50 Times Two


Medell’n Show Brings Latin Diversity to D.C.

Earlier this year, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) held its annual Board of Governors meeting and, as it always does, the IDB Cultural Center mounted an exhibition about the culture and art of the host city — in this case Medellín, Colombia (see “Medellín Moves Up” in the April 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

But this year — because the meeting marked the IDB’s 50th anniversary as a partner in the social and economic development of Latin America and the Caribbean — the IDB held two concurrent exhibits to mark the occasion. In Washington there was “Medellín: Art and Development” that ran in the spring, while in Medellín, there was a major exhibition on 20th century Latin American and Caribbean art called “50 Years, 50 Works.”

Now, Washington audiences can get a taste of the depth, diversity and just plain excellence of the works sent to Colombia because an abbreviated version of “50 Years, 50 Works” has come to the IDB Cultural Center, bringing together Latin and Caribbean artwork from the collections of the IDB as well as the Organization of American States.

“This is more than half of the actual exhibition which we brought to Medellín,“ said Félix Angel, the IDB Cultural Center’s director. “We based this on the work done by the late Latin American art critic Marta Traba, who wrote a survey of Latin American and Caribbean art in the 20th century which ended in the 1980s and was amended in the 1990s. It’s only a small sampling, but it gives you an idea of the rich variety, diversity, influences and work that exists. Some of it was very familiar, some was not.”

What quickly became evident in Medellín was that there was a hunger and curiosity for the work presented. “It was a popular exhibition, a big success,” Angel, himself an artist, said. “You would not believe the response. I must have done 50 interviews about the show. But the first question always seemed to be, ‘Where are the Colombian artists?’”

Here, there is in fact only one: Colombian Alejandro Obregón, whose “The Wake” is a startlingly vivid, blood red-tinged oil painting of a fragmented human form.

“We wanted to show in this exhibition what was going on not only in Colombia but all over Latin America and the Caribbean,” Angel explained. “Medellín is not untypical of many Latin American cities. It is one of the most modern cities on the continent, but that is a recent development, a major revival. It’s also somewhat physically isolated, an inland city. The cultural and artistic atmosphere there is very good, but it’s grown with little context of other art in the region. That’s something that’s true elsewhere too.”

This exhibit fulfills the aim of the IDB Cultural Center almost perfectly. On the one hand, the many shows that have been curated by Angel are a way to explain and showcase art from particular IDB member nations, even specific cities and regions. But the 50th anniversary celebration was also a way to explore the rest of Latin American art, genres, development and trends — exposing artists to one another.

And perhaps because there is no readily identifiable strain of Latin American art in a broad sense, the works of individual artists from different countries aren’t necessarily familiar throughout the region. So in short, Andy Warhol draws a crowd in Medellín, as would an exhibit on Diego Rivera. But many of the individuals in “50 Years, 50 Works” might not.

“I think all of that is beginning to change,” Angel said. “You could tell simply by the enthusiasm engendered by this exhibition in Medellín.”

Even with this smaller sampling, “50 Years, 50 Works” ought to draw a crowd here in Washington.

“This selection gathers two-dimensional works, paintings, drawings and engravings,” Angel said. “It allows for an overview of many of the most important moments in the history of 20th-century Latin American and Caribbean art. The variety of techniques responds to obvious and undeniable facts related to the region’s unpredictable and recurrent economic and social challenges.”

The dazzling variety of techniques also speaks to the bright future of art in the region. Consider the not entirely surprising bold colors of Jamaican Everald Brown and his Rastafarian allegory; or the puzzling and strange “Emiliano Zapata and Diego Bolivar, Our Grandchildren” by Argentinean Mauricio Lasansky of two children on a mule; or Costa Rican artist Francisco Zúñiga’s almost holy shrouded women in “Maternity”; or Venezuelan Carlos Cruz-Díez’s decidedly modern abstract work “Physiochrome” and its optical illusionary effects; or Cuban artist Amelia Peláez’s almost Picasso-like still life “Marpacífico.”

In addition to more well-known pieces by Mexican artists José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, there are masterworks everywhere — and though the names may be less familiar, the works are just as stamped by individuality and originality.

The larger exhibition shown in Medellín was something on the order of a gift and revelation. The smaller “50 Years, 50 Works” D.C. version is still a priceless present.

“50 Years, 50 Works: The Art of Latin America and the Caribbean in the 20th Century” runs through Aug. 14 at the Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center, 1300 New York Ave., NW. For more information, please call (202) 623-3774 or visit www.iadb.org/cultural.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.