Introducing Curator Pablo León de la Barra

7:41 | Published on October 29, 2013 | 3,693 Views

Curator Pablo León de la Barra discusses the role of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative in contextualizing, connecting, and exposing art from all regions of Latin America. Talking about some of the exhibitions he has been involved in organizing around the world over the past decade, León de la Barra reveals how, for him, curatorial practice has been a way to address significant themes and practices, from the academic and historical to the more playful. He also details his interest in the Guggenheim’s own history of engagement with Latin American art, focusing in particular on Thomas Messer’s 1968 exhibition The Emergent Decade: Latin American Painters and Painting in the 1960s.

For more information, please visit the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative.

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Latin America:
Introducing Curator Pablo León de la Barra

My interest is in Latin American art, and in Latin American art in dialogue. There's an interesting thing, that many of the countries in Latin America, although they share a common history, a common colonial history, and a common recent history—a history of dictatorships, economic crises, social uprisings—still, they haven't been that much in contact.

So, I guess then, the importance of a project like the Global Art Initiative is that it's really going deep into these different contexts, and researching them, and recognizing that we can create networks of knowledge, which recognize the existing differences, the particularities. And that we can learn from these different knowledges—ways of solving problems, of confronting realities, of confronting crises, and ways of creating also new worlds, and better worlds. In these terms, the Global Art Initiative puts everything at the same level, and creates—or attempts to create—these connections.

My background comes first from architecture, and then from art. I've been curating at least for the past ten years. I love exhibition-making, and I really think exhibition-making, for me, is a way of doing research on topics—not only topics that interest me, but I think topics that are relevant for a particular context. For example, one called This Is Not America, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which played with the double idea that Puerto Rico is a free, associated state of the United States, which is and is not America.

There's a great work by Alfredo Jaar from the eighties, which he presented in Times Square. And it was a big video saying "This is not America. America is also the whole of the continent." Which I think continues to be as relevant, in terms of expanding the geographies, and creating new cartographies and redrawing the borders of map. Funnily enough, the United States has now become Latin America, with one-fourth of the population—becoming almost one-third soon—being from Latin American origins. So I think we cannot continue talking of Latin America as we used to, before, you know? I think Latin America is the continent.

Other exhibitions have had a playful element, which incorporates humor, also, as a way of dealing with reality. For example, Bananas Is My Business: The South American Way, which happened at the Museu Carmen Miranda, and which I co-curated with Julieta Gonzalez, where on one hand we worked with the archive of the museum—Carmen Miranda's papers, records clothing—but we used it as a way to rethink South American stereotypes. Going beyond the image that Carmen Miranda had, of being this kind of woman with bananas in her hair, you know?

Very recently, I made an exhibition in London at the David Roberts Art Foundation, one called Friends of London: Artists from Latin America in London from 196x to 197x, which explored many of these untold histories of artists who I call heroes, or pioneers, who were in exile, mainly because of the dictatorships in their own country, and which do not form part of the official art histories. And nevertheless contributed to the art scene of the time, and created works that in a way connected what they were before—what they were while being in Latin America—with the avant-garde, with whom they were in contact at the time.

Or Juan Downey, who was a great video pioneer who traveled the Americas doing this project called Video Trans Américas, where he would tape the different communities who he encountered. And then in the main square of the city, he would show in the TVs the videos that he made of the previous city. So in a way, he was doing something similar to what we are trying to do now, you know? Creating these kinds of connections between different regions, and giving visibility to each other.

And here at Guggenheim, we also have our own history of our relationship with Latin America. There is works from the ’40s, ’50s, from Tamayo to Lucio Fontana. We have a Matta—Roberto Matta. There’s works from the ’70s and ‘80s. We have Ana Mendieta in the collection.

But much more interestingly, there was a 1966 exhibition which was curated by the then director, Thomas Messer, where he travels to Latin America in 1965—very similar to what we're doing now—where he identified who were the major artists and players of the bigger countries of Latin America at the time. So, he traveled through Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and brought back the best of the painting that was happening at that time. He was very interested in abstract painting. It's a pity that he didn't travel, maybe, two years later, because I think the panorama would have been totally another. The seeds of change were already happening when he visited. But they were still not strong enough. But like, let's think, Oiticica, Hélio Oiticica, had already in '65, presented the Parangolés at the exhibition at the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio. Already from '65, but towards '68, big changes in what they called the dematerialization of art in Argentina were happening at that time.

Thomas Messer visited in this time before this change happened, I mean, everywhere in the world. You know, we're talking about '68. That catalogue is fascinating, because it has photos by Cornell Capa, of not only studio visits, but also how the artists lived and worked. Artists with a family, artists going to the bar, or to the pub. So, we were trying also to show artists as living in these foreign lands, as also of having a normal life, you know?

Thomas Messer's The Emergent Decade will have an influence in the research we do. I don't think in terms of aesthetics of following the same line of research. But yes, in his interest in relating with Latin America. And what was also really interesting is that he was not only in contact with the main artists of the time, but also with the main critical thinkers. So in Colombia, there's letters that he wrote, and responses that he got from Marta Traba. In Mexico, with Mathias Goeritz. And it continues in the whole of the continent. So, I think it's a really interesting way of someone that was interested in expanding this dialogue, and also in creating this kind of network of art production that was happening at the time.

So I think it will be a fascinating journey. And in terms of what concerns us, which is art, and artists, and exhibitions and curating—I think we will be as democratic as possible, in terms of not only going to the major countries, but also trying to, one, create connections between them, but also going to those countries which are less seen, in terms of what's happening in these places. And in giving them visibility—and again, in creating connections between them.