Hope seems absent when an exhibition featuring around 400 works by more than sixty artists situates decolonisation in the past. Memories of Underdevelopment: Art and the Decolonial Turn in Latin America, 1960–1985 (22 March – 09 September 2018) at Museo Jumex in Mexico City examines a shift in Latin American visual arts towards decolonial thought and practice. The show is a retrospective, displaying the work of artists who were critical in establishing a place for local knowledges and aesthetics within modernist practices. Yet, Memories of Underdevelopment is over reliant on geo-cultural framing and so constrains multifarious works to a narrative of resistance located in the past.
In part, Memories of Underdevelopment takes its title from Tomás Gutiérrez’s 1968 film of the same name, set in post-revolutionary Cuba. A bellatically languid account of life in Castro’s Cuba, the film follows Sergio, a middle-aged bourgeois Havana local who is ambivalent about the revolution. Sergio drifts into an affair with a young woman, Elena, whose lack of education he equates with Cuba’s underdevelopment, insisting she accompany him on tours of museums showing European artefacts. In the film and exhibition alike, ‘underdevelopment’ – primarily experienced through the economic imperialism of the US and European nations – can only be experienced as ambivalent. Here, ‘underdevelopment’ is a configuration consisting of contradictory dimensions; created through the Global North’s fragile notion of the ‘developed’, which must constantly be re-staged in opposition to the pursuant ‘underdeveloped’.
A collaborative endeavour, Memories of Underdevelopment performs an inversion of the museum tour in Gutiérrez’s film. The exhibition travelled south from its first exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (17 September 2017 – 4 February 2018) to Museo Jumex – later it will journey further south, finishing at Museo de Arte de Lima in Peru. My impression of the exhibition comes from the midpoint of its journey, in Mexico.
The first major work in the show that invites my consideration is Lygia Pape’s Trio do embalo maluco (Crazy Rocking Trio) (1967). A single-channel digital video of a performance at a quarry near her home in Rio de Janeiro and presented on a ceiling-mounted screen, it consists of mellow compositions – squares and straight lines form three cubes; one red, one white and one blue as a static camera observes them at the base of the quarry. While retaining a formal orientation to geometric abstraction, her cubes faintly evoke the flags of select colonising nations. Transposed through Pape’s improvisatory performance, the cubes interact awkwardly with the natural environment, an awkwardness that climaxes when the bodies of three male participants announce themselves, bursting out of the cubes to reveal these objects of modernism as fragile skins. Pape’s dialectical work demonstrates ways that local dynamics – art, culture, nature – interact with and rupture imposed aesthetic and cultural models.
The Crazy Rocking Trio shares a room that is filled with the shrieks of two distressed Amazon parrots caged in Hélio Oitica’s Tropicália, Penetrables PN 2 ‘Purity is a myth’ and Penetrables PN 3 ‘Imagetical’ (1966-7). Observing the stressed birds, Oitica’s large-scale installation cannot be viewed passively. Tropicália, Penetrables is made to be walked on and through by visitors; changing my embodied experience of the gallery was a floor covered in creamy sand carved through by a winding gravel path lined with tropical plants, all directing me to the Penetrables, wooden-framed structures. Ribboned door hangings in fabric, plastic and wood, some bearing floral patterns, cause slight disorientation in the Penetrables, one of which houses a television broadcasting local channels. Tropicália, Penetrables incites a more actively engaged form of gallery spectatorship – a bilateral perforation of space. Tactile and aural, Tropicália, Penetrables presents a confected chaos, which opposes itself to spectatorial conformity in order to create something tangible and lively.
The optimistic horizon of Tropicália, Penetrables, first presented at the seminal group show New Brazilian Objectivity (1967) at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, is that it presents an epistemic break with the modernist canon. A turn to local forms, practices and spatial conceptions directed at a popular audience – like the television. Oitica’s work overflows with local (Brazilian) knowledges and symbolism, while retaining the formal experimentation of Conrectism.
Equally lively is Juan Downey’s Anaconda Map of Chile (1973). In this work, a hand-drawn colonial map of Chile is encased by a water receptacle in a knee-height plastic topped wood structure, inside of which resides a living anaconda. Read literally, this work criticises the role American mining company Anaconda Copper played in Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power in Chilean politics. Yet, the anaconda isn’t simply a predatory force; rather it is a companion that has been left in the gallery’s care for the piece and unlike Oitica’s distressed parrots there is evidence of caring attendance to the snake (it has its own carer at standby). Juxtaposed against Anaconda Copper’s abstraction and exploitation of the environment, the muscular serpentine body of the living creature recalls the very intertwined and interpersonal relationships that exist across species and territories, and resist colonial logic.
While there are a number of seminal and interesting artworks in Memories of Underdevelopment, it is disappointing that a show examining a decolonial turn in art practice would situate itself in the past. While many of these works were prescient and still hold meaning now, they are not enough to validate the geo-cultural framing of the exhibition, which repeats the very borders many of these artists would like to have excoriated. The show is successful in demonstrating a moment of epistemic rupture with orthodoxy, counter-narrating a segment of art history. Yet, the issue with the curatorial survey is that it reduces richly multifarious cultural production to readily digestible pieces of uniformity through the narrative of a regional struggle against Western modernism.
Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and independent researcher, a descendent of Numbulwar where the Rose River opens onto the Gulf of Carpentaria. He lives and works in the Northern Territory and Naarm.