that can be seen in Colombia Coca-Cola . . .

[Fig. 2.8] For me it was very important that I worked in that agency

because I believe that it kept me informed, it helped me adapt to the

world, and it gave me a formal education that I needed and filled a

school or academy hole.54

Caro changed the depiction of the plant from a European representation of nature

toward a more mythical understanding of the relationship between image and

world, which, according to him, was closer to the indigenous understanding of the

world and its representation. From his first work on maize and his effort to depict it

as “it is,” Caro constructed an icon that represented not so much maize and all its

54
Rodríguez, “Entrevista a Antonio Caro,” 345. His work Colombia-Coca Cola (1976) clearly
represents Caro’s interest in advertising and colonialism. Caro noted that both Colombia and Coca-
Cola have the same number of letters and fused both into one word, drawing attention to the sort of
imperialism without colonies historically practiced by the United States. Colombia-Coca Cola was
attacked by both the right and left. For some, it was a childish misunderstanding of the political,
economic, and technical support coming from the U.S. to help the poor areas of the world to
overcome underdevelopment and become modern. For others, it was a bad visual exercise since it
did not recognize the established way of making art for the people, that is, the traditions of socialist
realism.
119

related products as Amerindian culture as such. After being used as a decorative

motif in other Caro works, for instance in Todo está muy Caro [Everything is so

expensive],55 it became a work in itself. Maíz has been reproduced in murals and in

posters. (Fig. 2.9) In 1992, the Colombian government released a stamp using

Caro’s work within the context of the 500 hundred-year commemoration of

Spanish invasion. He created a sign, an advertisement to repeat the translation of

the other into nature and to reintroduce the stories of extermination that gave shape

to America. It was a response to the government and cultural institutions which

regarded the occasion as a reason to celebrate the linguistic and cultural tradition

inherited from Spain. This association between a maize plant and the representation

of Pre-Columbian America is explained in an anecdote by Caro:

After I exhibited Maiz for the first time, I was invited to Matto

Grosso (Brazil) to participate in a collective exhibition of Latin

American artists. I remember feeling isolated and distanced, despite

the fact that the Brazilian people were very friendly and hospitable.

As part of the activities taking place along with the event, I was

invited to a dinner where envueltos were offered. Envuelto is a sort

of bread made of maize wrapped with the leaves that cover the

55
“Todo está muy Caro” translates as “Everything is so expensive.” Using his advertising approach,
Caro produced a series of posters to promote himself and to criticize the rise of the cost of living in
Colombia, as Caro is both his last name and the word for expensive in Spanish.
120

maize-cob. After I tasted and smelled it, I thought: I am home. I am

in America.56

Caro has continued working with this mimetic strategy by repeating the

representation of indigenous Colombians as nature in several projects. For instance,

his work Achiote [Annatto] uses annatto as a pigment to write the word “Achiote”

on cards and to distribute them among the public attending a conference or an

opening. He also initiated a work called Proyecto 500 [Project 500] in 1987, five

years before the 500 years of Spanish colonization was to be celebrated. (Fig. 2.10)

“Proyecto” consisted of a series of talks he gave in museums, galleries, discos,

universities, and bars, based on quotes from Simón Bolívar and other so-called

heroes of Colombia’s independence and recorded in historical and literary

documents and used in children’s school texts. During the talks, he tried to

convince the audience to consume arepas and hot chocolate, hoping that they might

therefore resist consuming wheat or coffee, as the latter are not native goods.

However, Caro’s strategies of mimicry can be better seen in his work

Homenaje a Manuel Quintín Lame (1972) [Homage to Manuel Quintín-Lame].

(Fig. 2.11) Regarding the origins of his interest in Quintín-Lame, Caro has said:

After reading a review in a magazine that I liked, a book about

Quintín Lame arrived, which interested me, which I adored. I said to

myself, I can use this subject . . . Afterwards, life dictated that I live

56
Caro told me this anecdote in an informal interview that has been edited but not published.
121

on various occasions with an indigenous community on a daily

basis, sharing their usual and ordinary life. In my artistic activities I

repeated the signature of Manuel Quintín Lame, and the practice of

repeating the signature made me reflect and think about it. The

Manuel Quintín Lame piece came to me casually and today, due to

my personal experiences and due to repeating it so many times and

because of speaking about it so many times, I have a lot of

information and opinions about it, but maybe the best answer is the

one that I gave a long time ago about this same issue: The Manuel

Quintín Lame piece is good not so much because of me or my work,

but rather due to the importance of Manuel Quintín Lame. It is really

the most important piece that I have done.57

Manuel Quintín-Lame was born in 1883, three years before the Colombian modern

state emerged and its political charter released. His parents, Mariano Lame and

Dolores Chantre, were descendents of the Paeces, plural for the Paez people, an

indigenous group located in southwest Colombia. Despite their military defeat in

1605, the Paeces continued deploying strategies of cultural and social resistance,

which raised many concerns for the colonizers. In 1640, the Jesuits, who were in

charge of the evangelization of the indigenous peoples, were obliged to retreat from

57
Víctor Manuel Rodríguez, “Entrevista Pública,” in Prácticas Artísticas/Enfoques
Contemporáneos, ed. Víctor Manuel Rodríguez (Bogotá: UNal-IDCT, 2003), p.67.
122

their “soul conquest” because of the Paeces’s persistent resistance to Catholic

values. The priest Manuel Rodriguez wrote in 1684:

The Paeces, I think, are the crudest and most barbaric people ever

known in the Indies. The encomenderos58 never could get them to

surrender. They resist everything . . . only a few adults are Christian,

and, when it comes to learning, they do not attend our teaching

except by laughing at us out loud, mocking everything we say. Their

best known inclination is their leisure and drunkenness, preventing

us from getting them to reach the supreme Lord, who is the first

reason of all.59

Quintín-Lame devoted his life to the defense of the indigenous peoples against the

oppression and negligence of the Colombian state. Jailed on nearly two hundred

separate occasions, Quintín-Lame became his own lawyer, successfully

representing himself and winning several cases for the indigenous peoples. In

particular, he resisted the expropriation of indigenous lands by the rich aristocratic

families of the region protected by the State. In order to achieve this goal, Quintín-

Lame performed a kind of mimicry by which he learned the rhetoric and legal skills

of the modern state to use it against itself. An autodidact, he memorized the Civil

58
Encomendero was the name given by the Spanish Crown to a Spaniard in charge of educating a
group of indigenous people in the Catholic religion and civilized habits. In return, the group had to
pay the encomendero. This exploitation was promoted by the Spanish Crown and known as
Encomienda.
59
Quoted by Hernando Gómez and Carlos Ruiz, Los Paeces: Gente territorio. Metáfora que
perdura (Popayán: FUNCOP-Universidad del Cauca, 1997), p. 3.
123

Code as well as the book entitled A Lawyer at Home, which allowed him to assume

the defense of indigenous peoples’ rights. Quintín-Lame was also a prolific public

speaker, and his voice was heard all over the country at that time. In a famous

speech in 1927, he addressed the heads of indigenous tribes and organizations,

stating that:

Today, after being among this race, privileged by divine nature,

abandoned by all governments and almost totally killed off, in envy

and pain, a race that has been covered with tears and blood from the

12th of October 1492 to the 12th of January 1927, where my whole

person, lit up, not by the light that exists in the schools and colleges

of the civilized country, but by the light that hurt my lips and the

government of my mind . . . Indigenous gentlemen of Colombia: I

address you from the prison cell where I find myself detained by the

gigantic and usurping hand of the white and mixed race who,

through force, without law or charity, have come to seize, through

said force, our territorial properties cultivated in crops (Mieses),

destroying our virgin mountains and taking over every type of mine

that we possess, exiling us from the four walls of our homes.60

As Caro himself has said, Homage to Manuel Quintín-Lame is a performance in

which he retrieves the indigenous leader from oblivion and duplicates his signature.

60
Archivo General de la Nación 952, 315-316.
124

(Fig. 2.12) Quintín-Lame did not know how to write. For him, therefore, to sign

was a very solemn and theatrical act that should be understood as recognition not

so much of an individual self as of a cultural and collective performance whereby a

visual representation creates and vindicates a culture. Quintín-Lame’s signature

was written to be read in Spanish. However, mimicking the governors’ style, he

added baroque arabesques by using symbols of indigenous pictograms.

Before his first public presentation, Caro had to repeat Quintín-Lame’s

signature more than five hundred times to appropriate its calligraphy. In order to

invoke and convey meaning, Caro begins his performance by burning native herbs.

He then repeats Quintín Lame’s signature on a board, on paper, or on a wall. What

Caro appropriates, however, is not the aesthetic qualities of Quintín-Lame’s

calligraphy but rather the very strategy of mimicry and repetition with which both

Caro and Quintín-Lame call into question the authority of the nation as well as that

of culture and the art institution. By imitating the nation’s rhetoric, Quintín-Lame

called into question colonial discourse’s pretension of being imitable. Certainly,

Quintín-Lame imitates the rhetoric of the nation. However, the nation’s rhetoric is

not precisely imitated but disseminated; that is to say, it cannot hold on to the

authority of meaning since its translation by the nation’s internal other brings

difference to bear to the extent that Quintín-Lame uses the nation’s rhetoric against

itself. At the same time, by imitating Quintín-Lame's signature, Caro calls into

question art’s pretension of being inimitable. Both use the strategy of repetition of
125

symbols, codes, and tactics whereby cultural institutions create the nation, obliging

us to forget the stories of exclusion and extermination that gave shape to the

modern nation.

Caro appropriates multinational commercial typographies, national icons,

and the signature of a non-national leader, as well as indigenous mediums and

techniques, bringing to light those fragments, shards, and patches used by

nationalism to exclude/include internal difference and create the nation’s

community. In the seventies, by the time of Caro’s homage to Quintín-Lame, the

situation of the indigenous people of Colombia had dramatically deteriorated, since

the expropriation of their land confined them to small regions of the country. They

had to migrate and become a labor force for the owners of the lands that were once

their own. The agrarian problem, as it was called by governors and politicians,

reached extreme levels of despair and violence, in part owing to the application of

developmentalist models framed by the American mission in Latin America. On

the one hand, there was the World Bank’s Mission, which in the early 1950’s

implemented models to improve the agrarian sector. By expropriating land and by

stimulating an agrarian economy based on small owners, its object was to create an

agrarian economy that would fit into the world order. On the other hand, there was

also a policy whereby peasants were encouraged to abandon their land and populate

the cities to further the industrial development of the country. The peasant and

indigenous insurgency confronting this situation led to the emergence of the


126

guerrilla movement Manuel Quintín-Lame, which was led by the Paeces

themselves to fight against the expropriation of native land and the abrogation of

their rights.

As Homi Bhabha states: “Being obliged to forget becomes the basis for

remembering the nation . . . it is through this syntax of forgetting that the

problematic identification of a national people becomes visible.”61 This national

rhetoric forces us to forget those non-continuous, non-national histories. Caro and

Quintín-Lame, however, by re-introducing those signs of difference, reverse what

has to be forgotten in order to remember the nation to become what has to be

remembered in order to forget the nation.

As a form of mimicry, Caro uses art as a way of both being seen and hiding,

of playing by the rules and challenging the conventions of the art institution

themselves. Furthermore, as his work deals with representations of otherness made

to create the nation, Caro’s work repeats those representations to link the art

institution with the broader condition of power that gave shape to Latin America as

the North Atlantic’s other. Thus, I would like to use the designation un-art,62 which

Caro himself has been using to define his artistic project. Asked about the use of

this label, Caro said:

At an anecdotal level, I heard about the “UN” concept when I

worked in a publicity agency . . . Coca-Cola has always had its rival,

61
Bhabha, “Dissemination,” p. 160-161.
62
Original in English.
127

Pepsi-Cola, and both spend a lot of money in attacking one another

because there is a high level of cola consumption, but marketing

strategists discovered that there are people that drink neither of these

drinks and this sector is “UN-cola” people. This was very famous in

the cola wars. The Coca-Cola Company created Sprite, the UN-cola

. . . Taking into account the ways in which the field of art in the

seventies was based on antinomies such as figurative or abstract,

political or apolitical, I decided to call myself un-artist and my work

un-art.63

The notion of un-art relates to the field of art, yet it does so by putting into question

the field of art itself. Different from appellatives such as anti or against, un-art

suggests that questioning the art institution requires cultural practices to be inserted

within the institution as “art” while establishing an eccentric relationship to the art

institution that seems to put into question its knowledge/power apparatus. Caro’s

un-art sets in motion strategies within the field of art in order to operate within its

circuits and yet diminish its authority. Caro uses indigenous materials like

pigments, herbs, minerals and plants to repeat in art the metonymies of presence of

otherness used by colonial discourse to identify/expel difference. Regarding the

critical nature of his un-art, Caro says:

63
Rodríguez, “Entrevista pública,” p. 63.
128

I am going to say it like this openly, I have a secret weapon. I like

that this conversation has a hard-line style. I have a secret weapon,

and it is that the value of my discourse is not so much in what may

be valid in art circles but in that the elements of my discourse are

valid, real, and concrete in society and specifically in Colombian

society . . . Artistic discourse has rarefied so much these days, which

makes it very sophisticated. My work counts because the discourse

that I use to disguise it as art is valid without art . . . I believe that

the artistic value of my art comes from outside of art.64

Towards a Politics of Conceptualism in Colonial Contexts

I have suggested that a different reading of the regional context within which

conceptualism emerged and was appropriated in Latin America would allow us to

understand “other” practices hitherto ignored. Instead of thinking of the Cold War

period from a binary and humanist rationale, which leaves us with either/or politics

of art and culture, I have read it as a system of differences whereby Latin America

was constructed as the development “other,” giving way to strategies of

power/resistance based precisely on a politics of difference. I have also argued that

what made Latin American conceptualism different from its North Atlantic

counterpart was not so much its visual scheme, its subject, or its leftist rationale as

64
Rodríguez, “Entrevista a Antonio Caro,” 349.
129

its locus of enunciation, its critique of modernity and modernism from a colonial

position. Although for some intellectuals, artists, and politicians, Latin America

was thought of in terms of binary opposites of left and right, an emerging

discursive regime was shaping a colonial world order, which, by

assimilating/expelling the other, attempted to transform Latin American difference

into reason, progress, and history.

Following the either/or politics of the left and right, Traba denounced

conceptualism as an aspect of American imperialism, and yet, when it came to

reading the practices surrounding the first conceptualist show in Colombia, she

interpreted those practices in terms of high modernism. She argued for cultural

transformations that helped create Latin America as the underdeveloped other,

easing the implementation of cultural and pedagogical devices to create Latin

American nations as part of the new colonial order. Caro delineated a colonial locus

of enunciation by calling attention to the ways in which the art institution was

immersed in a new colonial order after World War II. They deployed strategies of

appropriation and mimicry of art, conceptualism, and the national rhetoric. Instead

of making the global history of conceptualism richer and wider or demanding the

insertion of their works within the conceptualist genealogy, those practices

radically altered the politics of art as it was understood in the historical rhetoric of

the Cold War period.


130

Going back to the agenda proposed by Ramirez, she impels us to be fully

aware of the representation of the Latin American or Latino “other” at work in

international art circuits. She also suggests that “we step beyond denunciation of

the neocolonial politics at work in the Latin America/Latino exhibition boom and

focus more precisely on the ideological and conceptual premises that guided the

organization of these art shows.”65 Mosquera, for his part, asks for uses of

conceptualism that are more involved with the particularities of our Latin American

societies. He also asks for us to pay attention to practices based on postmodern

appropriations of international art that have transformed our “complex of being

‘derivative’ . . . into pride in the particular skill of appropriating and transforming

things for one’s own benefit.”66

At stake in this agenda is the issue of power related to the ways in which the

Latin American “other” is constructed in representation. Mosquera and Ramirez,

although in different ways, draw attention to the importance of representation when

it comes to examining the ways in which Latin American art is shown or produced

in Latin America. Framed within the politics of multiculturalism, these claims are

based, however, on the assumption that there is a Latin American other beyond

representation, or better, on the illusion of representation as something that can be

negotiated. Such an approach, inscribed within the pretension of a homogeneous

multiculturalist political space, generated particular modes of artistic production

65
Ramírez, “Beyond ‘The Fantastic’,” p. 60-61.
66
Mosquera, “Modernism from Afro-America: Wifredo Lam,” p. 13.
131

which included dialogues with the communities represented in art shows,

participative and collaborative ways of producing art, as well as a subtle laughter

about the prodigal appropriations of international art by Latin American artists.

Different readings of social contexts, as well as of the role of the art

institution in representing/producing that context, lead to different conclusions. The

research that has been done within the field of visual and cultural studies has

provided us with interdisciplinary tools to link one thing to the other. It has allowed

us to approach the art institution as a social practice linked to discursive regimes,

not just because of the ways in which artworks take the context as their subject—

even if it is done for the sake of appropriation—or because of the methods used for

integrating the communities represented, but because of the ways in which the art

institution becomes a crucial strategy of the disciplinary modes deployed by power

relations.

However, what is discussed here is not precisely a methodological or

theoretical issue. At stake are political propositions whereby Latin America, by

means of art and culture, has resisted modernity, its colonial condition, and

explored “other” ways of dealing with it in the contemporary world. This world I

have been referring to is no longer mapped in fixed territories of center/periphery,

global/local, modern/traditional, here/there. It is a world constructed through forces

of power and resistance that share and struggle within colonial territories. If we

agree with Mosquera about the need for a “new criticism [that] puts forward
132

particular strategies, working on the margins, deconstructing power mechanisms

and rhetoric, appropriating and resignifying,” this agenda for a new criticism needs

to pay attention not only to what occurs within the art institution but also to what

links the art institution with these new forms of power set in motion by new forms

of colonialism. This sort of inquiry is all the more necessary, not only because

Latin American and Latino artists are consistently working on the relationships

between the art institution and broader social practices but also because other

professionals working in the field are already involved in the creations of those

practices. By the same token, their practices need to be constantly situated in terms

of the politics they mobilize. To admit that power relations are constructed through

a system of differences is to acknowledge that the colonial order creates its own

subjects in representation, which links all artistic practices with those forces of

power and resistance. Paraphrasing Okwui Enwezor, an agenda for a postcolonial

art must depart from an understanding of these new cartographies of power—the

postcolonial constellations, as he calls them—to provoke the emergence of new

practices of sovereignty, agency, and subjectivity that insist on the articulation of

global ethics for engaging the residual effects of imperial hegemony.67

67
See Okwui Enwezor, “Contemporary African Art: Beyond Colonial Paradigms,” Art Papers 26, 4
(July/August 2002), 6 -7, and “The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of
Permanent Transition,” in Research in African Literatures 34, 4 (Winter 2003), 57 - 82.
133

CHAPTER 3

Covering the Land of the Present: Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolé

Before the Portuguese discovered Brazil,


Brazil had discovered happiness.
Oswald de Andrade, Anthropophagite Manifesto

The Conga Fair

In 1965, within the context of the exhibition Opinião 65 [Opinion 65] at the

Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica exhibited

the complete version of his artwork Parangolé for the first time. It consisted of

objects such as standards, banners, tents, and capes to be worn, used, and displayed

by dancers from the samba school “Estacão Primeira de Mangueira” [Mangueira

First Station] situated in the Morro da Magueira [Mangueira’s Hill], one of Rio’s

favelas [slums]. (Fig. 3.1)

Since 1964, Oiticica had been researching the subject, visiting the morro

and attending samba lessons at the Estacão. During that year, he produced

preliminary versions of the Parangolé, which already included standards, banners,

and tents. Its final version, presented at Opinião 65, incorporated capes, which

curiously became one of the features which most attracted museums and art
134

galleries when they displayed this artwork—leading to the perception that the capes

themselves were the artwork and their real function, to be worn while dancing

samba, was incidental. The capes were garments made of common fabrics and cast-

offs. The banners and standards called to mind the symbols used in carnival

celebrations, and the tent was as an allusion to favela architecture and was only

intended to be occupied temporarily. Later versions also included plastic containers

and other materials. Each Parangolé’s props were meant to create an environment

or atmosphere which, while appropriating some elements from the Morro da

Mangueira’s culture, invited people to become participants, though not so much

bystanders as the center of the artwork.

In 1964, Oiticica wrote two short articles about his research on Parangolé:

“Fundamental Bases for the Definition of Parangolé”1 and “Notes on Parangolé,”2

dated November 2nd and 24th, 1964, respectively. In both, Oiticica attempted to

explain the use of the word parangolé as a title of his work. The two articles were

written for the exhibition Opinião 65 and were published in 1986 in Aspiro ao

Grande Labirinto, a collection of Oiticica’s articles edited by Luciano Figueredo,

Lygia Pape, and Waly Salomao.3 In “Fundamental Bases” Oiticica defined the

word parangolé as “an idiomatic expression from the slang of Rio de Janeiro that

generally means sudden agitation, animation, happiness, and unexpected situations

1
Hélio Oiticica, “Fundamental Bases for the Definition of Parangolé,” in Hélio Oiticica, ed. Guy
Brett, Catherine David, and Chris Dercon (Rotterdam: Witte de With, 1992), pp. 85-88.
2
Hélio Oiticica, “Notes on the Parangolé,” in Hélio Oiticica, p. 93-96.
3
Luciano Figueredo, et. al. Aspiro ao Grande Laberinto (Río de Janeiro: Editora Rocco, 1986).
135

between people.”4 According to Waly Salomão, the word parangolé was also used

in a slang expression formulated as a question. He said: “Qual é o parangolé?

[What is the parangolé?] is a kind of funny question that is no longer as current as

it was during the 1960s in the slums of Rio. It is nothing more than a friendly way

of asking: ‘What’s going on?’ ‘What’s up?’ or a discreet way of asking ‘Have you

got any marijuana?’”5 Furthermore, the translator of the article “Cornerstones for a

definition of ‘Parangolé’,” a version of Oiticica’s “Fundamental Bases” translated

into English for the exhibition catalogue of Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color

organized by Mari Carmen Ramírez, wrote a note trying to add new meanings of

the word by recalling its connotations and uses in Rio de Janeiro during the fifties.

According to the translator, at that time the word was used to make a pejorative

comment on a conversation or statement which was perceived as pointless and

uninteresting by the listener. However, he suggests other associations:

Oiticica was probably aware of [parangolé] additional senses of

artfulness or astuteness, as used to designate the cunning and street

smarts generally associated with the Carioca figure of the dandy-like

malandro,6 typified by his individual ethos, existing at the margins

of society and surviving by his wits through improvised activities

4
Oiticica, “Fundamental Bases,” p. 88.
5
Waly Salomão, Hélio Oiticica: Qual é o Parangolé e outros escritos (Rio de Janeiro: Editora
Rocco, 2003), p. 37.
6
Malandro: an individual who does not have a job and lives at the expense of others, but does so
with certain malice.
136

such as grift [sic], petty theft, and pimping . . . Parangolé also

signifies dishonest behavior intended to deceive.7

On February 17, 1965, after writing both “Fundamental Bases” and “Notes,” and

before Opinião 65, Oiticica wrote a piece recalling his experience of finding the

word parangolé in the Mangueira favela. According to the introductory note, the

piece was meant to be a footnote to his article “Fundamental Bases for the

Definition of Parangolé.” Apparently, it should have been inserted in the first

paragraph, right after his discussion of the use of the word parangolé for his

artwork and to replace his statement, “(see elsewhere the theory of the name and

how I found it).”8 The piece remarks:

The use of “parangolé” as a title for this artwork came from my

discovery of the same word in, if it is possible to say it, a

“parangolé-structure” in the urban surroundings of Rio de Janeiro.

The structure was composed of four wooden pillars joined into a

rectangle, one pillar in front of the other, with parallel threads from

top to bottom, creating a virtual wall. From each thread, plastics of

diverse colors were held by knots. The sense of space—of nucleus—

the structure had was indescribable. In addition, there was a piece of

burlap descending from one of the pillars, forming a small tent (the

7
Mari Carmen Ramírez, Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color (Tate: London, 2007), p. 297.
8
Oiticica, “Fundamental Bases,” p. 85.
137

structure’s builder slept inside it, as I noted later). The word

“parangolé” was written on it.9

The various meanings of the word parangolé highlight several ideas which, I

believe, are crucial to expanding the usual interpretation of Oiticica’s work by art

curators, critics or historians. Oiticica’s use of the word parangolé to mean a

“sudden agitation, animation, happiness, and unexpected situations among people,”

defines the Parangolé as an intervention which attempts to provoke unexpected

reactions towards art objects, practices and institutions, among the spectators. In

this light, the Parangolé is a collective and participatory play—not just a matter of

capes—that attempts to lend “other” signifying practices to experience art,

disrupting usual conventions about its meaning and the roles of artist and

spectators. However, this collective participatory play revolves around traditions of

Brazilian popular music and dance. It seems to me then that the Parangolé deals

with the two opposing worlds created by modernity: the great division between

canonical art and popular culture, which historically excluded the popular cultures

of Latin America, including those of Brazil. Putting these popular traditions into

artistic contexts vindicates those cultures, and in the case of the Parangolé, the

poor and excluded sectors of the city of Rio who create it. Even more, the

association of the word with strategies of deceit and disguise used by such sectors

throws light on Oiticica’s ethics and modus operandi. As I will show, Oiticica’s

9
Hélio Oiticica, “17-Fevereiro-1965,” in PHO (Projeto Hélio Oiticica) 0187-65 (February 1965).
138

challenged modernity’s imposition of certain notions on art upon those marginal

sectors, employing the same tactics the latter use to ensure the survival of their

cultural practices in adverse conditions. Parangolé should be seen as a performance

that brings to light and opposes the colonial side of the art institution, offering the

excluded cultures possibilities for disrupting the developmentalist discourse

imposed on Latin America during the Cold War.

Against the understanding of the Parangolé as objects, the association of

the Parangolé with the meaning of a “sudden agitation among people” is perhaps

due to the footnote Oiticica wrote in his “Fundamental Bases” as well as the

circumstances that surrounded its first exhibition at Opinião 65. The show at Rio’s

Museum of Modern Art was organized by Jean Boghici, an art dealer and owner of

the Galería Revelo in Rio, and by Ceres Franco, a Brazilian art critic who lived in

Paris at the time. The exhibition was one of the events celebrating Rio de Janeiro’s

fourth centenary. Between August 12 and September 12, 1965, the works of

thirteen European and sixteen Brazilians artists were shown to promote what was

called New Realism (Nouveau Realisme) as a reaction to the growing influence of

abstraction. The latter was seen by some Brazilian artists and critics as an

expression of American imperialism, as well as a cultural project that lacked social

and political commitment. Franco wrote on this occasion, “The new painting seeks
139

to be independent, polemical, inventive, denunciatory, oppositional, social, and

moral. It is inspired by the immediacy of urban life, together with its myths.”10

Opinião 65 was, in turn, inspired by the musical show Opinião, performed

at Rio de Janeiro’s Teatro Arena in 1964. (Fig. 3.2) Planned by Augusto Boal, it

brought together singers and cultural activists such as Nara Leão, João do Vale, and

Zé Ketti. Its aim was to protest against the military coup that seized power and

installed a military dictatorship in Brazil in 1964, and which ruled the country until

1985. The military coup was the right’s reaction to a growing leftist influence in the

Brazilian government and resulted in part from American pressure to check the

threat of communism in Latin America.

Opinião was the first massive response to the new regime by intellectuals,

artists, and activists. It inaugurated a type of collaborative work that characterized

Brazil’s cultural life during the sixties and seventies whereby collective projects

that challenged mainstream art were linked with forms of political activism and

criticism. Leão, do Vale and Ketti were already known for their provocative lyrics

and performances that openly denounced the extreme poverty of Northeast Brazil,

the general abandonment of the favelas in Rio’s morros by the state, and the

repression of any dissenting thought by the military. During the show, Leão and do

Vale interpreted the song Opinião with lyrics by Zé Ketti, which gave the name to

the show. The song became famous and was recorded in an album with the same

10
Quoted in http://www.itaucultural.org.br
140

title. The song translates, They can stop me/They can hit me/They can leave me

here without eating/I won’t change my opinion [opinião].

Maria Bethânia, who was seventeen years old and the sister of the already

renowned Caetano Veloso, replaced Leão, who was having trouble with her voice.

María Bethânia’s interpretation made João do Vale and José Candido’s song

Carcará famous, due to her aggressive style and the association between a native

bird of prey, the Crested Carcará, and Brazil’s situation: Cárcara claws, kills and

eats/Carcará is not going to die of hunger/Carcará braver than men/Carcará

seizes, kills and eats. At the end of the song, as the musicians repeated in chorus

Carcará, María Bethânia belligerently recited the number of Brazilian peasants

who were dying of hunger, or were jobless or displaced from their native regions,

blaming the Brazilian government for the situation. Waly Salomão remembers

Opinião and María Bethânia’s interpretation of Carcará:

The epic verses of a song by João do Vale describe “a wicked

bird/with a twisted beak/ like a hawk.” At first, it was interpreted in

the sweet new style of Nara Leão. Later it was given a metallic,

rough-throated and shocking interpretation by the seventeen-year-

old María Bethânia. In a surprisingly short time, it became an

inspiring hymn of protest against the “glorious” military

dictatorship.11

11
Salomão, Hélio Oiticica, p. 57.
141

The exhibition Opinião 65 at the Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro is

generally regarded as the visual version of the type of denunciatory responses

initiated the year before by the musical show. Art critic Ferreira Gullar observed,

“Something new is happening in the field of plastic arts, and this new character is

expressed by the very title of this exhibition: the painters are hitting back, stating

their opinion! That is crucial!”12 The show exhibited works by British artist Wright

Royston Adzak; Argentineans Antonio Berni and Jack Vanarsky; Spaniards

Manuel Calvo and José Paredes Jardiel; and Gérard Tisserand and Alain Jacquet

from France, among many others. From Brazil, there were artworks by Carlos

Vergara, Pedro Escosteguy, Waldemar Cordeiro, Ivan Serpa, José Roberto Aguilar,

Adriano de Aquino, Carlos Vergara, Antonio Días, and Hélio Oiticica.

Organizers and artists actively participated in the creation and realization of

the exhibition. Carlos Vergara, whose work was included in the show, stated,

“Opinião 65 was a political attitude embraced through an artistic attitude. The basic

idea was to express our opinion . . . an opinion about art as well as politics.”13 The

exhibition’s political intention pervaded the artistic proposals of the Brazilian

artists so much that the very titles of some of the works were provocative. Among

them were The General by Carlos Vergara, Victor? by Antonio Días, Palmeira vs.

Flamingo and Miss Brazil by Rubens Gerchman. Speaking of the role of art in

12
Ferreira Gullar, “Opinião 65,” Revista de Civilizaçao Brasileira 4, (1965). Reprinted in Arte em
Revista 2 (1979), 22.
13
Quoted by W. Salomão, Hélio Oiticica, p. 58.
142

Brazilian politics, Antonio Días declared, “I refuse to succumb—the struggle

interests me as a way of life . . . The artist is a sort of consciousness between the

individual and the collective.”14

During the opening, while most of the visitors were contemplating the

artworks, Oiticica arrived, followed by a group of dancers from the samba school

of Mangueira, dressed in capes and carrying tents, banners and standards, while

dancing samba and playing tambourines, drums, and frying pans. (Fig. 3.3)

Salomão recalls that for the opening “it was planned that he would come but not in

the barbaric way he did: He was not only bringing his Parangolés but also directing

an entourage that seemed more like a conga fair.”15 (Fig. 3.4, 3.5) The Museum’s

director ordered Oiticica and the dancers to be expelled from the premises, arguing

that the performance was dangerous for the artworks being exhibited. Clearly

shocked, Oiticica invited the dancers to continue the performance in the Museum’s

gardens. Suddenly, the spectators left the Museum and crowded into the garden,

joining the dance.

The circumstances surrounding the opening of Opinião 65 were widely

reported by journalists. A few days later, Rio’s newspaper Diário Carioca

announced, “Parangolé’ impedido no MAM” [Parangolé banned from MAM].16 In

a note “Ainda o Parangolé” [Again the Parangolé], published in the newspaper O

14
Salomão, Hélio Oiticica, p. 58.
15
Salomão, Hélio Oiticica, p. 59.
16
Claudir Chaves, “‘Parangolé’ impedido no MAM,” Diário Carioca (August 14, 1965).
143

Globe, Jean Boghici wrote, “Parangolé is what it is. It is pure myth. Hélio Oiticica:

The national Flash Gordon. He does not fly through outer space. He flies through

social layers.”17 Thus, despite the Museum director’s reaction, or perhaps because

of it, Parangolé was highly appreciated by artists, critics and journalists. Artist

Rubens Gerchman said to Salomão, “It was the first time the poor entered the

Museum. Nobody knew if Oiticica was a genius or a madman and, suddenly, I saw

[his work] and it amazed me.”18

Some aspects of the Parangolé in the opening at Opinião 65 are similar to

the Parangolé performance I experienced during the opening of the exhibition

Cosmococas at the Hélio Oiticica Art Center in Rio de Janeiro on September 12,

2005. As happened at the opening of Opinião 65, people of the favela popped in,

something which took us all by surprise as it was not announced in the program.

The unexpected presence of the Parangolé at the opening was meant to celebrate

the fortieth anniversary of the first exhibition of the work in Opinião 65. As we

were visiting the rooms where the Coscomocas was being shown, we heard the

strident chords and rhythms of samba and batucada in the streets near the Center,

which is in downtown Rio, surrounded by slums and red light districts. The visitors

attending the exhibition tried to go outside to see what was happening. Suddenly,

people from the Morro appeared, dancing with Parangolé capes and banners, as

they organized the tents. As I have noted, the banners were flags made of fabrics of

17
Jean Boghici, “Ainda o Parangolé” O Globe (August 16, 1965).
18
Salomão, Hélio Oiticica, p. 57.
144

diverse colors, while the tents looked like small wooden cabins covered by cloth,

similar to the tent Oiticica described when he discovered the word parangolé. The

dancers displayed their capes, which have slogans such as Da Adversidade Vivemos

[On Adversity We Live] and Estou possuido[I am possessed]. While they danced,

people from the exhibition joined in, passing around the capes, forming a circle,

singing or just screaming. Passersby also joined in—including homeless people—

becoming fully integrated into this participatory play. The police arrived an hour

later and asked the people on the street to go into the Center. It was an ironic

reversal of the situation at Opinião 65 when people of the Morro, who were

dancing in Parangolé, were asked to leave the exhibition. Forty years later, we

were asked to go into the Center, since the use of public place is highly regulated

and this kind of street demonstration is not allowed after 6 p.m.

Oiticica’s Cosmococa 4 NOCAGIONS was held on the ground floor of the

Center. It is a room-size installation that includes a slide projection of images from

John Cage’s book Notations, which has diagonal lines of cocaine on its cover. (Fig.

3.6) The slides were projected onto the four walls surrounding a swimming pool.

The people in the Parangolé jumped into the pool without hesitation as soon as

they entered the room. Musicians with their tambourines and saucepans also

jumped in, continuing to play their music. My amazement and incredulity—I never

thought I would be able to participate in a Parangolé performance—gradually

increased as I got more and more involved with this double experience: I was
145

watching one of Oiticica’s plays and at the same time directly participating in

Parangolé, surprised by the disorder, wearing and exchanging the Parangolé capes,

and deeply enjoying the Brazilian music and dance. The meaning of the Parangolé

as a “sudden agitation among people” was combined with that of vindicating other

cultural practices coming from those still excluded in the city of Rio. However, this

intervention took place in the Center founded by Oiticica’s brother after Oiticica’s

death and during the exhibition showing the work he produced during his stay in

New York. The Cosmococas had already been exhibited in New York, Columbus

(Ohio), and Barcelona (Spain). It is as if the Parangolé performance in Rio was

planned to remind us of the dangers of forgetting Oiticica’s engagement with

marginal and popular practices and his critique of the art system, issues that I will

develop further. Having been exhibited as works of art in museums all over the

world, the capes, banners, and tents had returned to the favela and the people were

reclaiming the Parangolé as their own.

Returning to Opinião 65, it is mostly remembered because of Oiticica’s

work, despite the fact that his Parangolé was at odds with the organizers’ idea of

promoting New Realism as a counterpoint to abstraction. Clearly, Oiticica’s work

did not fit the dictates of New Realism, simply because his work explored neither

painting per se nor art’s function in the ways New Realism did. Oiticica’s previous

Neo-concrete work was regarded as part of the constructivist agenda and was

clearly interested in the possibilities of modernism in Brazil that turned to a


146

reevaluation of the role of the spectator in Western art as expressed by the word

vivência.19 Oiticica’s collaborative work with Lygia Clark proved to be fruitful in

this respect, to the extent that their artistic projects challenged the very foundation

of constructivism. Both Clark and Oiticica considered art to be a total experience

and a source of human expressiveness. The role of the spectator, the relationship

between body and mind, the need to expand our sensual experience of a work of art

and bring art closer to bodily experiences were issues that gave shape to Oiticica’s

previous work. But this previous collaborative research clearly did not fit into the

artistic agenda of New Realism and Opinião 65.

In terms of the way that other artists and activists “expressed their opinions”

about the dictatorship and the poverty of the country, Oiticica’s work was eccentric,

not so much because he did not express his opinion as for the content of that

opinion and the ways he did express it. His work seemed to contradict the political

intentions of Opinião 65, that is, the notions of politics, its relation to art, and the

problems of Brazil, held by the organizers, critics, and artists participating in the

show. In contrast with most of the works, which regarded art as a “reflection” of

reality and the poor and popular culture as a subject—the previous musical version

of Opinião was an example—Oiticica brought the poor into the Museum to

19
Guy Brett has pointed out the difficulties in translating the Portuguese word vivência. He has said:
“It translates literally, and poorly, as ‘life-experiences.’” in Guy Brett, “The Experimental Exercise
of Liberty,” in Helio Oiticica, p. 224.
147

question the manner in which the art institution linked to both the left’s and right’s

appropriation of the poor and popular culture for their own political purposes.

As I have explained in Chapter 2, following the Independence Wars in the

nineteenth century, many Latin American oligarchies tried to consolidate the

emerging nation-states through narratives which pretended that a heterogeneous

collection of non-modern peoples had a single national identity. As Gareth

Williams has written, “The formation of the modern nation state in Latin America

was for the most part predicated on the active integration and institutionalization of

the notion of the people—of the common populace, or the popular/subaltern sectors

of society—as the originary ground from which to consider the contours of national

history, national identity formations, and national modernization.”20 Thus, the

recognition that Brazil lacked a true national culture was combined with an attempt

to integrate the popular into a nation-state.

During the thirties and fifties, this concern led to attempts to reconcile

modern art with the idiosyncrasies of a country where there was a continuous

mixing of black, indigenous and European cultures. However, while the right

wanted to include this heterogeneity within a national identity without relaxing its

own political control and ideology, the left promoted the idea of inclusion from

below; that is, it regarded the popular as a force with a hegemonic will. “The idea

of the people and, along with it, the concept of the popular, came to be constructed

20
Gareth Williams, The Other Side of the Popular: Neoliberalism and Subalternity in Latin America
(Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 4.
148

as a potentially hegemonic formation designed to suture the totality of the nation’s

demographic and cultural differences to the formation and expansion of the nation

state,”21 Williams remarks. Carlos Zilio has further pointed out that the left thought

of a national culture as an enterprise that was or should be modern, Brazilian, and,

above all, socialist. In other words, Brazilian culture had to be based on and

oriented towards the people.22

As a result, the dream of a nation, whether populist or socialist, was

combined with the dream of converting the poor and the popular into a political and

artistic subject. For the populist, making Latin American countries modern meant

converting native Latin Americans and black slaves from Africa into peasants and

industrial laborers, yet that attempt also meant destroying or repressing their

cultures, since they were regarded as non-modern and underdeveloped: a threat to

the nation’s consolidation and progress. For the left, the dream of a nation should

be accomplished by promoting a truly popular national tradition. In the field of art

the socialist popular project followed the various attempts at a socialist art that was

emerging in all Latin America in such artistic movements as Mexican Muralism.

In this light, Opinião 65 might be understood as a response to the

dictatorship of leftist artists and critics. It attempted to recover the political

influence on the people which the left perceived might be lost due to the military

21
Williams, The Other Side of the Popular, p. 5.
22
Carlos Zilio, “Da Antropofagia á Tropicalia,” in O Nacional e o popular na cultura brasileira,
(Sao Paulo: Editores Brasiliense, 1982), p. 15.
149

coup. This political context explains why most of the works at Opinião 65 were

committed to denouncing Brazil’s brutal reality and addressing the people. It also

explains Antonio Días’s remarks about the role of art and Gerchman’s celebration

of Oiticica’s Parangolé as a way of allowing the poor to enter the Museum, which I

referred to above.

It seems clear to me that Oiticica was not particularly interested in

following the approach of the leftist intellectuals who organized Opinião 65 or the

populist pretensions of the right. His work neither assumed a position of authority

towards popular culture nor pretended to speak for the people. On the one hand, he

rejected the right’s attempt to integrate the popular into the national project as he

did not invite the poor to the Museum for them to become “cultured” spectators and

normalized citizens who would help nationalism become consolidated. On the other

hand, Oiticica also rejected the leftist pretension of speaking for the people and

converting popular culture into a subject and the telos of artistic practices. Oiticica

invited the poor into the Museum to question the ways in which the insertion of

their culture into leftist cultural practices really meant the opposite of what it

pretended to be, namely, the exclusion of their system of signification from the

cultural field, since for the left the popular also needed to be transformed into the

modern in the name of socialism.

As I stated in the Introduction, the implementation of developmentalism

was accompanied by the consolidation of the art institution in Latin America.


150

While modernizing policies in the field of economy were being implemented,

museums of modern art and art schools were founded in Latin America, along with

art criticism and the study of Latin American art history. Developmentalism and the

art institution followed prior attempts by local governments and political parties to

solve the “problem” of the popular, since both reaffirmed the idea of

inclusion/exclusion found in representations of popular culture, based on the right’s

illusion of a modern nation and the left’s of modern socialism.

My goal in this chapter is to explore the relationship between Oiticica’s

Parangolé and popular culture as a part of a broader body of Latin American

artistic projects that explored the colonial nature of developmentalism and its links

with the newly-born art institution during the Cold War. I argue that by

appropriating the very representation of popular culture and re-inserting it within

the art system, Parangolé explored strategies of cultural critique to oppose the

intention of integrating the poor within either a national project or a socialist

project. Standing in and outside of modernity at the same time, Parangolé re-

inserted those means of expression rejected by modern culture into the art

institution, postponing modernity’s wish to fabricate, integrate, and convert the

popular into art. The Parangolé also encouraged the creation of environments for

new social and communitarian experiences coming from popular culture, which

represent marginal means of coping with the adversity of developmentalism in

Latin America.
151

I will explore Oiticica’s critique of the forms the avant-garde took in Brazil

by contrasting his prolific writing about Brazilian art with the art-historical

approach which classifies his work as part of the avant-garde of the sixties and

seventies. I will argue that his positions opposing the avant-garde were based on a

profound inquiry into the role of art in the colonial context of Latin America, the

need to put it at the service of creating marginal collective experiences of solidarity,

and a sense of belonging and community among those subjected to colonial and

class power relations. I will further argue that the ethics of his artistic search cannot

be approached without taking into account its roots in Brazilian and Latin

American cultural traditions. I will examine the claims for a more culturally-based

approach made by some Latin American scholars, which place Oiticica’s work

within the context of the anthropophagite tradition in Brazil. Using strategies of

disguise, mimicry and concealment this tradition “devoured” modernity to open up

new intercultural dialogues and practices of subjectivity which, I believe, are

consistent with Oiticica’s anarchist spirit, interest in the marginal, and search for

“other” practices of art and culture.

In this light, the Parangolé, I argue, should be seen—and experienced—as a

demonstration rather than as an object, that is, a performance that is performative. It

is a performance in the theatrical sense as it displays, through dance and acting, the

stereotypes and constructions imposed on popular cultures. In doing so, it is also

performative insofar as it disseminates the meaning that developmentalism has


152

imposed on popular culture. As in an anthropophagite ritual, Brazilian popular

sectors in Parangolé swallow the representations that have made their cultures non-

modern and open up new meanings that may enable them to survive in a continent

condemned to modernity.

An Ethical Necessity

Art historians generally divide Oiticica’s work into four major stages to explain

how his unique research on artistic issues progressively led to his surprising

innovations in color and artistic support. The following is my summary of those

stages, based on the analyses of Guy Brett, Simone Osthoff, and others:

1. The Glass Bolide (fireball or flaming meteor): Glass containers to be

opened by the viewer. Color seems to function as a glowing mass to

which the person is attracted, rather like a moth to flame. He produced

more than 50 versions. (Fig. 3.7)

2. The Box Bolide: Boxes with spatial divisions which play on the

mysteries of interior spaces, of opening and closing, of what can’t be

physically entered or completely seen. At first, they may seem like

examples of “object as painting” or “painting as object,” ones which

also have a nucleic mass. The Box Bolides reflect what Oiticica deemed

“the constructivism of the favelas”—the structures and colors of Rio de

Janeiro’s slums. In his Box Bolides, Oiticica employed various


153

materials, including plastic and glass, traditionally used to build shelters.

He then lined his boxes with photographs and mirrors. Both the Glass

Bolides and Box Bolides often included words or images; olfactory

effects as well or were meant to pay homage to different people. (Fig.

3.8)

3. The Penetrable: cabins or labyrinths whose recesses are to be explored

bodily and with all senses, especially the touch of one’s feet. Tropicalia

and Eden are considered to be the most complete project of this series.

(Fig. 3.9) The former was exhibited for the first time at the Museum of

Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro in 1967. Tropicália was also the name of a

wider project by Brazilian artists, musicians, and writers who worked on

folkloric or exotic representations of Latin America. (Fig. 3.10)

4. The Parangolé: clothing, capes and banners as elements of dance and

carnival display taking place in tents and structured around free corporal

expression.23

This linear analysis of the development of Oiticica’s approach to color and artistic

support has been interpreted as caught between a number of contradictions or

dichotomies. One has to do with the relative importance he gave to structural and

formalist issues, on the one hand, and political ones, on the other, that is, issues of

23
Guy Brett, “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” p. 226-227 and Simone Osthoff “Lygia Clark
and Hélio Oiticica: A Legacy of Interactivity and Participation for a Telematic Future,” Leonardo
30 (1997), 279.
154

emancipation and revolt. On another level, we are faced with a contradiction,

difficult to resolve, between his public image as a “madman” or anarchist, and his

rational and methodical approach both to his art objects and the theories he

propounded to justify his innovations.

In particular, I would like to refer to the interpretations of Guy Brett and

Mari Carmen Ramírez, which are especially important since they were the curators,

along with others, of the two most comprehensive exhibitions of his work which

have taken place since his premature death in 1980. My concentration on them does

not rule out the importance of the insights of other commentators, who include not

only a good number of scholars, historians, and critics in the field of art, but also

philosophers and social scientists who believe that Oiticica’s work is related to

wider issues ignored by conventional art history and criticism. The fact that their

interpretations came out of their organization of major public exhibitions interests

me since it enabled them to reach larger audiences than critics ordinarily have. The

first exhibition is Helio Oiticica, which was held in 1992 and organized by Guy

Brett, Luciano Figueredo, and Catherine David. It was seen in Europe, Brazil and

the United States and was the first to do justice to the enormous volume of his

work. The second exhibition, Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color, was organized by

Mari Carmen Ramírez and Luciano Figueredo and was shown in Houston and

London between December 2006 and April 2007.


155

Guy Brett’s essay for the 1992 exhibition, “The Experimental Exercise of

Liberty,” borrows a famous remark about the Brazilian avant-garde of the 1960’s

by the Brazilian art critic Mário Pedrosa. Although Brett states that “to some extent

all ‘later’ work of Oiticica’s involved a reconsideration of ‘earlier’ work,” 24 he

insists on the linear development of Oiticica’s work and concentrates on the

dichotomies between art and life, and between madness and lucidity, both of which

relate, in turn, to the ethics of emancipation found in the rhetoric of the avant-

garde. Of the dichotomy between art and life, Brett writes: “Hélio was pulling away

from the ambience of ‘art’ towards ‘life,’ almost as if he was stealing concepts for

the sake of life, concepts that would focus life without fixing or monumentalizing

it, remaining fragile and precarious in their forms as physical objects.”25 Of the

dichotomy between madness and lucidity, he says: “His transgressions were

effective since he knew very well the nuances of Brazilian conformism, including,

incidentally, that of assuming that the artistic projects of this wild person were

‘crazy’ and unrealizable. The two sides co-existed in Hélio—delirious abandon and

meticulous order, intellect and trance.”26 Brett links Oiticica’s approach to that of

artists in other countries whose work raised social questions in a visionary way in

the sixties and seventies, “rather as artists did in Russia during and after the

Revolution, though in a different way.”27 He argues that Oiticica belonged to a

24
Brett, “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” p. 222.
25
Brett, “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” p. 222.
26
Brett, “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” p. 222.
27
Brett, “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” p. 226.
156

third-world avant-garde which exposed the contradictions in the economic and

social values of a Brazilian ruling class that clearly followed the bourgeois model.

He says: “Hélio took a leading position in the avant-garde through his involvement

with the favela people, which aimed at not only confronting the social

consequences of that model, but also at creatively collaborating in the creation of a

“post-colonial” national culture in Brazil.”28

Brett’s parallel between Oiticica’s work and the early twentieth-century

European avant-garde’s critique of bourgeois society attempts to place Oiticica’s

work within the framework of the modern idea of an artistic avant-garde at the

forefront of social change. Following the critique of the autonomy of the European

avant-garde in the eighties, his main argument attempts to prove that differently

from that European avant-garde, Oiticica’s third-world experiment made use of the

avant-garde ethics to link art to politics, without forgetting the avant-garde’s wish

to link art and life.29 Having stated all this, however, Brett then succumbs to a

formalist rhetoric that focuses on issues of color and artistic support. He says of the

four stages:

The nature of the innovations Hélio made, and the genres or

“orders” he derived from them, which served him as a structure of

experimentation for the rest of his life, become very clear if one

28
Brett, “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” p. 226.
29
I am referring to the work of Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant Garde (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota, 1984) which, I believe, influenced Brett’s reading of Oiticica’s work.
157

continues at this point to take color/painting as the subject of the

process.30

Other critics, exemplified by Mari Carmen Ramírez, take this formalist approach a

step further. While her interpretation maintains the idea of a linear progression, she

abandons any attempt, like Brett’s, to identify Oiticica’s work with the sixties

avant-garde—or its contemporary revival—or pay attention to his “madness” or

search for freedom, choosing, instead, to concentrate on the purity of his formalism

and the rigor of his theories. Thus, in her introduction to the catalogue of the

exhibition Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color, an essay entitled “Hélio’s Double-

Edged Challenge,” Ramírez begins with a reference to the Brazilian critic Frederico

Morais’s “theory of marginality” in order to explain Oiticica’s questioning of the

art institution and its effect on the third world.31 However, for her the two

dimensions of art and life in Oiticica’s work led him along a “forked path” between

his anarchic and “systematic” thought, his concerns about art and a Brazilian

society plagued by contradictions, “his vision of a new ‘state of invention’ that

blurred the perceived division between art and life,” and “the oscillation between

avant-garde and underdevelopment.”32 She concludes:

The emphasis on the artist as rebel, however, has conveniently

obscured other aspects of Oiticica’s personality and production that

30
Brett, “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” p. 226.
31
Ramírez, Hélio Oiticica, p. 17.
32
Ramírez, Hélio Oiticica, p. 17.
158

have recently come to surface, demanding equal attention. In reality,

the poète maudit coexisted with the methodical intellectual, intuitive

researcher, and consummate artistic practitioner . . . [This

exhibition] brings to light a critical yet, until now, little-explored

dimension of the artist’s lifelong preoccupation: color.33

Ramírez attempts to depict Oiticica’s persona and work as fully committed to the

development of highly sophisticated formal solutions to his anarchist subjectivity:

“Even the anti-art posture he deployed after 1965 could not undo the seduction of

the rich colors, textured materials, and striking fabrics of the constructions, capes,

environments, and trans-objects he produced by crafting or appropriating everyday

materials.”34 She concludes, “Without doubt, the enticement of a proposal that is

close enough to us in its organization yet is ungraspable in its delirium leaves us

with no choice but to rise to its double-edged challenge. Such is the main purpose

of the present undertaking.”35 In the same way as Brett, she winds up with a

formalist interpretation of Oiticica’s work. Ramírez affirms:

From the very beginning, Hélio considered color to be a fully

autonomous system that had remained far too long subordinated to

the pictorial support. As such, color had its own spatial and temporal

dimension that could only be appreciated when released from the

33
Ramírez, Hélio Oiticica, p. 17-18.
34
Ramírez, Hélio Oiticica, p. 18.
35
Ramírez, Hélio Oiticica, p. 18.
159

plane. . . . Taken as a whole, these [1950] series represent the basis

for a supreme order that liberates the senses through chromatic

experiences in both time and space. . . . Considered from this novel

perspective, color can be seen not as a means or a set of formal

elements, but as a structural system unto itself—one, in my view,

that is the key to understanding Oiticica’s entire oeuvre.36

Consequently, Oiticica’s work has been seen either as an innovative response to the

crisis of the avant-garde or as a true Latin American contribution to formal issues

that determine twentieth-century art’s inner development. For Ramírez, Oiticica’s

work of the fifties created color as a supreme order, making it paradigmatic for the

debates of the second half of the twentieth century. Brett, for his part, emphasizes

the ways in which Oiticica’s work connects issues that have been of central

importance to art in the past few decades:

It is remarkable to what extent the work of Oiticica touches almost

all the areas of recent art, whether they are conceived as a set of

passive categories–kinetic art, process art, the monochrome,

minimal art, conceptual art, pop art, political art, land art,

environmental art, body art, participation, performance–or as

burning and contested issues: the status of the object as

communication or consumer commodity; notions of authorship and

36
Ramírez, Hélio Oiticica, p. 20.
160

the relations of artist to audience; the gap between fine art and

popular culture; questions of identity, sexuality, decolonization and

cultural difference; the relation between art and life.37

Despite their differences, both critics begin by placing Oiticica’s work in the

framework of avant-garde experiments and questions about the relationship

between art and life. However, this intention progressively fades as both finally

concentrate on Oiticica’s innovations in color and artistic support. According to

both, these experiments run from his first constructivist works, which freed the

canvas from the wall to create atmospheres where color would be perceived as an

element crucial to the creation of space, to his Parangolé, where the capes

represent the final liberation of color from the canvas or any other artistic support,

and convert it into a living component of bodily expressions. For one critic, this

formal achievement connects Oiticica’s work and life. For the other, it finally

converts color into a system sufficient unto itself. In the light of this formalist

reading, Oiticica’s search for the experimental—which established his differential

relation to modernism—is converted into experimental art which successfully

resolved avant-gardist formalist concerns about the nature of art and its link to life.

Since, in my view, the interpretation of art is above all political, I wonder what

happened to Brett’s initial emphasis on the utopian politics of the avant-garde, not

to mention Ramirez’s leading role, in the eighties, in questioning the way Latin

37
Brett, “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” pp. 223-224.
161

American art was represented by mainstream museums and art historians, a topic I

discussed in Chapter 2.

I would like to return to Morais’s reference to Oiticica’s work as a “theory

of marginality” in order to change the terms of Brett and Ramírez’s arguments and

free the interpretation of that work from their binary rationale whose ethics

inevitably points at a dialectic and utopian politics, one which, in my opinion,

Oiticica overtly rejected. If Oiticica’s work aimed at a “theory of marginality,” I

consider it interestingly productive to think of it as a proposal that was not trapped

within those dichotomies but actively exploited the construction of difference

inherent in contradictions such as: art/culture, developed/underdeveloped,

art/politics. If, as Morais argues, Oiticica develops a “theory of marginality,” we

should not squeeze his work into the narrow dichotomies between art and life or

formalist experimentation and social awareness characteristic of art criticism.

Instead of situating his work within or outside that system of representation—a

binarism that falls into the trap of that representation—I see Oiticica’s marginality

as a set of strategies that worked on those very distinctions created by the art

system, and, by the same token, on the distinction between developed and

underdeveloped created by the U.S. in the Cold War period. His work did not seek

to enrich the modernist system of art implemented by developmentalism nor

consider popular culture to be a utopian place for individual freedom. By activating

the workings of difference within those dichotomies, his work challenged both the
162

dichotomy of art/popular culture and the utopian politics of the outside, contesting

both developmentalism and the art institution.

In what follows, I would like to expand upon Oiticica’s insights into

popular culture, the notion of the experimental, “marginal” anti-art and Latin

American views of the role of art within colonial contexts. Without

underestimating the experimental character of his visual, performance or spatial

innovations, I prefer a more culturally-based approach, related to the struggles

against the colonial condition of Latin America, which allows us to come up with a

different analysis of Oiticica’s dream, one that, I believe, vindicates “an other”

ethics different from the utopian politics of the avant-garde, whose idea of

emancipation art historically amounts to what Ramírez calls “the artist’s

emancipation of color into space.”38

In order to contrast this interpretation with the conventional critical ones, I

would first like to present the detailed account of his work and its relation to

Brazilian art in an essay he wrote in 1967, “Esquema Geral de La Nova

Objetividade” [General Scheme of The New Objectivity], published on the

occasion of the exhibition Nova Objetividade at the Museum of Modern Art of Rio

de Janeiro. Above all, Oiticica characterized Nova Objetividade not so much as a

new artistic tendency as a “state . . . not a dogmatic, aesthetic movement. . . . [It] is

more an ‘arrival,’ made up of multiple tendencies, characterized, significantly, by

38
Ramírez, Hélio Oiticica, p. 20.
163

the ‘absence of unity of thought.’”39 In this article, Oiticica summarized the main

characteristics of Nova Objetividade:

1- General constructive will; 2- A move towards the object, as easel

painting is rejected and superseded; 3- The participation of the

spectator (physical, tactile, visual, semantic, etc.); 4- A commitment

to political, social, and ethical problems; 5- A tendency towards

collective propositions and consequently the abolition, in the art of

today, of the ‘isms’ so characteristic of the first half of the twentieth

century (a tendency which will be encompassed by Mário Pedrosa’s

concept of ‘Post-Modern Art’); 6- A revival and new formulations

of the concept of anti-art.40

In contrast with the individualism Oiticica saw in the arts of Europe and the United

States, the will towards collective construction calls for the merging of individual

creative propositions into grounded and grouped cultural practices. This

constructive will would encourage art to involve itself with social issues and create

a collective stealing and resignification of those colonial cultural traditions through

the eyes of local practices. Instead of searching for an “authentic” local culture, the

will towards collective construction wanted to undermine the North-Atlantic

hegemony by appropriating and then desecrating it. As I will explain later on,

Oiticica highly praised the theory of cultural anthropophagy, choosing it as a

39
Hélio Oiticica “Esquema Geral da Nova Objetividade,” in Helio Oiticica, p. 110.
40
Oiticica, “Esquema Geral da Nova Objetividade,” p. 110.
164

strategy to promote tactics of difference against Brazilian nationalist or leftist

ideologies, on the one hand, and Europe and the United States on the other and thus

absorb their cultures in what Oiticica, called an act of “Super-Anthropophagy.”

The materialization of this constructive will was implicit, he believed, in the

evolution of Brazilian art after World War II. Oiticica noticed it in the change from

traditional painting and sculpture to “the successive creation of reliefs, anti-

paintings, even spatial or environmental structures, and the formulation of the

object, or rather the arrival of the object.” 41 From this displacement of traditional

art forms there emerged a trend towards a social and participatory art which

involves the “discovery of the body,” of which the Parangolé or Parangolé-

variations, as Oiticica called them, are examples.

The promotion of collective creations—not dependent on the creativity of

the individual artist—raised the question of the spectator’s experience of art. For

Oiticica, Nova Objetividade questioned the notion of transcendental contemplation

of art, and employed two main strategies: a “manipulation” of the spectator through

“sensorial-corporeal” and/or “semantic” participation. Although not completely

independent of one another, these strategies attempted to demolish the Western

notion of a supreme art with universal meanings which are supposedly embedded

in its concrete forms. Instead, they played with the translations that resulted from

the dissemination of Western traditions in colonial contexts. They led to the

41
Oiticica, “Esquema Geral da Nova Objetividade,” p. 110.
165

creation of a variety of new forms ranging from participatory plays to events which

gave the “individual” an opportunity to create “his/her” work.

Following the ideas of Brazilian critic Ferreira Gullar, Oiticica called for the

abandonment of aesthetic formalism and the creation, through participatory art, of

cultural conditions that would foment “revolt, protest, and constructive work.”42

The political situation of Brazil at that time encouraged artists to adopt this

approach, since they believed that collective creations would be a way to challenge

not only cultural colonialism, but also the social exclusion and repression found in

Brazilian society. Seen in this light, New Objectivity was an attempt to appropriate

the avant-garde, yet mock its pretensions towards autonomy. He says: “The

phenomenon of the avant-garde in Brazil is no longer the concern of a group

coming from an isolated elite, but a far-reaching cultural issue, of great amplitude,

tending towards collective solutions.”43 These forms of collective art manifested

themselves in individual and collective creations carried out in public contexts (as

the Parangolé itself operates) or in proposals that called for the active participation

of the spectator in the creation of the work. Of particular interest, Oiticica linked

these departures to collective expressions of popular culture which already

contained the principle of collective play and made use of participation,

improvisation and free creativity.

42
Oiticica, “Esquema Geral da Nova Objetividade,” p. 114.
43
Oiticica, “Esquema Geral da Nova Objetividade,” p. 117.
166

At the end of his Nova Objetividade, Oiticica asked himself: “In an

underdeveloped country, how can we explain and justify the appearance of the

avant-garde, not as a symptom of alienation, but as a decisive factor in its collective

progress? Who does the artist make his work for?”44 Following in the footsteps of

Mário Pedrosa, one of the first to proclaim the end of modern art and welcome the

emergence of post-modern art—an idea which I will discuss below—he called for

the abolition of all “isms,” in order to clear the way for an ethical and creative

circumstance he called anti-art, which would “not only hammer away at the art of

the past, but create new experimental conditions where the artist takes on the role

of ‘proposer,’ or ‘entrepreneur.’”45

Oiticica’s manifesto was not limited to a categorical rejection of modernist

aesthetics or a questioning of the utopian politics of the avant-garde. It had two

other important aspects, which are frequently ignored by the critical analyses: his

opposition to the art institution and its links to developmentalism. Although this

manifesto addresses the same important issues that the art of the time dealt with,

especially the validity of the avant-garde, his conclusions were different. He did not

situate his proposals outside of the art system but attacked that system from within

by calling attention to its hidden historical and cultural assumptions. On the one

hand, he refused to accept that the avant-garde’s attention to local struggles

between the poor and the bourgeoisie—whose existence he did not deny—were

44
Oiticica, “Esquema Geral da Nova Objetividade,” p. 117.
45
Oiticica, “Esquema Geral da Nova Objetividade,” p. 119.
167

ethically valid, since the same avant-garde was part of an art system based on the

developmentalism responsible for those struggles. In other words, he revealed the

darker side of the avant-garde by showing its connection to the colonial order that

emerged after World War II.

On the other hand, his rejection of modernism and formalism tended to

follow the avant-garde’s belief that art should be at the forefront of social change.

However, his ethics diverged from that of the avant-garde, insofar as he was less

interested in the avant-gardist link between art and life than in the link between art

and culture. Thus, his interest was not so much concentrated on a formalist

experimentalism whereby art would abandon its claims for autonomy by reaching

wider audiences, as in historically and politically situating the struggles between

artistic and cultural practices. For Oiticica, the ideal relationship between art and

culture does not involve converting cultural practices into art, or bringing art to the

poor. By transforming art into collective creations, with the artist as a proposer,

culture does not become a set of consumer goods, as it is in “enlightened”

modernity. Instead, culture is understood as a set of signifying practices and

meaningful expressions of social sectors which have been economically, socially

and culturally excluded, either by the rhetoric of Brazilian nationalism or by

socialist notions of art for the people, both of which reflect the developmentalist

discourse. Based on the assumption that art and culture are always charged with

political meanings, his work distances itself from the liberal notion of individual
168

freedom promulgated by humanism and moves towards the recognition of “other”

cultural practices which, in historical terms, are so odd that they overturn

modernity’s illusion that art is an autonomous sphere and its distance to culture is

an issue of mere aesthetic quality and artistic creativity.

If we accept that Oiticica worked on the dichotomies between

developed/underdeveloped or art/culture postulated by developmentalism and the

modernist art institution in Latin America then his public image as an anarchist or

“madman” takes on a new significance. I would like to highlight the value of this

position since, I believe, it changed the terms of the cultural struggles of the period

which were mostly based on a utopian and dialectic politics of art and culture.

Instead, he concentrated on the workings of difference inherent to those

developmentalist and modernist barriers and dichotomies, setting in motion

practices that deconstructed its meanings and revealed its hidden powers.

Returning to the Parangolé, I would like to illustrate the ways in which

Oiticica’s general approach to Brazilian art, the one I just commented on, gave

shape to his experiments in changing the relationship between popular culture and

art. Whereas art historians see the Parangolé as the highest point in the linear

development of his work, Oiticica called the Parangolé a “crucial point” in his

“experience of color-structure in space, in reference to a new definition of what

would be, in this same experience, the ‘plastic object,’ or rather, the work.”46 As

46
Oiticica, “Fundamental Bases,” p. 85.
169

Oiticica saw it, the Parangolé brought together practices and objects which were an

intimate part of the sphere of Brazilian art and the lives of Rio’s poor and

materialized in a variety of expressions ranging from favela architecture to dance.

Although they already had symbolic and practical uses, their real significance,

Oiticica remarked, emerges from their interrelationship within the Parangolé and

their challenge to the art institution. He says,

Even though I use prefabricated objects in the works . . . I do not

seek the poetics of these objects as the goals of this transposition but

use them as elements which only matter as an entirety, the entirety

of the work . . . This relationship may become a “trans-objectivity,”

and the work, an ideal “trans-object.”47

The key concepts of “trans-objectivity” and “trans-object” illustrate the use and

integration of objects and practices from art and the favela into the Parangolé. The

joining of elements from popular culture and art became a kind of “trans-object,”

which is nothing more than a participatory game in which the previous

significances of art and the favela elements are released, paving the way for

unexpected experiences of art. More than a synthesis of the two, the Parangolé

played the role of putting into question institutionalized meanings of art and

culture, already naturalized by the modern art system, allowing its dissemination

towards unknown and unexpected practices. In this regard, Oiticica clearly

47
Oiticica, “Fundamental Bases,” p. 86.
170

distanced himself from both a kind of folklorist nationalism—impelled by the

right’s wish for a truly Brazilian culture—and avant-gardist primitivism—propelled

by the socialist wish for a truly modern culture derived from “the people.” Oiticica

notes: “It is not the case—as the word parangolé, derived from slang could lead

one to suppose—of implying a fusion of my work and folklore or an identification

of this nature, transposed or otherwise, that would be completely superficial and

useless.”48 Following these ethical referents, Oiticica established a further

difference between his project and Cubism’s use of found objects from non-

Western cultures to create an artistic statement. While Cubism saw the entire

African culture as a way of revitalizing Western art, his Parangolé, he wrote:

“places itself, as it were, at the opposite pole from Cubism: it does not take the

entire object, finished, complete, but seeks the object’s structure, the constructive

principles of this structure . . . not the dynamization or dismantling of the object.”49

In this there is an implied association between the appropriation of non-Western

cultures by avant-gardist primitivism and colonialism. Except for Dada, which

Oiticica regarded as the main source of his concept of anti-art, he rejected the

formalist appropriation of the non-artistic for artistic purposes, in the sense that the

“dismantling” of exotic objects or practices is a metaphor for the colonialist

discourse about Latin America and its indigenous cultures. Oiticica both

participated in the favela culture and used some of its “structural elements,” like

48
Oiticica, “Fundamental Bases,” p. 85.
49
Oiticica, “Fundamental Bases,” p. 86.
171

architecture, inserting them into the art world to promote experimental vivências,

but the Parangolé is not an artistic reflection on them. In other words, it does not

convert popular culture into an object of artistic consideration, nor does it claim

that popular culture represents Brazilian culture as a whole.

In 1972, Oiticica sketched a general outline of the Parangolé entitled

“Parangolé Synthesis.”50 The schema places the spectator’s vivência at the center

of the work in order to provoke “a continuous and far-reaching interference” with

his/her behavior, provoked by the wearing of capes, dancing, and unexpected

situations:
concrete situations defined as
PARANGOLÉ- program programs of circumstance

(circumstantial projects involving environmental-street-


group)

DEMITHYCISM OF PARANGOLÉ

program of open
circumstance non-mythicized
‘object-event’

non-theatre
of the first PARANGOLÉ
non-ritual circumstantial situations
remained

non- placed events


open to experimentation
myth
not striving for myth or ‘rituality of the
moment’ (as cognition of the
moment)

Momentless

to feed the moment: instead of raising it


into mythical categories or implementing
aesthetic preciousness

50
Hélio Oiticica, “Synthesis-Parangolé,” in Hélio Oiticica, p. 165.
172

Oiticica clearly distanced himself from a canonical notion of art, theater and ritual,

which is intended to divide a collective experience into artist, artwork and spectator

or bring about an enlightened or educated response. The use of such terms as

“momentless” or “to feed the moment” underlines his insistence that the Parangolé

represents a collective, open experimentalism beyond “mythical categories or the

implementing of aesthetic preciousness.” Thus, Oiticica defines the Parangolé as a

program which is open to the circumstantial, a notion consistent with the idea of the

Parangolé being an improvised collective performance that can occur in

environments like streets, plazas, or even indoors (like the ones I have described at

Rio’s Museum of Modern Art and the Hélio Oiticica Art Center). The

circumstantial is relevant, since Oiticica thought of the Parangolé as something

that might be planned but never foreseen. Parangolé is an event in which the

sudden presence of people wearing capes, displaying banners, and erecting tents is

meant to provoke uproar and encourage people to undergo unexpected individual

and collective transformations. The individual body transformed by the capes—

which recall the gaudy clothing worn at Rio’s Carnival—now incites the

transformation of the collective body by creating a whole environment for delirium.

All of his ideas about popular culture and the avant-garde, which I have just

discussed, framed Oiticica’s own understanding of the Parangolé. In his 1966

article, “Position and Program,” Oiticica explored the Parangolé from the

standpoint of his notion of “the experimental,” which, in turn, is part of a broader


173

strategy he called the “Environmental Program.” Oiticica considered the Parangolé

to be a truly environmental art, made up of “environmental wholes,” which aimed

to create situations where all kinds of objects converge—from the infinitely small

to the architectural. The Parangolé is defined as an anti-art form which invalidates

all conventional metaphysical, intellectual, and aesthetic positions. He defined the

artist as an instigator of creation: “There is no proposal to ‘elevate the spectator to

the level of creation,’ to a ‘meta-reality,’ ” he wrote, “or impose on him an “idea”

or “aesthetic model” about those concepts, but to give him a simple opportunity to

participate, so that he finds something he wants to realize.”51 A truly environmental

activity is the result of the very process of appropriating and displaying objects, and

encouraging the participation of both the artist and the spectator. Oiticica argued

that: “This comprehension of the malleable meaning of each work is what shatters

the pretension to base it on a set of orders: moral, aesthetic, or otherwise.”52 The

Environmental Program would then set in motion a resistance to any given social or

cultural order. As Oiticica stated:

An ethical necessity of another kind comes into being here, which I

would also include in the environmental, since its means are realized

through the word, whether written or spoken, and in a more complex

way through discourse: This is the social one, incorporating an

ethical (as well as political) position which comes together as a

51
Hélio Oiticica, “Position and Program,” in Helio Oiticica, p. 100.
52
Oiticica, “Position and Program,” p. 100.
174

manifestation of an individual behavior. I should make it a bit

clearer; first of all, that such a position can only be totally anarchic .

. . It is against everything that is oppressive, socially and

individually—all the fixed and decadent forms of government, or

reigning structures . . . For me, the most complete expression of this

entire concept of “environmentation” was the formulation of what I

called Parangolé.53

The inclusion of Oiticica in the avant-garde rationale by mainstream art critics

reveals the need for more culturally-based approaches to his work. These would

understand Oiticica’s eccentric and anarchic work as a proposal that did not derive

from the avant-garde but set forth an alternative rationale which deconstructed

modernism and identified it as the cultural counterpart of developmentalism. Citing

Frederico Morais’s interest in this cultural approach, Catherine David also insists

that Oiticica’s work should be regarded “more from a Brazilian cultural perspective

than an artistic one.”54

As far back as 1965, the Brazilian critic Mário Pedrosa had taken a similar

culturally-based approach to the Parangolé and the context in which it took place

in his article “Arte Ambiental, Arte Pósmoderna, Hélio Oiticica” [Environmental

Art, Postmodern Art, Hélio Oiticica].55 This approach, he suggested, should follow

53
Oiticica, “Position and Program,” p. 103.
54
Catherine David “The Great Labyrinth,” in Hélio Oiticica, p. 249.
55
Mario Pedrosa, “Arte Ambiental, Arte Pós-moderna, Hélio Oiticica,” in Crítica de Arte no Brasil:
Temáticas Contemporáneas, ed. Glória Ferreira (Rio de Janeiro: FUNARTE, 2006), pp. 143-145.
175

the same route as Oiticica’s work itself, which moves from the artistic and

formalist to the cultural and the postmodern. The relationship of Parangolé to

samba led Pedrosa to state that it was precisely Oiticica’s connection with dance

and Rio de Janeiro’s morros that forced him to combine his rejection of modernist

aesthetics, on the one hand, and the Third World experience of modernity, on the

other:

It was during the artist’s initiation in samba that he shifted from

visual experience, in all its purity, to a tactile, kinetic, joyful, sensual

experience of materials, in which the whole body, hitherto restricted

by the distant aristocracy of the visual, transforms itself into a total

source of sensuality . . . Aesthetic non-conformism— Luciferian

sin—and social-psychic non-conformism—individual sin—are

melded. In the art of this young artist, beauty, sin, revolt and love

give a new accent to Brazilian art . . . If you want to know his

record, perhaps there is one: Hélio is an anarchist’s grandson.56

Pedrosa concludes by arguing that Oiticica’s work, and that of other Brazilian

artists, gave birth to an environmental, postmodern art. Pedrosa noted:

Today, we have reached the end of what has been called “modern

art” . . . We are now in another phase, which is no longer purely

artistic but cultural and radically different from what came before

56
Pedrosa, “Arte Ambiental, Arte Pós-moderna, Hélio Oiticica,” p. 145.
176

and was initiated, say, by Pop Art . . . I would call this new phase

“postmodern art.” Its strictly artistic values tend to be absorbed by

the plasticity of perceptional and situational structures . . . It is not

expressivity in itself that interests the present avant-garde. On the

contrary, it is completely suspicious of hermetic individual

subjectivism.57

Pedrosa’s use of the term “postmodern” to describe Oiticica’s work in 1965 has

caught the attention of the critics, not only because of his surprisingly early

awareness of the crisis of modernity but also because of the way in which it may be

used to place Oiticica’s work within contemporary debates. Michael Asbury, for

instance, cites the date of Pedrosa’s claim to question the idea that Oiticica is a

“paradigmatic figure in Brazilian contemporary art, exemplifying a Brazilian

tradition which runs from the early modernists to the contemporary.”58 I share

Asbury’s rejection of the notion that Oiticica is a trans-historical artist who

“touches almost all the areas of recent art.” However, I also think that this

historicist approach is too problematic to be of much use. As mentioned in previous

chapters, some artistic projects which appeared during the Cold War in Latin

America shared with their European and American counterparts a profound distrust

of modernity. However, the former called attention to the colonial side of

57
Pedrosa, “Arte Ambiental, Arte Pós-moderna, Hélio Oiticica,” p. 142.
58
Michael Asbury, “Hélio Oiticica and the notion of the popular in the 1960’s,” ARARA 3 (July
2003), 1.
177

developmentalism and opened up a different spectrum of artistic and political

possibilities.

The similarities between Oiticica’s concerns and those expressed by

postmodernism in the early eighties are worth noting. In particular, they include

Oiticica’s plea for the abolition of the figure of the author, for art to be lived as a

collective experience and proposition, for the revision of previous forms of anti-art

prompted by the avant-garde yet rejected by modernism, and above all, his

understanding of artistic practices as deeply involved in politics, impelling artists to

convert that link into a matter of reflection and an ethical position. Despite these

similarities, however, I believe that it does not make sense to establish a point by

point comparison between Pedrosa’s use of the term postmodern and the practices

given that name during the eighties and nineties. Pedrosa’s use of the term

“postmodern” to describe Oiticica’s work may be seen as an example of a justified

enthusiasm on his part, since he saw in Oiticica a symptom of a local cultural

critique of post-World War II developmentalism. The Brazilian ruling classes,

guided by American foreign policy, believed that Brazil held out the promise of

development. After the foundation of Brasilia as the capital of the country, which

was the epitome of a modernist architectural project, Pedrosa, criticizing this kind

of imposition, said that Brazil was a country condemned to modernity.59

59
Mario Pedrosa, “Reflexões em torno da nova capital” Brasil, Arquitetura Contemporânea, 10
(1957). Reprinted in Mário Pedrosa: Dos Murais de Portinari aos Espaços de Brasília, ed. Aracy
Amaral (São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 1987), pp. 303-16.
178

The Law of the Anthropophagite

I would like to relate Pedrosa’s and Morais’s ideas about the need for culturally-

based approaches to Oiticica’s artistic project to the Brazilian anthropophagite

tradition. This tradition officially was born in 1928 with the publishing of Oswald

de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago [Anthropophagite Manifesto] in the first issue

of the Revista de Antropofagia, the magazine of the movement. (Fig. 3.11)The idea

of Brazilian culture as an anthropophagite one was in the mind of intellectuals and

artists years before the Manifesto was published. Back in 1924, Andrade had

published “Manifesto da Poesia Pau-Brasil” [Pau-Brazil Poetry] in which the pau-

brasil tree—which gave the country its name and was its most important export

during the colonial period—is the basis of a series of metaphors about Brazil’s role

as an exporter of “exotic” culture and importer of mainstream culture.60 A year

before the publication of Andrade’s Manifesto, José Bento Monteiro Lobato

published A Aventura de Hans Staden [The Adventures of Hans Staden]61 which is

a version, in the form of a children book, of the famous polemical report by Hans

Staden of cannibalistic practices on the Brazilian coast, which appeared in

Germany in 1557.62 Furthermore, in the same year the Manifesto came out, Mario

de Andrade published his novel Macunaíma: a herói sem nenhum caráter

60
Oswald De Andrade, “Manifesto da Poesia Pau-Brasil,” in A Utopia Antropofágica: A
Antropofagia ao alcance de todos, ed. Benedito Nunes (São Paulo: Globo, 1990), pp. 41-45.
61
José Bento Monteiro Lobato, “Aventuras de Hans Staden,” in Obras completas (São Paulo,
Brasiliense), III, 1968.
62
Staden, Hans. Hans Staden's True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity in Brazil, trans. and
ed. Neil L. Whitehead and Michael Harbsmeier (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
179

[Macunaima: The Hero Without Character] which tells the story of a Brazilian

descended from the cannibalistic tribe of the Tapanhumas. (Fig. 3.12) Macunaíma,

“the hero of our people,” continuously metamorphoses into a Black man, an Indian,

a Western white man, and also an insect, a fish and even a duck, depending on the

circumstances.

Nevertheless, the birth of the anthropophagite cultural movement may be

even earlier, if we take into account some anecdotal information about

A Semana de Arte Moderna [The Week of Modern Art] which took place in Sao

Paulo on February 13 -17, 1922. The Semana, consisting of academic seminars and

exhibitions, was a gathering of artists and intellectuals who discussed the impact on

Brazilian art, poetry and literature of the European avant-garde of that period, in the

context of the growing modernization of the country. It is said that during one of

the many banquets offered during the Semana, Oswald De Andrade, after ordering

frog’s legs, explained how, according to the theory of evolution, the human race

originated from the batrachians. The Brazilian painter Tarsila de Amaral, De

Andrade’s partner at the time, interrupted him: if the banqueters were eating frog’s

legs, then, logically, they were “quasi-anthropophagites.” De Andrade riposted, in

English: “Tupi or not Tupi: that’s the question,” a play on words referring to the

generic name given to the tribes that inhabited the region of what we know today as

Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama and that were represented

as cannibalistic by the Spaniards.


180

At the Semana, Tarsila De Amaral also first showed her work entitled

Abaporu—the Tupi term for an anthropophagite: aba-man; poru- who eats—which

soon became an icon of the movement. (Fig. 3.13) Abaporu, De Amaral’s birthday

present to De Andrade, is described by De Amaral herself in these terms:

A monstrous lonely figure, with huge feet, is sitting in a green plane

with his arm bent and his hand supporting his tiny head. In front of

him, there is a cactus with its absurd flower blooming . . .

Overwhelmed by the image, Oswald de Andrade and Raul Boop

contemplated Abaporu for a long time . . . They felt that a great

intellectual movement could materialize from that image.63

Perhaps the importance of the painting does not come from the depiction of an

anthropophagite but has to do with the fact that it is in itself a devouring of the very

representations Western culture uses to proclaim its superiority. The painting

depicts a sensual cannibal in a pose reminiscent of Rodin’s The Thinker; however,

instead of concentrating on his head—which De Amaral describes as “tiny”—it

gives importance to his feet and body. More importantly, the painting seems to

elaborate on the many illustrations found in Staden’s True Story. In all of them,

Staden, while assuming the authority of truly having experienced an encounter with

alterity, distanced himself from it to objectively describe a cannibal scene in order

to keep his cultural authority. That is, he is part of the picture but not of alterity.

63
Quoted by Carlos A. Jauregui, Canibalia: Canibalismo, calibanismo, antropofagia cultural y
consumo en América Latina (Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2008), p. 410.
181

Recognized as a pioneer of the construction of Latin America as the European

other, Hans Staden converted anecdotal and isolated accounts found in letters and

traveler’s tales into a complex narrative which defined the Latin American as a

cannibal and Latin America as Cannibalia.

One of his pictures in particular describes the Tupis preparing a cannibal

ritual.64 (Fig. 3.14) While the Tupi men and women are bringing wood, lighting the

fire and putting human heads and arms into a huge pot, Staden depicted himself as

a tiny man, with bent arms and legs, who sits on the floor and leans his head on his

right hand in a pose similar to the one found in De Amaral’s Abaporu. Hence, De

Amaral did not reproduce the Western representation of the anthropophagite, but

devoured Staden’s representation of himself as a colonial authority on the Tupis,

thus repeating the very anthropophagite act that Staden aimed to depict.

Cultural anthropophagy was in turn part of a broader cultural movement

known as Modernismo, whose leading figures were Mario de Andrade and Oswald

de Andrade. As in the rest of Latin America, Brazil’s role in the global economy

was the exportation of luxury goods. The late-nineteenth-century coffee boom in

Brazil brought the first wave of modernization, giving political, artistic and

intellectual circles a belief in progress but also causing concerns about a loss of

autonomy and identity. In the early twentieth century, many Brazilian intellectuals

were dissatisfied that, as De Andrade put it, Brazil was becoming the “dessert” of

64
Jáuregui, Canibalia, fig. 14.
182

the global powers, instead of the “main course.” By eating the invader and

absorbing his strength, they thought, Latin America would produce a culture

capable of standing on equal terms with the colonial powers.

The formal inauguration of the movement was marked by the publication of

Oswald De Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago, which is considered today to be the

road map of cultural anthropophagy. Since it is written in the form of a poem made

up of 54 aphorisms grouped into different sections, it is almost impossible to

summarize the multiple philosophical, literary, psychoanalytic and historical

meanings of the Manifesto. In the words of Carlos A. Jáuregui: “The text has a

diffuse poetic structure that allows for multiple readings and possibilities. More

than illogical, the text is non-logical.”65 The narrative mode of the Manifesto,

which makes use of repetitions and non-grammatical expressions, seems to be an

exercise in deconstruction which allows its aphorisms to be interpreted in many

different ways and makes it relevant to current cultural predicaments. The

Manifesto calls for a “Carahiba Revolution”66 that will enable Brazil to reformulate

its relation to Western culture:

65
Jáuregui, Canibalia, p. 411.
66
The word Carahiba is the English version of Caraiba, which refers to the linguistic group to
which the Tupis belonged. The word was used by the Spaniards to designate all tribes which they
thought engaged in cannibalistic practices, even if their origin was not Tupi, including the aboriginal
inhabitants of present-day Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama. Later, the name
was transformed into Caribe and limited to the aboriginal inhabitants of the islands of the
Caribbean.
183

Only Anthropophagy unites us. Socially. Economically.

Philosophically . . . Tupi or not Tupi, that is the question.67 . . . I am

only interested in what is not mine. The law of men. The law of the

anthropophagite . . . We want the Carahiba Revolution. Bigger than

the French Revolution. The unification of all effective rebellions

under the direction of man. Without us Europe would not even have

its poor Declaration of the Rights of Man. The golden age

proclaimed by America. The golden age. And all the girls.68 We

were never catechized. We really made the Carnival. The Indian

dressed as an Imperial Senator . . . We caused Christ to be born in

Bahia. Or in Belém do Pará. But we never allowed the birth of logic

among us.69

De Andrade’s anthropophagite ideas reflected the intellectual concerns of his time.

The Manifesto criticized the official ideology of Brazilian Indianismo, which was

mocked as a nationalist rhetoric which failed to change the terms of the relationship

between Brazil and Western cultures at it represented Brazilians as “bon savages.”

Similar calls for a modernity based on a radical critique of colonialism were made

in Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina and Peru. The Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-

67
Originally in English.
68
Originally in English.
69
Oswald De Andrade, “Manifesto Antropófago,” Revista de Antropofagia 1 (1928). Translated into
English in Third Text 46 (Spring 1999), 92-96.
184

García declared: “Our north is in the south,”70 and the Peruvian political

philosopher José Carlos Mariátegui challenged the idea of nationalism as he saw it

based on race: for him, race was a cultural construct Europe invented in order to

colonize the world.71

The Manifesto also makes use of Freud’s, Nietzsche’s and Hegel’s ideas,

which are constantly appropriated and reformulated to address the problem of what

Brazilian scholar Renato Ortiz calls the clash between the country’s will to

modernity and its construction of a national identity.72 Freud’s use of the myth of

devouring the father to explain the origin of civilization resonates throughout the

Manifesto. According to Freud, the totem is a symbolic representation of the death

of the patriarchal rule which consequently has been internalized as taboo. The

transition from totem to taboo represents the transformation of the primitive and

savage into Kultur and civilization. The Manifesto reverses these terms by defining

cultural anthropophagy as the permanent transformation of taboo into totem,

advocating the destruction of Western civilization and a journey towards the natural

man. This journey, however, does not involve a return to patriarchal dominance.

Colonialist depictions of cannibalistic rituals, both visual and written, persistently

refer to the leading role of women in such feasts. Hence, the Manifesto’s plea for

the inversion of taboo into totem implied not only a return to the natural man and

70
Joaquín Torres-García, “Escuela del Sur,” in Arte en Iberoamérica, ed. Dawn Ades (Madrid:
Comisión Quinto Centenario, 1989), p. 319.
71
José Carlos Mariátegui, “Arte, Revolución y Decadencia” in Arte en Iberoamérica, p. 316.
72
Renato Ortiz, A Moderna Cultura Brasileira (Sao Paulo: Editora Brasiliense, 1988), p. 35.
185

contempt for Kultur as a Western fabrication, but also the inversion of patriarchal

into matriarchal rule.

The Manifesto’s call for a journey towards the anthropophagite also echoes

Nietzsche’s claim for “opening one’s eyes and taking a new look at cruelty,”73 his

response to the question posed in The Will to Power “Where are the barbarians of

the twentieth century?”74 In an article entitled “De la razón antropofágica: Diálogo

y diferencia en la cultura brasilera,” [Of Anthropophagic Reason: Dialogue and

Difference in Brazilian Culture] Harold de Campos highlights Nietzsche’s

influence on anthropophagy, concluding that the movement has been the only true

Brazilian philosophy and one of the major Brazilian contributions to Latin

American debates on the relationship between the local, the national and the

universal. For Campos:

Oswaldian “anthropophagy” is the reasoning based on a critical

devouring of the world’s cultural legacy, undertaken not from the

submissive and reconciled perspective of the “bon savage” . . . but

from the insolent viewpoint of the bad savage, the devourer of white

men, an anthropophagite. It does not involve submission (a

catechesis), but “transculturation,” or even better, transvaluation: a

critical vision of history as a negative function (in Nietzsche’s

73
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. R. J.
Rollingdale (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 159.
74
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, p. 183.
186

sense) capable of appropriation as well as expropriation, de-

hierarchization, deconstruction.75

As some authors have argued, however, De Andrade’s use of Nietzsche’s notion of

history as a negative function that questions the idea of progress and civilization is,

in turn, inscribed within a Hegelian vision of history as synthesis and, ironically, as

a journey towards utopian progress.76 For instance, in the introduction to De

Andrade’s collection Pau Brasil, Benedito Nunes defined De Andrade’s

philosophy as a “circular dialectic movement,” which tries to reconcile Nietzsche

and Hegel, even though the idea of history as eternal recurrence is superseded by

Hegel’s dialectical becoming (Aufhebung).77 Imagining Brazilian culture to be the

antithesis of Western traditions, De Andrade attempted to turn anthropophagy into

a synthesis of the two opposites which would build a future on the basis of a

profound critique of Western civilization performed by both Western and non-

Western cultures.

This is not to say, however, that anthropophagy does not represent an

innovative contribution to the redefinition of culture in colonial contexts. Even

though De Andrade’s anthropophagy seems to waver between a utopian and an

anti-utopian vision, his re-use of the very cultural trope the West used to colonize

75
Harold De Campos, “De la Razón Antropofágica,” in De la razón antropofágica y otros ensayos
(Mexico: Siglo XXI Editores, 2000), p. 4.
76
See Luís Madureira, “A Cannibal Recipe to Turn a Dessert Country into the Main Course:
Brazilian Antropofagia and the Dilemma of Development,” Luso-Brazilian Review 41, 2, (March
2005), 96. See also Benedito Nunes, “Introduccion,” in Pau Brasil: Antropofagia (Rio de Janeiro:
Companhia Litográfica Ypiranga, 1972), IX, p. xiv.
77
Nunes, A Utopia Antropofágica, p. xiv.
187

Latin America has had an enormous influence on twentieth-century cultural

debates. The Manifesto promoted an important cultural experimentation, based on

the repetition and appropriation of such colonial representations that opened up

multiple possibilities for cultural critique in Brazil and has been widely deployed

by Brazilian artists, activists and intellectuals during the twentieth century. By

appropriating the colonial trope of Latin America as cannibalia, cultural

anthropophagy becomes a weapon against dialectical synthesis. Hence, instead of

promoting an ontological outside, anthropophagy’s preferred means are disguise,

discontinuity, fragmentation, and counter-evolution. De Andrade himself ironically

dates his Manifesto: “Year 374 after the swallowing of Bishop Sardinha,” which is

a reference to Bishop Sardinha’s voyage to Brazil in 1556. It is told that after his

boat sank at the mouth of the Coruripe River, he and the ninety members of the

crew were captured, tortured and eaten in an anthropophagite ritual by the

Tupinambá.

The continued use of anthropophagy by Brazilian artists during the

twentieth century owes much to De Andrade’s innovative repetition of

anthropophagy as the negative term of the colonial equation. It can be found in the

malandra novel, concrete poetry, the neo-concrete movement in the visual arts and

tropicalism in music, whose propositions do not naturally derive from Western

tradition but create “other” marginal routes to it. As De Campos states: “For a long

time now, the devouring jaw of these new barbarians has been ‘chewing up’ and
188

ruining more and more cultural heritages in the world . . . its eccentric and

deconstructive charge functions with the marginal impetus of the carnivalesque,

demystifying and desecrating the tradition.”78

These features of anthropophagy were the theme of the XXIV São Paulo

Biennial in 1998, which reinterpreted this strategy in the light of contemporary

thought. In an essay in its catalogue, “Anthropophagy Subjectivity,” Suely Rolnik

argues that it entails at least four operations: “1. To bastardize the culture of the

upper class and, indirectly, European culture as the standard. . . . 2. To refute the

paradigm of creating culture in order to reveal truths, which, according to

Andrade’s Anthropophagite Manifesto, is ‘a lie repeated many times.’ . . . 3. To

blur the distinction between colonizer and colonized. . . . 4. To set in motion an

anthropophagite mode of subjectivation that dismantles the principle of identity

which defines contemporary hedonism and civic narcissism.”79

In “Zombie Anthropophagy,” Rolnik also explores the nature of this

resistance, defining anthropophagy as a response to the colonization Latin America

has been subjected to for the past five centuries.80 Speaking of how anthropophagy

upsets the normalization of difference, she does not regard otherness as something

that has to be perceived but as a field of forces in which our relation to the other is

expressed and experienced instead of represented or described. As an alternative


78
De Campos, “De la Razón Antropofágica,” p. 20.
79
Suely Rolnik. “Anthropophagic Subjectivity,” in XXIV Bienal de São Paulo: Roteiros. Roteiros.
Roteiros. Roteiros. Roteiros. Roteiros (São Paulo: A Fundação, 1998), pp. 137-145.
80
Suely Rolnik, “Zombie Anthropophagy,” in What, How & for Whom (WHW) (Kassel: Kollective
Kreativitat, 2005), pp. 1-15.
189

cartography of representation, anthropophagite subjectivity makes use of

sensations, desire and the need to become different from what one is.

Recalling the re-emergence of anthropophagite subjectivities during the

sixties and seventies, Rolnik cites Oiticica’s work as example of the way in which

anthropophagy was used as a form of promoting new forms of subjectivity opposed

to those offered by developmentalism and colonialism during the Cold War.

Catherine David too has noted: “Hélio Oiticica’s work [was] grounded in the

Brazilian ‘anthropophagite’ tradition, whose principles [he] updated.”81 Oiticica

was clearly aware of the enormous possibilities of the tradition initiated by De

Andrade. Along with various references to it in his own writings, Oiticica

translated the Anthropophagite Manifesto into English in 1972.82 As I have

previously stated, in his article “Nova Objetividade,” Oiticica considered the idea

of constructive will, which emerged in Brazilian art of the sixties, to be rooted in

the Movement of 1928, and saw anthropophagy as “the defense [that] we possess

against such external dominance . . . our main creative weapon.”83

It is important to note, however, that Oiticica’s political interpretation of the

movement differs from that of De Andrade and his followers. While De Andrade

diminished Nietzsche’s defense of barbarism and questioning of history to

reinforce the Hegelian logic of progress, Oiticica quotes Nietzsche in order to

81
David, “The Great Labyrinth,” p. 251.
82
Hélio Oiticica, “Anthropophagous Manifesto,” PHO 0198/72 (December 1972), 1-6.
83
Oiticica, “Nova Objetividade,” p. 111.
190

criticize both Hegelian transcendentalism and the nationalist will to power

underlying De Andrade’s anthropophagy. In particular, this is seen in his references

to Nietzsche’s Übermensch (superman or overman) and his Dionysian ethics, both

of which gave shape to Oiticica’s Parangolé, anarchist politics and rejection of the

notion that art is “transcendental.” In a conversation with Waly Salomão, Oiticica

said: “I am Nietzsche’s son and Artaud’s stepson. I have read Nietzsche since I was

13.”84 Oiticica applies Nietzsche’s concept of the übermensch—someone who

abandons morality and any other form of conditioned, dogmatic behavior—to

marginal people or criminals, and then the inhabitants of the favela, whose lives are

conditioned by class and colonial relations and whose cultural possibilities are

constantly limited by modernity. The use of the word Parangolé to designate “the

cunning and street smart” who live at the margins of society and are also known as

malandros thus acquires another significance. Nietzsche’s übermensch becomes

Oiticica’s malandro, a member of the social sectors who attempt to create “other”

lives in conditions of adversity. The Parangolé, as an anthropophagite ritual,

devours Western culture by appropriating its modern system of art. The poor use

costume, music and dance to devour the art institution and turn those social sectors

conditioned by colonialism into a collectivity of marginal supermen or super-

84
Salomão, Hélio Oiticica, p. 96.
191

anthropophagites. In his “Parangolé Synthesis,”85 Oiticica defined the components

of the Parangolé and their inter-relationship:

1964, the first PARANGOLÉ

The work now requires immediate corporal


participation; as it envelops the body, it demands that
it move and ultimately dance.

DANCE was, then, for me aspiration


towards myth, but also, more
important, it was in-corporation

Today, it is no more than NON VERBAL

Corporeal climax Non-display

corporal proposition taken to the level of open experimentalism

absorption of time: end of the fragmented display: to speak of


cosmos should not imply something extra-concrete but the
adoption of the power to invent.

For both Nietzsche and Oiticica, the role of art is not so much that of enabling

people to transcend life or to escape from it through a higher ideal, as to create

conditions which allow them to achieve an anarchic existence. Nietzsche regarded

dance as a means of achieving this and becoming a superman: “Lift up your hearts,

my brothers, high, higher! And don’t forget your legs either. Lift up your legs too,

85
Oiticica, “Synthesis-Parangolé,” p. 165.
192

you good dancers; and better yet, stand on your heads!”86 Through dance, he wrote,

“man expresses himself as a member of a higher community; he has forgotten how

to walk and speak and is on the way toward flying into the air. . . He is no longer an

artist; he has become a work of art.”87 Following this idea of Nietzsche, the

Parangolé allows the merging of the Apollonian force—the creative power that

reveals itself through images—with the Dionysian in order to produce a collective

delight in intoxication. It does not intend to provoke transcendental states of mind

but a corporeal delirium. As Oiticica remarked in his article “A dança na minha

experiência” [Dance in my experience], written in 1965: “[Dance] is for me an

indispensable, more vital experience, mainly as a demolisher of pre-concepts,

stereotypes, etc.”88 Embracing dance was a way for him to make his own work less

intellectual through the release of inhibitions. He regarded ballet as too

intellectualized, due to the rigid structure of “choreography” and the search for

transcendence. Instead, he chose improvised dance, which for him meant

something “like an immersion in the rhythm; a vital and complete identification

between gesture act and rhythm; fluency where the intellect is obscured by a

mythical internal, individual and collective force.”89 Dance, which might be

understood as both the means and the end of open experimentalism, is related to in-

86
Friedrich Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter
Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), p. 406.
87
Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” pp. 36-37.
88
Hélio Oiticica, “A dança na minha experiência,” PHO 01201/65 (November 1965), 1.
89
Oiticica, “A dança na minha experiência,” 1.
193

corporation, not as integration but as an impulse to the corporeal, that is to say, a

command to bring ourselves to a corporeal climax and to a one’s transformation.

Given this approach, Oiticica did not want us to see the body as a support

for an artwork. However, Brett, in his article “The Experimental Exercise of

Liberty,” states:

Hélio has said that as color frees itself from the rectangle and from

representation, it tends to “in-corporate” itself . . . The notion of the

“body” [in the Parangolé] is the two-way link between the world of

painting and the world of the spectator. As color “incorporates”

itself, the viewer experiences color no longer just with the visual

sense but kinesthetically, with the whole body and senses. The word

“support” would therefore lose its meaning.90

Even though Brett tries to follow Oiticica’s rejection of the body as support for the

Parangolé, he tends to create a subject which “perceives” the artwork

“kinesthetically with the whole body and senses.” In his “Notes” Oiticica not only

discarded the idea of the body as a support, but also set forth other connections

between his Parangolé and different forms of experimentation in dance and

performance:

My entire evolution, leading up to the formulation of the Parangolé,

aims at this magical incorporation of the elements of the work as

90
Brett, “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” p. 227.
194

such, into the whole vivência (life-experience) of the spectator,

whom now I call “participator.” “Wearing” [costumes] by itself

already constitutes a total experience since, by unfolding [himself]

and making his own body the nucleus, the spectator experiences, as

it were, the spatial transmutation which takes place there: He

perceives, . . . as the structural nucleus of the work, the existential

unfolding of this inter-corporeal space.91(Fig. 3.15, 3.15a)

“Spatial transmutation,” “inter-corporeal space,” and “incorporation” are all terms

close in meaning to the experience of the body in an anthropophagite ritual, which

is in this case become transformed by devouring the colonial conditions and by

being the central nucleus of art, music, performance and dance. If the body were

considered a support, it would only be for the multiple representations of the poor

and the popular created by developmentalism and the art institution. Along with the

appropriation of the architecture of the favela, the use of samba or other musical

genres coming from popular culture are elements that function as conditions to

create popular culture in representation. What the body supports is precisely the

representation of the popular whose very components also cause circumstances that

foster the emergence of experiments of what Oiticica called the “vivência-total

Parangolé” [Parangolé total-experience]: a permanent unfolding of different ways

of existing in a marginal world. In his 1970 article, “Brazil Diarrhea,” Oiticica

91
Oiticica, “Notes,” p. 93.
195

made use of metaphors of bodily functions, the body and anthropophagy to refer to

the colonial situation in Brazil. I find them useful to understand the politics of the

Parangolé. He states:

To annul the colonialist condition is to shoulder and swallow the

positive values given by this condition . . . to build this constructive

position that emerges from a critical ambivalence one must oppose a

conformist position and always base yourself on absolute general

values. In Brazil, therefore, a permanent, universal critical position and

the experimental are constructive elements. Everything else is dilution

in diarrhea.92

The metaphors of shouldering and swallowing the colonial condition by wearing a

cape, dancing and singing are strengthened by the words written on the capes,

which play with stereotypes about the Brazilian poor and popular culture and call

attention to their construction of subjectivities. When people from the favela wear

the cape, the performer, who is already the subject of this discourse, displays a

condition that has to be shouldered: (Fig. 3.16)

Why impossibility/crime/existence in searching/search for happiness

Sex, Violence, that’s what pleases me

Cape of Liberty

Out of your skin/grows the humidity/the taste of earth/the heat

92
Hélio Oiticica, “Brazil Diarrhea,” in Hélio Oiticica, p. 142-143.
196

I embody revolt

I am possessed

We are hungry

Of Adversity We Live93

Yet by being in a state of Parangolé the participant also swallows such a condition.

As Oiticica reminds us, the Parangolé is a non-verbal proposition, aimed at open

experimentalism, in which dance leads to a corporeal climax which unleashes the

power to invent. He asserts: “The very act of “dressing oneself” in the work already

implies a corporeal–expressive transmutation of oneself, which is a primordial

characteristic of dance, its primary condition.”94 (Fig. 3.17) The body wearing the

cape dances and moves and is thus transformed, provoking a dynamic of

differentiation in which to eat the other is not to become the self but to become

other. The fact of wearing the representation of oneself is also a way to transform

that self and force it to move toward a life that is not yet manifest and whose

meaning has been deferred.

The Anthropophagite tradition gave shape to Oiticica’s art not only because

it allowed him, as De Campos points out, to define his differential relation to the

modernist avant-garde but also because it established an ethical position which

enabled him to integrate his ideas about modernism, developmentalism and the role

93
Quoted by G. Brett, “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” p. 230.
94
Oiticica, “Notes,” p. 93.
197

of art in the underdeveloped world. Furthermore, the Anthropophagite tradition

gave Oiticica an opportunity to link his own artistic search to politically charged

cultural contexts, bringing to light the tensions underlying the thrust to modernity

and challenging the way that the new idea of a developed nation excludes marginal

sectors while pretending to integrate them. His appropriation of Western culture

and counterpoised use of popular culture was meant to unleash experimental

possibilities for the creation of new senses of individuality for those who live in

conditions of adversity.

I would like to finish by comparing the founding image of America as Cannibalia

to the cannibal feast of Parangolé. The image is a woodcut in a broadsheet

published in Augsburg in 1505, which was probably by Johann Froschauer. (Fig.

3.18) It has allowed colonialism to depict the natives as immoral cannibals

engaging in an orgy of sex and death, which is an idea that still persists and has

been extended to every representation of otherness. Divided into different scenes,

the print illustrates a ritual on a seashore, where eleven savages in exotic dress

dismember, cook and eat the body of a man who, from the style of his hair and

clothing, seems to be European. Since it shows men and (predominantly) women

sharing their food with children, it probably depicts a family of cannibals, all

standing except for a young mother. All of them skillfully divide up and eat huge

portions of legs, arms and hands. Two vessels showing the Cross are in the sea.
198

Since the gazes of the cannibals are turned to a point beyond the frame,

attention is focused on the body parts of their European victim. The remains of the

white man’s body—a head, a leg and an arm—dangle from the top of the tent,

where three women are preparing and serving the feast. For Europeans,

cannibalism was so strange it became the preferred trope to represent their

encounter with the other and produce the irreducible identity of America as

Cannibalia. However, perhaps even more monstrous for the European imagination

was to see the European’s own body reflected back at them, its familiar structure

distorted by “other” taxonomies as it is dismembered and put to “other” uses. The

Western representation of the body that epitomizes enlightenment and morality is

shattered. The body is turned into a heap of wastes and heterogeneous parts which

no longer offers the confidence of a recognizable shape but bring, instead, a fear of

the unknown. The image of the primitive as the excrement of civilization is

reversed into the image of a European who is devoured and reduced to excrement.

Similar feelings of estrangement must have gripped the people who

attended Opinião 65 and participated in the exhibition of the first Parangolé. The

Parangolé seems to keep some of the elements that depict the cannibal feast of

Froschauer. The tent where the European body is being dismembered is replaced by

the “parangolé-structures” found in Rio’s favelas. The mainsails of the boats with

the cross painted on them have turned into standards of diverse colors and capes

with statements that summarize the representations of Latin American popular


199

culture and the poor as disposable bits of developmentalism. What is eaten is the

dismembered body of newly-born art institution in America Latina whose members

and joints forged its link with developmentalism. The cannibal feast of the

Parangolé allowed the twentieth-century cannibals of the underdeveloped world to

devour Western representations of themselves and, as in De Amaral’s interpretation

of the Staden prints, turn Western culture’s image back on itself, subjecting it to

unexpected taxonomies and usages. In so doing, these cannibal malandros—the

barbarians of the twentieth century—are marginal figures who are now part of

higher community, a collective body, that “live at the expense of others,” by

appropriating, falsifying and deceiving. In the words of Salomão:

The first Parangolé was inspired by the vision of a human pariah

who transformed the trash he scavenged in the streets into a

collection of belongings . . . “I AM POSSESSED” . . . A cape is like

a magical mask that doesn’t refer to an archetypal ancestry nor a

present that nullifies itself as the present when it congeals, and much

less to a utopian future . . . HO [Hélio Oiticica] stripped himself of

the inferiority complex of the peripheral world and freed himself

from the domain of the pastiche artistic fashions of the affluent

world . . . HO is a cannibal giant of/from South America.95

95
Waly Salomão, “HOmage” Third Text, 46 (Spring 1999), 131-132.
200

CHAPTER 4

Eroiticica

I have always liked what is forbidden.1


Hélio Oiticica

Slippery Ground

During his short life, Oiticica participated in important group exhibitions such as

the International Exhibition of Concrete Art in Zurich (1960), the V Biennale de

Paris in Paris (1967), The Ninth International Art Exhibition of Japan in Tokyo

(1967), and Information at MoMA in New York (1970). His first solo international

exhibition took place at the Whitechapel Gallery in London (1969). However, it

was not until the posthumous itinerant exhibition Hélio Oiticica in 1992 that

Oiticica’s work really began to win international recognition from art historians,

critics and audiences.

This growing interest in Oiticica’s work since the 1992 retrospective has

resulted in an important body of scholarly work and the mounting of important solo

and collective exhibitions that have shed light on various aspects of Oiticica’s role

1
Quoted by Guy Brett in “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” in Hélio Oiticica, ed. Guy Brett,
Catherine David, and Chris Dercon (Rotterdam: Witte de With, 1992), p. 222.
201

in the development of the visual arts after 1945. This attention has mostly focused

on the way in which his interest in the emancipatory role of art, in the body as the

center of the aesthetic experience, and his strong identification with the excluded

social sectors of Brazil, provided unexpected solutions to the concerns of modern

art. In this light, Oiticica’s work has been shown in Documenta X (1997), Beyond

Space in the 7th Havana Biennial (2000), Hélio Oiticica: Obra em estratégia in the

Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro (2002), Hélio Oiticica: Quasi-cinemas in

Columbus (Ohio) and New York (2002), Cosmococa-Program in Progress in the

Centro de Arte Hélio Oiticica in Rio de Janeiro and MALBA in Buenos Aires

(2005), and The Body of Color in Houston and London (2007).

The 1992 exhibition was conceived of in 1988—eight years after Oiticica’s

death—by Chris Dercon (Director of PS1) and Luciano Figueredo (Coordinator of

the Projéto Hélio Oiticica in Rio de Janeiro), at the time when some works and

installations by Oiticica were included in the group exhibition Brazil Projects at

PS1 in New York. This PS1 exhibition assembled works by seventy Brazilian

artists, including Fernando Pinto, Antonio Dias, Adir Sodre and Ivens Machado.

The works embraced a wide range of media, such as video, sculpture, photography,

painting, costume design, and television. Oiticica’s work drew the attention of

leading critics, scholars and journalists and was a surprise to the visitors. (Fig. 4.1)

In a review in the New York Times on March 6, 1988, Michael Brenson, after

explaining the context of the exhibition, wrote:


202

One of the strengths [of the exhibition] is the installation devoted to

Hélio Oiticica . . . His work is a bundle of contradictions. It is

defined by a need for purity and a need for disguise. His bolides, or

boxes, some of wood, suggest models for radically simple

architecture, as well as labyrinths without exit. His Grand Nucleus is

a large installation with rectangular planks suspended like screens

above an open plot of floor that is surrounded by a bed of pebbles.

The tension between openness and claustrophobia, asceticism and

dandyism gives Mr. Oiticica’s work a personal urgency that the

show as a whole lacks.2

Guy Brett and Catherine David, who were already familiar with Oiticica’s

art, became interested in organizing a retrospective of the works he produced

between 1955 and 1980. Along with Chris Dercon, Luciano Figueredo and Lygia

Pape, Brett and David provided the general concept and co-curated the exhibition.

Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center of Contemporary Art and the Galerie Nationale

du Jeu de Paume in Paris, in association with the Projéto Hélio Oiticica in Rio de

Janeiro, organized the retrospective, which was shown in Rotterdam, Paris,

Barcelona, Lisbon and Minneapolis between 1992 and 1994.

The 1992 retrospective was initially thought of as an opportunity to

emphasize Oiticica’s fascination with Mondrian’s “prophecies,” which spoke of the

2
Michael Brenson, “A Brazilian Exhibition in a Didactic Context,” The New York Times (May 6,
1988).
203

end of art as it progressively moved towards its total incorporation into everyday

life and of the need for art to recover its historical perspective. For the organizers,

Oiticica’s relation to Mondrian was manifold. First, it was reflected in Oiticica’s

active participation in the creation of the Brazilian new-concrete movement of the

fifties and sixties that translated and appropriated European constructivism.

Second, it was also expressed in his whole body of research, which attempted to

integrate color and support into space to create a universe of visual structures.3

Finally, his neo-concrete period used constructivism as an opportunity to question

the postulates of modern art and modernity in its entirety. The organizers stated:

“We originally thought of giving this exhibition the name of one of Oiticica’s

works: Homenagem a Mondrian [Homage to Mondrian]. (Fig. 4.2) There is also a

strong link between the fate of the French and Brazilian modernist movements.”4

This initial idea of having Oiticica’s link to Mondrian as the axis of the show gave

way, however, to what the organizers called a documentary approach which would

provide the public with a more general sense of Oiticica’s work. As Guy Brett

stated:

Since Hélio himself is not around to re-present his work in the

conditions of 1992, the best course open seemed to be to adopt a

documentary and informational method, . . . trying to act as fully as

3
Chris Dercon, et. al. “Posfacio dos organizadores,” in Hélio Oiticica, ed. Guy Brett, Catherine
David, and Chris Dercon (Rotterdam: Witte de With, 1992), p. 274.
4
Dercon, “Posfacio dos organizadores,” p. 274.
204

possible within that mode, and to leave the way open for any

number of ‘re-creational’ works or references to Oiticica (including

critiques of this exhibition).5

The organizers, in the epilogue written for the catalogue, attempted to place this

documentary method within a more general political framework which discusses

the way in which Oiticica’s work and life participated in the European avant-garde

and modernism. They stated:

The works of Oiticica are strongly linked to Brazilian socio-cultural

realities. However, even if rooted in local sources, his art is

universal. Simultaneously, despite the fact that his work had its

origin in an international tendency such as the concrete movement, it

cannot be associated with the Western idea of an international art.

From our perspective, Oiticica’s art is extremely relevant to the

extent that it transgresses stereotyped and Eurocentric conceptions

about Latin American culture, while enforcing our own vision of the

“other.”6

Despite the documentary intention of the exhibition, the visual material in the

catalogue and the essays by Brett and David analyze his work in terms of the four

major phases I have explored in Chapter 3: Glass Bólide, Box Bólide, Penetrable,

and the Parangolé and thus emphasize its formalist aspects: liberating color from

5
Brett, “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” p. 222.
6
Dercon, “Posfacio dos organizadores,” p. 275.
205

support and the avant-garde aim of articulating art and life. In line with the

comparison with Mondrian, the four phases were interpreted as Oiticica’s attempt

to dissolve the art object and re-create it for everyday purposes. Insofar as they

regarded Oiticica’s work as a transgression of “stereotyped and Eurocentric

conceptions about Latin American culture,” one might infer, at first sight, that they

echoed the by-then generalized critical idea, discussed in previous chapters, that

called for a recognition of the role of Latin American art in the development of

post-War art. At the end of the epilogue, however, they asked:

How is it possible that Oiticica’s work was practically unknown up

until now? Have we finally begun to realize our prejudices, mistakes

and omissions? Is it owing to the difficulties and complexities of

Oiticica’s own work? Hélio Oiticica was a restless wanderer. He

was the kind of person Pascal describes as someone who is never in

a specific position, nor has a definite place or dimension.7

The organizers’ demand for the recognition of Oiticica’s work is ambiguous. Their

argument places his life and ethics on different, and somehow contradictory,

planes: First, his work is strongly linked to the social and cultural context of Brazil.

Second, and despite this fact, his work is universal. Yet the international character

of his work is different from the Western idea of international art. Finally, speaking

7
Dercon, “Posfacio dos organizadores,” p. 275.
206

of the role his life plays in his work, Oiticica is given an unspecified position, a no-

place or no-dimension: He was a restless wanderer.

Though I am tempted to discuss the political assumptions behind their use

of Oiticica’s work to question the Eurocentric system of art, I prefer to concentrate

on their final remarks, which remove his life from the very context they insist is

needed for an analysis of his work. The formalist explanation of Oiticica’s work

consistently omits the role in it of subjectivity and fails to define the position, place

or dimension from which his artwork is produced, displayed and appropriated. This

is not to argue for an overly biographical approach to Oiticica to help illustrate the

sources of his inspiration, but to link his artistic search to broader struggles and the

conflictive nature of the construction of subjectivity. The challenge, then, is to link

his work not so much with artistic issues but social and political ones. Curiously,

the avant-garde rhetoric which joins art to life and has been used to explore the

ethics of Oiticica’s work simultaneously creates a representation of life that makes

it impossible to situate the social and cultural struggles that give shape to the

subjectivities of those interpellated by that rhetoric.

The above is even more inexplicable when we consider that the 1992

exhibition assembled and displayed a number of Oiticica’s works, as well as

relevant written material such as sketches, letters, catalogues and texts, which were

practically unknown before then and are important to any interpretation of his art. It

included projections and installations of his Quasi-cinemas mostly produced during


207

his stay in New York that had never been exhibited in his lifetime. (Fig. 4.3) More

importantly for my purpose, several of those New York projects clearly display his

interest in the relationship between art and sexuality, especially his own, and thus

reveal aspects of his art that critics only have spoken of sotto voce up to now.

The inclusion of these works in the exhibition would seem, then, to cast

doubt on the organizers’ avant-gardist rhetoric, the division of his work into four

major phases and their depiction of Oiticica as a restless wanderer who has no

place, however conflictive, from which he produced his work and articulated it with

his life. For not only do these works explore new media that have little to do with

what critics have called his progressive development in issues of color and support,

they also shed light on his attempts, in New York, to link his life and his work

through an ethic which those critics underplay.

In his essay “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” written for the

catalogue of the exhibition, Guy Brett, noting the relevance of aspects of Oiticica’s

life that abruptly came out in the exhibition, makes a direct reference to Oiticica’s

gay sexuality and his interest in exploring sexuality through his art. This reference

is important; as it is one of the few made on his sexuality by art critics and is

included in one of the most comprehensive articles about him. Brett stated:

Already Hélio’s earliest Parangolé capes, as clothing, are by nature

transsexual. They have no attachment to conventional signs of either

masculinity or femininity. Both seem to dissolve in the intention to


208

incite expressivity. Hélio was gay, and a gay sexuality could be

traced in his work, but all his proposals related to sexuality seem to

be non-divisive, transsexual.8

Brett seeks to give a general account of the theoretical and social aspects of

Oiticica’s art, as well as to place it in the context of the critical debates of the

second half of the twentieth century. However, even though Brett refers to

Oiticica’s sexuality, his understanding of the Parangolé and other works which

deal with his sexuality tends to dismiss its importance to his art and place his

interest in it beyond sexuality. His subjectivity becomes dissolved in the intention

to incite expressivity.

In the case of the Parangolé, it might be argued that the capes as such did

not explicitly act as signs or codes of gender division. As I have argued in Chapter

3, the capes are artistic experiments or demonstrations which question the

representation of Brazilian popular culture found in the binary division of

developed/underdeveloped during the Cold War. However, this is not to say that

the excluded Brazilian social groups are beyond gender, sexual, ethnic or class

divisions. Oiticica addressed both the external nature of colonialism during the

Cold War and the effect it had on the creation of various forms of difference within

Brazilian society. Even though the Parangolé mainly draws attention to those

excluded by global race and class divisions, it also focuses on those marginalized

8
Brett, “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” p. 233.
209

by internal relations of power. The colonial subjects of global developmentalism

are also the women, gays, black or poor who have been colonized by Brazilian

society.

This is even truer when we consider, as Oiticica insisted, that the Parangolé

is not meant to be just about capes, but is a “vivência total” [total experience]. If

the Parangolé is a performance which displays and combines “other” ways of

living which emerge from adversity, it is almost impossible to exclude, from such a

vivência, the wide variety of meanings given to it by the participants and spectators.

The meaning is activated by the capes, but the capes do not entirely capture it. The

meaning is disseminated and transformed by the spectator’s vivência. The

performance becomes the excess that challenges the nominal meaning of the capes,

tents and banners. Thus, it is problematic to define the capes as such as non-

divisive and transsexual since it limits the performative possibilities of the

Parangolé, that is, the way they enable the participants or spectators to

acknowledge their double colonial condition and become something different from

what they are. In this line of thought, it would be interesting, for example, to find

out what the Parangolé means for a gay man who adores cross-dressing, even if the

capes are not explicitly designed to display gender divisions. Indeed, I found some

pictures of the Parangolé capes to have a profound homoerotic appeal—in

particular, Cape 23 M’Way Ke, Cape 25 and Cape 26, worn by Romero and Luis

Fernando Guimarães and exhibited in New York in 1972. While Guimarães,


210

adopting a hieratic pose, scorns the camera, Romero, photographed at the World

Trade Center, looks straight at us, challenging our idea of him as desirable. (Fig.

4.4, 4.5) Both display the stereotype of the sexualized Brazilian male body.

Brett’s problematic use of the term “transsexual” to define Oiticica’s

interest in sexuality has been also commented on by Rudi C. Bleys in his book

Images of Ambiente: Homotextuality and Latin American Art 1810-Today. He

writes:

Transsexuality may not be the right term, as Oiticica’s intention is to

question fixed gender roles, rather than to claim a feminine realm

for men (or vice versa). Metasexuality may be a better term to

capture Oiticica’s sexual utopia . . . Oiticica’s position is

postmodern avant la lettre as it entails a deconstruction of current

sexual ideology. But his work remains simultaneously embedded in

modernism. It is a hybrid, in fact, combining the language of

Constructivism (Neo-Concretismo) with a plea for ‘participation’,

amalgamating Brazil’s body culture, his own sexuality and carioca

society all at once.9

In spite of Bleys’ attempt to be more precise about Oiticica’s approach, his term

“metasexuality” leaves us in the same indeterminate zone as Brett’s

“transsexuality.” Bleys understands transsexual to be the practice of exchanging

9
Rudy Bleys, Images of Ambiente: Homotextuality and Latin American Art 1810-Today (London &
New York: Continuum, 2000), p. 139.
211

gender roles, that is to say, as transgender. He thinks Oiticica’s proposal is rooted

in a sexual utopia, yet he also calls it postmodern, that is, intended to deconstruct

sexuality. Bleys seems to be speaking of a sort of pan-sexuality where all sexual

differences dissolve. He regards the postmodern as an overlapping of sexual

practices, which misses postmodernism’s critique of the major narratives which

have created sexuality. However, if we think of sexuality as a set of discourses and

practices that create sexual subjects, it is difficult to understand those subjects and

their alternative sexualities without taking into account the system of power which

produces them. In other words, their sexualities do not flow freely: they are related

to the system they try to resist. If Oiticica’s work on sexuality is postmodern avant

la lettre, I believe his responses are deconstructive, that is, they challenge the

heteronormative regime of sexuality and its contempt for alternative pleasures. If

we are to classify Oiticica’s approach to sexuality as postmodern and

deconstructive, we need to consider these practices not so much as the “free

radicals” of that discourse as ones that are “aberrant” to it, as Eve K. Sedgwick,

citing Paul de Man, does when she speaks of the deconstructive character of queer

sexualities.

Brett’s and Bley’s terms seem to contradict the very interpretation they

formulate: Oiticica worked on sexuality but his interest in it went beyond sexuality.

One of their assumptions is that sexuality is a derivative of gender—the sex/gender

system, as Sedgwick calls it, following Gayle Rubin. Sedgwick points out that
212

modernity used the binary division of same/other sex object in order to discipline

desire. This system excludes our line of reasoning, since it prevents one from

thinking about pleasures unrelated to gender divisions, and “other” ways of being

sexual—matters such as affection, belonging, and professional choices, including

artistic ones. The indiscriminate use of the terms sex, gender and sexuality places

one on “slippery ground,” as Eve Sedgwick says. Hence, her call for defining

sexuality as “the array of acts, expectations, narratives, pleasures, identity-

formations, and knowledges, in both women and men, that tends to cluster most

densely around certain genital sensations, but is not adequately defined by them.”10

Nevertheless, the main question is these critics’ unwillingness to link

Oiticica’s gayness to his work on sexuality. Although Brett asserts that “Oiticica

was gay and a gay sexuality could be traced in his work,” and Bleys sees Oiticica’s

art as a postmodern amalgamation of “Brazil’s body culture, his own sexuality and

carioca society all at once,” both show a typical uneasiness about the link between

subjectivity and artistic practices. When Brett pointed out Oiticica’s gay

sexuality—which Oiticica rarely made public—he seemed to pull Oiticica out of

the closet, as it were, only to push him back by desexualizing his work. The

following arguments by Brett figuratively function as a closet door which

continuously opens and closes:

10
Eve K. Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of
California Press, 1990), p. 29.
213

What is particularly revealing in the New York context is Hélio’s

interweaving of sexual mixing with linguistic mixing, “Multisexo,”

“twowaynis,” and “bilinguex:” word play is combined with

drawings in the playful and beautiful Barnbilônia. If these works

both recall James Joyce and prophesy later linguistic performances

by artists working on the borders between cultures, like Guillermo

Gómez-Peña today, they also place questions of identity and the self

. . . in a very broad perspective.11

Perhaps the metaphor I used is not totally accurate. When it comes to sexuality, art

criticism and history seem to pull queer artists out of the closet and then push them

into the art institution. Once that is done, it is permissible to hint at an artist’s

sexuality only if that information helps critics and historians to explain the work in

formalistic ways. This makes it more difficult to understand the relation between

queer artists and the broader cultural context. Placing their works in that context

would give us a better understanding of the sort of political struggles they and their

art face, and help us with our own contemporary struggle and highlight meanings

of their works that go beyond the strictly artistic.

In order to challenge the art institution’s interpretation of queer

subjectivities, I would like to make use of the scholarly work that has been done to

redefine the distinction between sex, gender and sexuality and thus come up with a

11
Brett, “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” p. 233.
214

more productive approach to the relationship between art and sexuality. Such a

redefinition, Sedgwick remarks, will allow us to think about sexuality as “the full

spectrum of positions between the most intimate and the most social, the most

predetermined and the most aleatory, the most physically rooted and the most

symbolically infused, the most innate and the most learned, the most autonomous

and the most relational traits of being.”12 This approach, pioneered by Visual and

Cultural Studies and Queer Theory, has proven fruitful.13 More and more scholars

are coming to see that works by queer artists are not simply “art;” that is to say,

only embedded in formalist concerns but rather are related to the social struggles of

the communities to which they belong.

Going back to the questions asked by the organizers at the end of the

epilogue of the catalogue of the 1992 exhibition, I would say that our perception of

Oiticica’s work and life still seems to be based on prejudices, mistakes and

omissions. Curated by Argentinean Carlos Basualdo, the first exhibition of the

complete series of Quasi-cinemas was held in 2002 at the New Museum of

Contemporary Art in New York and the Wexner Center for the Arts, with support

from the Kölner Kunstverein. In the Critical Voices Series roundtable which

accompanied this exhibition, Arto Lindsay and others commented on Oiticica’s

work and told anecdotes about his stay in New York during the seventies. Arto

12
Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet, p. 29.
13
Douglas Crimp’s pioneering work on Andy Warhol is an example of this line of inquiry and has
been profoundly inspiring for this project.
215

Lindsay, who was a very close friend of Oiticica’s in New York, called attention to

Oiticica’s sexuality and the need to take it into account when exploring his work:

Hélio was very much a kind of ultimate queen. Like incredibly

brilliant, incredibly demanding and witty, and pushing himself as far

as he could. It was very difficult to be openly gay in Rio, especially

as he was from a really traditional family. And when he joined the

Samba school, it was much easier for him to be himself sexually. He

was supposedly a great dancer . . . This puts a different spin on some

of the more formal things. The whole Baudelairian cinema aspect

doesn't get talked about a lot. . . . There was a real thing, and that

gives a real edge to this other kind of stuff, which sometimes seems

very schematic . . .14

In what follows, I will bring to light some of works Oiticica produced in New York

which explicitly deal with sexuality and the ways they relate to Oiticica’s interest in

making his work a personal vivência and his life a public affair. Oiticica gave the

name Quasi-cinemas to his New York body of work which consists of his series

Cosmococas, Helena inventa Ángela María, Neyrótika and Agrippina é Roma

Manhattan. In general, Quasi-cinemas was the name Oiticica gave to his

experiments with filmic image and narration. They were room-sized installations

14
The Critical Voices Series http://www.newmuseum.org/docs/oiticica.pdf, p. 4.
216

that included music and slide-projections where people were encouraged to sit or

lie down in order to experience a personal and collective bodily transformation. I

will specifically explore Neyrótika and Agrippina and Roma Manhattan. In my

analysis, I would like to include as Quasi-cinemas some unfinished film projects,

such as Brazil Jorge, Boys and Men and Babylonests, which were meant to take

place mostly in his New York apartment on Second Avenue. In contrast with his

series Neyrótika and his super 8 film Agrippina—which have been shown at

exhibitions in Brazil, the United States and Europe—these unfinished projects have

to be interpreted from Oiticica’s notes and precarious scripts, which are being

digitalized by the Projéto Hélio Oiticica in Rio de Janeiro.

I will situate Oiticica’s body of work produced in New York in the early

seventies within his broader search for suitable environments “to demolish social

prejudices and group barriers” which hinder vital experiences.15 As I have argued

in Chapter 3, Oiticica’s rejection of the modernist aesthetic led him to undertake

projects, known as anti-art, which attempted to modify the relation between the

artist, audience, and artwork, through the creation of what he called “environmental

wholes.” In New York, Oiticica continued to explore this interest in creating

atmospheres with the production of his Quasi-cinemas. However, Oiticica’s

experience in New York gave this search for the creation of environments a

particular character. The works he produced became, in turn, elements of a much

15
Quoted by Catherine David “The Great Labyrinth,” in Hélio Oiticica, p. 255.
217

larger environment where Oiticica attempted to integrate his life into his work and

create conditions for him to share his marginal experience with immigrants, street

people, friends or lovers. Oiticica found in New York an underground world where

streets, parks and architecture become crucial elements of an enormous and

exciting environment, a kind of universe of pleasure, solidarity and affection—a

sort of Third World factory in the First World, to borrow Warhol’s term—which I

would like to call Eroiticica.

In my account of Eroiticica, I will first examine his Babylonests, the name

for his apartment on Second Avenue, which he converted into cabins to shelter—

metaphorically—other ways of living. I will relate this to Tropicália, his first

installation of this kind, and his Ninhos [Nests], which were first exhibited at the

Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1969. Second, I will explore his scripts and his

Neyrótika. The latter consisted of a projection of eighty slides of young men taken

at his Babylonests, with a soundtrack by Marvin Gaye and Tito Puente, interrupted

by poems by Arthur Rimbaud read by Oiticica and government announcements. I

will also examine his unfinished 1972 super-8 film Agrippina é Roma-Manhattan,

featuring Christiny Nazareth, Mario Montez and the Brazilian artist Antônio Dias.

Along with Agrippina, Oiticica intended to produce Tropicamp. It is part of a larger

project called Subterranean that Oiticica planned to hold in Central Park, in which

Mario Montez would perform “anthological impersonations” of Tropicamp figures,


218

such as “Carmen Miranda + other things.”16 Subterranean was to be an enormous

labyrinth through which people would walk, with sounds and images evoking pop-

culture representations of Latin America. Oiticica’s experiments with filmic image

and narration and his interest in creating a queer universe I call Eroiticica were part

of a rich queer artistic scene he found in New York which included Jack Smith and

Andy Warhol, among others. Through Mario Montez, Oiticica became fascinated

with Jack Smith’s work on American clichés about Latin America. “Tropi-

Hollywood,” “Pop-Tropicália” and “Tropi-Pop” are some of the names Oiticica

gave to Smith’s treatment of the Latina stars of Hollywood.

As with all his environments, Eroiticica was meant to create conditions for

the spectators to free themselves from prejudices that hinder their vivências and to

create unexpected situations which would allow them to collectively become

different. Within this atmosphere, his Neyrótika, Agrippina and the scripts are to be

seen as challenges to stereotypes about sexuality and marginality that reflect

Oiticica’s own experiences. Of particular interest, Oiticica’s exploration of

stereotypes of sexuality is combined with an important analysis of their link to

colonialism. That is, he seems to approach sexuality from the perspective of the

colonial construction of Latin America and the representation of the Latin

American sexual subject. By introducing an insightful analysis of representations of

the male body and homoeroticism, his work also explores the ways in which that

16
Hélio Oiticica, “Mario Montez: Tropicamp,” Projéto Hélio Oiticica (PHO) 0275/71 (October
1971), 4.
219

body is inscribed within American representations of Latin America. In his

Neyrótika, Agrippina e Roma Manhattan, Tropicamp and his scripts, Oiticica

shows the double colonial condition of those (including himself) who are regarded

as an “other” both for their sexual marginality and Latin American condition.

In Chapter 3, I approvingly quoted Brazilian critic Mario Pedrosa’s plea for

perspectives on Oiticica’s art that are more culturally based. Pedrosa’s idea should

be expanded to give an account of the relation between this work and his sexual

subjectivity. Oiticica’s statement “I have always liked what is forbidden”17 is not

simply a clue to his source of inspiration, but rather a statement about his own

marginal sexuality and the way it led him create experimental worlds to live

differently.

Babylonests: A Third-world Factory

Although Oiticica lived in Washington for two years during the late forties, when

he was ten years old, it was not until 1970, when he participated in the exhibition

Information at the Museum of Modern Art, that he became involved, in New York,

with the U.S. art scene. Information was organized by Kynaston L. McShine,

Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the MoMA, to call attention to the

work of young artists who, in the late sixties, displaced the traditional art object

with other media in an attempt to reach larger audiences. As McShine wrote in the

17
Quoted by Guy Brett in “The Experimental Exercise of Liberty,” p. 222.
220

catalogue, the use of new media reflected two important developments in art at the

time. First, artists used mass media to appeal to audiences flooded with television,

cinema and newspapers. Second, artists wished to respond to political crises like

the Vietnam War and the military dictatorships in Latin America.18

Information included such artists as Joseph Beuys, Victor Burgin, Gilbert

and George, Sol LeWitt, Lucy Lippard, Cildo Meireles, Yoko Ono, Pistoletto, and

Hans Haacke—who presented his famous MoMA Poll. (Fig. 4.6, 4.7)) The artists

were invited to contribute statements about the role of art in the political context of

the time. Oiticica wrote:

It is important that the ideas of environment, participation, sensorial

experiments, etc., be not limited to objectal [sic] solutions: they

should propose a development of life-acts and not a representation

more (the idea of ‘art’): new forms of communication; the

propositions for a new unconditioned behavior—My work led me to

use forms of accidental leisure as direct elements to a new

opening.19

Oiticica presented a version of Ninhos, first shown at his solo exhibition Eden at

the Whitechapel Gallery in London in February, 1969. For Oiticica, Eden was an

important achievement which came out of a number of attempts to create an

environment for experimentation, leisure and self-recognition. Captivated by the

18
Kynaston L. McShine, “Introduction,” in Information (New York: MoMA, 1970), p. 138-140.
19
Hélio Oiticica, “Information,” in Information, p. 103.
221

architectural features of the Whitechapel Gallery, Oiticica built Eden as a “total

ambience.” It allowed spectators to participate in the work in different ways: they

could lie down or walk barefoot on sand, straws and leaves while listening to music

by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. In the exhibition catalogue, he wrote: “[Eden]

is an experimental “campus,” a sort of environmental taba,20 within which one may

carry on human experiments—human referring to the possibilities of the human

species. It is kind of mythical place for feeling, for acting, for doing things and

building each one’s inner cosmos.”21 In “Expêriencia Londrina: Subterrânea” [A

London Experience: Subterranean], Oiticica called the Ninhos a result of his wish

to abandon the art object and replace it with environments for acting, for life. He

said: “The Ninhos propose an idea of multiplication, reproduction and growth for

the community.”22 (Fig. 4.8)

Oiticica’s fascination with the architectural goes back to his Parangolé,

which included cabins and tents inspired by the favela. In his “Fundamental Bases

for the Definition of Parangolé,” Oiticica expressed his interest in these terms: “In

the architecture of the favela, for example, there is the implicit character of

Parangolé, which is the structural link among its constitutive elements, the internal

circulation and the external dismemberment of these constructions. There are no

20
Taba: indigenous settlement.
21
Hélio Oiticica, “Eden,” in Hélio Oiticica (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 1969), p. 1.
22
Hélio Oiticica, “Experiência Londrina: Subterrânea,” PHO 0290/70 (January 1970), 1.
222

abrupt changes between the living room, the bedroom or the kitchen. There is only

the essential which defines the parts that communicate in a continuum.”23

His first experiment in this regard was Tropicália. The name was coined by

Oiticica and adopted by a group of musicians, including Veloso and Gil, who, in

the best anthropophagite style, appropriated mainstream U.S. music to question the

promotion of a so-called Brazilian national culture by both the right and the left.

For him:

Tropicália directly emerged from this fundamental need to

characterize a Brazilian situation . . . at the beginning of the text

“New Objectivity,” I invoked Oswald de Andrade and the sense of

“Anthropophagy” as an important element to characterize that

Brazilian situation. Tropicália is the first conscious, objective

attempt to place an evidently Brazilian image in the current context

of the avant-garde and national manifestations in general.”24

The Tropicalist movement used government and media stereotypes about Brazil to

produce a kind of Third World camp. Their music and lyrics reveled in bad taste

and political protest and the whole movement was involved with ethnic, social and

sexual marginality. They used titles such as Questão de Ordem [Question of

Order], Marginália II and Soy loco por tí, América [I am crazy for you, America],

and wrote parodies of Brazilian folk music. (Fig. 4.9) Their lyrics included quotes

23
Hélio Oiticica, “Fundamental Bases for the Definition of Parangolé” in Hélio Oiticica, p. 85.
24
Hélio Oiticica, “Tropicália,” in PHO 0128/68 (March 1968), 1.
223

from Oswald de Andrade’s Anthropophagy Manifesto, such as “Tupi or not Tupi:

that’s the question”. The group participated in a television special for TV Globo:

Vida, paixão e banana do tropicalismo [“Life, Passion, and Banana of

Tropicalism”], presenting a parody of what the dictatorship thought of as truly

Brazilian culture.

As the movement identified with the malandro and similar marginal figures,

Oiticica participated in it, producing a banner for a 1968 concert at Sucata, a night-

club in Rio, featuring Velosa, Gil and the radical group Os Mutantes. The banner

originated in a work Oiticica had created in 1966 to commemorate his outlaw

friend Cara-de-Cavalo [Horse-Face], who had been killed by the police. (Fig. 4.10)

Oiticica wrote: “I knew Cara de Cavalo personally, and I can say he was my friend,

but for society he was public enemy number one, wanted for audacious crimes and

assaults.”25 Featuring the silk-screened figure of his fallen friend and the inscription

“Seja marginal, seja herói” [Be marginal-Be a hero], the banner was widely

displayed before and during the concert. Oiticica explained that the banner was a

“protest against the Brazilian mentality that has its faithful representatives in the

death squads which treat the marginal like an object.”26 (Fig. 4.11) During the

concert, the police ordered the banner to be removed. The musicians agreed to it,

but Veloso kept denouncing the military censorship during the concert. Gil, for his

part, criticized the exclusion and poverty of Black people, using African rhythms

25
Helio Oiticica, “Cara de Cavalo,” in Hélio Oiticica, p. 25.
26
“Show de Caetano pára mesmo,” Ultima Hora (Oct. 17, 1968), p. 3.
224

and lyrics in his songs. On the morning of December 27, 1968, Caetano Veloso and

Gilberto Gil were arrested by the military in their apartments in São Paulo.

In 1970, after Information and when he had just returned from New York,

Oiticica was awarded a Guggenheim grant. The idea of living in New York

enchanted him, as he wrote to Lygia Clark on August 2, 1970: “I love that city and

it is the only place in the world that interests me.”27 However, there were also

political reasons for his voluntary exile. Censorship by the military in Brazil was

reaching serious levels. Along with Veloso and Gil, Brazilian critic Mario Pedrosa

had been arrested. Oiticica lived his stay in New York as a form of exile which

influenced his whole vivência. Faced with economic difficulties, he found

temporary jobs as a translator in addition to being a nighttime telephone operator.

Soon after he arrived in New York, Oiticica converted the apartment he

lived in into a nest: a place where exiled Brazilian and Latin American artists,

musicians and intellectuals, together with friends he made in New York, shared his

experimental environment. The name Babylonests corresponded to his first

apartment in New York at 81 Second Avenue, No. 14. (Fig. 4.12) He used that term

because, as he wrote, “New York fascinates me like Babylon.”28 In his article

“Fatos” [Facts] Oiticica defined the purpose of his Babylonests:

It is a proposition of play-luxury-pleasure which is not connected to

romantic dreams of aspiration for a Utopian aristocracy (halls of

27
Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, Cartas 1964-1974 (Rio de Janeiro: Editora UFRJ, 1998), p. 161.
28
Hélio Oiticica, “Fatos,” PHO 0316/73 (June 1973), 1.
225

crystal, lights of silk), but rather to a practice of experimentality yet

to be experienced and formulated . . . Babylonests: begun the first

week of February ‘71: times: people: function of easily movable

spaces-nucleus.29

Built by Oiticica himself, Babylonests consisted of small cabins made of wooden

poles, which were covered and divided by usually transparent fabrics of diverse

colors and had mattresses, pillows and cushions on the floor where people could

read, have sex, sleep or do whatever they liked. (Fig. 4.13, 4.14) As Guy Brett

described them:

Babylonests was a structure of two or three floors (I do not

remember well) that filled out the space of his small apartment.

There were small cabins with curtains, mattress, etc. Hélio occupied

one of them. There was also a separated kitchen and a bathroom. He

never knew very well all the people who were living there, since all

the time there was someone entering or leaving . . . When I was in

New York, Hélio was working at night as an international telephone

operator . . . He returned from work at seven in the morning, slept a

little, and then he was at his typewriter. He liked to have everything

working at the same time in his nest: typewriter, radio, tape

29
Oiticica, “Fatos,” 1.
226

recorder, television, telephone, etc., and he kept jerking me around

because I preferred silence.30

His nests and the city became a world of refuge where he could not only live in

exile, but also experiment with new ways of living. They reflected his desire for a

shelter that would free him from his role as a Brazilian, an artist, a person who had

to be cultured, middle class or even heterosexual. On October 27, 1973, Oiticica

wrote in his notebook 2/73:

SHELTER-WORLD
SHELTER-REFUGE

The individual choice is the only way for the experimental


As a free exercise to explore

FREE OF TIES
Of homeland
Of the object and necessity
Of the production of artworks to solve the conflict between
subject-object
Of images
Of the literacy of the cultivated man
Of the compulsory social role.31

His Babylonests was a continuation of Tropicália, Ninhos and previous

experiments in creating “environmental wholes.” (Fig. 4.15) Tropicália would be a

“reverselens” for seeing the military’s idea of Brazil for what it really was—a place

of conservative “tropicalism,” a “Brazilian reactionary-brainwashed” situation—

and by implication a critique of developmentalism and the modernist idea of art.

30
Guy Brett, Brasil Experimental; arte/vida: proposições e paradoxos, ed. K. Maciel (Rio de
Janeiro: Contra-Capa, 2005), p. 20, 22.
31
Hélio Oiticica, “Mundo-Abrigo,” PHO 0194/73 (July 1973), 1.
227

Instead of a utopia or a new “art-ism” which would be as distorted into tropicalism,

Oiticica wanted his Babylonests to be a shelter-world—mundo-abrigo— to offer

the possibility of new life-acts: forms of communication and unrestrained behavior

within a kind of community-cell. He wrote,

My work led me to use forms of accidental leisure as direct elements

in this approach to a new opening . . . From the accidental use of the

act of lying down, for instance, internal questions-situations may

arise; possibilities of relating to unconditioned situations-behavior . .

. What happens is that these leisure-form proposals can directly

concentrate on individual situations: they are universal (wholly

experimental) and this matters a lot for Brazilian life (the country

where all free wills seem to be repressed and castrated by one of the

most brainwashed societies of all times).32

The mundo-abrigo, however, is a collective experimentation which separates

Oiticica’s work from the concepts of liberation found in humanism and the avant-

garde. The centered self is exposed to chance and difference, that is to say,

experiences its deconstruction as subject and lives art as an unexpected, accidental

experience. Oiticica thought New York was suitable for “creating collective

ambience-leisure-spaces which bring together a kind of activity that does not

32
Oiticica, “Mundo-Abrigo,” 3-5.
228

become fragmented into pre-conditioned structures, but searches for a closer body-

ambience relationship.”33

The mundo-abrigo he created in his Babylonests became an important

element of his representation of Manhattan as a broader shelter for unexpected

situations and the experimental. As I have noted, his previous environments had

been a place which, while both public and private, was personal, but his shelter-

refuge expanded the concept to parks, streets and places in New York, as if the city

were a single labyrinth permitting a closer body-ambience relationship and a better

opportunity to incorporate his sexuality into his work. When Oiticica spoke of the

architectural character of the favela, he referred to the external dismemberment of

its structure and absence of abrupt changes between spaces which formed a

continuum. As I will show in his notes for films, the favela’s architectural

atmosphere, as a vindication of popular culture’s need for alternative conditions of

living, is replaced by New York, where the Babylonests and the city’s buildings,

parks, bars and streets become dismembered parts of a continuum linked by

Oiticica’s desire in the context of the city’s marginal sexual cultures.

Golden Boys on my Knees

Soon after arriving in New York, Oiticica became involved with the underground-

film scene. In a letter to Lygia Clark, dated May 14, 1971, he wrote of having met

33
Oiticica, “Mundo-Abrigo,” 10.
229

all of Warhol’s Superstars. Also, in a letter to Torquato Neto, October 12, 1971, he

recalled his excitement about the works of Jack Smith, Andy Warhol and Ron Rice,

giving details of Flaming Creatures, Normal Love, In the Grip of the Lobster, The

Whores of Babylon, Chumlum, Screen Test No. 2, Chelsea Girls and Harlot.34 The

term Quasi-cinema was coined by Oiticica after seeing Jack Smith’s performance

Travelodge of Atlantis. In a 1971 letter to Waly Salomão, Oiticica described his

experience of seeing Smith’s work in these terms:

It began at ten-thirty, three hours late, and he spent half an hour on

the first three [slides] alone; he moved around the screen in such a

way that the projection of the slides was cut off, and he shifted the

position of the projector to cut off each one in just the right place:

the rest of the slide spilled over into the environment: incredible; I

was overcome with expectation and anxiety, which was worth it; it

was a kind of quasi-cinema, for me as much cinema as you can

imagine: the same complex simplicity that you could feel in

[G]odard: more than that, in my view: the images, the duration of

each slide on the screen, etc., was brilliant and extremely important:

sound tract [sic] of AM radio music . . . Latin malagueña music,

34
Oiticica, “Mario Montez: Tropicamp,” 1.
230

incredible things, noises: telephone, automobile traffic, etc.; it ended

at one in the morning: I went away transformed!35

Oiticica recalled this experience again months later, in a letter to his friend and

colleague Lygia Clark, using the same term to describe Smith’s performance: “I

went to a slide projection with soundtrack, a kind of quasi-cinema, which was

incredible . . . Jack Smith is a kind of Artaud of cinema.”36 For Oiticica, Jack Smith

anticipated his idea of quasi-cinemas: “He extracted from cinema not a naturalistic

vision imitating appearance, but a sense of a fragmented, shattered mirror.”37

Earlier in 1968, Oiticica had already expressed his interest in experimenting

with the filmic image. He actively participated in the local underground film milieu

and was an actor in such films as Cáncer by Glauber Rocha, Dr. Dyonélio and O

Segredo da Múmia [The Mummy’s Secret], by Ivan Cardoso and in an unfinished

project on Oiticica (HO), also by Cardoso. Even before conceiving his Quasi-

cinemas, Oiticica had intended to realize several film projects. In 1969, he

undertook a collaborative one, with his friend Neville D’Almeida, called Mangue

Bangue.38 All of the footage was shot in Brazil, but since Oiticica was living in

London by then, it was edited by Almeida alone.

35
Hélio Oiticica, “Letter to Waly Salomão,” in Hélio Oiticica e a cena Americana (Río de Janeiro:
Centro de Arte Hélio Oiticica, 1998), p. 2.
36
Lygia Clark/Hélio Oiticica: Cartas, Luciano Figueredo, ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Universidad Federal
de Rio de Janeiro, 1996), p. 204.
37
Hélio Oiticica, “BLOCO-EXPERIENCIAS in COSMOCOCA: Program in Progress,” in Hélio
Oiticica, p. 180.
38
Mangue refers to the red light district in Rio, where Oiticica frequently visited his friends from the
Mangueira favela. Bangue is the onomatopoeic form for a gun detonation.
231

Oiticica wrote various notes on Mangue Bangue, expressing his enthusiasm

about the possibility it gave him to consolidate what would become his main

approach to the Quasi-cinemas. For him, Mangue Bangue was a pioneering attempt

to integrate the filmic into his understanding of art as a truly experimental

experience—experimental in the sense I have discussed in Chapter 3. The filmic

image would provide him with the tools he needed to emphasize his idea that art is

a process—not an object—and to bring together different “creative structures” that

would challenge the centrality of the artwork to the aesthetic experience. Oiticica

sought to achieve a simultaneity, using heterogeneous fragments of images, texts

and sounds, which would deny any possibility of sequence or perception of the

work as a whole. This open structure was, as he described it, a “fragmented

proposal of necessary language that resulted in the thin leavings and the flip

gratuitousness of the pleasure of filming . . . yes the work is meta-critical of cinema

as language: the non-verbal quality oscillates and shows futility as the solution to

forms defined as image-photo or audio-visual: It is NON-NARRATIVE-NON-

PHOTO-SOUND-IMAGE-QUASI-CINEMA CINEMA.”39

However, insofar as Oiticica’s interest in the filmic image was part of a

broader attempt to create atmospheres where the spectators would participate in a

group play of luxury/pleasure, the true precursor of the Quasi-cinemas series he

later produced in New York was Nitro Benzol & Black Linoleum. (Fig. 4.16)

39
Hélio Oiticica, “Mangue-Bangue,” PHO Notebook 2/73.
232

Outlined in 1969 during his stay in London, the project was never mounted. It was

supposed to include the participation of Oiticica’s friends in Rio, such as Lygia

Pape, and have music by Veloso and Gil. It consisted of three stages where films

previously shot would be shown to an audience which would gradually participate

in playful activities like kissing, dancing, eating ice cream, drinking Coke, or

feeling the texture of fabrics like silk, velvet and cotton. Nitro Benzol & Black

Linoleum also foreshadowed Oiticica’s exploration of sexuality. At times, the lights

would be turned off to allow people to do whatever they liked. The films included

shots of Edward Pope cross-dressing, a naked woman in a bath tub, a woman

performing a blow job, and views of the Morro da Mangueira in Rio.40

Once in New York, Oiticica attended a film course at New York University,

and acquired a super-8 camera and editing table.41 He started to shoot and produce

scripts for several projects which, for the most part, were never finished and only

survive as written outlines, though some filmed fragments have been recently

discovered and are being restored. It is likely that these films were meant to be part

of installations within the framework of the Quasi-cinemas, as Oiticica was not, at

this point, very devoted to producing films as such, but using filmic images in his

environments. While it is difficult to give a detailed account of them, I will

extrapolate from the notes to describe what the films would have been like if shot.

40
Hélio Oiticica, “Nitro Benzol & Black Linoleum,” PHO 0322/69 (September 1969), 1-11.
41
Clark/Oiticica, Cartas, p. 161.
233

Oiticica’s first attempt to produce a film in New York is dated April 24,

1970. Boys & Men is explicitly devoted to Andy Warhol and James Joyce. (Fig.

4.17) According to the written outline, it was to consist of eight scenes that together

last about an hour. Requiring a “gay atmosphere,” the film is about “young

teenagers (about ten of them who should look very beautiful, freaks and shy).” The

camera shows them dressed in tight trousers and gives details of “their legs, pricks,

etc. . . . Eventually one of them may be without a shirt . . . another in shorts: only

two of them.” After a scene when a fixed camera would show a man’s naked legs,

which “should be well-built and hairy” and an off-camera male voice would read

an excerpt from Joyce’s Ulysses, Wally and Geraldo would be together in a big bed

covered by a blanket, and change positions, moving up and down the bed, with

their hands emerging from or disappearing beneath the blanket. Then, they would

begin an improvisation. Later, Nando appears in a bathing suit and Sidiny in

trousers and bare chest. “They dig each other,” Oiticica explains. Sidiny walks

through a misty forest, and sees a sign which reads “Mme. Duarte.” He follows the

sign and finds her. Mme. Duarte is Rogério Duarte in drag as a gipsy fortune-teller.

She reads Sidiny’s palm and seeing that the life-line is very long, follows it down

his arms to his chest, “stripping him while she ‘searches for the end’ until she

gradually gets to his prick,” which she firmly grasps. At the end, the camera shows

Sidiny naked, swimming in a pool, shot from five different angles.42

42
Hélio Oiticica, “Boys & Men,” PHO 0336/70 (April 1970), 1-8.
234

Dated February 1, 1971, the notes for the super-8 film Babylonests are more

detailed, since they include technical information about the locations, costumes and

material needed for the filming and the length of each sequence. (Fig. 4.18) It was

to consist of 6 thirty-second scenes to be filmed in five locations in Manhattan,

with shots of the YMCA sign, playgrounds, trains, a place Oiticica called

pandemonium in Christopher Street—which seems to be a name he invented for a

gay bar—and the Fillmore East Auditorium. These scenes are combined with

others meant to be filmed at Oiticica’s Babylonests. There, while two men in bed

are kissing each other and “balling,” a third man in the bathroom, wearing a turban,

puts lipstick on. Later, he would appear in a bath-tub, sleeping on “chosen

materials.” Eventually, at the end, this third man “tries on a strange dressing

complex, ‘hermaphroditen’ (unisex underwear).” The other story takes place at the

pandemonium where people get together without their faces being shown. There is

also a scene in the empty Fillmore East Auditorium. There are also many short

scenes that are worth noting: the couple in bed suddenly watch TV and write; a

penis is bandaged, people load a truck. At the end, the “nest’s activity is shown in

the dark: not defined, just felt, strange, indirect light.”43

Jorge Brasil [Brazil Jorge], dated March 1, 1971, was considered lost until

some of the footage was found in 2002 in the archive of the Projéto Hélio Oiticica

in Rio de Janeiro. (Fig. 4.19) It is currently being restored. Though it has never

43
Hélio Oiticica, “Babylonests,” PHO 0243/71 (February 1971), 1-4.
235

been shown, from the incomplete written outline we know that there are scenes

meant to take place in the subway mixed with shots of the Babylonests and Battery

Park. In the credits and ads, a sentence in white would appear on the screen: “Forty

two picares [blinking] vices.” The film was meant to combine images of a man

reading a newspaper in the subway, a nearly naked guy in the Babylonests combing

his hair and dressing in a yellow, “pseudo-drag” plastic dress, and a long landscape

shot of Battery Park where an adolescent walks up and down the sidewalk. The

piece was to end with a shot of the entrance to Fillmore East on Second Avenue at

night, near Oiticica’s apartment, where people are waiting to enter a show and a

“person in the crowd is dressed in yellow plastic.”44

These written projects might be seen as a register of the New York he

constructed as a mundo-abrigo for pleasure. As a truly Quasi-cinema experience,

the films, were to be composed of fragmented sequences of his Babylonests and

views of parks and places in Manhattan. In them, his idea of scattered and

fragmented filmic images goes even further than his filmed projects in imagining

situations that combine the familiar and the unexpected. On the one hand, there are

conventional representations of what Oiticica would call predetermined situations.

These are the expected scenes of gay couples in his Babylonests, nearly naked

guys, and drag queens and transvestites in “familiar” contexts. On the other hand,

these predetermined situations are contrasted with ones in which the abrupt

44
Hélio Oiticica, “Jorge Brasil,” PHO 0244/71 (March 1971), 1.
236

emergence of the accidental sets the scene for forbidden acts at odds with

conventional scenes of the parks, streets and bars of Manhattan.

For his Eoriticica was meant to shelter and permit unconditioned behaviors

in order to put a different spin on notions of social roles. This mundo-abrigo he

created in New York sought the possibility of a non-defined experimentation which

would free art and life from conditions prefigured by society and allow chance to

create “uncanny” situations which de-center both the artwork and the spectator’s

experience. He said: “Accidental conditions are necessary to reach that

experimental shift . . . since what is experimented in terms of de-conditioning (non-

sublime, non-cathartic) of patterns of behavior is radical.”45 These accidental

conditions were also meant to create a “free collective experience,” a kind of

doomsday which was not intended “to clean the earth of human species so much as

to exterminate that ‘experimental exercise of freedom,’” 46 invoked by Mario

Pedrosa when referring to the role of the artist. Third, the idea of the collective

distances itself from those structures imposed by society, like family. For him, the

collective is more like a mutable group which avoids becoming a family, much less

a representation of a liberated one.47 Finally, his Eroiticica, set in urban

surroundings, was the only suitable place for these unforeseen, accidental

45
Oiticica, “Mundo-Abrigo,” 4.
46
Oiticica, “Mundo-Abrigo,” 7.
47
Oiticica, “Mundo-Abrigo,” 7.
237

experiences which produce life-acts that allow us to perceive ourselves as though

we were going through a permanent and violent transformation.

His Quasi-cinema Neyrótika, produced in 1973, may have been a further

development of his approach to sexuality. Oiticica defined it as “non-narration

assembled in New York april/may 1973: 80 slides with sound track and specific

timing.” 48 (Fig. 4.20) Although he considered Neyrótika to be unfinished, it was

shown at the 1973 Expo-Projecão 73 [Expo-Projection 73] in Belo Horizonte

(Brazil). It is the only Quasi-cinema that was exhibited while he was alive. The

exhibition, organized by Aracy Amaral, displayed the work of Brazilian artists who

used unconventional media to question the modernist idea of art as an object. As

she observed: “Here and everywhere in Western culture, we can notice experiences

with films, audio-visuals and sound researches being made by artists. What they are

doing is trying to manipulate non-conventional “media” in order to express

themselves in a selective arrangement of reality or to record it.”49 She quoted

Oiticica’s definition of Neyrótika, as “non-narration, as non-discourse, non-artistic-

photo, non-audiovisual: sound trail is a continuity punctuated by casual interference

improvised on the radio’s recorded structure.”50

Neyrótika is composed of seven groups of slides and a soundtrack.

Although all the photographs were taken at the Babylonests, each group employs

48
Hélio Oiticica, “Filmography (?),” PHO 0163/80 (January 1980), 1.
49
Aracy Amaral “Some ideas about Expo-Projecão 73,” in Expo-Projecão, ed. Aracy Amaral (São
Paulo: Centro de Artes de Novo Mundo, 1973), p. 5.
50
Amaral, “Some ideas about Expo-Projecão 73,” p. 5.
238

different lighting, framing and poses. (Fig. 4.21) Joãozinho, Dudu, Cornell,

Romero, Didi, Carl and Arthur are Oiticica’s Garotos de ouro de Babylonests

[Golden Boys of Babylonests]. (Fig. 4.22) Oiticica gives his boys different

expressions: Joãozinho appears casual and indifferent; Dudu exhibits his blond hair

and lipstick-covered mouth; Cornell, naked, tries out different poses; Romero, in a

hammock, shows his bare chest, beautiful face, arms and legs. As a classical Quasi-

cinema, the rhythm of the slide sequence gives us both close-up and medium shots

of the different parts of the boys’ bodies. They are sometimes in a horizontal

position and then suddenly seem to be suspended. Occasionally the sequence is

interrupted by a slide of a tape recorder. (Fig. 4.23) Eventually, Oiticica’s voice is

heard, reading an excerpt from Rimbaud’s Delires:

I am a widow—I was a widow—but yes, I was very serious in the

past, and I was not born to become a skeleton!—Almost a child was

he—His mysterious delicacy had enticed me. I forgot all my human

duties to follow him. What a life! True life is far away. We are not

in the world. I go where he goes, I need him. And often he loses his

temper with me, me, poor soul. The Demon!—He is a Demon, you

know, he is not a human being.


239

As Ivana Bentes has said, Oiticica did not “make ‘pretty’ pictures of pretty boys.”51

Of particular interest, the titles of Neyrótika appear in the slide devoted to Dudu. A

banner is placed diagonally across his torso. The banner reads: “BRAISES OF

SATIN,” which translates as “satin embers,” a phrase from Rimbaud’s Une Saison

en Enfer, where the poet asks his lover to reawaken the heat from satin embers and

for yesterday’s passion to continue to burn. The banner diagonally crosses not only

Dudu’s torso but the entire slide. “Braises of satin” is written on both Dudu’s body

and the whole image, that is, it speaks of both Dudu’s body as desire and the act of

photographing it. (Fig. 4.24) At first glance, Oiticica’s exploration of sexuality calls

attention to the homosexual body. But, as the quote from Bentes’s points out,

Oiticica did not make pretty pictures of pretty boys, but pictures of homosexual

bodies being pictured. That is, he explored the way in which the portrayal of the

homosexual body creates a difference from the naturalized heterosexual body.

Lee Edelman has already noted how the metonymy of discreet sexual acts

has historically become a metaphor for the homosexual. Homographesis is his term

for the process in which “the homosexual” is inscribed in a tropology that turns him

into a legible other. It marks his body as a negative term of writing, that is, the

body becomes a construction to set the differences which enable homophobic

51
Ivana Bentes, “H.O. and Cinema-World,” in Hélio Oiticica Quasi-cinemas, ed. Carlos Basualdo
(Columbus: Wexner Center for the Arts, 2002), p. 149.
240

culture to define its sexual other. In these terms, the homosexual body stands for a

“secondary, sterile, and parasitic form of social representation.”52

Oiticica’s Neyrótika explores the inscription of the body within the social

imagery of normality/abnormality through the potent lens of photography. His

golden boys are displayed as slightly feminine or truly masculine, as rock stars and

porno stars, wanting to be desired and yet despising the voyeuristic gaze of the

spectator. However, I must add that Oiticica’s golden boys seem to bear two marks:

one that identifies them as the sexual other, and the other as the non-white or non-

Western other. His golden boys are doubly marked: one is the mark of sexuality

and the other of colonialism. If the construction of identities functions as a

metonymic chain, tracing its links would demonstrate the connections between

various forms of difference. As in his Parangolé, Oiticica insists that colonial

difference is inextricably linked to other forms of difference.

Edelman has also said that as soon the homosexual body is created as

legibly marked, those marks “have been, can be, or can pass as, unmarked and

unremarkable.”53 Therefore, he adds, if homographesis describes the writing of the

body as difference, it also set differánce in motion, that is, “it reveals the

impossibility of “any” identity that could be present in it.”54 Oiticica’s golden boys

52
Lee Edelman, Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (Routledge: New
York & London, 1994), p. 9.
53
Edelman, Homographesis, p. 7.
54
Edelman, Homographesis, p. 13.
241

of Babylonests display a marked representation and the process of its unmarking. In

the exhibition catalogue of Expo-Projecão 73, Oiticica writes:

NEYRÓTIKA IS NONSEXIST.

One night I sat Beauty on my knees

—I found it bitter—I cursed her

NEYRÓTIKA is as it is pleasurable.55

As Oiticica said, “the image is not the supreme conductor or unifying goal of the

work . . . It is not that the image and the visual do not matter anymore . . . but

rather, they are part of a fragmented play which originates experimental positions

that are taken to the limit.”56 For him, certain experiences are ungraspable by any

image, or better, vivência is both something that all imagery aims to capture, and

that which makes the image impossible. Using photographic images, Oiticica

showed those marked bodies as totally visible with all their metonymies of sex and

race. Yet, in so doing, difference remains invisible. Oiticica’s rejects Neyrótika as a

pure representation of beautiful bodies. Instead, he seems to proclaim his

representation as working on representation, that is, Neyrótika reflects on the sex

system that both marks those bodies as homosexual and racial bodies. It also

questions that system. Neyrótika is about pleasures, Oiticica reminds us. It

vindicates pleasures over sexuality. In so doing, it puts at risk the essentialism that

the heterosexual body aims to denote.

55
Hélio Oiticica. “Neyrótika,” PHO 0480/73 (April 1973), 1.
56
Oiticica, “BLOCO-EXPERIENCIAS in COSMOCOCA Program in Progress,” 6.
242

Mario Montez, Tropicamp

In a letter of October 15, 1971, Oiticica told his friend Torquato Neto how he met

Mario Montez at Ira Cohen’s house. For Oiticica, Mario was “a sort of caliph of the

underground”. (Fig. 4.25) He recounted Mario’s stories of New York’s

underground cinema and the filming of Warhol’s Harlot, and explained his role in

that scene and the reason for his stage name:

Why did he choose Mario Montez? According to what he said, I

deduced that Jack Smith, with his obsession with MARIA

MONTEZ, was a decisive influence in all that: he adored her as a

Tropi-hollywood star. Mario said: “You know, Jack told me a lot

about her, and when I was in the process of choosing a name I

became absorbed by her, reading and seeing everything about MISS

MONTEZ—when it came time to make CHUMLUM, I said: I

would like to be called MARIO MONTEZ.”57

For Oiticica, Mario’s choice was “as simple and lucid as any true discovery.” It

allowed him to further explore the link between sexuality and colonialism through

an examination of the construction of stereotypes and representations of Latin

America. For him, Mario was a pure identification between two “stars” in similar

situations: Maria Montez and Mario Montez are two Latinas who evoke the “Tropi-

Pop” cliché for Americans, thanks to Hollywood in the case of Maria, and the

57
Oiticica, “Mario Montez: Tropicamp,” 1.
243

underground cinema in the case of Mario. Oiticica saw Smith’s viewpoint “as a

kind of Pop-Tropicália; more than a nostalgia for Latin American music, his work

is, unlike Warhol’s purely American pop, a search for the cliché ‘Latin America’

and its influence in the context of super-America.”58 Comparing these two

influential underground figures in terms of their stance on stereotypes, Oiticica

thought Smith represented a Tropicália pre-pop tempo which mixed the clichés-

tropi-hollywood-camp. Warhol, on the other hand, was “a kind of pop and post-pop

that combines all Hollywood-America clichés.”

Oiticica’s interest in Mario Montez led to two unfinished projects: the

Agrippina e Roma-Manhattan and Mario Montez-Tropicamp. (Fig. 4.26) In both,

Oiticica attempted to examine the fabrication of Mario Montez as a representation

of Latin America. In Agrippina and Tropicamp, he uses Smith’s representation of

Mario Montez as the tropi-camp star, exaggerating Mario’s impersonation of Latina

stars like Carmen Miranda. Oiticica said that “Mario Montez personifies the

LATIN AMERICA cliché as a whole; more important is the fact that this image-

incarnation-character was raised in the States.”59 In addition, both convey Oiticica’s

view of Manhattan as a fragmented labyrinth where “Greco-roman” architecture

blends with the streets, malandros, street whores, unexpected situations and

surprising characters, like Mario Montez dressed as a “Spanish” woman or Carmen

Miranda.

58
Oiticica, “Mario Montez: Tropicamp,” 2.
59
Oiticica, “Mario Montez: Tropicamp,” 3.
244

Agrippina é Roma-Manhattan is a super 8 film, about fifteen minutes long,

filmed in 1972. As a part of his Quasi-cinemas, Agrippina examines the

relationship between image and narration, trying to create a cinema of “non-

narration.” Instead of presenting a continuous sequence, the film consists of

scattered images that highlight—and question—the sexual roles of the characters,

in line with Oiticica’s notion of Eroiticica. Nevertheless, the film is roughly

divided into four sections, each filmed in a different location and with different

characters. The first section features Christiny Nazareth, who stands by the open

back door of a car while the camera pans over buildings like Forty Wall Street and

the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower and shows details of her very short dress,

Roman sandals and Cleopatra-type makeup. After an abrupt cut, her Latin lover

appears, inviting her to get off the car. They stand in front of a building, and then

the Latin lover leads Nazareth to the New York Stock Exchange building. Before

entering the building, both turn and face the camera.

The next section begins with their solemn entrance into a classical Greek-

style building, the camera emphasizing its anachronistic architecture and

contrasting it with adjacent buildings in a contemporary style. (Fig. 4.27) Christiny

adopts a serious pose near an enormous column. The camera wavers between

Christiny, the column and the surrounding buildings. The next scene shows a

woman in a very short dress, on a corner of Madison Square, who seems to be

waiting for someone as the camera pans over the Flatiron Building, the Empire
245

State building and Madison Square. The film ends with a scene of Mario Montez in

a car, getting ready to perform. After making sure that her wig fits, Mario gets out

of the car and starts walking along Fifth Avenue with the Brazilian artist Antonio

Dias. Mario is wearing a Spanish dress with flamenco shoes. (Fig. 4.28) They begin

to play dice on a metal grating on the pavement near a store as the camera focuses

on Mario’s costume and body. This last scene focuses intensely on Mario Montez’s

body. The camera shows every detail of his back, bottom, legs, and shoes, marking

the body of Mario as masculine/feminine and Latino. (Fig. 4.29)

Eroiticica was meant to be a place of unexpected situations which create

conditions for life-acts lies on the border of pre-determined situations that are

permanently threatened by the same unforeseen circumstances. In Agrippina,

Oiticica’s Manhattan is a world full of pleasures and pressures on the border of

chance. Christiny, her malandro boyfriend Antonio Dias and Mario Montez walk

through Manhattan and the latter two wind up playing dice. In a letter to Carlos

Vergara of July 22, 1972, Oiticica called this last scene of Agrippina an oracle in

which the towers resemble “Magrittean buildings.” Games of chance are composed

of unforeseen combinations where everything which is solemn, such as “the austere

and vulgar solemnity of Wall Street,” becomes endangered by vulgar circumstance.

Playing dice thus functions as a metaphor and Manhattan turns into an acropolis

full of sexual and racial otherness.


246

For Oiticica, Mario as Carmen Miranda was part of a wider anthological

project, TROPICÁLIA-SUBTERRANIA. “See the picture that accompanies this

article,” he wrote, referring to a photograph, taken by Carlos Vergara, where

Oiticica’s boyfriend Romero poses with Mario Montez-Carmen Miranda: it was

inspired by Jackie Curtis’ Vain Victory, where Mario played MALAFEMINA.”

(Fig. 4.30, 4.31) He added:

She is Carmen, without imitating, which makes some people

say that [the film] is bad: But, the CARMEN-image is a lot

more than that: it is not a naturalistic-imitative representation

of CARMEN MIRANDA, but a key-reference to the

TROPICAMP-cliché: it is from this cliché that the entire film

is constructed: cliché-CAMP: ‘she met her guy, uy, uy—in

Uruguay, ay, ay . . . ’: [I see her with] a red-green dress of a

samba school, combined with some other elements to make a

counterpoint.”60

What interests Oiticica, in contrast to Warhol and Smith’s approaches, is the

identification of Maria Montez and Mario Montez: they are both queer Latinas

living in the United States, to which he adds the identification of Mario Montez and

Carmen Miranda to speak of the complexities of his own situation as a Brazilian,

queer and artist and his identification with those who painfully and lovingly share

60
Oiticica, “Mario Montez: Tropicamp,” 4.
247

his shame and alienation. Oiticica’s insistence on the marking of the gender code of

masculine/feminine on Mario’s body is expanded to his dress, thus reminding us of

his—and Maria’s—representation of the Latino and Latin America.

Camp, as Andrew Ross defined it, places outmoded cultural codes at the

service of the struggles of social minorities. Using these outmoded codes,

minorities not only transform them for their own good, but also question the values

of a society which once excluded them from participation in its culture. Mario

Montez is Smith’s camp version of María Montez, the American gay icon of the

forties, which vindicates the appropriation of the hegemonic modes of cultural

production by American gays to create a sense of community and exercise their

right to be different. Oiticica, in turn, appropriates Smith to produce a camp version

of camp, that is, it creates a double representation of camp by Mario Montez, to

which he adds a depiction of Mario as Latino. In so doing, Oiticica’s camp version

of Smith’s camp—his Tropicamp—calls attention to the colonialism implicit in

such representations. It reminds us of the colonial condition that underlies both

María’s representation by Hollywood and Mario’s representation by underground

cinema. It also explores the manner in which both Latino gays and Latin Americans

appropriate the American hegemonic modes of cultural production to transform

them for their own cultural and political agendas.


248

In New York, Oiticica became more and more of a malandro, who, as I wrote in

Chapter 3, is characterized by “the cunning and street smarts generally associated

with the Carioca61 [underworld] . . . [this] dandylike [figure is] typified by his

individual ethos . . . [he lives on his wits] at the margins of society through . . .

graft, theft and pimping.”62 Through his Eroiticica, he not only expressed his

identification with marginal people, but also fully lived his own life on those

margins.

In the article “Waiting for the Internal Sun: Notes on Hélio Oiticica’s

Quasi-cinemas,” in the catalogue of the exhibition entitled Hélio Oiticica: Quasi-

cinemas, held in New York and Columbus (Ohio) in 2002, Carlos Basualdo also

approaches Oiticica’s New York period in the light of his vivência. For Basualdo,

however, Oiticica’s experience in New York was mostly conditioned by his

economic difficulties and feelings of exploitation: “[Oiticica’s] optimistic vision of

New York had darkened. The ‘only city that interests me’ had turned into an

‘infernal island’ that ‘lives off slave labor.’”63 Basualdo writes:

The only way to resist repressive police violence was to configure

his position as an artist around the figure of the outlaw; the only way

to resist the instrumental violence of late capitalism (and, one could

61
Name for the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro.
62
Translator’s Note, “Cornerstones for a definition of ‘Parangolé,’” in Hélio Oiticica: The Body of
Color, ed. Mari Carmen Ramírez (London: Tate Gallery, 2007), p. 297.
63 Carlos Basualdo, “Waiting for the Internal Sun: Notes on Hélio Oiticica’s Quasi-cinemas,” in
Hélio Oiticica Quasi-cinemas, ed. Carlos Basualdo (Columbus: Wexner Center for the Arts, 2002),
p. 47.
249

almost say, of neoliberalism) was to appropriate, through a

transgressive gesture, one of the most potent signs of its

instrumentalizing power and to use precisely that as an artistic

material. The “trash-image,” a pure residue that does violence to the

very process of value production as value for accumulation, is the

tool which Oiticica and D’Almeida would use to organize the

program of Cosmococas.64

Basualdo’s article mostly concentrates on the Cosmococas series and scarcely

mentions Oiticica’s work on sexuality. For instance, of Nitro Benzol & Black

Linoleum he merely says that, unlike the other Quasi-cinemas, it includes “the

performance of actions with a strong sexual content.”65 In the case of Agrippina,

along with anecdotal information about the shooting, he quotes Waly Salomão’s

description of Mario as “an actress invented by Jack Smith and Andy Warhol in

homage to the Mexican [sic] icon María Montez.”66

Basualdo resorts to the figure of the artist as an outlaw, which, in turn, is

transformed into the assertion that this “trash-image” is the cornerstone of

Oiticica’s art. In Basualdo’s view, Oiticica’s identification with trash-people

allowed him to assume an artistic persona as an outlaw and, by the same token, to

find an artistic solution to the problem of “the matrix of alienated production.”67 He

64
Basualdo, “Waiting for the Internal Sun,” p. 50.
65
Basualdo, “Waiting for the Internal Sun,” p. 42.
66
Basualdo, “Waiting for the Internal Sun,” p. 46.
67
Basualdo, “Waiting for the Internal Sun,” p. 50.
250

argues that: “The romantic representation of the figure of the outlaw—and

Oiticica’s recurrent identification with such figures as Antonin Artaud, Arthur

Rimbaud, Jimi Hendrix and Jack Smith himself—is for the artist nothing other than

an attempt to resist the instrumentalizing tendencies of late capitalism in the sphere

of artistic production.”68 Basualdo’s argument revolves around Oiticica’s

experience to conclude the ways in which he produced an art based on the “trash-

image.” However, he fails to give an account of other places which situate

Oiticica’s work culturally and personally. Furthermore, Oiticica’s experience is

subjected to a traditional left political rhetoric which doesn’t do justice to his work

and his life.

This even applies to his Cosmococas series, which was developed in

collaboration with the Brazilian filmmaker Neville D’Almeida and, to summarize,

consisted of eight works Oiticica called “block-experiences.” As in all of his Quasi-

cinemas, Cosmococas included projections of slides in “prepared” environments

where people would be encouraged to walk, sit, lie down or share feelings and

thoughts. The slide projections of Cosmococas had specific directions and a fixed

duration: it was cinematographic in the sense that it included notes on its creation,

staging and soundtracks.69 With soundtracks of Brazilian folk, Latin American and

rock music, and sounds recorded on Second Avenue, the slide projections show the

covers of albums; of books by Yoko Ono, Heidegger and Charles Manson; pictures

68
Basualdo, “Waiting for the Internal Sun,” p. 48.
69
Bentes, “H.O. and Cinema-World,” p. 142.
251

of Luis Buñuel, Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe and Mick Jagger; and lines of

cocaine on a book or as make-up. (Fig. 4.32)

“The participants,” wrote Oiticica, “will be induced into a light and joyful

play of BODY through DANCE rising above the ground.”70 For his Cosmococa on

Marilyn Monroe, the participants were to be barefoot, given balloons and whistles,

and encouraged to lie down and roll/crawl, as they liked, on sand covered by a

thick sheet of vinyl. CC4 NOCAGIONS included a rectangular swimming pool

where the participants would swim or just stand and watch. CC5 HENDRIX-WAR

included hammocks for its public performance, and people would be invited to

enter it through openings in each corner of the room.

Oiticica believed that rock music and drugs might serve as an effective

challenge to stereotypes. Instead of regarding them as mere subjects of his art, his

own addiction to drugs led him to strongly identify with his protagonists, whom he

saw as heroes fighting against stereotypes of race, gender and colonialism. For

example, of his portrayal of Marilyn in Cosmococa CC3, (Fig. 4.33) Oiticica said:

A supposedly manifest unity becomes fragmented as she resists the

stereotype that should define and limit her. All attempts to link her

to a constant unity seem to dissolve. There was something that

dissolved that unity: fragmentation that leads to another kind of

identification. It is a behavior that fragments the univocal habit of

70
Hélio Oiticica, “TRASHICAPES,” PHO 0300/73 (March 1973), 2.
252

what is verb-voice-appearance . . . How did we come to imagine that

cinema does not have anything to do with sequence and normal

fluency: constant verb-voice-appearance?71

Oiticica’s work questions the representation of those subjects as marginal or

sexual others and links them to their colonial or social condition. Hence the

concern for representation of the excluded, previously seen in the Parangolé, now

surfaces in Neyrótika and Agrippina, and his identification with Brazilian popular

culture is replaced by his identification with marginal and sexual cultures as he

appropriates stereotypes about Latin America and its sexual other. His New York

works explored representations of sexuality and colonialism, or to be more precise,

the crucial role of sexuality in shaping the colonial condition of Latin America.

I have remarked that his stay in New York allowed Oiticica to make his

work a personal vivência and his life a public affair. In exploring Oiticica’s work

on sexuality and its links with his own experience, I have sought to explain not so

much certain sources of his inspiration that have been virtually ignored by art

critics as the relations between his artwork and issues of subjectivity and ethics. For

his accounts of himself as an anti-artist, drug user, and sexual other, among others,

speaks above all of the ways in which his artwork was intended to promote

experimental ways of being marginal. By constructing his Eroiticica as a shelter-

world for alternative lives, he integrated his work with his life and made his life an

71
Oiticica, “BLOCO-EXPERIENCIAS in COSMOCOCA Program in Progress,” 8.
253

artwork. That is, he attempted to create an aesthetic of existence that put his work

at the service of new ways to live differently, both personal and collective. This

stylistics, as David Halperin put it, “ultimately means to cultivate that part of

oneself that leads beyond oneself, that transcends oneself: it is to elaborate the

strategic possibilities of what is the most impersonal dimension of personal life—

namely the capacity to ‘realize oneself’ by becoming other than what one is.”72

Throughout this chapter, I have situated Oiticica’s work and his life in a

broader cultural, artistic and ethical context, believing that this stylistics shares the

ethics and aesthetics of what we now know as queer. As I have said, it is not my

intention to pull Oiticica out of the closet to push him into the art institution.

Neither do I see his work on queer sexuality as a timid coming out, whereby

Oiticica finally made his sexuality public. I acknowledge that his work—like that

of all queer artists—is not more or less queer because of his sexuality. Even more,

the fact that an artist defines him or herself as queer does not make his/her work

queer in itself, even if the work addresses queer issues. Instead of a trans-sexuality

or a meta-sexuality, I believe his Eroiticica promotes a sort of anti-sexuality, which

deconstructs sexuality as a discourse, sharing some aspects of a queer identity

politics which refuses to give an identity content or a utopian referent. This is how I

understand the ethics of the very term queer: It questions essentialism and offers

new forms of meaning and living that defy normalization, vindicating a wider

72
David Halperin, “The Queer Politics of Michel Foucault,” in Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay
Hagiography, David Halperin (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 76.
254

spectrum of pleasures. I would thus rephrase the words of Salomão quoted in

Chapter 3: Oiticica did not get rid of the inferiority complex of the subjects of

colonialist relations of power. He turned that complex into a productive method for

thinking about other worlds governed by alternative pleasures and modes of

solidarity and affection.


255

CHAPTER 5

“Thinking otherwise” otherwise: Towards a Critical (Re) thinking and (De)


colonization of Latin American Cultural Practices.

Border thinking

Between June 13 and 15, 2001, scholars and activists met in Quito (Ecuador) in

order to explore the current state of cultural studies in Latin America. Some of its

leading figures had met before on several occasions, at the Pontificia Universidad

Javeriana (Bogotá, 1999) and Duke University (Durham NC, USA, 2000), to work

out an agenda that would set forth critical responses to globalization. This 2001

reunion, however, was given the formal name of the 1st Conference of Latin

American Cultural Studies, since it not only invited important scholars, such as

Catherine Walsh, Walter Mignolo, Santiago Castro-Gómez, Daniel Mato, Fernando

Coronel, John Beverly, and Mabel Moraña, among others, but also leaders of social

movements and students of cultural studies from Caracas, Bogotá and Quito.1

According to the organizers, the purpose of the Conference was to

consolidate a project that would examine the relationship between colonialism,

culture and politics in the region and the role of cultural studies in alternative

modes of studying and developing strategic interventions in the field of culture in

1
The main papers and conclusions of this Conference have been collected in Estudios Culturales
Latinoamericanos: Retos desde y sobre la region andina, ed. Catherine Walsh (Quito: Universidad
Andina Simón Bolívar, 2003).
256

Latin America. This project would be interdisciplinary, crossing the traditional

boundaries of the social sciences, and bring together “other” practices and bodies of

knowledge, from socially and culturally excluded groups, that challenge the

modern “geopolitics of knowledge” which systematically labels knowledges and

cultural practices of those groups as “primitive,” pre-scientific, or popular. Cultural

studies was seen, then, as a means of decolonizing Latin American culture through

an epistemology which “critically articulates the colonial design and its legacies in

the present, taking as a contextual axis current and local histories in the Andean

countries and the relationship between these local histories and global designs.”2

The resulting project, known today as the Modernity/Coloniality Project, has

attracted the participation of more and more scholars and activists. Although the

Project includes members from different parts of Latin America and the U.S., it has

created an especially strong link between those from Lima, Quito, Bogotá and

Caracas.

The Project’s starting point is a profound critique of the long Latin

American tradition of the study of culture originated from the social sciences,

which includes such great thinkers as José Carlos Mariátegui (Peru), Marta Traba

(Argentina), Angel Rama (Uruguay), Nestor García Canclini (Argentina), Jesús

Martín Barbero (Colombia), and Antonio Cornejo Polar (Peru). For the Project, that

2
Catherine Walsh, Freya Schiwy and Santiago Castro-Gómez, Indisciplinar las Ciencias Sociales:
Geopolíticas del conocimiento y colonialidad del poder. Perspectivas desde lo Andino. (Quito:
Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar/Editora Abya Yala, 2002), p. 11.
257

tradition follows the colonial condition that informed the emergence of the social

sciences whose methods and epistemologies followed a Eurocentric model

irreducibly anchored in the colonialist project of modernity. The social sciences not

only ignore the politics of its own making, but also forget the ways in which the

self-contained model of society they created was made possible by the European

colonial expansion. That is, its development was not a consequence of qualities

inherent to the European social structure and social relations, but of the colonial

interaction of Europe with Africa, America and Asia.

Echoing the conclusions of The Gulbenkian Commission, the Project

considers the social sciences to be a result of the international division of

intellectual labor.3 While the First World produces universally valid theories and

methods and converts other cultures into subjects of knowledge, third-world

cultures are condemned to be case studies and to consume those theories. Along

with the Commission’s suggestion to open social studies towards interdisciplinary

dialogues and cultural studies, the Project insists on the need to decolonize the

hierarchic relationship between scholars and social groups regarding the contexts,

methods and perspectives to produce knowledge.4

3
The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, based in Lisbon, established in 1993 the Gulbenkian
Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. It comprised a distinguished international
group of scholars coming from a variety of disciplines. The Commission explored the development
of Social Sciences and called attention to the need to restructure it, taking into account the
interdisciplinary approach of cultural studies. See Immanuel Wallerstein, Open the Social Sciences:
Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences (California:
Stanford University Press, 1996).
4
Walsh, Estudios Culturales Latinoamericanos, p. 15.
258

The Project nevertheless recognizes the merit of some previous attempts to

unveil the links between colonialism and the social production of knowledge about

culture. In particular, the Project highly values some de-colonizing insights

developed by liberation theology of the sixties and seventies, dependency theories,

the postmodernism pioneered by Nelly Richard, discussions of hybridity and

colonialism and the work of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group in the

United States. However, as Escobar has remarked, instead of a linear history, the

Project “should be seen as ‘an other’ way of thinking that runs counter to the great

narratives of modernity; it places its own inquiry on the very borders of systems of

thought and reaches towards the possibility of non-Eurocentric modes of

thinking.”5

The emergence of the Project as a cultural studies enterprise has caused

heated debates. Some argue that there is no need for a new discipline since the

study of culture in Latin America already has a strong and buoyant tradition,

composed of the great thinkers I listed above, who have made profound

contributions to the subject. Others, mainly from the social sciences, argue that the

field of cultural studies is an example of the intellectual imperialism of European

and U.S. universities and is already out of date. Thus, one of the main tasks of the

Project is to promote different epistemologies that challenge those knowledges and

practices that silence modernity’s claims to centrality by exposing its self-

5
Arturo Escobar, “Worlds and Knowledges Otherwise,” Cultural Studies 21, 2 (2001), 180.
259

referential reasoning and denial of its own colonialist pretensions. Naming this

enterprise “Modernity/Coloniality” indicates that modernity can only exist by

colonizing its other and fitting that other’s heterogeneity into a narrow linear

scheme of progress.

The project has attacked these assumptions through the use of three axes of

investigation and political action. The first axis is known as the coloniality of

power, a concept initially formulated by the Peruvian intellectual Anibal Quijano to

explore the role of race in the colonialist dimension of globalization. He states,

Current globalization is, above all, the culmination of a process that

began with the creation of America and of colonial/modern

capitalism and became the new pattern of global power. One of the

fundamental axes of this pattern is the social classification of the

world’s populations in terms of race, a mental configuration that

expressed the basic experience of colonial domination and has

permeated the most important dimensions of global power since

then, including its specific rationality: Eurocentrism. Such an axis

has then a colonial origin and character, but it has proven to be more

enduring than the matrix which established it. It implies,


260

consequently, an element of coloniality in the pattern of power

which is today globally hegemonic.6

Quijano further argues that race and the capitalist division of labor are historically

associated and have reinforced one another, producing a racial global division of

labor that has characterized the organization of capitalism during the past five

hundred years. Colonialism created racial identities based on skin color,

articulating them with the capitalist division of labor, with white populations at the

top and the colored people at the bottom. In this respect, Santiago Castro-Gómez

has further argued that Quijano’s coloniality of power follows the subaltern studies’

attempts to develop Michel Foucault’s notion of disciplinary power by including in

its analysis the inscription of discourses/practices that informed modern societies

within a global structure that configures the European colonial world. He says:

“Modernity’s disciplinary devices are inscribed within a double governability. On

the one hand, [power] is exercised within the nation state as an attempt to produce

homogeneous identities through normalization. On the other hand, it is exercised by

the hegemonic powers to secure its economic growth and its cultural supremacy.”7

Quijano’s coloniality of power has paved the way for the second axis: The

coloniality of knowledge. Global power based on racial divisions excluded the

6
Anibal Quijano “Colonialidad del poder, eurocentrismo y América Latina,” in La colonialidad del
saber: eurocentrismo y ciencias sociales: Perspectivas latinoamericanas, ed. Edgardo Lander,
(Buenos Aires: CLACSO, julio de 2000), p. 201.
7
Santiago Castro-Gomez, “Ciencias Sociales, violencia epistémica y la cuestión del otro, in La
colonialidad del saber: Eurocentrismo y ciencias sociales. Perspectivas latinoamericanas ed.
Edgardo Lander (Buenos Aires: UNESCO/CLACSO, 2000), p. 153.
261

bodies of knowledge and practices of groups given an inferior social position

(mainly Native- and African- Americans). This geopolitics of knowledge is a key

strategy of modernity, since global power subjected all cultures to a Eurocentric

model based on distinctions between the civilized/primitive,

developed/underdeveloped or scientific/popular. Consequently, it silenced other

kinds of knowledge, forced the colonized to partially learn from the dominant

culture and claimed that European culture was the culmination of all others.

Quijano concludes: “As a part of the global pattern of power, Europe concentrated

under its hegemony the control of all forms of subjectivity, culture, knowledge and

its production.”8

Recently, Catherine Walsh and Nelson Maldonado-Torres have introduced

the concept of the coloniality of being as a third axis of the Project, which refers to

the way that Eurocentric modernity has denied certain groups the right to be

considered “people.”9 Following Franz Fanon’s notion that human existence is

constituted by agency, and has a subjective and situated dimension, the coloniality

of being refers to colonial processes that create difference, denying the colonized

groups the possibility of being-thinking-acting.10

Basing itself on the three axes, the Project envisions a “de-colonial”

horizon. For Catherine Walsh, “de-colonial” should not be confused with


8
Quijano, “Colonialidad del poder, eurocentrismo y América Latina,” p. 209.
9
Catherine Walsh, Pensamiento crítico y matriz (de)colonial: Reflexiones latinoamericanas (Quito:
Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar/Editora Abya Yala, 2002), p. 22. See also Nelson Maldonado-
Torres, “The Topology of Being and the Geopolitics of Knowledge,” CITY 8, 1 (April 2004), 29-56.
10
Walsh, (Re)pensamiento, p. 23.
262

decolonization. The latter, while acknowledging the exclusion of certain groups,

seeks, as modernity does, to integrate them into globalization. Instead, she argues, a

radical de-colonial project should stand completely outside of modernity and

concentrate on the recognition of the culture and knowledge that exclusively

pertain to excluded groups. Walter Mignolo, for his part, would base this de-

colonial effort on the notions of border thinking, border epistemology and

plurotopic hermeneutics, that is, a post-western perspective that changes the terms

of the dialogue between the interior and the exterior of modernity.11 Enrique Dussel

has introduced the notion of transmodernity as a negation of negation which allows

for non-hegemonic discourses that directly oppose modernity itself.12 Finally,

Escobar argues that there is no inside or outside in the contemporary world, since

globalization has taken the universality of modernity to its limits. He thus suggests

that the Modernity/Coloniality project should not look for an ontological outside.

Rather, it should refer to “an outside that is precisely constituted as difference by

the hegemonic discourse.”13

Needless to say, Walsh’s notion of de-coloniality clearly runs against

Mignolo’s, Dussel’s and Escobar’s perspectives. Walsh argues that, given the

11
See Walter Mignolo, “The Many Faces of Cosmo-polis: Border Thinking and Critical
Cosmopolitanism,” Public Culture 12, 3 ( Fall 2000), pp. 721-748. See also Walter Mignolo, Local
Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 2000).
12
See Enrique Dussel, 1492: El encubrimiento del Otro: Hacia el origen del "mito de la
modernidad" (La Paz, Bolivia: Plural Editores, 2004). See also Enrique Dussel, Hacia una Filosofía
Política Crítica (Bilbao, España: Desclée de Brouwer, 2001).
13
Escobar, “Words and Knowledges Otherwise,” 186.
263

hierarchical assessment of knowledge by modernity, those perspectives continue to

have Eurocentric thought as its main referent and the possibility of exchanges with

“other knowledges” becomes a one-way street: While subordinate groups must

appropriate the Eurocentric legacy, it does not happen the other way around. In

particular, she considers Mignolo’s ‘border thinking’ to be a strategy that would

continue to dismiss local knowledge, as it does not radically change the relations of

power, but merely proposes new forms of dialogue still based on the hegemony of

Western bodies of knowledge. Walsh suggests, instead, subsuming Mignolo’s

border thinking into a broader strategy, which she calls “border critical

positioning”, that would not take the dominant knowledge as a referent. More than

a transformation, she argues, a de-colonial project calls for “a radical re-

construction of beings, powers and knowledges, that is, the creation of radically

different conditions . . . that would contribute to the fabrication of different

societies.”14 For her, then, interculturality is the best strategy for de-coloniality,

since, she argues, it creates “an other” image of society, allowing for a different

geopolitics of power as well as of knowledge and existence.

I cannot do justice to the complexity of the formulations made by those who

have participated in this important debate. However, I think that some critical

aspects of it are worth mentioning, not only because they accentuate the ethical

perspective that motivates my approach to Latin American cultural struggles in this

14
Walsh, Pensamiento crítico, p. 24.
264

dissertation, but also because they bring to light some of the risks that scholars,

artists and activists involved in this project may face in their everyday struggles.

Some of their assumptions, mainly by Walsh, seem to make the Project sound as

logocentric, essentialist, and utopian as the modernity it is supposed to challenge.

Even though the majority of participants seek to de-colonize the dominant

geopolitics of power, knowledge and being, their analyses of the politics of

exclusion and the excluded sectors show important differences.

The first has to do with the centrality of race in their analysis of colonialism.

It is not my intention to question the historical facts that support the idea of a

colonial order based on race. As I have said in previous chapters,

developmentalism assimilated classic colonialism in order to exclude the cultures

of social sectors defined largely by race. However, I have pointed to other forms of

difference—gender and sexuality among them—which, while they might predate

globalization, have been vital in the emergence of forms of colonialism. The

Eurocentric imagination also made use of gender, sexuality and class to define the

American other. The very ideas of America as a woman, of Americans as cannibals

and sodomites and of traditional cultures as primitive indicate other ways of

constructing difference which were used to insert Latin America within the global

power structure.

The problem of choosing race as “the last instance” is manifold. On the one

hand, the Project tends to fall into the trap of the Eurocentric mode of thought it is
265

supposed to challenge since it reproduces modernity’s anxiety over heterogeneity

and discontinuity. On the other hand, it tends to close the Project’s inquiries as it

seems to privilege the issue of race as the cornerstone of Latin American cultural

studies. In one his many genealogies, Stuart Hall insisted on the need to consider

cultural studies as an open field of investigation regarding the link between culture

and power. It is not productive to define the sort of inquires that define a cultural

studies project. However, he argues that what preserves cultural studies from

pluralism is its political interest in producing strategic interventions in both the

practices of knowledge of culture and cultural construction of power. “There is

something at stake in cultural studies,” he says as a way to accentuate both the

political character of the intellectual practice and the political interest in making a

difference.15 Asking ourselves “What is at stake?” implies then a self-reflection that

allows us to examine the political assumptions and positions that mobilize our

intellectual choice, but above all to explore different perspectives of the struggles

that are giving shape to subject positions within the cultural field. There are more

and different intellectual challenges and cultural struggles at stake in Latin America

than those identified by the Project, simply because there are other excluded social

sectors that are fighting to make a difference. If cultural studies is seen as a

possibility to transform power relations in the region, the Project’s claims to de-

15
Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies,” in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence
Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler (New York & London: Routledge, 1992), p. 278.
266

colonize has to become its very starting point to examine the ethics of its own

intellectual work.

For its emphasis on race also implies that the only valid de-colonial agenda

must follow that of the Native- and African-American populations, impeding other

forms of difference from “decolonizing” practices of knowledge and power.

Despite Walsh’s effort, interculturality becomes not so much an opportunity for

unexpected and heterogeneous solutions emerging from battles and negotiations

between the dominant and subordinated cultures, but a Utopia where the political

subject of hegemonic knowledge is only defined by race, and hides its genders,

sexualities and other forms of difference. The predominance of Native- and

African-American populations in some countries of the region may explain this

approach but it does not justify it. Walsh’s and Quijano’s claims come from Peru

and Ecuador where Native-Americans account for nearly 70% of the whole

population. If so, we need not only to decolonize the de-colonial project but also

adjust it to other countries of the region, where the proportion between Native-

Americans and other population groups is nearly the reverse and decolonizing

agendas are in the hands of other political subjects.

In Colombia alone, organizations defending of the rights of the gay, lesbian,

bisexual and transsexual population have proven to be successful and, among other

achievements, helped to revoke the law that penalized homosexuality until 1980.

These groups have made successful human rights appeals to the Constitutional
267

Court, expanding the usual interpretation of the Constitution which excludes sexual

minorities. It is worth noting the fact that, without asking for the legalization of

GLBT marriage, today Colombian GLBT people can declare a same-sex partner as

a permanent one and include him/her as a beneficiary of health benefits. People

who are openly GLBT may now work in educational institutions, which was

forbidden ten years ago. Hate crimes, which before were assumed to be crimes of

passion, have been given a legal status as a violation of human rights and offenders

are now prosecuted accordingly. Instead of despising these forms of struggle

because they do not promote a radical new society, as Walsh claims, these

collectives have worked within the restrictions of our democracy by making use of

instruments of change that are already at hand in order to secure the human rights

of their respective communities.

These organizations have gathered together not only GLBT activists, but

also scholars, artists and members of state institutions in the struggle to win

recognition for alternative sexualities. This fact clearly proves that social power

may emerge from collaborative projects where many actors may converge. Groups

in the academy such as GAEDS [SSGSD: Supporting and Study Group of Sexual

Diversity] in the Universidad Nacional have been fighting homophobic attitudes in

their university, the largest in Colombia, and inserted such issues in the curricula of

the faculties of Social Sciences and Cultural Studies. Furthermore, the NGO

Colombia Diversa [Diverse Colombia], created in 2003, has defended GLBT rights
268

and denounced expressions of homophobia in the mass media. It also offers legal

advice to such minorities.

All of this has been accompanied by campaigns to get state institutions to

guarantee the rights of those whose sexuality is non-normative. The Bogotá

Municipal Administration’s Development Plan for 2004-2008 included the defense

of GLBT rights, not only through legal and social programs, but also the

recognition of their cultural rights. One of the main results has been the

progressive—though still insufficient—transformation of ideas about sexual

diversity held by the general public. The results of the biannual Urban Culture

Survey of twelve thousand Bogotá residents aged 13 years or older —which I will

explore in more detail below—show that while in 2001 97% did not want to have

“homosexual” people as neighbors, only 37% felt that way by 2008.16 This

illustrates the emergence of a greater solidarity about minority rights which is also

evidenced, for example, by the numbers who attend the annual GLBT rights march

[Marcha por la Ciudadanía LGBT] which, different from the traditional gay parade,

rose from 8,000 in 2003 to nearly 300,000 in 2008, including family members,

friends, neighbors and coworkers of the LGBT community who share their defense

of the right to be sexually different.

I do not want to exaggerate the triumphs of these struggles. Homophobic

discourses and practices still influence relationships in schools, families and public

16
Políticas Culturales Distritales 2004-2016 (Bogotá: IDCT, 2006), pp. 85-110.
269

institutions and there is still much work to be done. However, this change in

attitudes towards sexuality in Colombia does support my concerns about the

Modernity/Coloniality Project, insofar as it shows the heterogeneity of the current

struggles and should remind the Project of the need to expand its concept of the

“other” and accept the diversity of the sectors that are fighting to decolonize social

and political relations. The interdisciplinary nature of the Project implies an

acknowledgement that the resistance to the colonial discourse not only comes from

certain excluded sectors, but also from mainstream academic, cultural and public

institutions. If power functions as a circuit and is not possessed by anyone but

creates subjects and practices, resistance to it may also come from unexpected

places and political agents.

De-colonizing, I believe, thus implies a radical de-colonizing of some of the

assumptions of the Project. I would like to return to Walsh’s notion of a “border

strategic positioning” as a response to Mignolo’s border thinking. Although it

seems to contradict her plea for “authenticity,” I found it productive insofar as it

opens up possibilities for a genuine decolonizing project, one that would take into

account other subject positions and forms of struggle. Strategic positioning seems

to define the subjects by their struggles, which, by permitting identities to be seen

not as a fixed and ancestral may pave the way for a more realistic notion of the

differences that emerge from struggle and negotiation. Placing those struggles on

the border of any given system of power undermines the political dichotomies
270

found in humanism, including the predetermined identities of multiculturalism.

Strategic positioning also allows including important forms of struggle based on a

more generalized rejection of the will towards hegemony. The excluded or

subaltern nature of those subjects does not necessarily mean that their political goal

is to become hegemonic. Instead, some of those groups are willing to remain the

negative term of the colonial formula, resisting any liberal attempt to integrate

dissidence into the social order.

For possible, though not necessarily complete, answers to these issues, I

would like to explore two cases that show the sort of struggles that give shape the

field of art in contemporary Colombia. It is my main goal in this chapter to open

the Project towards other intellectual and cultural struggles that are at stake in the

region, contributing to expand its character as a cultural-studies enterprise. First, I

will explore the fate of art and culture policies of the Bogota municipal

government, as revealed by the government’s biannual survey of Bogotá residents’

responses. While the policies attempt to make culture available to the poor and

create a globalized city, the survey demonstrates a wide gap between institutional

and popular conceptions of art, insofar as the poor appropriate art in unexpected

ways and disrupt the enlightened modernism of the art institution.

Along the same lines, I will also discuss two exhibitions, held at the Galleria

Santa Fe in Bogotá in 2003 and 2005, which were organized by a group of Bogotá

artists, members of queer movements, critics and curators from the fields of visual
271

arts and cultural studies. The exhibitions established a dialogue between artistic and

queer sectors which challenged the representation of queer sexualities by the art

institution. They combined academic, theoretical and political activism to present

different alternatives for de-colonizing in the globalized era to redefine the

Project’s political and intellectual horizon to include others who are looking for

ways to live differently.

All Living on the Same Side

In November 2003, the Instituto Distrital de Cultura y Turismo of Bogotá D.C.,

Colombia [Institute of Culture and Tourism], conducted a survey of Bogotá

residents’ perception of the cultural programs of the City government. It polled

1,443 people, thought to be representative of the 4,300,000 inhabitants of the city

who are above the age of 18. It examined their knowledge, preferences and

opinions about the cultural programs of public institutions during that year. It also

explored the ways in which different social sectors relate to cultural institutions and

artifacts and their codes and modes of perceiving art and the city’s artistic heritage.

The survey was part of a wide number of studies, undertaken by the

Observatory of Urban Culture of the IDCT, which aim to gather precise statistical

information that will enable public and private institutions to evaluate, improve and

disseminate their cultural programs. The issue was relevant at that time, because it

was a critical component of the administration’s Development Plan “Bogotá: All


272

Living on the Same Side”, which argued that the persistent chaos of the city could

only be solved through a profound cultural change. The city’s inhabitants were

overwhelmed by problems of insecurity, violence, inefficient transportation and

pollution, among other things. Mayor Antanas Mockus, the guiding light of the

Plan, thought that cultural habits played a major role in this disorder, that is, the

ways in which those who lived in Bogotá thought about the city, related to each

other and respected or did not respect social codes and the law.

Mockus, who initiated the Civic Culture Program during his first

administration (1994 – 1997), believed that there was a rupture between the law,

individual morality and collective culture. For him, these were the three axes that

regulate individual and social behavior, and the harmony among them would be the

basis for an ideal democracy. Mockus argued that this occurs when an individual’s

behavior is validated in cultural terms. In an ideal society, in turn, what is culturally

approved is also legally approved. Therefore, in a democratic society cultural

values are more demanding than the law, and the individual’s morality is even

more demanding than culture. In Colombia, he said, the “divorce” among the three

had opened social spaces for violence, delinquency and corruption, discrediting

social institutions and cultural traditions, and putting individual morality in

jeopardy. In his article “Cultura Ciudadana: Programa contra la violencia en Santa

Fe de Bogotá 1994-1997” [Civic Culture: Program against Violence in Santa Fe de

Bogotá 1994-1997], he concluded:


273

The exercise of violence and corruption increases and consolidates

precisely because they are culturally accepted within certain

contexts. Clearly illegal behaviors, and ones frequently subject to

moral censorship, are tolerated. The divorce among these three

systems that regulate human behavior is expressed in actions that are

in their majority illegal but morally and culturally approved, or

culturally disapproved but morally permitted, or morally

inadmissible but culturally tolerated and accepted. Likewise, some

legal obligations are not recognized as moral obligations or lack

cultural approval in certain social contexts.17

This concept of Civic Culture was consequently defined as “the ensemble of habits,

activities and shared minimum rules intended to create a feeling of belonging,

facilitate coexistence in the urban space, lead the city to be considered a collective

patrimony to be protected, and ensure the recognition of citizen’s rights and

duties.”18 In turn, the Civic Culture Program that attempted to promote changes in

the Bogotanians’ habits was based on the conviction that conflicts arise and

become aggravated when communication among people is limited, and that an

“intensive communication” may help dissolve violence. An enthusiastic follower of

Jürgen Habermas’s ideas about interactive communication, Mockus considered that

17
Antanas Mockus “Cultura Ciudadana: Programa contra la violencia en Santa Fe de Bogotá 1994-
1997,” in SOC-127 (Washington: DIB, 2002) p. 3.
18
Rocío Londoño, “De la Cortesía a la Cultura Ciudadana,” in Bogotá: El renacer de una ciudad,
ed. Gerard Martin et. al. (Bogotá: Editorial Planeta, 2007) p. 134.
274

an argumentative interaction among people would promote new social relations and

would replace violent confrontation with a face-to-face interaction of ideas and

arguments. Therefore, the divorce between the law, individual morality and the

collective culture would be overcome, since interaction would provide a cultural

consensus in which everyone obeys the law. He states:

Intensive communication permits a careful analysis of one’s moral

convictions and a profound modification of the criteria with which

one judges the actions of oneself and others and what is considered

to be culturally acceptable. It also allows more opportunities to

emerge for heeding differences and opportunely detecting conflicts,

which makes it possible to invoke civil rights earlier and to thread a

continuum between moral argumentation (that is, circumscribed by

the individual and his/her immediate group), cultural argumentation

(that is, the need to be right in front of one’s neighbor) and juridical

argumentation (the struggle to be right in the face of the law).19

The “All Living on the Same Side” Program insisted, then, that this transformation

would be achieved, not by changing the law, but rather by promoting new habits

through projects which encouraged a cultural self-regulation among strangers. It

defined four objectives: 1. To achieve the fulfillment of norms for coexistence. 2.

To provide Bogotá residents with the ability to fulfill their duties. 3. To improve

19
Mockus, “Cultura Ciudadana,” p. 6.
275

the capacity to build agreements among people and peacefully resolve conflicts. 4.

To improve the ability to communicate through art, cultural activities, recreation

and sports.

The Civic Culture Program employed cultural programs and media

campaigns to attain these objectives. Among them, it is worth noting the “Civic

Cards” Action, which employed a card that had a thumbs-up sign on one side and a

thumbs-down sign on the other. Drivers were encouraged to use it to express their

approval or rejection of the conduct of other drivers or pedestrians. The “Mime and

Zebra Crossing” program attempted to regulate the public’s use of streets and side-

walks. Usually car drivers had no respect for pedestrian crossings. When a car

stopped on the “Zebra Crossing”—the white stripes painted on the street to

designate pedestrians’ crossing area—a mime would approach the driver, calling

the attention of others to the violation of the code, and thus embarrassing the driver

for disrespecting the law and impeding the right of pedestrians to safely use the

street. The “Voluntary Disarmament” program encouraged people to voluntarily

surrender guns and knives to the authorities. Finally, the “Cultural Activities in the

Public Space” program was aimed at recovering public spaces for leisure and

peaceful coexistence and thus change the widespread perception that Bogotá was

unsafe, which meant that residents were reluctant to use parks and other public

spaces.
276

The success of the Civic Culture Program has been nationally and

internationally recognized and has been implemented in other Colombian cities, as

well as in Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. Among its results, it is worth mentioning

the reduction in violent deaths. In 1993 the homicide rate was 4,452 deaths per year

and in 1997 the rate was 2,814 deaths. Since then, it has continued to decline. In

2001 the rate was 1,993. Motor vehicle deaths in Bogotá also decreased, from a rate

of 1,341 in 1994 to one of 834 in 2000.

In the field of culture “All Living on the Same Side” mostly promoted

activities in public spaces, so that people could communicate through “face-to-

face” interactions and appreciate the shared values of peaceful coexistence and

mutual respect. Along with it, the Plan attempted to give the poorer classes a wider

access to culture, under the “Cultura en Común” [Culture in Common] program. It

consisted of a series of presentations of visual arts, theater, cinema and classical

music in the poorer areas of the city, accompanied by educational programs to

develop their residents’ ability to enjoy art and participate in artistic activities.

Although it was not explicitly stated, the cultural component of the Plan

seemed to follow Pierre Bourdieu’s approach to culture. For Bourdieu, class

position is not only determined by people’s role in the production of goods, but also

by the ways in which symbolic goods are produced and distributed among them.

The possession or not of cultural capital, he argued, turns everyday distinctions into

an expression of class distinctions. Assuming that the poor lacked cultural capital,
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“Cultura en Común” intended to alleviate this exclusion by making art and the

appreciation of it available to everyone and thus to restore social power to the lower

classes. The idea was that their acquisition of cultural capital would simultaneously

transform their attitudes, preferences, bodily habits and cognitive perceptions, that

is to say, their habituses, in line with canonical definitions of art. In other words, it

attempted to change the position of classes within the social structure.

The key concepts of the Plan, and the survey, seemed to rest on Bourdieu’s

interconnected notions of habitus and cultural capital. Generally, Bourdieu uses the

term habitus to refer to a system of enduring dispositions that are incarnated in

bodies.20 In his book Distinction, Bourdieu offers a more comprehensive

description of habitus, which I summarize here. Habitus, as ‘history incarnated in

the bodies,’ orients people’s practices and perceptions. It also describes the process

whereby the social is interiorized by individuals, achieving a correspondence

between objective structures and subjective ones. It also creates notions of social

distinction which people tend to think of as natural.21 Nick Prior has enlarged

Bourdieu’s ideas by suggesting that the sociology of art should distinguish three

fields of action or dimensions: First, there are the artists and their works. Second,

there are the institutions—museums, galleries, the city—where those works are

20
Pierre Bourdieu, In Other Words: Essays towards a Relative Sociology (Cambridge: Polity Press
1990), p. 190.
21
Pierre Bourdieu, La distinción: Criterio y bases sociales del gusto (Madrid: Taurus, 1988), p.
170-171.
278

exhibited. Finally, there is the audience which has access to both and possesses

stocks of cultural and economic capital that activate their habituses.22

In this regard, the Plan seemed to be based on the belief that a change in the

relative positions of social classes in the city would be accomplished not only by

re-distributing the cultural capital, but also by modifying the previous cultural

habituses of Bogotanians. This is all the more evident from the survey made at the

end of the Mayor’s term, precisely because it attempted to show changes in the

habituses and the improved access to art of the lower classes. Thus, the

Development Plan used culture to promote the Mayor’s vision of a democratic

society in two important ways: First, it assumed that cultural change would spread

democratic values and practices. Second, it attempted to democratize cultural

products, in order to adjust the cultural tastes of the poor to the Western tradition of

art.

The survey consisted of forty-five questions, divided into five sections:

notions about art, traditions, artistic education, consumption and information. The

first section, Notions about Art and Heritage, had two questions and was meant to

measure the perception of the terms by those who were surveyed. It hoped to

contrast the meanings of the terms with the ones held by the cultural institutions.

As the survey listed the respondents’ class origin, sex, age and educational level,

the results would give valuable information about the relation between class and

22
Nick Prior, “A Question of Perception: Bourdieu, art and the postmodern,” The British Journal of
Sociology 56, 1, (2005), 125.
279

cultural capital. The second section, Traditions, had fourteen questions and asked

the respondents about their first contact with art and the role of family, school and

friends in their perceptions of it. It also included a representative list of artists

whom the respondents were asked to match with their different fields to determine

their knowledge of art.

The third section, Artistic Education, which had three questions, asked

those surveyed if they had gone through a specific training in the field of art,

beyond what they learned at school. The fourth section, Cultural Consumption in

the Last Year, had nineteen questions and was meant to determine the respondents’

attendance, in the past year, of concerts, exhibitions, plays, etc, especially the

frequency with which they took advantage of the administration’s cultural

programs. Finally, the fifth section, Information, had ten questions about their

knowledge of art and intensity of their interest in it.

Although it would be useful to analyze all the answers, I will concentrate on

those which throw light on my argument about the character of cultural struggles

within the context of the globalization of modernity. Globalization represents a new

geopolitics of cultural struggles and the creation, by certain social sectors, of

“other” alternatives that vindicate their particular cultural practices.

When asked, “What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you

hear the word ‘art’?” 62.9% said they thought of art as a sort of corporal or

intellectual activity: painting, dancing, sculpture, etc. 11.9% related it to something


280

well-made or pretty, that is to say, an adjective to qualify an object or practice: an

artistic bakery, for instance. Lastly, 11.1% also used the word art as an adjective

but this time related to the ability or skill to do something, for example “you are an

artist at computing”. A breakdown by class reveals some interesting differences,

however. The upper classes mostly related art to a profession, while the middle

classes think of art as an adjective to qualify an object. The lower classes primarily

associate it with an adjective to qualify a skill. In terms of gender, school

attendance and age there are no major differences. However, women show a slight

tendency to associate it with something pretty or well-made, whereas men associate

it with knowing or learning something.

In terms of the formation of habits, 56% had their first contact with art

between the ages of 5 and 12, while 18.3% had it between ages of 13 and 20. 9.3%

said they had no relation to art whatsoever. A deeper analysis of the responses, by

age range, allows us to clarify the factors which led children to their first contact

with art. 61.7% of the people between 18 and 24 said that it occurred when they

were between 5 and 12, while only 44.4% of the people above 60 claimed the

same. Likewise, 13.7% of young people said that their first contact took place

before the age of 5.

For a good part of those surveyed (60.5%), the first contact with art was

through a school teacher. Adding the percentages of those whose contact initially

took place through their mothers, fathers and other relatives, 48% stated that they
281

were initiated by the family. However, it is worth noting that in the upper classes

the influence of the father and mother is higher than in the middle and lower

classes. It is also important to note that in the middle and lower classes initiation in

art on the person’s own initiative or through contact with a friend was a relevant

factor. The influence of priests is low in general, except for the upper classes,

perhaps owing to the fact that most of the upper class schools are run by Catholic

religious communities.

However, what seems to be the important role of secularized schools in

familiarizing youngsters with art is contradicted by what schools actually do in this

respect, if one analyzes the results by age. People of sixty years and older and

young people between the ages of 18 and 24 state that they did the same artistic and

cultural activities at school: go to history and nature museums and parks. Perhaps

the only difference is the higher frequency of those activities nowadays, compared

to what took place in schools forty or fifty years ago. Furthermore, artistic activities

at school are less frequent than leisure ones. Although youngsters may put on a

play or paint at school, schools do not frequently organize visits to art exhibitions,

concerts, dance recitals or plays. Finally, I would like to highlight some of the

results from the Habits and Preferences in the Last Year section, which examines

cultural consumption and preferences. 12.4% stated that they do not possess any

object of art. The survey did not list any object. It was an open question, where the

adjective “artistic” did not define a particular characteristic of the objects


282

themselves but the valuation people give to the objects they possess. According to

the other 86.6%, the objects which the respondents have in their homes and

consider to be artistic are: pictures (64%), craftworks (45.8%), ceramics (34.9%)

and musical instruments or recordings (25%). When asked if they bought an artistic

or cultural product in the last year, those surveyed answered in the following order:

objects related to music (40%), literature (25.8%), crafts (25.2%) and Colombian

traditional music (13.2%), while 35.8% stated that they had not bought anything

that could be named artistic. This question was complemented by information

about the sort of artistic activities people engage in. 39% said they practiced an

artistic activity, 24.8% labeling it as a hobby. This means that one million people

beyond the confines of institutional art do something they call artistic, activities

which challenge canonical notions of art insofar as they imply a practical relation to

what they consider to be culture.

With regard to attendance at cultural activities offered by the municipal

government, 38% stated that they had not attended any during that year. The

remaining 62% said they had attended movies (39%), museums (31.2%), theaters

(26.7%) and art exhibitions (14.7%). The last question asked about the importance

people give to art. 58.4% said that art heightens the cultural level of people, 47.9%

that it is a good source of entertainment and 12% that art does not provide

anything. The upper classes think of art as an activity that heightens the cultural

level, while the lower classes think of it as a source of entertainment and leisure.
283

Insofar as the survey drew a rudimentary map of the political economy of

culture in Bogotá, it showed that cultural capital was accumulated in the upper

classes, and family and school were the social institutions that guaranteed its

reproduction. However, this conclusion was somehow to be expected since the

survey assumed a common system of values, that is, it evaluates the spread of

canonical notions of art and the transformation of Bogotanian’s habituses regarding

that system of values. In fact, considering that the majority of respondents did not

share canonical ideas of art, the survey questions the very idea on which the

Development Plan was based, that is, the notion of habituses and cultural capital.

What the survey seems to reveal is that social conflicts have less to do with

the accumulation or distribution of cultural capital than the relativity of that which

is understood to be culture, which reflects in turn the asymmetry of power relations

and the colonialist view of the art and culture of regions like Latin America. That

is, the survey highlights the inclusion/exclusion of non-modern cultural practices,

the relegation of social sectors opposed to the hegemonic value system and the

modernist rejection of certain tastes and habituses in the name of “true” art or the

“cultural heritage.”

Although the survey attempted to prove that people’s habituses had been

improved by the Plan during that period, it provided crucial information that

contradicts it. Instead, it demonstrated the symbolic resignification that artistic

practices undergo when they leave the realm of the art institution and are inserted
284

into a broader social context which undermines or transforms them. In other words,

the survey seems to contradict the very principles on which the Mayoralty’s

cultural policy was based, to the extent that it shows that cultural capital is neither a

universal value nor is it exclusively associated with class struggles. Instead, it

seems to show that the distribution of cultural capital takes place in a scenario of

exchange where certain social sectors attempt to negotiate and/or resist the

insertion of hegemonic values into their own habituses, in order to create their own

sense of belonging and mobilize their political agendas

This is a way of arguing for and against Bourdieu. For some, his work is

limited by modernity’s distinction between the objective and subjective structures

of society and the notion of social distinctions exclusively based on class,

disregarding other factors, like gender, sexuality and race, which also create

difference. For others, however, his work on cultural consumption and definition of

the artistic field as a group of professions, institutions and agents have been crucial

to an understanding of the social components of art. Moreover, to think of cultural

capital as a unified set of modern artifacts, practices and knowledges that has to be

disseminated to all is a simplistic view of his argument. It does not take into

account the way in which both the artifact and the viewer are mutually transformed

by a play of resignification which does not come from the object or the viewer, but

rather from the cultural struggle between different symbolic systems. Bourdieu

himself warns that any approach to art that does not acknowledge culture as a space
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of struggle tends to “conceal the relations among social sectors, which,

accordingly, maintain differential and even antagonist associations with culture.”23

Although Mockus’s Development Plan tried to promote democracy by

giving everyone access to culture, it did so by hiding the diversity of meanings and

practices associated with it and the social conflicts which govern its appropriation.

This concealment was brought to light by the survey itself, insofar as the answers

highlighted the process in which cultural artifacts are re-signified to contest

hegemonic systems of cultural power, so that they may be used for the benefit of

excluded social sectors, practices.

A Knight Does Not Sit that Way!

In what follows, I will examine two collaborative projects that developed these

social uses of art and resulted in two exhibitions about queer appropriations of art

and its institutional practices. The first exhibition took place in December 2003 and

was devoted to the Colombian artist Luis Caballero [whose name could be

translated as Louis Knight]. (Fig. 5.1) Caballero was born in Bogotá in 1943 and

died of an AIDS-related disease in 1995. Although he mostly lived in Paris from

1968 on, his drawings and paintings were well-known in Colombia, from both

group and solo exhibitions. Although his earliest work was influenced by Pop Art,

he began to explore the male nude after he won a prize at the 1968 Coltejer

23
Bourdieu, La distinción, p. 10.
286

Biennale. Strongly influenced by classical artists, like Leonardo, Michelangelo and

Delacroix, his drawings and paintings rejoice in the male body, which is depicted in

a mannerist style, with complicated views from below and behind. (Fig. 5.2, 5.3,

5.4) In addition to single male bodies, he also presented a kind of scenario where

groups of male bodies blend in a condition of ambiguity: They seem to be dead or

exhausted, as if they had just finished an orgy.

In Hombre Americano a todo color [American Man in Full Color]—a

posthumous collection of essays published by the Universidad Nacional de

Colombia in 1995—the critic Marta Traba devoted the section “Love” to Caballero

under the title “Luis Caballero: Another stay in hell”, one of the many essays she

wrote on his work. As Brett and Bleys do with Oiticica’s, she seems to desexualize

his work. The following is an example of the way Caballero has been regarded by

Traba and the art institution:

Since Caballero started to paint, his main interest has been the

human body. Far from displaying it as a manageable and explicit

object, as happens with most contemporary artists working on

nudes, Caballero’s work has been impregnated with ambiguities that

both reveal equivocal situations and keep their secret. In the end, he

paints a closed body, hostile to trivial uses, charged with a pure

eroticism that lacks perversity and does not come from a mental
287

effort but from the very sensuality by which the nude is

discovered.24

In 1990, when he produced Gran Telón [Great Curtain], (Fig. 5.5) an enormous

canvas of six square meters, for the Garcés &Velázquez Gallery in Bogotá, Traba’s

desexualized modernist rhetoric no longer seemed tenable, since the artist clearly

revealed the link between his work and his homoerotic desire. (Fig. 5.6) In the

exhibition catalogue, Caballero was asked to name the main sources of his work.

He cited the religious imagery of the dying Christ, which was the source usually

mentioned by art historians. But he also spoke of the videotapes he made of his gay

orgies in Paris (Fig. 5.7) and photos of young men violently murdered found in the

Bogotá newspaper El Espacio—famous for its crude graphic violence. (Fig. 5.8)

Speaking of the links between his work and eroticism, Caballero said:

For me, eroticism is one of the most important elements of my work

in terms of both the conscious and the unconscious. Since I began

painting, I have only painted the human body, as it is the only

subject that really excites me and through which I can express

almost anything . . . What interests me is not the making of a “work

of art”, what I want is to work on people, to work on that person that

24
Marta Traba, Hombre Americano a todo color (Bogotá: Editorial Universidad Nacional, 1995), p.
149.
288

I long for but I do not have. In this sense, it is a painting of

frustration.25

As his death was approaching, the Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango of Bogotá [Luis

Angel Arango Library] organized the exhibition Retrospectiva de una confesión

[Retrospective of a Confession] in 1991. The Library is located in downtown

Bogotá and houses the city’s biggest public art gallery and cultural complex. The

Library devoted all of its gallery space to his art and the exhibition was massively

visited, since it offered the possibility of exploring all his work in a detailed, well-

catalogued and chronological way. However, the organizers noticed that the

spectators were mostly queer people. The exhibition became an excuse to meet

people, exchange phone numbers and arrange a date, and it became difficult to gain

access to the public toilets on the ground floor.

Caballero’s work—beyond the art institution or despite it—has been crucial

in promoting a kind of sense of identity among queer communities in urban

Colombia. It is well known how gay people use his art—be it a poster, a canvas or

a drawing—to decorate their habitats, like bars, cafes and hair-dressing salons, and,

in the case of middle– or upper–class gays, their dining and living rooms. In

different ways, they thus make a public but disguised statement of their

homoeroticism. As Caballero’s work is highly regarded in Colombia and displaying

it a sign of good taste, queer communities use it as a sort of secret code to identify

25
Quoted by Rosa Ramírez, “Caballero y el erotismo,” in Caballero (Bogotá: Galería Garcés
Velásquez, 1978).
289

themselves and therefore seem to relate to art in the same way that Caballero did.

As Caballero himself said, he was not interested in art for its own sake but for the

way it allowed him to mobilize his own homoerotic desire. (Fig. 5.9, 5.10, 5.11)

Although the possibility of an exhibition about queer appropriations of

Caballero’s work emerged from the retrospective that took place in 1991, it was

only in 2003 that artists and curators began to put it together. This interest was

stimulated, in turn, by the launching of the “Luis Caballero Award”, which invited

middle-aged artists to exhibit at the Santa Fe Gallery of Bogotá. The idea of an

award that paid homage to his art without taking his queerness into account

emphasized the need for an exhibition that would highlight his importance for the

queer community. Therefore, an exhibition with that approach was put on the

program of the “Luis Caballero Award”.

The title, A Knight Does Not Sit That Way, was suggested by Bogotanian

curator Jaime Cerón, who helped organize the exhibition, and was inspired by the

following anecdote:

A gay man bought a drawing by Luis Caballero and hung it in his

dining room. To celebrate it, the owner organized a fancy dinner

with his closest male friends and his mother. She arrived before the

other guests, sat in the dining room and ‘discovered’ the drawing.

Shocked, she addressed her son and pointing to the drawing, asked:
290

“Son, what is this?” Proudly, he answered: ‘Mom, it is a Caballero

[Knight]! She answered back: A knight does not sit that way!

The exhibition questioned the art institution’s refusal to examine the relation

between art and sexuality, a theme discussed in Chapter 4, and the consequent need

for an exhibition that dealt with the cultural constructions of sexuality. It reflected

the interest of artists, cultural studies scholars and curators in the social uses of art

objects that lie beyond the realm of the art institution, in a place where they are

charged with unsuspected meanings and linked with marginal cultures.

The exhibition thus emphasized the way in which a private collection

implies not only a matter of good taste on the part of the owner, but also functions

as a statement about his/her identity, that is, the exhibition was structured around

“collections” which simultaneously expose the artist and the collector. To

emphasize the main theme, the social uses of art, it featured photographs of the

apartments in Bogotá of the owners of the works. It also included works by

contemporary Colombian artists who deal with cultural constructions of sexuality.

The idea was to show both queer works and the collections of queer artists or

collectors, in order to open up new approaches to the social contingency of

sexuality and illustrate the diverse artistic media which express it.

In the case of the collections, it is important to mention the work by Elias

Heim Dotación para museos en vías de extinción [Equipment for Museums in

Extinction], (Fig. 5.12) property of the collector Rubén Lechter, and the works by
291

Gustavo Turizo and Gustavo Castillejo from Gustavo García’s collection. There

were also Juan Mejía’s collection of Wilson Diaz’s work and Miguel Angel Rojas’

Toho produced in the seventies, never before exhibited. (Fig. 5.13) More than a

exhibition about “gay” art, the show intended to disrupt the binary construction of

sexuality on the basis of gender, through works that explore the definition of

masculinity (Juan Pablo Echeverri, Juan Mejía and Wilson Díaz), and cultural

differences and transgressions of gender (José Alejandro Restrepo, Santiago

Monge, Juan David Giraldo, Catalina Rodríguez, Nadia Granados). It was also

important to invite artists working on queer readings of social and cultural icons

(Pablo Adarme and Santiago Monge). (Fig. 5.14)

I want to draw attention, however, to some of the social uses of the

exhibition. At the entrance of the building where the exhibition was taking place

and at the entrance of the exhibition room there were two notices:

First Notice:

No admittance for people under the age of 18.

Second Notice:

The Santa Fe Gallery informs the public:

The exhibition Un caballero no se sienta así explores the

relationship between art and sexuality. You are advised to take this

fact into account when entering the room. It is recommended that


292

people under the age of 18 enter in the company of a responsible

adult.

The two texts have different political and cultural implications. While the

prohibition of minors implied a link between the works of art and pornography, the

second notice asked visitors to examine art within broader social contexts. The

exhibition attracted a large number of visitors, among whom there were probably

minors. Both notices may have been a response to the fact that the press and

television called the exhibition a “scandal.” Some of these news items questioned

the artistic validity of the exhibition and asked for more respect for the sensibilities

of the public. Others defended the exhibition’s treatment of the relation between art

and sexuality. Most of the attacks shared the tendency of art criticism to conceal the

grounds of their own argument: the homophobic association between art dealing

with sexuality and pornography. These reactions underlined the conflicts which

arise when sexual and gender differences are discussed in a social space, and the

role of the art institution in encouraging such conflicts.

The second exhibition, I am not she, might be seen as a continuation of A Knight

Does Not Sit that Way! and took place in December 2005. (Fig. 5.15) At first, the

exhibition wanted to bring to light recent artistic approaches to sexuality and

representation. Some of the artists (who are queer, for the most part) argued,

however, that their works should not be defined or interpreted in terms of their
293

sexuality or gender. The first title which the curatorial group came up with was I

am not that way, which would have resembled the title of the previous exhibition

and called attention to the artists’ reluctance to be identified as queer. However,

some artists publicly refused to have their works shown in a queer framework. One

was Wilson Díaz, who had created a video installation entitled El Charquito [Little

Pond]. It showed some boys bathing in a little river and pictures of them wearing

military outfits.26 The camera makes it seem as though the two boys in the river are

being observed by a voyeur. This statement of a circuit of desire which runs from

the voyeur to the boys becomes confused, however, when, after touching and

drying each other, they dress in military uniforms and one unintentionally reveals

that it is the uniform of the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia),

the oldest leftist guerrilla group in Colombia. Diaz’s work caused very interesting

debates in and out of the artistic field. While many spectators regarded it as a

statement about the FARC’s corruption, and others took it as an example of Diaz’s

characteristic irreverence, most were shocked. Because of the interest the video

provoked, Wilson Díaz was invited to participate in the exhibition, but he let the

curators know that he was not interested in having his work exhibited in a queer

framework.

26
This work was part of a program organized by the national government in which a group of artists
and intellectuals visited the guerrilla zones of the countryside in order to promote the peace talks
that were taking place between the government and the guerrilla at the time, on the assumption that
art and culture would ease this process.
294

Second, there was the case of Elias Heim’s work La proeza del avaro [The

Miser’s Feat], which was presented at the 3rd version of the Luis Caballero Award.

The work was conceived of as an experiment where the spectator walks in and out

of the gallery space. At the room’s entrance, there was a description of the work

and several warnings that it might shock the spectators. Then, the spectator was

asked to walk through a curved hall—long, dark and narrow—at the end of which

there was a video with a close-up shot of an anus shitting, looped so that the piece

of shit continually went in and out of the anus, suggesting a phallus and

emphasizing the erotic pleasure of both shitting and anal penetration.

Spectators reacted by turning back, closing their eyes or covering their

faces. They mimicked the act shown by the video, as it were, since they had to go

in and out of the long narrow hall representing the intestines, rectum, and anus. In

fact, one woman kept her eyes shut, and had to leave the room by touching the

walls, ignoring that what she was touching was, say, the intestinal tract. When she

realized it, someone had to help her leave the room. She could not stand seeing

herself as a piece of shit (or a phallus) entering and leaving the body, or as a

participant in so shameful an act. Curiously, the media never mentioned the video.

In various discussions of the Caballero Award, however, some critics and artists

discussed the queer aspect of Heim’s work. Nevertheless, Heim publicly stated that

his work was, among other things, a kind of experimental psychology, meant to

examine the relation between psychological and aesthetic experience.


295

The rejection of a queer perspective by some artists provoked further

reflections by the curatorial group. First, there was the question of the ways in

which authors try to control the meaning of their works or address issues of

authorship, and the role the art institution gives to the artist. It was clear that such

artists thought their projects worked on a sort of “artistic” level (read as a universal

or international one) which would be undermined if issues of sexuality came to the

fore in the interpretation of their works. Second, there was the relation between the

art institution and sexuality, for despite the growing tendency to bring sexuality

into the sphere of art, as well as the increasing number of individuals and

collectives working on it, a strong tension emerges when the art institution feels

threatened by what it considers to be non-artistic “subjects” or “objects.” It tends to

normalize them by converting them into the discursive terms of art. Finally, there

was the political role of the art institution’s normalization of alternative sexualities,

though such works of art do not necessarily challenge its supremacy.

The curatorial group wondered about the possibility of an exhibition that

would show the relationship between this normalization and the modernist

discourse. This led to the idea of one revolving around the queer scene in Bogotá in

the seventies and eighties that would feature works that functioned at that time as a

form of visualization of that scene as well as a resistance to that discourse. The task

implied an investigation of artworks and visual and printed material from the

period and in view of the almost total absence of such documentation (including
296

leaflets, texts and posters), the group invited spectators to bring whatever

memorabilia they had. For instance, an old drag queen brought costumes, wigs and

crowns she had inherited from her aunt and used whenever she wanted to be in

drag. At that time, gay bars, saunas and other public gay venues were illegal and

information about them circulated by word-of-mouth. This led to the creation of

secret visual and cultural codes which allowed members of the queer communities

to identify themselves. Consequently, the title changed from I am not that way to I

am not she, the title of a very famous song of the seventies by the Spanish singer

Mari Trini: I am not she/I am not the one you imagine/A tranquil and simple

señorita/I am not she/The one you think /That girl you abandon and who always

forgives you/A dove that laughs at nothing and says yes to everything/I am not

she/Frightened in a storm/Wrestling to get to the beach/That little girl/I am not she.

As a point of reference, the exhibition concentrated on the work of the

Colombian artist Miguel Angel Rojas (Bogotá, 1946- ), which has explored the

relationship between art, queer sexualities and public spaces in the city. His most

famous photographs are grouped in series entitled La Vía Láctea [The Milky Way],

Mogador, and Imperio, the latter two being the names of theaters that once showed

porn movies in Bogotá but later disappeared as the city center was renovated. (Fig.

5.16) The photographs record the sexual habits and codes of the gay subculture in

Bogotá during the seventies. They depict sexual encounters in toilets, as well as the

rituals used by the “participants” to call attention to themselves, demonstrate


297

interest, approach someone and display their desires. Because of their clandestine

nature and the poor lighting conditions, the photographs stretched the sensitivity of

the film to its limits. The images are out of focus and grainy from over-exposure,

features that make them very beautiful and moving.

When The Milky Way series was produced in the seventies, it could only be

seen in private. Whoever showed interest in the pictures had to be invited to

Rojas’s atelier to share a kind of secret and avoid the art institution’s censorship. In

1981, the series was shown for the first time in the Garcés & Velázquez Gallery of

Bogotá. Rojas decided to exhibit it in a very small format. The pictures were

circular—as if they were taken through a hole—and had a diameter of 0.5

centimeters. (Fig. 5.17) The small pictures were displayed high on the wall and far

from the viewer. They could not be seen in detail. What the viewers saw was a long

line of black and white points. Rojas said of this series: “In The Milky Way, I

placed those tiny circles on the wall in a straight line, out of the line of vision of the

spectator, which made them more invisible, relying on the faith of the spectator,

who had to believe that those tiny dots were images charged with eroticism. The

whole situation created a fetishist aura that is still alive.”27

There is no doubt that The Milky Way series plays with the codes and modes

of the art institution. However, it does not belong to it. The series seems to resist

the art institution and to vindicate the marginal subculture from which the work

27
José Ignacio Roca, “Objetivo Subjetivo,” in Objetivo Subjetivo Exh. Cat. (Bogotá: Banco de la
República, 2007), p. 11.
298

emerges. While introducing the practices of a marginal subculture into the “safe”

environment of the art institution, Rojas also lets us know that these pictures will

not reveal anything. The Milky Way series escapes desire. That is, the marginal

subculture that appears in its out-of-focus images refuses to be included in the

voyeurism of the world of art. And it will continue to be marginal, but in this case

for the sake of those who participate in that subculture. This is all the more true

since it would not have made any sense for the spectators to go to those theaters

and see “what was going on,” when not even the pictures allowed them to see it.

What the series reminds us of is the impossibility of having access to that universe,

of defining and recording it or translating one culture into another. It lets us know

that despite desire—or perhaps because of it—difference will always appear before

us as a tiny, out-of-focus and incomprehensible object that we will never be able to

grasp.

Rojas’s interest in the gay subculture was expanded in the exhibition by

evoking memories of three emblematic queer places of the seventies and eighties in

Bogotá: Gay bars, XXX cinemas and parks. In addition to assembling the relevant

artworks, the curators wanted to display them, along with other visual and written

material, in a way that would convey the atmosphere and aesthetics of the queer

experience of that time. The exhibition was not meant to be an exercise in art

appreciation or history but a device for promoting new forms of meaning, feeling

and living.
299

With this ethic in mind, the gallery was organized as a scenario where

“things” could happen. Rojas’s The Milky Way was recently exhibited in big

formats and in the exhibition the enlarged pictures were accompanied by actual

cinema seats specially borrowed for the occasion. According to one security guard,

things did happen: He witnessed gay couples exchanging phone numbers, touching

each other and arranging dates. In the absence of visual or printed documentation,

the group recorded stories about the bars, parks, saunas and cinemas of that period.

Headphones hanging from the ceiling allowed people to listen to these stories.

There was also a place in the Gallery which gave the spectators a view of

Independence Park, an important site for queer sexual encounters in the seventies.

A karaoke was installed for people to stand up and sing I am not she, whose pitch

was altered so that it sounded as if a man were singing it. There were also pictures

of the most famous drag queens of Bogotá at the time, most of whom are still

active. Proudly, they allowed us to display their costumes and photos. (Fig. 5.18)

They worked at La Pantera Roja [The Red Panther], the oldest and liveliest drag

bar in Bogotá.

Whereas A Knight Does Not Sit that Way! got a generally hostile treatment

from the media, including two stories warning the public not to see it, the second

exhibition was favorably received. In “Yo no soy esa,” an article published in the

magazine Semana on December 16, 2005, Maria Fernanda Moreno invited people

on a journey through the queer subculture of the seventies, especially “those who
300

are soaked in ignorance, intolerance and prejudice. The New Year will give them a

vision which leaves room for differences, and above all, art ”28 The same tone was

used by the editor of El Tiempo in his note “Memories of a Gay Bogotá” of January

18, 2006.29 However, these exhibitions are just two examples of the increasing

number of artistic projects created by the queer community in Bogota.

I would like to end this section by recalling an incident that occurred on the

closing day of the exhibition I am not she. A party was organized in the Gallery to

which the most famous drag queens of Bogotá were invited, among others. The old

drag queen who had brought her fabulous crown made of pasta shells and plastic

leaves and her seventies-style costumes thanked some of the organizers for

attending “her” art exhibition. (Fig. 5.19) Instead of being seen as the object of

artistic representation, such spectators became the protagonists who exercised the

right to represent themselves. This is all the more important, if we think of the story

of Rojas’s series The Milky Way. After being exhibited at the Garcés & Velázquez

Gallery as an artwork, and later enlarged by art dealers for commercial reasons, the

series was finally exhibited at a queer collaborative project. The Milky Way series

has finally returned to the subculture from which it emerged. (Fig. 5.20)

In previous chapters, I explored the ways in which artistic practices during the

developmentalist period resisted modernism and its construction of sexual, gender,

28
María Fernanda Moreno, “Yo no soy esa,” Semana December 16, 2005.
29
“Recuerdos de una Bogotá gay,” El Tiempo January 18, 2006.
301

race, and class differences through the use of appropriation, mimicry, mockery and

disguise. Beatriz González incorporated images of universal art into beds, hall

stands and mirrors to call attention to the destiny of those traditions in third-world

contexts. Antonio Caro usurped national icons, multinational logos and the

signature of a non-national leader to call attention to the exclusion of the

indigenous cultures and the more general attempt to forget the nation’s past. Hélio

Oiticica inserted popular expressions into the art institution to challenge its notion

that popular cultures are non-modern ones which deserve to be undermined in the

name of progress. His Quasi-cinemas and Babylonests likewise resisted

conventional representations of sexuality and opened up possibilities to live

sexuality alternatively.

Globalization has replaced developmentalism as the dominant expression of

colonialism. Its strategies no longer follow the model of territorialized nations.

Instead, both the exercise of power and cultural resistance to it have been

territorialized in specific local settings. This landscape is now known as glocal: A

new cartography where the global is localized through the action of local

governments and NGOs and the local is no longer perceived as a periphery but a

specific globalized space. Cultural negotiations between the hegemonic and the

subaltern, the foreign and the national, the canonical and the popular now take

place in glocal topographies.


302

The cultural policies of local governments, the strategies of the art

institution and the collaborative projects I have referred to are expressions of this

new topography in Latin America. While local governments attempt to redistribute

cultural capital, the art institution tries to absorb local expressions of non-modern

cultures into its own system, becoming a strategy of globalization which colonizes

the local. To challenge it, some artists and activists have tried to radicalize their

struggles by articulating new forms of social representation which alter the

conventional idea of the artist and develop new links between art and politics. The

artists, activists and cultural studies scholars who participate in these projects share

a commitment to creating “other” ways of thinking about art which continues

undermining the authority of canonical cultures. They seek to decolonize and

(re)think coloniality by operating at the “interior exteriority of the border,” as

Mignolo puts it.30

The Modernity/Coloniality Project should be part of this effort and aims “to

make the struggles against coloniality visible, thinking not only from its paradigm,

but also with the people and their social, epistemic and political practices.”31

Catherine Walsh has remarked that the Project is an attempt to create a critical

space from Latin America where disciplines that have emerged in different

historical moments and epistemological places (re)think and (re)situate culture. If

30
Walter Mignolo, “Local Histories and Global Designs: An Interview with Walter Mignolo,”
Discourse 22, 3 (Fall 2000), p. 11.
31
Walsh, Pensamiento crítico y matriz (de)colonial, p. 24.
303

so, this critical space should acknowledge the heterogeneity of the positions that

gave shape to this space and give an account of the different struggles and subject

positions that configure the field of culture. Cultural studies should serve as

meeting point for diverse trends of thought, forms of collaboration and agents.

Inspired by Anthony Giddens, Arturo Escobar has argued that the impact of

modernity is even more profound and universal than it was before, not only

because the dream of progress—or nightmare as he calls it—is still based on the

massive exclusion and exploitation of the poor of the Third World, but also because

that dream continues to be a white, heterosexual, masculine and Western one.32 Just

as the art institution is even more involved in transforming people’s habituses

today, alternative sectors continue to use art for their own purposes and invent

alternative possibilities of life that lie inside and outside of modernity.

32
Arturo Escobar, Más allá del Tercer Mundo: Globalización y Diferencia (Bogotá: ICANH-
Universidad del Cauca, 2005), p. 11.
304

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APPENDIX 1

Imaginaries of Revolution: Interview with Antonio Caro1


Bogotá, March 21, 2002

Victor Manuel Rodríguez: The main issues that we wish to discuss in this

conversation are your artwork and art’s social function, art’s political role, and all

the disputes associated with the relationship between art and society, art and

culture, and terms like revolution, revolutionary, critical art, and political art,

among others. The first question that I have is this: How should we understand the

first stage of your work, which has an intention, let’s not say to be political because

in some way all contemporary works are also political, but a specific political

intention like the pieces Cabeza [Head] and Imperialismo es un tigre de papel

[Imperialism is a Paper Tiger]? How did you perceive art’s social function and

your own work in that context?

Antonio Caro: In previous conversations we have spoken about the wild nature or

the spontaneous construction of my work. I can say that I have never had

theoretical elements a priori, only a posteriori in my work. Cabeza was done with

a little luck and just a little bit of tenacity, but in reality, in simple terms, I got it

right and it all worked out. Juan Calzadilla, the Venezuelan critic, published the

first critique of Cabeza in a newspaper. Only after reading what he wrote did I

1
Published in Valdez 2 (2007), 242-261.
324

understand what I had done. As I said, and I repeat, I have never had theoretical

elements a priori, only a posteriori, and they were never difficult to have because I

just took them as they gave them to me. Calzadilla said: It’s povera art, it’s a

conceptual expression and it’s political. The next day I knew: I am conceptual, my

art has a povera tendency, and politics interest me; all this I did not know until

Calzadilla stated it. And classified as such, I had to take it on. Partly, being political

was fashionable; remember the people who were around then—on the one hand

Carlos Granada, Humberto Giangrandi, the people from the Cuatro Rojo workshop,

especially Clemencia Lucena, who had a specific political position.2

Making fun of myself as I was then and as I am now, it was easier for me to

make political art than to make erotic art. It sounds like a joke but it is true; at the

time they were like trends or tendencies. You could be a political artist or an erotic

one. I assumed the political trend because—it is a little superficial what I am going

to say—they said that I was political and it was a trend which was easy to assume,

“easy,” I say, within quotes.

VMR: But the political was associated with the left. When Calzadilla said that you

were a political artist he meant that you were a political artist from the left, and

when you say that being political was fashionable you refer to a concept of the

political that came more from the left.

2
All of them were representative of socialist realism. Clemencia Lucena was regarded as the highest
point of this movement.
325

AC: Yes, when I finished high school, I was a stupid and naïve boy, I don’t know

how that works—I was the most naïve and lived on another planet, but I received

the best grades. I was stupid and naïve and fell into or arrived at the National

University context, which was evidently political. Your qualifying of a leftist

politics is very valid, but at that time being from the left was like a pleonasm

because it was assumed that politics had to come from the left. Those who knew

what was going on had to be political and had to be from the left. The right was

considered to be made up of aristocrats or oligarchs from birth or…

VMR: Apolitical.

AC: It was an absolute Manichaeism. Just mentioning the word shows that I lived

in a time of Manichaeism; one was political, obviously from the left, clearly very

intelligent, evidently living according to one’s principles or one was a lackey to

imperialism, a pariah, revolting, reactionary, a stupid idiot. In fine arts, there was

also Manichaeism of this style: You were abstract or realistic; it can now be said

that a cube is a reality, but at that time a cube was not a reality.

VMR: It was an abstract idea, a figment.


326

AC: I was from the Manichaeism epoch and was studying in the National

University, where everything was political in the leftist sense. Recounting the

famous phrase from Ché Guevara—you can’t be a doctor without being political; a

doctor is a political reactionary or is a leftist. As if the appendix was reactionary or

combative, as if guerrillas never felt the pain of appendicitis; it was only a

bourgeois disease. Of course, at the time, these jokes could not be made.

Manichaeism arrived at those extremes. I lived that.

VMR: That intellectual and artistic climate.

AC: Yes. Some time later, in 1976, they asked me about Cabeza and I responded

that it questioned Colombian politicking. This is very difficult to understand

outside of Colombia but here we understand it very well. It was a piece about the

vices of Colombian politicking. I reflected on the question and said that frankly I

was not able to extend myself to a political level. I have never had a clear, rigorous

or methodical political formation. The Cabeza piece came rather—this I can now

say after many years of focusing on being a sponge—from soaking up an

environment. This was more due to the absorption of the environment than a

mental discipline or political activity.

I was never involved in political activities, I never had a political outlook,

but I did things that I considered and that can be considered as political though only
327

because of inertia. Returning to the joke, because my art doesn’t really have erotic

components and, perhaps because of my myopia, I was not geometric. Being ironic,

I was political through the process of elimination.

VMR: Right, that intellectual climate in some way gave shape to your work. I ask

myself, how did this have an impact on Imperialismo es un tigre de papel?

AC: I am exaggerating, but I honestly tried to listen to the people who were

involved in the issue of political art, their questioning, and then in my way, not

very studious nor very methodical, nor very structured, I followed the debates and

the controversies that were so frequent in the University. In intellectual circles,

politics obviously had to be talked about and clearly these politics were from the

left. Any person who knew what was going on had to speak starting from Marxism,

Maoism, and of course, with their hearts filled by the Cuban revolution.

Speaking of which, as a side note, I listened to the Cuban revolution when I

was eight years old and the news was that Fidel had prevailed in Havana and that

they were the revolutionaries. As a child I had that image of the revolution, and

although it sounds funny, Sputnik as well. When I was a child there was the

revolution—bearded gentlemen living in Cuba, and Fidel, who was pretty to some

and ugly to others. Ten years later, Fidel held on, and in the university, and I repeat,
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intellectuals had to be from the left, I, naïve and all, would go to the debates in the

University on art and politics.

Between the Cabeza and Imperialismo es un tigre de papel there are some

years. When one is young, it is a long time; one lives many things in a year. An

important fact is that, because of the fortuitous accident of the water that spilled

and the journalistic news on the Cabeza piece, I was catapulted very quickly to a

certain level of artist, but I did not have much education. Then, after Cabeza, there

was trial and error. I am vain and I do not take blind punches. I tried and made

errors with my form, or rather with my structure, because conceptualism and

structuralism were trendy. I was trying structural searches, with povera, with the

ephemeral, with photocopies, etc. Through continually searching, a wonderful

premonition of Manuel Quintín Lame came to me in 1972. I did a version of

Manuel Quintín Lame, very much in accordance with or in the fashion of

information art, trying to be objective, with concise information, that of course was

luckily well presented—the word sounds reactionary but it is appropriate—

decorated with the signature of Quintín Lame. Between Cabeza and Imperialismo

es un tigre de papel, along with some other small pieces, came the Homenaje a

Manuel Quintín Lame Homage to Manuel Quintín Lame). So that people do not

think that I am so vain, I always have said that the Quintín Lame is an excellent

piece not because of me but because of Quintín Lame himself.


329

Cabeza was an intuitive approach towards something political. Quintín

Lame was a very fortunate approach without theories and, in the strict

methodological sense, without conceived previous ideas. They were meeting

points. I must say that all my things have been meeting points.

Imperialismo es un tigre de papel was pressured by preconceived ideas; I

say preconceived ideas in a healthy sense, simply in the methodology. It was not

the meeting point that I think a work of art should be—“a meeting point,” in

inverted commas—fortuitous. It was—scientists will forgive me—the result of a

methodological process of research and work in order to arrive at a point. It was a

piece with a convergent process, arriving at a point.

Here, I did have a preconceived idea to make a political piece. I presumed

that it was very well structured but the result did not convince those in political

circles and this was a crucial moment for me, crucial in the methodological sense,

not so much in the personal sense; it was a moment very crucial for me because of

the rejection from political orthodoxy…

VMR: From the left?

AC: Yes, with rejection from leftist political orthodoxy and with assimilation from

the right because the left did reject it and the right accepted it. I automatically

stopped being from the left because it was easy or possibly because I did not really
330

work at a political level or simply because, as I said later, if political art does not

contribute anything politically, why make political art? What one should do is art,

just make art that could have political implications.

Imperialismo es un tigre de papel was a piece which had the intention to

have a political result, and it was rejected by leftist orthodoxy. In some sense this

liberated me from politics, from orthodoxy. I believe that beyond my personal case,

if you analyze the time and different social groups, it was a process that many

people were experiencing. Many young people or even older people were

discussing it.

For example, we could make a gibe at Mr. Alvaro Medina, who, with his

curatorial project Arte y Violencia [Art and Violence] Museum of Modern Art,

Bogotá, 1999), could have presented a political questioning and analysis, but he

made a critique focused on formalist issues. And so you see how ironic it is, when

Alvaro Medina presented his project. Two former contradictors were practically in

the same vain because we were seated one next to the other alongside Mr.

Humberto Giangrandi, who questioned the exhibition’s excessively formal sense

without considering the political. Mr. Giangrandi, whom I never got along with,

ended up speaking in about the same vein.

It’s nice that with what time and life throws you, positions come to a very

strange point; it is something that I cannot explain. I just mention it. After twenty-

five years of political differences, I find myself beside Mr. Giangrandi, arguing
331

against a curator who had a formalist outlook for a problem that should have been

put forward with a political perspective.

VMR: I am interested in how you became involved with the figure of Manuel

Quintín Lame. First, it shows that your search is not a sequential process. It seems

that you work simultaneously in different searches to reach diverse meeting points.

Although Imperialismo es un tigre de papel came after Manuel Quintín Lame, the

latter reflects an important turn in your approach which will be further developed in

Coca-Cola Colombia. I see that Homage to Manuel Quintín Lame is an important

turning point, not so much in a formal sense but in the relationship between art and

politics. When you say that you abandoned politics, it seems like what you

abandoned is a particular way of understanding the relationship between art and

politics. It is clear that Manuel Quintín Lame and Colombia, written in the font of

Coca-Cola, are pieces with an explicit political point of view. Through them you

seemed to reject the idea that a political work of art should be political in the leftist

sense.

AC: Yes.

VMR: There is a turning point; let’s talk about that turning point.
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AC: Let’s return to when I was eight and the triumph of Fidel occurred. My

birthday is in December, and on January 1st Fidel triumphantly entered Havana, and

apparently that was the Cuban revolution. Soon after turning eighteen, I began to

study in the National University and the revolution was an important factor within

the National University’s Bogotá campus, which was among other things sacred

territory, no, not sacred but independent territory. The revolution was an important

factor and for three years I assumed the political stance that existed then; today we

would say it was discourse. During that time I produced my first piece, Cabeza,

which was applauded by the left as much as by the right despite my not having

clear politics. Perhaps the success is in having chosen the perfect symbol, the

perfect victim. Later Manuel Quintín Lame went curiously unnoticed, although it

was much more transcendental, I guess it did not have the fortune of being a

fashionable symbol. Indigenousness was not trendy, or it was trendy but only in a

very small sector, and it did not have the same popularity as Cabeza.

Later, in a very naïve way, but with conviction and with a supposed political

methodology—evidently from the left—I began to work on Imperialismo es un

tigre de papel. That was an ideological failure and considered by the left as a joke

or a work of art from the right. Personally, I questioned myself a lot, but it was a

very fast process, very immediate—when one is young things are very fast and

very immediate. I abandoned the pretension of making political pieces with a

methodology, with an ideology. I say ideology but perhaps I should say a political
333

methodology with political consequences or political work, for example—I am

only mentioning the process—like Clemencia Lucena’s work.

Upon seeing my political failure as a political artist, I abandoned that route

and I began to work free from the pressure of a political principle and a political

methodology from the left that was used at that time. I tried, from that moment, to

contribute more to art than to politics, because I realized that, as an artist, politics

was not my field and politics alone has never seduced me.

VMR: However, you produced Colombia Coca-Cola after that decision. I see that

you did not abandon politics. Perhaps you shift the terms to relate art to politics or

art to society. Was it a modification of strategy?

AC: It’s very interesting; it’s almost as if after each question we return to the same,

we return to the processes of one’s life. It sounds a little romantic but it is still

beautiful. And it also returns to a basic principle that would be good to mention.

It’s that there exists a formal process that in a particular epoch could have been the

academy. I didn’t do academy. I do believe that artists—even in the broad sense of

the word—artists, authors and musicians—are going to have to use formal or

structural processes as their work elements. I say all this because life brought me to

work in a publicity agency, a fact that is very important in my work. There I

acquired many work elements that can be seen in Colombia Coca-Cola. I am not
334

responding to the essence of your question, but I want to mention that working in a

publicity agency meant that I worked with elements of material communication and

other things, and if I hadn’t worked in the agency I wouldn’t have known

otherwise. For me it was very important that I worked in that agency because I

believe that it kept me informed, it helped me adapt to the world, and it gave me a

formal education that I needed and filled a school or academy hole. Inertia or

chance introduced me to such important topics. I can’t say that I studied a lot or

that I knew a lot about economics or that I am quick-witted when it comes to

politics. We return to the same. It is intuition—sorry that I use that word but at the

moment I can’t think of another. We can speculate that an artist is an unconscious

receptor and blah, blah, blah, but let’s leave it there.

VMR: Once you commented to me that strategies such as Colombia Coca-Cola,

using iconography from a mass visual culture, allowed you to communicate more

directly with people. You said that people could relate to these images in a different

way from what they did with other iconographies. Since we are talking about the

revolutionary imaginary and we have mentioned the Cuban revolutionary

imaginary, I would like to ask you about May ’68. You once said to me, May ’68

destroyed everything, and Woodstock reconstructed it all again. What did you

mean and how have these imaginaries structured your work?


335

AC.: OK, don’t let me forget your question because it’s a good one, but I want to

return a little to the previous one. My interview is like this, and maybe my life is

like this as well. I should mention that between Imperialismo es un tigre de papel

and Coca-Cola there was Marlboro, and someone put to me an interesting question

in pseudo-publicity terms, in relation to capturing a market. With Marlboro I was

referring to smokers, not a very large percentage of adults and adolescents, maybe

not everyone smokes Marlboro. I smoked Pielroja [a Colombian brand of

cigarettes]. This dichotomy is always there, someone would say my schizophrenia.

Sorry, but I who smoked Pielroja produced a piece on Marlboro. This was directly

touching smokers although, logically, the piece had other repercussions.

Someone said to me, that with Coca-Cola I increased its consumption

because everyone drinks Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola, we can say without hesitation, is

practically universal. It’s simply being in the medium.

Your question is very interesting. I was in high school, a Christian school

that was of French origin. They tried to hide May ’68 because it was the heresy of

their very own Vatican in Paris. The heresy happened in Paris and everything

changed. We can compare this with the Twin Towers tragedy: Things happen, like

the towers physically fell down, but the ideologies that sustained them continue.

May ’68 destroyed everything, but today much of what it destroyed still exists.

When I made political art I did so with a style from before May ’68 because the

preconceived ideas subsist further than the physical fact. It’s like amputation: They
336

amputate your leg and after six months you talk about how much your leg hurts

although it doesn’t exist anymore, but it continues to hurt. It must have been that.

At least I spoke about Woodstock to give more heat to this interview. Woodstock

was a way in which the reaction pronounced: We want to be different. Maybe they

just said, WE ARE, and we as underdeveloped and Spanish speakers understood

“us.” That was our mistake with Woodstock. They were, they were different.

I believe that being outside academia and in the regular and ordinary world,

the left rejecting my work, and the later effect of Woodstock made me understand

things. It could be that Colombia Coca-cola is my first work in which “I am there

in the moment.” I hadn’t seen it like that in 1976, “I am there.” I don’t know, I

think I just said something important.

VMR: Let’s continue with the representations of the revolution and the processes

of political art and of art and politics. Once I asked you about your relationship

with art institutions and with the major voices of Colombian art criticism and

history. You spoke of your artwork not as anti-art nor as a contra-art but as un-art.

Let’s expand this.

AC: I was a naïve child; Marlboro ‘s being rejected in the Salon Nacional 1974)

hit me hard. I could not continue being a naïve child. I was forced to change, to see

and to understand other positions. Maybe this un-art that we have spoken a lot
337

about is not just in the art world, it is also in my personal life, in my intimate life, in

my social relationships, in everything. It’s like those from marketing would say,

how I accommodate a sector, how I take up social positioning. Un has covered my

whole life and encompasses my art as well. In a very reductionist way it is—and

this will concur with what Luis Camnitzer says: “a visual guerrilla.” With very few

theoretical elements, with very few resources and the managing of very few

material elements, I attack and act. Yes, it’s a way to attack. Yes, maybe I am that

visual guerrilla that Camnitzer talks about. It is how you can achieve a lot with very

little. I came to that un lacking things, with myopia, without well trained hands,

with very few economic resources, family power, etc. Now it’s a habit, a mental

dynamic and it still continues to be. Now it’s a constant.

A little more towards what I want in life, because I never was a big star, un

is like having my own land where I can be a king, my little territory, although it’s

not at the top or at the peak of the grand circles. It is a small spot where I am not

vulnerable. Making this analogy, it’s like artistic judo or aikido. That is the little

segment where I am not vulnerable. It’s easier with un. Finally, that which could

appear beautiful is simply a tactic.

VMR: I am very interested in this tactic of un-art. Once you defined yourself as a

tangential artist and, in order to be able to better explain the notion of un-art, you

said, I am a tangential artist in the sense that I form part of artistic practices, part of
338

the art institutions, but always in the same way as the tangential I point towards

other directions. Your tactic of un-art creates a critical dialogue with the political

art strategies from the 60’s and 70’s and provokes, together with May ’68 and

Woodstock, a distinct way to relate yourself to the practice of art. And it’s not as if

this is before or after. I think of the term un-art as a precise term as it is very close

to the definition that Camnitzer made of you as the most important political

conceptual living artist from Latin America. Your work acts within the hegemonic

art circles and institutions in so much as you make your art in order to demonstrate

the limits of these institutions.

AC: Although many years have passed, we return to the fact that I undertake

elements a posteriori. Everything that you have mentioned to me makes me see,

and it should be said without a second thought, helps me. I am going to say it like

this openly, I have a secret weapon. I like that this conversation has a hard-line

style. I have a secret weapon, and it is that the value of my discourse is not so much

in what may be valid in art circles but in that the elements of my discourse are

valid, real, and concrete in society and specifically in Colombian society.

My Cabeza has weight not so much because it’s ephemeral art or anti-art or

because of those things that at any rate turned out badly; it counts because of Carlos

Lleras, because he was a well-known person. And Coca-Cola, because of a good

design and the coincidence of the eight letters, counts because almost everyone
339

drinks Coca-Cola. Artistic discourse has rarefied so much these days, which makes

it very sophisticated. My work counts because the discourse that I use to disguise it

as art is valid without art. Jumping forward a little to the current time of my

workshops, I am reaching an extreme: Creativity exists without needing anything

from the art world, but art does need creativity although sometimes it doesn’t have

it. I believe that the artistic value of my art comes from outside of art.

VMR: But then this territory which you talk about would be the territory of art,

that which allows you to communicate, because…

AC: Sorry to interrupt you, it’s just that I have the phrase. When we spoke about

Proyecto 500, which consisted of simple talks in small places not directed towards

the general public, although sometimes it was, I have thought about this. My

discourse is only of value in the art world. If I mention my discourse in the street or

in a bus and I am a crazy person.

VMR: You utilize art as a place…

AC: Where I am believed and respected.


340

VMR: Because of this it could be called un-art. With the letters of Colombia and

Coca-Cola where one alters the other, there can’t be “un” without “art” and vice

versa. This relevance or this specificity, in one field or the other, is only possible

due to the relationship of mutual necessity and of negation between un and art. This

is equivalent to what Camnitzer spoke about: You work with the institution but

always redirecting the work in a tangential way.

AC: Yes that’s true, but neither can I be too heroic.

VMR: I say this because this strategy streamlines a way to intervene in our society

but in doing so and serving the art institution, it also speaks of this institution:

questioning it, criticizing it, re-proposing it.

AC: You mention very real things. In regard to Proyecto 500, I thought: If I placed

myself in the academic world, everyone would laugh; they would throw tomatoes

at me because my discourse isn’t structured for the academic world. If I say it in a

public plaza I am just another crazy person. However, disguised or with an artistic

posture, people listen and say, “This person says very interesting things.” That is,

the un doesn’t exist on its own, on the one hand. A more concrete example: When I

would collect change, I was a crazy person who would go from shop to shop asking

for change. I was crazy and if I would have left them in my house, like what
341

happened to me a long time ago with the Marlboro cigarette packets, I was just a

maniac, a crazy with cigarette packets or with change or who knows what other

absurd thing to accumulate. But I take this absurdness with me to the art world and,

as you know, the un saves me. It’s a little like that type of enjoyable schizophrenia

that exists in my life; if I couldn’t put my things in the art world I would be a crazy

man, but I manage to put them in the art world and they are applauded. However,

maybe they applaud me in the art world because of the exotic that I bring to it. I

think the word “exotic” isn’t the most appropriate but has some truth to it. Maybe if

what I do wasn’t so exotic in the art world, I would be lost among all the average

people who are out there. If I was an erotic or abstract or an orthodox conceptual

artist or one of those who work in the media, I would be equally mediocre like all

the other mediocrities. It’s this dichotomy: I am worthwhile in the art world

because of what I bring to it; furthermore, people expect that I will make or do

something strange or different or something exotic; I have this as a characteristic. If

I showed common or regular things in the art world, I would not be accepted.

VMR: Your work today is directed towards non-artistic spaces and is

fundamentally oriented to working with people from the city, with whom you

develop creative workshops. What reflection a posteriori, have you made about

this?
342

AC: Leaving the interview and our conversation as continuous, I began the

workshops in 1990. In 1998 I publicly presented the results of the workshops, and

not that long ago, when I was writing up my résumé, I took out my last

presentations of these workshops that were among my individual presentations, and

I wrote a separate chapter of work presentations of the workshops. Up until 1998

these workshops were secondary. From 1998 they began to be my work, and now,

more modestly, I say that they are my activity. This happened to me like it happens

to everyone, that is, all of us who are more than fifty years old; now the world is

changing a lot. I will explain myself. Think of how all those people worked to

construct East Germany and, well, now East Germany doesn’t exist. I was a

Manichaeist and all the dogmas ceased to exist. For the people who believed in

ideologies all their utopias ceased to exist. The world is changing a lot and I believe

that the art world is also changing a lot. For example, the creator of works still acts

but doesn’t exist. In the contemporary world, there are still the phenomena of

things but their base, their essence, doesn’t exist. Just like now there are a lot of

people who are professionals who have to start another profession or focus on other

fields of knowledge or activity. I believe that the artist model or the scheme that

was around when I started, the super star, this cannot be offered up anymore. So

it’s not just my process, my fifty-one years and my decadence. An artist, the very

same art in inverted commas, has changed. I think the big museums have begun to

be obstacles in the cities, although they look very pretty


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APPENDIX 2

Public Interview1
Antonio Caro & Victor Manuel Rodriguez
Moderator: Andrés Corredor
Bogotá, May 7, 2002

Andrés Corredor: I have been invited to facilitate this conversation. One more in

the Public Interview project that has been carried out by Antonio Caro and Victor

Manuel Rodriguez and which has been centered on art and politics, conceptualism,

and the character of contemporary art. As a methodology to carry out this exercise,

we will work in two parts: The first is a brief introduction by Antonio Caro. Further

along, Antonio Caro and Victor Manuel Rodriguez will present a joint process that

consists of an assessment of art practices in Antonio’s artistic projects and the

visual and cultural studies perspectives that shape Victor Manuel’s interest. The

second part will introduce some questions from the audience. Slides of Antonio

Caro’s work will also be projected. These don’t necessarily refer to the themes that

we will discuss in this exercise, but in some way they help give direction to the

activity. I introduce Antonio Caro.

1
Published in Prácticas Artísticas/Enfoques Contemporáneos, ed. Victor Manuel Rodriguez
(Bogotá: UNal-IDCT, 2003), pp. 49-70.
344

Antonio Caro: Before I start this conversation, I want to say hello to Mr. Douglas

Crimp. I am so glad he is here with us in this difficult time for Colombia.2 Please

give a round of applause to Mr. Crimp. On the other hand, I wish to greet a good

friend of Colombia’s, who has suffered the unspeakable in airplanes and airports to

arrive in this horrible city, at the frightening altitude of 2,640 meters. I speak of

Gerardo Mosquera, who also deserves fervent applause. This is nice, so let’s

continue with applause. Without knowing much about culture, politics, and those

types of things, I would say that she comes from Bogotá’s cultural antipodes: Ms

Adrianne Samos, who is from Panama and who is also suffering from Bogotá’s

frightening altitude. Give her a warm welcome.

I go through this protocol so that I can loosen up a little first—I am very

nervous—and second, because I consider it to be the right thing to do. I also wish

to give many thanks to David Lozano, so that he doesn’t get embarrassed. I give

many thanks to the National University’s Division of Cultural Events, which

provided this space, and to everyone who worked in that office for up to more than

ten hours a day to make this forum possible. I give much gratitude to this Division

and make a gibe because this event was not coordinated by the Art School. It has

been planned by the Division, and this says a lot. Fortunately, the phenomenon of

art is bulging out of its own limits and this meeting shows this. All of which is very

important.

2
Antonio Caro’s English left as is.
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I have to thank you for your presence. I hope that each one of you has come

here to construct your own interests about the problematic of art today. I hope that

they are dissimilar interests because you are all different people and come from

different disciplines and positions and, as such, your interests cannot be the same. I

wish to highlight that here, unlike the usual four cats that we always see in the

exhibitions, there are people that come from other disciplines, other professional

fields, like Elvia Mejia, who produced a TV show about my work in the time of

Tiempo Libre. Finally, I should highlight the work of Victor Manuel Rodriguez in

the conception, coordination, and the development of this event. 3

After the good things that Jaime Cerón said about me, I should remain quiet.

But, well, I will spoil it. The fact that I am here is not casual. Mr. Rodriguez said to

me, “We want to invite you to a theoretical meeting. You are going to be in a

conference.” In the beginning I was happy to have been invited, later I felt inhibited

because of what a conference requires: a theoretical framework, research,

argument, constructive thought, etc. I felt inhibited because of the methodological

difficulties and because of qualms: this Yo-Yo,4 I speak of myself, I of me, and me

of I. I think this is now old-fashioned. This is the same, however within an

interview; my egocentrism is being held back; it’s more discreet. Furthermore, the

3
The interview took place within the context of the Conference Prácticas Artísticas/Enfoques
Contemporáneos [Artistic Practices/Contemporary Approaches] which took place in the
Universidad Nacional de Colombia in May, 2002. It had Douglas Crimp as a keynote speaker and
invited artists, critics and curators from Latin America such as Gerardo Mosquera, Adrienne Samos,
José Alejandro Restrepo, and Jaime Cerón.
4
Here Antonio plays with the word “yo”. Yo in Spanish means “I” and hence he plays with the
movement of a yo-yo and the various ways in which he is about to talk about himself.
346

interview prevents me, as Jaime Cerón did, as others have done, from writing up

my talk. So, the mode of this interview comes from my mental laziness and it’s for

my own comfort.

I got to know Victor Manuel Rodriguez some years ago when he was a

professor of art and art history at the University of Los Andes Bogotá), and he

invited me many times to talk with his students. A year ago, returning to his studies

in the States, he looked for me: I want to talk to you, he said. Later, during a two-

three month period, he interviewed me and this formed – or filled a gap – part of

the dissertation that Victor Manuel is writing.

Later, with a base in pedagogic processes that Victor Manuel had developed

in Ecuador—where he has been many times, he wanted me to be involved in a

workshop program. Finally, thanks to him, I went to Ecuador. But before going, we

had another conversation and spoke about this possibility. In this process, the

premise of a change of context ensured that the reflection was different. We worked

on the theoretical framework for a public interview that he was going to do with me

in Quito Ecuador) as part of his presentation of particular types and expressions in

current Latin American art.

It was an interesting process for me as it made me reflect on many things. I

want to state to you that, to assure that the interview was not unintelligible, the

Ecuadorian audience needed to have some background information about my work

to understand Victor Manuel’s questions and my answers. Here we presume that


347

you know things about me; many of you were born when I was beginning as an

artist, and some of the girls here hadn’t even been born. Therefore, we presume that

you know things about me, but in Ecuador you don’t. We had to fill this gap with

some background information so that the interview would be understandable.

I am losing track of things, but what I want to mention is that it was very

important for me to decide, for example, what work or piece of mine could be

understood by the Ecuadorian public. We went through my “extremely varied”

work. We spent much time searching, as there was so much that we didn’t know

where to start. Finally, we found a piece that is presented here, in let’s say a small

context, which turned out to be comprehendible and had references to Ecuador. It

was a piece on the Gran Colombia.5

I am talking a lot about this because I want to mention the first important

point: For me, dialogue with Victor Manuel has been positive. Many years ago, I

gave a small slap, which was rather a symbolic act, to a critic. Today I publicly

declare that an approximation with a theorist has been positive for my work. I,

under oath, declare publicly that talking with a person who comes from art theory

has been positive for me. In this dialogue, I have found points of analysis for my

own work. It’s the first thing that, I publicly declare, theoretical dialogue has been

5
Gran Colombia was name given for the government to the newly born nation after the
Independence Wars which included in its territory what is known today as Colombia, Venezuela and
Ecuador.
348

important for my own reflections; including giving me the ability to theorize, well,

in so far as an artist can theorize.

It is important to keep in mind this coupling of words, “reflect” and

“theorize.” Thanks to Victor Manuel, I could analyze the reading of my work in

accordance with a specific context and have evaluating elements to decide, this one

yes, that one no, this one yes, that one no. This happened in Bogotá, previous to

arriving in Quito. Fortunately, in Quito everything worked out for us and we had

another favorable experience in Guayaquil, that is, we have an established dialogue.

Today, so that we don’t begin to talk about a private conversation, Andrés Corredor

is with us. He is going to take on a special role because he is going to ensure that

this private dialogue is opened to you all. What we want to do is construct a fluid

dialogue, initially from here, and we hope this is a positive experience for you all,

not just as listeners but so that we can achieve, with your participation, a real

interaction.

ACO: According to the proposal put forward by Antonio in the preparation of this

conversation, he is going to ask Victor Manual a question.

AC: OK, brilliance doesn’t last for me more than 7 minutes; for this reason, I adore

television commercials; they are marvelous. It is just 30 seconds and with that you

are satisfied. One question that was not brought up and was thought up 20 minutes
349

ago, a question that I have also been asking myself for a long time and perhaps one

of you is thinking it, Victor Manuel: Why am I here?

Victor Manuel Rodriguez: I can respond to that question only partially. I could

say why we invited you and you should state why you are here, that is, why you

accepted the invitation. I would only say that we think it’s important to present this

collaborative project between cultural studies and art practice. We are particularly

interested in your early works, specifically Coca-Cola Colombia, the pieces on

Manuel Quintín Lame, and some others. When I first began to talk with Antonio,

my interest, as he says, “Was to fill a gap that existed in my doctoral dissertation,”

and this consisted of exploring the reception of conceptualism in Latin America.

My interest in Caro’s work is part of a broader project on how some

theories, which come from history and criticism of art, gave shape to Latin

American artistic practices in the 60s and 70s, and many Latin American artists

produced very important responses to this artistic and cultural rhetoric. I have been

working on the reception of American formalism in relation to the work of Beatriz

Gonzalez and on the rhetoric of the artistic avant-garde dream of joining life and art

in relation to other Latin American artists. In the case of Antonio, I maintain that he

is one of a group of Latin American artists who anticipated forms of cultural

critique, fracturing the binary and oppositional character that art history has used to

frame Latin American art in the sixties. These artists anticipated means of cultural
350

action that, we can say, were close to contemporary strategies and seek to

counteract the strength of the hegemonic discourses on culture and art. I see

Antonio’s work as a critical dialogue with this art rhetoric, with the art institution,

and with the very practice of art. This is basically my general interest, and therefore

we considered it important that he be here. You said when we invited you that we

could have invited anyone, but your work allows us to mobilize these questions in a

very important way.

In regard to the reception of Latin American conceptualism and Antonio

Caro’s project, I am interested in advancing a dialogue with Latin American art

history and criticism, particularly with two essential theses that have oriented the

debate about this topic. I refer, first, to the thesis of resistance that is now famous

among us, written by Marta Traba. I also refer to the later thesis of Mari Carmen

Ramírez that maintains that Traba’s interpretation has prevented us from including

the works of Latin American artists within the major trends of North-Atlantic

conceptualism. I argue instead that Latin American conceptualism appropriated the

North-Atlantic critique of modernity in order to explore its very colonial condition

and the ways in which art and the art institution were very important parts in the

creation of this condition. The dialogue with Antonio demonstrates that these

artistic works put forward the problem of the rhetoric of art in a way that is slightly

different from how Marta Traba and Maria Carmen Ramírez see it.
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These are certain topics that have oriented our discussion. The first involves

the way in which Antonio Caro perceives the reception of conceptualism. There are

already various genealogies on this subject. Recently, Alvaro Barrios’ book

Orígenes del arte conceptual en Colombia [Origins of Conceptual Art in

Colombia] was published. Other discussion topics include the relationship between

Antonio’s art practices and the art institution, specifically the circulation and

validation of artistic production processes, given that there is a strong interest in the

way in which art criticism and art history determine these processes. An anecdote

always appears among us about the work Defienda su Talento [Defend your

Talent]. As he already remarked, Antonio Caro gave a tactful slap in the face to a

critic. We have always thought of it as a metaphor to elaborate on the way in which

the work of Antonio positions itself in respect to the major art circles.

In a recent interview we spoke about the revolutionary imaginary in the

work of Antonio. We started with an analysis of the Cuban revolution, the reaction

to Antonio’s work from the political left, and the conservatism that existed in the

art world at the end of the 70s—Woodstock, rock, the hippie movement, etc., that

are, according to Antonio, the imaginaries that, in some way, have given shape to

his work.
352

These are some of the reasons for our invitation. Antonio’s t-shirt says it all:

Todo está muy Caro.6 You are here not as an paradigmatic artist; you are here as an

artist that can help us answer a series of questions that, from my point of view and

perhaps from the broadest point of view of cultural studies, are important when

talking about current artistic practices. This focus has been important as it has

prevented us from falling into an analytical methodology that attempts to, for

example, situate Antonio Caro within the genealogy of conceptualism in Latin

America. That is, we have distanced ourselves from what art criticism and art

history have said about his work, and we have taken a broader focus. This focus has

shown us that instead of associating Latin American Conceptualism with the big

genealogies of the artistic avant-garde, maybe it would be important to explore the

way that Caro’s works puts forward an analysis of how his work appropriates

international conceptualism to explore the narrations of the Colombian nation,

especially in two projects: the project of Coca-Cola Colombia and of Manuel

Quintín Lame.

AC: We should give Andrés a turn, but he is in deep concentration. I forget many

things; we have to make this enjoyable, like those old gatherings in Bogotá,

6
Antonio’s surname, Caro, means expensive in Spanish “Todo está muy Caro” can be read as
“Everything is very expensive” which can be used as “Everything is very Caro (Antonio)”.
353

because it appears as if Mr. Rogelio Salmona7 forgot to put lighting in this

building.

Before this conversation, there was a third conversation or various

discussions for an interview that was to be published, God help us, in the magazine

Valdez, with the theme of revolution. When we arrived at Coca-Cola Colombia, it

was very interesting for me to talk with Victor Manuel about this piece. I am not

going to reconstruct the process, but for the first time I said something—seen from

an artistic point of view it is very stupid but very important. I said: we artists are

such formalists, we always think within limits that are named style or structure and

we don’t realize that we are working in a social medium.

For the first time, twenty five years later, thanks to conversations with

Victor Manuel, I discovered that I had made Coca-Cola Colombia not because the

words were similar or because Colombia and Coca-Cola both have eight letters or

because it was easy to mix them up. No, none of that! I realized that I made that

work because—personally—I was in a particular moment. I was looking at things

in a different way, and with this look I saw what was in front of me. I am myopic, I

can’t see much but it was something like this. I realized through talking with Victor

Manuel that this specificity of fine arts, the object, the form, and all of that

7
Colombian architect who was born in Paris in 1929 and died in Bogotá in 2007. He is considered
to be the most notable Colombian working on architecture and urbanism. He moved to Paris in 1948
and studied architecture with Charles Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, called Le Corbusier. His use of
elements such as water, brick, circular areas, terraces and the play of indoors and outdoors areas are
inspired by pre-Columbian constructions. In particular, he continuously referred to his interest in the
squares of Teotihuacan (Azteca), Uxmal y Chichen Itza (Maya) as an example of his use of water as
connector of different areas and the ceremonial character of the terraces.
354

represent a fallacy. I am very antiquated, even here in this university. I took a

course in clay modeling. I, who am from this old tradition, had a bias for form and

specifically for the medium. But one is a social subject who reacts to social

phenomena and gives answers, and my answers are formal and material, but this

does not mean that the formal and the material are the most important aspects.

What is important are the context, the phenomenon, and the response. I realized

this in that interview, and from that moment I came to believe that as an artist you

are just a person who responds to social phenomena in specific social contexts. One

makes a type of formal response that people observe, value, and then later it has an

importance in the artistic field. One always responds to social phenomena—sorry

for my stupid comment but it’s the truth. One gives formal responses to social

phenomena because one is a social being; the limitation of formalism is that one

believes that formalism is an entire world, but the world begins after formalism.

I have already mentioned two positive axioms that I discovered in these

conversations. Having discussions with people from other disciplines, with other

visions, is enriching, and it helps me to reflect. The words return: “reflect,”

“theorize,” because everybody reflects, even artists reflect. What happens is that

some artists don’t have the capacity to construct. I put this doubt on the table:

Theory helps an artist reflect but, due to many factors, some artists don’t manage to

construct theory.
355

ACO: We do consider that within conceptualism the same discursive fact can

constitute itself as an artistic response but, on the other hand, we believe this

exercise of the Public Interview that reflects on the artistic problematic affects in

some way the relationship between the artist and the institutions that validate the

production of art.

AC: You represent a third person in discord, hopefully the third in harmony. For

me the most beautiful part of this meeting is that hopefully, not for me but for other

people here, in this forum, it helps you, the assistants, and the “audience” to

construct your own focus on contemporary art. Although the dialogue that I have

with Victor Manuel is positive on a personal and disciplinary level, what interests

me are you: the “audience.” For example, distributing pieces of paper, that is a

practice of mine that could be stupid; I try to get close to the “audience.”

Now that on the Internet there are very complex discussions on art that are

only for beginners, I worry about the “audience.” It could be that this dialogue is

very positive and good for me and for Victor Manuel’s specific field, but the most

important is that it is helpful for the “audience,” sorry for being rude with you

people. For me the problem is crucial. What I discuss with Victor is useful for me

on a personal level. I hope that it helps me communicate better with all these

people who are so rudely called the “audience.”


356

VMR: I would like to put forward a question that allows us to concentrate on

Antonio’s work. I remember that in one of our conversations you mentioned that

your work wasn’t anti-art, it wasn’t contra-art, but rather it was “UN-Art.”

AC: We must make a thematic or linguistic definition of “UN,” to state what it

isn’t as apart from what it is.

VMR: You mentioned that the term “UN” comes from English. I believe it puts

forward interesting themes to approach the form in as much as the work relates the

practice of art to politics. It puts forward a position that isn’t exactly against, that is,

that doesn’t situate itself in a dialectic or oppositional way to the art system. “UN-

Art” reveals this position.

AC: Obviously I don’t speak perfect English, but the concept is taken from

English; it isn’t “U.N.,” the Universidad Nacional, but “UN.” One must respect

this. At an anecdotal level, I heard about the “UN” concept when I worked in a

publicity agency and I read an article about it. It is a serious phenomenon in

publicity, it appears to have gone out of style, but it was a very interesting

phenomenon in publicity, “UN.” Coca-Cola has always had its rival, Pepsi-Cola,

and both spend a lot of money in attacking one another because there is a high level

of cola consumption, but marketing strategists discovered that there are people that
357

drink neither of these drinks and this sector is “UN-cola” people. This was very

famous in the cola wars. The Coca-Cola Company created Sprite, the UN-cola.

This is something very serious. I read it, I repeat, when I was working in publicity.

I liked the concept “UN” and it appears to reverberate well with who I am. I

even think that in my personal life. I am “UN.” I was here many years ago, in the

very traditional academy that the National University Art School offered, and later

I had to leave to make money. I ended up working in a publicity agency. There I

learned very important things about communication and how to manage the media,

which have been essential to my work, both in composition and in ideas. This

notion of “UN” is very interesting for me. Because I obviously couldn’t be

Obregón, Botero, Negret, or Ramírez, I looked for another market sector, which is

the “UN” sector, and I moved in that sector. This is my strategy. I feel like it’s a

publicity strategy, and in this little sector, up until now, I am King, and nothing

uglier than I has appeared. I am saying this in a very informal, personal way. I took

on this publicity concept of “UN,” and it’s there where I move.

VMR: Once you said to me that your work wasn’t one thing or the other, that it

was the complete opposite. I would like it if we could think about this a bit as it

appears to situate your work in areas that interest us: the slap to a critic, your

resistance to sell your pieces, the way in which you work have been inserted into

the art circles. “Un-Art,” we said, is art; that is, it is art as it circulates and is valued
358

as such. But we also mentioned that “UN” established a critical relationship with

the art institution. You said, “Yes, of course, my work isn’t one thing or the other;

it’s the complete opposite.” I think that this statement illustrates the ways in which

your insert your work within the art field. About this, you mentioned that your

work was tangential because although it passed by it, it only brushed the field of

art; that your work has always had another direction. I think that all of these

statements demonstrate particular politics towards art practice in which you

recognize that your work is dealing with those institutional practices that promote

and value artworks and put them out to circulate, and they give them the name of

art. I continue answering your first question, that of why am I here?

AC: I am in a forum talking about my artistic practice. It can’t be denied that I am

in the art world and that I move within that world. I remember in the Proyecto 500

talks, people listened to me because they had been previously invited to an artistic

event. However, if I walk into the classroom next door where some scientists are

talking, I would be an uneducated person, rude and, as well as stupid, crazy. You

are all listening to me because I am included in this forum’s program. I hope that

you feel that my words are honest: that I am speaking the truth and nothing more

than the truth, but I cannot attempt to construct theory and this is part of the game, I

am here making jokes, a clown with this t-shirt, giving out pieces of paper, etc.
359

I am here because, among other things, I enjoy it, as it’s my area and it’s

where I am listened to; in other places I am not listened to and they don’t even

make an effort to understand me. I am here responding: first, because I want to be

here and, second, because you pay attention to what I say. I don’t understand how,

but you do. This is the game. I make jokes so that people don’t tire, but try to say

something intelligent so that you say, “Oh! How brilliant!” Being a little bit

annoying but making sure that I am not thrown out of the place is my position. I am

taking my time, not being concise with my words, but it’s a tactic that has a

strategy. I am here because I like it, I am here because you listen to me and, finally,

we are going to say something romantic, because I like this and because I believe

that the last utopia that hasn’t totally fallen is art. However, I can’t take the right

path because I am myopic, I am not coordinated and, finally, taking off my mask in

front of all of you, because I am like this. If one day I win the lottery, I am going to

be a fat man dressed with a tie, but for now I am like this and this is my place in the

market. What the big multinationals fear is a change in logo, of image; one must do

this with tranquility, very well thought out, and so, although I would like to sell

watercolors, I cannot be a watercolorist. I gave myself this image and I must

continue to play with it. My God! Is this a forum or I am in a session of

psychoanalysis?
360

VMR: You mentioned the possibility of talking about yourself as if the character

Antonio Caro was talking. What would you say in regard to this?

AC: All of this has been spontaneously planned. We wanted to give a talk like what

they do on the radio when one must not answer to everything or you lose. Up until

now we have managed to make sure that I don’t speak a lot about my works, and

this is good. However, you place me in the dialectic or in the dichotomy of the

possibility of the person or the personality. My personality in the street tries to be

nice and pleasant, but part of the artist game is being a personality. I don’t know

right now what would be tactically better, to be the person or the personality. We

return to schizophrenia. The schizophrenia is the division, so… am I crazy?

VMR: I think that this duality is what allows you to be involved in these processes

and also criticize them; that is, it is the same situation as “UN-Art,” where one

makes art and at the same time also uses it as a category. I would like for us to open

this up to the audience. As we ask you, your questions must be written down.

Audience: You, who are so ugly, how come you are always with such beautiful

girls?
361

AC: Because I am not attractive or beautiful or young, nor do I have qualities or

resources, etc., I have in my daily life, a defect that is very badly looked upon by

the youth of today. I am intense. So my apparent “success” with women is due to

my being an “UN-lover.”

Audience: What role should art schools play?

AC: When I began this talk, I highlighted the fact that this talk was supported by

the Division of Cultural Events and that it wasn’t organized by the Art School. I am

not a professor in an art school because of a simple fact, I don’t have a degree. I

studied some things—it sounds funny but its true—in the three and a half years that

I studied in this university. For one year and a half I didn’t really study and in the

two years that I was studying, I only studied one and a half semesters, so I am not a

professor because I don’t have a degree.

I think the same thing happens in social organizations as happens to human

beings. Just as species have mechanisms to survive, the educational institutions

have their own. What should we do so that we are perpetual professors? Demand

the title which allows us to be professors. It is an institutional problem. Although in

many things I am very conventional, I also consider that I am a person. I must

borrow an English word, “anti-establishment,” and the education seen from this
362

anti-establishment point of view is just a way that the system uses to perpetuate

itself.

VMR: I would like it if you read this question.

AC: A suicide.

VMR: No. I would like you to read it because it is written in the style of Coca-

Cola Colombia.

AC: Why do you think you are Colombian; is it useful to be Colombian? I have an

immediate response. I am Colombian because yesterday I lost my Colombian

identity card number 19.120.898 Bogotá). Whoever finds it and returns it, thank

you very much. That is, it’s a judicial administrative reason. A gentleman, who is

not here, spoke about some things this morning; he said that we still need to

construct a concept of nation, so, in order not to enter into politics, I prefer to give a

stupid and foolish answer. I am Colombian because up until yesterday I had the

Colombian identity card number 19.120.898 Bogotá).

Is it useful to be Colombian? It would appear not to be. I have a lot of

friends who are happy—not many but at least five, I swear, who are happy with the

constitutional possibility of being able to have double nationality, and right now
363

they are in Europe with Spanish passports as they are children of Spaniards. Borges

has already said that being Colombian is a question of faith. There is some

romanticism that compels me to say, yes, it is beautiful being Colombian, although

it may not be very practical.

Let’s analyze what it is to be Colombian: People from Providence Island are

Colombian. They are black, 1.90 meters tall, speak English, and profess the Baptist

religion. Owing to a lack of fortune, due to a political issue, the island belongs to

Colombia. Colombians are also indigenous gentlemen Murui Muinane—Huitotos

in the colonial definition—who live in the Amazon and are unfortunate enough to

live in Colombian territory, a territory hit by the war on cocaine. So, Colombia is a

legal term; I don’t know how to respond in political terms.

Don’t think that I am very sensitive or very wise, nothing like that, but once

a poet said something very beautiful about Colombia, not about Colombians—pay

attention to this little difference. One thing is the physical territory, the geographic

space, and the other thing is the inhabitants. Aurelio Arturo said a long time ago—

giving this a literary reference—that Colombia was country of countries where

green is all the colors.

Audience: Can you broaden the concept or the antecedents of the Manuel Quintín

Lame project?
364

AC: I am going to respond anecdotally. I worked in a bookstore where I was paid

minimum wage and always, every month, I had to find money that I didn’t have

because I consumed more books than what I could buy with my salary. After

reading a review in a magazine that I liked, a book about Quintín Lame arrived,

which interested me, which I adored. I said to myself, I can use this subject. We

conceptualists were—this has now gone out of fashion—utilitarian.

Psychoanalysis, confessions. I said, “This is a good subject. I am going to make a

piece about it.” In the signature of Manuel Quintín Lame, I found the element that I

needed to construct the piece. This was my first contact with Manuel Quintín

Lame.

Afterwards, life dictated that I live on various occasions with an indigenous

community on a daily basis, sharing their usual and ordinary life. In my artistic

activities I repeated the signature of Manuel Quintín Lame, and the practice of

repeating the signature made me reflect and think about it. I want to make a little

parenthesis and mention, one of the things that I discovered in my talks with Victor

Manuel Rodriguez. I never, at least in my personal case, had a theoretical basis to

constructing my work. A piece usually comes thanks to God or by luck. Not very

many ideas come to me, but the pieces arrive first, and later the theoretical

reflection—this is very important. The Manuel Quintín Lame piece came to me

casually and today, due to my personal experiences and due to repeating it so many

times and because of speaking about it so many times, I have a lot of information
365

and opinions about it, but maybe the best answer is the one that I gave a long time

ago about this same issue: The Manuel Quintín Lame piece is good not so much

because of me or my work, but rather due to the importance of Manuel Quintín

Lame. It is really the most important piece that I have done.

Audience: What does Antonio Caro think about the validity of continuing to think

of Latin American identity in the middle of extreme globalization, on one hand,

and, on the other hand, considering the fact that its more and more common that an

artist is a nomad and lives in various cultures at the same time?

AC: OK, I am Colombian because I was born of Colombian parents and in

Colombian territory, in what is considered Latin America; therefore, as a person, I

am Latin American. Sometimes I like to think about or resolve things as an

ordinary person because the same problem can be put to an artist or somebody who

engages in another activity. In the essence of the question, the word “artist” is

redundant, so musician Fabiola Zuluaga would have to renounce her dear land of

Cúcuta in order to play in Europe. Renounce your nationality, Mr. Automobiles,

Mr. Montoya. And the soccer players? Sometime we think that the specificity of

being an artist is like being very special or like having seven eyes or whatever. The

same problems could affect a scientist, an athlete, a narco-trafficker, who is a type


366

of businessman. Many Latin American human beings, who are not specifically

artists, could ask this question, what is it to be a Latin American?

I speak as a simple person; we are in a period where globalization is

indicating that some mental confinements and guidelines are being re-drawn.

Borges, who had great impact in the twentieth century, was maybe the most

thoroughly Latin American. It’s not as if I read a lot of poetry, but there is a line

from Borges that says: My grandfather fought in Junín. How much more Latin

American can you get than this? But Borges’ bones are in Switzerland.

Audience: You, who have managed to, with your thought and your work, be

categorized as an art “star,” don’t you feel a distance from what you call your

audience?

AC: No.

Audience: If you had the opportunity to be, appear as, or become a woman, what

would be your attitude? Have you already done this?

AC: Silence). This question is too serious; it implies things that I do not know: sex

conditions, gender problems. Those who know say that young children, male or

female, up until 12 years old, are basically the same. The fact that there are female
367

guerillas is due to the fact that with firearms the slight physical inferiority that

women have is made relative. It is more efficient to have a female guerilla with

good vision than an old myopic man like me. The differences between women and

men highly trained in the Olympics oscillates between fifteen and thirty percent.

Women’s capacity to resist pain is very high; the exertion of giving birth is intense.

These are biological questions. Gender, among many things, is a cultural question.

Although I have many friends who are going through menopause and voluntarily

decided to not have children—I think I have seen from a biological point of view,

not from a political analysis of what young Colombians are going to have to go

through in ten years—in this hypothetical space of being a woman, this is all men’s

frustration. I would like to have a child. In daily life I would wear a skirt.
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APPENDIX 3

Manifesto Antropófago
Oswald de Andrade Revista de Antropofagia, Ano 1, No. 1, maio de 1928.)

Só a Antropofagia nos une. Socialmente. Economicamente. Filosoficamente.

Única lei do mundo. Expressão mascarada de todos os individualismos, de todos os

coletivismos. De todas as religiões. De todos os tratados de paz.

Tupi, or not tupi that is the question.

Contra todas as catequeses. E contra a mãe dos Gracos.

Só me interessa o que não é meu. Lei do homem. Lei do antropófago.

Estamos fatigados de todos os maridos católicos suspeitosos postos em drama.

Freud acabou com o enigma mulher e com outros sustos da psicologia impressa.

O que atropelava a verdade era a roupa, o impermeável entre o mundo interior e o

mundo exterior. A reação contra o homem vestido. O cinema americano informará.

Filhos do sol, mãe dos viventes. Encontrados e amados ferozmente, com toda a

hipocrisia da saudade, pelos imigrados, pelos traficados e pelos touristes. No país

da cobra grande.

Foi porque nunca tivemos gramáticas, nem coleções de velhos vegetais. E nunca

soubemos o que era urbano, suburbano, fronteiriço e continental. Preguiçosos no

mapa-múndi do Brasil.

Uma consciência participante, uma rítmica religiosa.


369

Contra todos os importadores de consciência enlatada. A existência palpável da

vida. E a mentalidade pré-lógica para o Sr. Lévy-Bruhl estudar.

Queremos a Revolução Caraiba. Maior que a Revolução Francesa. A unificação de

todas as revoltas eficazes na direção do homem. Sem n6s a Europa não teria sequer

a sua pobre declaração dos direitos do homem.

A idade de ouro anunciada pela América. A idade de ouro. E todas as girls.

Filiação. O contato com o Brasil Caraíba. Ori Villegaignon print terre. Montaig-ne.

O homem natural. Rousseau. Da Revolução Francesa ao Romantismo, à Revolução

Bolchevista, à Revolução Surrealista e ao bárbaro tecnizado de Keyserling.

Caminhamos..

Nunca fomos catequizados. Vivemos através de um direito sonâmbulo. Fizemos

Cristo nascer na Bahia. Ou em Belém do Pará.

Mas nunca admitimos o nascimento da lógica entre nós.

Contra o Padre Vieira. Autor do nosso primeiro empréstimo, para ganhar comissão.

O rei-analfabeto dissera-lhe : ponha isso no papel mas sem muita lábia. Fez-se o

empréstimo. Gravou-se o açúcar brasileiro. Vieira deixou o dinheiro em Portugal e

nos trouxe a lábia.

O espírito recusa-se a conceber o espírito sem o corpo. O antropomorfismo.

Necessidade da vacina antropofágica. Para o equilíbrio contra as religiões de

meridiano. E as inquisições exteriores.

Só podemos atender ao mundo orecular.


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Tínhamos a justiça codificação da vingança. A ciência codificação da Magia.

Antropofagia. A transformação permanente do Tabu em totem.

Contra o mundo reversível e as idéias objetivadas. Cadaverizadas. O stop do

pensamento que é dinâmico. O indivíduo vitima do sistema. Fonte das injustiças

clássicas. Das injustiças românticas. E o esquecimento das conquistas interiores.

Roteiros. Roteiros. Roteiros. Roteiros. Roteiros. Roteiros. Roteiros.

O instinto Caraíba.

Morte e vida das hipóteses. Da equação eu parte do Cosmos ao axioma Cosmos

parte do eu. Subsistência. Conhecimento. Antropofagia.

Contra as elites vegetais. Em comunicação com o solo.

Nunca fomos catequizados. Fizemos foi Carnaval. O índio vestido de senador do

Império. Fingindo de Pitt. Ou figurando nas óperas de Alencar cheio de bons

sentimentos portugueses.

Já tínhamos o comunismo. Já tínhamos a língua surrealista. A idade de ouro.

Catiti Catiti

Imara Notiá

Notiá Imara

Ipeju*

A magia e a vida. Tínhamos a relação e a distribuição dos bens físicos, dos bens

morais, dos bens dignários. E sabíamos transpor o mistério e a morte com o auxílio

de algumas formas gramaticais.


371

Perguntei a um homem o que era o Direito. Ele me respondeu que era a garantia do

exercício da possibilidade. Esse homem chamava-se Galli Mathias. Comia.

Só não há determinismo onde há mistério. Mas que temos nós com isso?

Contra as histórias do homem que começam no Cabo Finisterra. O mundo não

datado. Não rubricado. Sem Napoleão. Sem César.

A fixação do progresso por meio de catálogos e aparelhos de televisão. Só a

maquinaria. E os transfusores de sangue.

Contra as sublimações antagônicas. Trazidas nas caravelas.

Contra a verdade dos povos missionários, definida pela sagacidade de um

antropófago, o Visconde de Cairu: – É mentira muitas vezes repetida.

Mas não foram cruzados que vieram. Foram fugitivos de uma civilização que

estamos comendo, porque somos fortes e vingativos como o Jabuti.

Se Deus é a consciênda do Universo Incriado, Guaraci é a mãe dos viventes. Jaci é

a mãe dos vegetais.

Não tivemos especulação. Mas tínhamos adivinhação. Tínhamos Política que é a

ciência da distribuição. E um sistema social-planetário.

As migrações. A fuga dos estados tediosos. Contra as escleroses urbanas. Contra os

Conservatórios e o tédio especulativo.

De William James e Voronoff. A transfiguração do Tabu em totem. Antropofagia.

O pater famílias e a criação da Moral da Cegonha: Ignorância real das coisas+ fala

de imaginação + sentimento de autoridade ante a prole curiosa.


372

É preciso partir de um profundo ateísmo para se chegar à idéia de Deus. Mas a

caraíba não precisava. Porque tinha Guaraci.

O objetivo criado reage com os Anjos da Queda. Depois Moisés divaga. Que temos

nós com isso?

Antes dos portugueses descobrirem o Brasil, o Brasil tinha descoberto a felicidade.

Contra o índio de tocheiro. O índio filho de Maria, afilhado de Catarina de Médicis

e genro de D. Antônio de Mariz.

A alegria é a prova dos nove.

No matriarcado de Pindorama.

Contra a Memória fonte do costume. A experiência pessoal renovada.

Somos concretistas. As idéias tomam conta, reagem, queimam gente nas praças

públicas. Suprimarnos as idéias e as outras paralisias. Pelos roteiros. Acreditar nos

sinais, acreditar nos instrumentos e nas estrelas.

Contra Goethe, a mãe dos Gracos, e a Corte de D. João VI.

A alegria é a prova dos nove.

A luta entre o que se chamaria Incriado e a Criatura – ilustrada pela contradição

permanente do homem e o seu Tabu. O amor cotidiano e o modusvivendi

capitalista. Antropofagia. Absorção do inimigo sacro. Para transformá-lo em totem.

A humana aventura. A terrena finalidade. Porém, só as puras elites conseguiram

realizar a antropofagia carnal, que traz em si o mais alto sentido da vida e evita

todos os males identificados por Freud, males catequistas. O que se dá não é uma
373

sublimação do instinto sexual. É a escala termométrica do instinto antropofágico.

De carnal, ele se torna eletivo e cria a amizade. Afetivo, o amor. Especulativo, a

ciência. Desvia-se e transfere-se. Chegamos ao aviltamento. A baixa antropofagia

aglomerada nos pecados de catecismo – a inveja, a usura, a calúnia, o assassinato.

Peste dos chamados povos cultos e cristianizados, é contra ela que estamos agindo.

Antropófagos.

Contra Anchieta cantando as onze mil virgens do céu, na terra de Iracema, – o

patriarca João Ramalho fundador de São Paulo.

A nossa independência ainda não foi proclamada. Frape típica de D. João VI: –

Meu filho, põe essa coroa na tua cabeça, antes que algum aventureiro o faça!

Expulsamos a dinastia. É preciso expulsar o espírito bragantino, as ordenações e o

rapé de Maria da Fonte.

Contra a realidade social, vestida e opressora, cadastrada por Freud – a realidade

sem complexos, sem loucura, sem prostituições e sem penitenciárias do

matriarcado de Pindorama.

OSWALD DE ANDRADE Em Piratininga Ano 374 da Deglutição do Bispo

Sardinha."

* "Lua Nova, ó Lua Nova, assopra em Fulano lembranças de mim", in O Selvagem,

de Couto Magalhães
374

APPENDIX 4

“Anthropophagus Manifesto”
Translated by Hélio Oiticica, 1972.
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376
377
378