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Retratos: 2000 Years of Latin American Portraiture

Retratos: 2000 years of Latin American Portraiture is an exhibition that promises to cover many aspects of Latin American art and superficially tackles the idea of identity. Retratos is an effort organized by the San Antonio Museum of Art, the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, and its New York host, El Museo del Barrio.

This ambitious project is the result of a collaboration between the most notorious curators in the field (Fatima Brecht, Chief Curator of the Museo del Barrio; Miguel A. Bretos, Senior Scholar at the National Portrait Gallery; Carolyn Kinder Carr, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the National Portrait Gallery; and Marion Oettinger Jr., Interim Director of the San Antonio Museum of Art), who wrote that the “portraits presented will open an important window on Latin American history and society and provide us with tools for a better understanding of the art and culture of that wonderful and exciting region.” However, it seems as though they have not taken into account that many times the complexity of Latin American social and cultural past goes beyond presenting it through a linear and exquisite selection portraits ranging from Pre-Columbian to our contemporary times.

The exhibition, comprised of approximately 115 paintings and sculptures, is no doubt a celebration of art, and is a visual compilation that takes the viewer through the stylistic developments of this complex continent. At the same time, one leaves the exhibition with the sensation that the curators have tried to recreate the history of Latin America through its own visual narrative, without making the effort to address issues of identity or culture. This is evident in the choice of museum, whose emphasis is to educate its diverse publics in the richness of Caribbean and Latin American arts and cultural history.

The exhibition layout serves is chronological, making it easy to follow and understand the work and the historical content that ties the works together. It is divided into five categories: the Pre-Columbian Section, Viceregal Section, Independence Section, Modern Section and the Contemporary Section.

But because of this layout, the exhibition fails to represent certain periods and neglects some crucial pictorial categories, such as Mexico’s and Ecuador’s eighteenth century ’casta’ paintings, depicting the racial and cultural ’crossing’ between the Spanish colonists, the native Indians, and the African slaves.

The sections are not equally distributed within the gallery space, and the amount of pieces in the Pre-Columbian section is overwhelmingly outnumbered by the number of pieces in every other section of the gallery. These few pieces are supposed to cover at least 1500 of the 2000 years the exhibition claims to depict. But although they are few, these ceramics are unique and true jewels.

The Viceregal Section is the one of the most prominent sections. It depicts portraits of viceroys, archbishops and nuns, and clearly delineates the importance of church and state in colonial times. The pieces in the section are fine and unique examples from different Latin American colonies and is therefore a true privilege to see them all together in one room.

Power, money and the land’s riches are all represented in these pieces, but they also manage to create a hidden narrative on the social dynamics of the time when these ’celebrated’ figures came to the new continent to conquer and convert. A beauty among these portraits is ’Madre Maria Encarnacion Regalado’ by an unidentified artist of the Quito School. This small portrait has fine, lustrous brushstrokes, which manage to encompass the subject’s youth and fragility at the moment of her ’coronation’ as a nun.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is represented in a beautiful posthumous depiction by Andrés de Islas of 1772, and another exceptional piece is the Chilean Doña Maria Mercedes de Salas Corvalan portrait by an unidentified artist, showing the aristocratic subject in traditional dress.

The Independence Section covers the second largest area of the gallery, and serves as a physical and visual interpretation of what we can read in elementary Latin American history books. It also presents a collection of pieces that can be considered pieces of undeniable material patrimony from the times of Latin American Independence.

The assertion of national identity within this section is brought by celebratory portraits of the major figures of independence, such as Simón Bolivar, José de San Martín and Miguel Hidalgo. These larger-than-life portraits served as emotional and political touchstones in the formation and maintenance of new governments and national identities. Extremely powerful is Jose Gil de Castro’s portrait of Simón Bolivar that depicts the libertador as a figure of authority, honor, and victory.

Upon reaching the In the Modern Section of the exhibition, we see the ties between the previously viewed work, and the influence it has had on modern painters. Here the portrait mainly becomes that of the artist him/herself, showing the shift of social and personal intention of portraiture. Painters now used the medium to expand on their own physche and personal experiences through their self-portraits, in order to explore their own identity. Or depicted peers from their own intellectual circles, such as the portrait of Mario de Andrade by Brazilian modernist Anita Malfatti. We see pieces of Latin American artists who went to Europe to ’form’ their trade, to then bring it back to the Americas and use it to expand their own personal styles.

The chronological nature of the exhibition succeeds in introducing the viewer to themes present in the various periods and how they were prominently used by Modern Latin American artists. However, there is no indication that these influences were mainly part of modern painters’ urge to decipher what it meant to be Latin American, and that the use of portraiture was a key element in the search for a true cultural identity.

We may have reached the point where Frida Kahlo is recognized more as a cliché than an artistic figure, but one of the most compelling pieces in this section is her Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Humming Bird (1940), where we are able to appreciate her obsession with detail and detect the sharp and fine brushstrokes that make up her image.

Attention should also be given to Oswaldo Guayasamin’s (Ecuador) Self-Portrait. The painter’s expression is somber and firm, almost without feeling. The great emotional drive of the piece is brought by the two figures in the background and its coherently sober color palette.

The Contemporary section of this exhibit works in bringing the chronology of the exhibit towards the present. This allows the audience to relate to the work and have the sensation that there is no true end to the material in the exhibit, and understand that we are to expect more portraits in the future.

The most emblematic pieces in this category are Vik Munizs’ Sugar Children Series – Big James Sweet Buckets and Valicia Bathes in Sunday Clothes, and Maria-Magdalen Campos-Pons’ Abridor the Caminos. Munizs’ piece is portraits made out of white sugar of children living in Sugar Plantations. Their image is revealed by the negative shadows of the sugar and the black background, giving the feeling that these children’s identity is made out of sugar, and its nature is as fragile as the composition of the sugar that makes up their portraits.

Abridor the Caminos are two large photographs (originally part of a larger installation) in which the artist uses elements that evoke African customs. The photographs are two large 20 X 28 inch Polaroids, a medium that allows extreme sharpness of the image, and reveal the subject’s luster surfaces to be revealed.
Retratos proves to be a significant asset among the list of exhibitions shown in New York this winter. The content brings pieces of artwork that audiences would not be able to see any other way. They are part of our Latin American heritage, and it presents the unique experience of being able to see them so close up that you can imagine their origin and the untold stories behind them.

However, there is a feeling that the exhibition wants to be more than what it can be. Covering 2000 years of history through portraits is something that can never be done with merely 115 pieces, nor it can be done without inclusion and discussion of the not-so glamorous aspects of the past.

Retratos: 2000 Years of Latin American Portraits will be on view at El Museo del Barrio until March 20, 2005, and will then travel to the following cities and venues: San Diego Museum of Art, California, April 16 – June 12, 2005; Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach, Florida July 23 – October 2, 2005; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. October 21, 2005 – January 8, 2006; and at the San Antonio Museum of Art, Texas, February 2 – April 30, 2006.