Our North is the South

21 August - 4 December 2021

Our North is the South departs from textiles produced by the Inca, Huari, and Nazca cultures in the Andes region - which today covers the territories of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile - relating them to the experimentation with geometric forms carried out by the 20th century avant-garde and several contemporary artists in Latin America. There are Andean textiles, in addition to works by around 30 artists, which explore the relationship between art and craft, featuring a panorama of art on our continent from the pre-Columbian period to nowadays.

 

With works by:

Inca, Huari and Nazca Cultures, Afonso Tostes, Alfredo Volpi, Angelo Venosa, Aluísio Carvão, Amilcar de Castro, Antonio Dias, Celso Renato, Delba Marcolini, Emanoel Araújo, Fátima Neves, Franz Weissmann, Gabriel Orozco, Héctor Zamora, Hélio Oiticica, Ivan Serpa, Jandyra Waters, Joaquín Torres García, Jorge dos Anjos, Judith Lauand, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Madalena dos Santos Reinbolt, Magdalena Jitrik, María Freire, Marioly Rosas Figueroa, Milton Dacosta, Mira Schendel, Montez Magno, Pedro Reyes, Rubem Valentim, Sergio Camargo, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, Vicente do Rego Monteiro, Willys de Castro.

Latin-American lines: opposite, complementary, parallel, perpendicular

Tiago Mesquita

 

I

Weaving is an ancient activity in the Andean region, in South America. Many populations, with distinct cultures, political, religious, and cultural formations dedicated themselves through time to this activity, which is one of the longest lasting traditions of visual production. If we consider only the period before the Spanish invasion, the technique appears consolidated since the institution of the Chavin culture (c. 800 B.C.) to the end of Inca domination (1.532 A.D.) – this stretch alone spans more than two thousand years of uninterrupted development in an area that includes Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. The trajectory, however, is much longer and persists to this day.
It is a difficult story to tell, made of many interethnic contacts, conflicts, and cultural and artistic collaborations. Artificers from different populations appropriated and transformed the elements that had been previously made. Motifs that carried a certain meaning for a certain nation acquired new ones in the hands of other weavers. A way of weaving developed here was reinterpreted elsewhere. A weaver from one region would suddenly decide to combine a pattern learned somewhere else, and so on.
This cultural continuity made weaving in the region an inventive and long-lasting production. Its history saw several wars, the extinctions of dominions, nations and the genocide resulting from the excessively violent Spanish invasion. To this day, many societies in South America vividly develop and transform this repertoire of techniques, symbols, narratives, colours, and manners of occupying space.
The Our North is the South exhibition starts from a small repertoire of these productions. These are old pieces, all made during the pre-Colombian period. Most of these works were created in the Huari cultural context, but Nazca and Inca pieces are also present. The artifacts were made for different ends, and tunics, panels and painted fabrics of various types can be seen. The oldest work was made in the Nazca Rio Grande valley, between the IInd and IIIrd centuries of the Christian era. The most recent are two pieces of Inca clothing showing sophisticated techniques, probably from the XVth century: a skirt and an unkuna (a cloth for wrapping bodies and things).
Formally, the works chosen for this exhibition tend toward abstraction. There are fabrics that start from recurring symbolic elements or ornamental forms derived from figures: bird’s beaks, snakes, mythological characters, and craniums. However, in the works that we show, the styling of such forms deals with less narrative elements. Even if the symbolic aspect is important, in a less detached gaze, manners of juxtaposing colours, dealing with empty space, alternating rhythms in the series of elements, incorporating lapses and small irregularities are also relevant.
Rhythmic and temporal issues are constitutive of weaving, which consists of repeating actions, combining one repetition with another through the beat of one or more times. The weaver orders points, wefts, strands, and forms as regular units of time. In the works shown here, times seem to combine structural regularities and transformations in colour, aligned with the rectangles and forms.
It is a complex web of compositions where variations or regular patterns take turns as the main element. We are before ways of ordering the time of the works with the time of living and the imagined time of the beyond, of the symbolic. It is no coincidence, then, that these different forms of thinking continue to echo in the manners of composing visuality of artists from diverse contexts.

 

II
Our North is the South intends to place the wealth of these productions beside the forms of thinking space conceived of by various creators in Latin America. Thus, artists from Andean traditions are united to modernist artists or others with the aim of presenting different uses of simple, geometric forms, in order to think the relation between space, time and project, for example.
It is possible to compare the way in which different weavers in Andean populations reinvented and reused this repertoire of forms, but we may also seek to approximate this repertoire to the geometric experimentation of the Latin American avant-garde in the xxth and XXIth century. The production of art for the exhibit made on the continent and Andean visuality, old or modern, are related and can be approximated in many ways.
In the beginning of the XXth century, many modern artists were interested in this visual repertoire. With different levels of research and comprehension, they found in these different productions a way to distance themselves from the stale European academic languages. For artists such as Joaquín Torres García and Vicente do Rego Monteiro, the decorative repertoire of non-European peoples seemed to presage constructive reasonings. Anachronistically, the artists identified with a more universalist visuality. A more radical South American response to the issues that were brought up by the European avant-garde regarding art history at the time.
In an optimistic way, Uruguayan artists from Escuela del Sur, for example, understood that millenary cultures existed in South America that would be bearers of a more modern way of elaborating visuality than European efforts. They therefore inverted the racist perspectives of XIXth century anthropology. Where thinkers like Frazer and Gobineau associated non-European countries to backwardness and cultural incapacity, these first South American avant-gardists saw in these achievements, remote as they were, the promise of a future. The study of these forms was a utopian undertaking. An attempt to reorganize the system of the arts through a different geographic reference-point.
Torres García especially had an ahistorical reading of pre-Colombian productions. The study of the Andeans is motivated by an approximation that excessively unifies styles. The perspectives are considered by the artist as ancestral, mythical, archaic, and timeless. Even while searching for a non-European understanding of art, this approach is still imbued with a classical conception of Andean production as the reproduction of sacred forms of an immemorial past.
Andean visuality is therefore perceived as a history-less metaphysics, without internal developments and tensions, destined to the repetition of the same themes with little variation. However, these themes are still living, not only as a legacy but as subject matter.
In Torres García’s time, Andean cultural traditions could be observed in the visual production of many different non-European cultures. It was a living archive, in transformation. Furthermore, it was also an archive of plasticity. Through survival or cultural exchange, ornamental aspects of native traditions were already established since the XVIth century, in the Christian representation of large colonial centres like Potosí and Cuzco. Thus, although it has served to construct Torres García's ambitious universalist language, such production is not a dead, unused language.

 

III

Our exhibition, therefore, is less genealogical and more of an exercise in connecting contact-points. Contacts between these living geometrical idioms in transformation. Through pre-Colombian pieces, we attempt visual geometric formulations, abstract or ornamental, with a clearly defined origin. The relations of artworks from the past to those of modernity sometimes occurs through cultural, formal, or technical proximity, or even through their contrasts.
Even so, some artists establish explicit dialog with the formal repertoire of ancient or modern indigenous cultures. Mexican artist Pedro Reyes, for example, constructs his abstract language through symbols and cultural conceptions of Mesoamerican pre-Colombian cosmogonies, like those of the Mayas, Aztecs and Olmecs. Beyond the use of forms, Reyes starts from traditional narratives of ancient populations and tries to express their experience through that specific idiom.
Other artists in this show use an Amerindian originary vocabulary but starting from more modern developments. The Composição Indígena (1922) works, by Vicente Rego Monteiro, and Trilogia nº1, nº2 and nº3 (1967), by Montez Magno, start from indigenous ornamentation in their more modern unravellings, like those made by the ceramists on the Marajó Island.
The forms which María Freire works out in the Sudamérica series, while they do not derive from explicit sources, emulate aspects of Amerindian compositions. The artist seeks a synthetic and decorative element through the attributes, for example, of Andean textile production. They do not intend to be precise, like the figure, but general like an archetype.
Other artists such as Rubem Valentin, Jorge dos Anjos, Madalena dos Santos Reinbolt and Magdalena Jitrik work with simple and regular forms coming from other sacred or popular cultures, be them African religions, Brazilian rural life decoration or the visuality of industrial workers.
The connections, however, are not always so direct. There are works, such as those by Afonso Tostes, Amilcar de Castro, Celso Renato and Héctor Zamora, that are close to Andean fabrics through different relations, such as those that appear between a work, form, and material. These are works by artists who utilize simple and regular forms, but who arrive at them through a rougher contact, through friction with materials. They seem to bring something of the artificer, the labourer’s efforts, something of the craftsman. The relation with technique allows for rich comparisons. In fact, patterns and weaving are also motifs in other works shown here, such as those of Lygia Pape and Mira Schendel.

 

IV
Part of the artists in this group show are members of the South American abstract geometric avant-garde. The productive contact between the Argentine Madí group and Joaquin Torres Garcia’s Escuela del Sur notwithstanding, the developments in constructive art in Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Colombia seem to not necessarily bear any relation. They respond to their own cultural debates, looking at European sources, in a renewed effort of artistic activity, in dialog with other creative fields such as architecture, photography and design.
In Brazil, the approximation between European concrete languages occurred in an accelerated moment of urbanization, modernization and industrialization of Brazilian society and economy. The renewal of the language, for many, was thought of as an effort to be rid of the backwardness and all the setbacks of a poor, predominantly rural, underdeveloped, and uneducated society. The use of a simpler repertoire was seen as the possibility of a more egalitarian type of creation, which might dismiss traditional themes pertaining to more antiquated, typical literature. Art was no longer dedicated to the development of craftwork but incorporated new techniques and new ways of organizing aesthetic material. Artists such as Judith Lauand, Ivan Serpa worked with these regular elements through sensory games, which unmade hierarchical relationships and composition conventions, with the clear-cut position between figure and background.
In Brazil, the approximation between European concrete languages occurred in an accelerated moment of urbanization, modernization and industrialization of Brazilian society and economy. The renewal of the language, for many, was thought of as an effort to be rid of the backwardness and all the setbacks of a poor, predominantly rural, underdeveloped, and uneducated society.
The use of a simpler repertoire was seen as the possibility of a more egalitarian type of creation, which might dismiss traditional themes pertaining to more antiquated, typical literature. Art was no longer dedicated to the development of craftwork but incorporated new techniques and new ways of organizing aesthetic material. Artists such as Judith Lauand, Ivan Serpa worked with these regular elements through sensory games, which unmade hierarchical relationships and composition conventions, with the clear-cut position between figure and background.
At an immediately subsequent moment, artists such as Willys de Castro, Hélio Oiticica, Aluísio Carvão, Lygia Clark and Amilcar de Castro abandoned the pragmatic use of the constructive vocabulary in the communication context, elaborating asymmetrical formal relations, using fewer graphic materials and colours, and relying on a critical and sensorial relationship with art.
For Lygia Clark, for example, the fundamental aesthetic issue is the possibility of knowing through senses became a rich problematic in her work. From there, her production abandons a contemplative strain and begins to propose forms that demand the manipulation and participation of the spectator. In Relógio de Sol [Sundial] (1960), the work becomes an operation which mobilizes touch, gestures and vision. The so-called “participator” moves the articulated parts of the works, geometrical forms fastened together with hinges, and attempts to order the object that resists the wills of whoever manipulates it.
After Relógio de Sol [Sundial] (1960) and the other Bichos [Critters], Clark begins to create objects and propositions that create restrictions or activate the senses. In some, the intention seems to be to break the automatic bonds that relate vision, touch, hearing, and smell. People, therefore, would rediscover their senses and rebuild the paths of perception. Little by little, Clark sees this reconstruction of “living biological architecture” as an activity with a “collective sense”. Something like a subjective liberation ritual.
Some Andean textiles had a ritualistic meaning. They served as elements of mythic articulation and reinvention of collective memory. At times, like in the work of Lygia Clark, this was done through the construction of geometrical or geometricized forms. Perhaps because they bear some common elements, we realize that one could not be more different from the other.
Supposedly neutral elements, when seen in different contexts, lose their proclaimed universality. Thus, the uses of those elements become more historical, particular, contradictory – therefore, more interesting. More idealist, platonic interpretations like to imagine that formal, symbolic, or narrative recurrences occur. They would be the echo of a universal dimension of humanity, of a fundamental element of consciousness, from transcendental spirituality to historical, cultural, geographical, and social changes. Even though this text does not undertake theoretical leaps, it is not too much to affirm that this exhibition takes the opposite path. What is of interest are less the recurrences and more the possible variations, the contrasts, recompositions of the use of lines in South America. The recurrence of forms, as elements of plasticity, helps us not only to identify them, but to produce friction between them.