Diplomatic Subtext

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IDB Showcases Latin American Art in Washington

The variety and range of works on display in “Artful Diplo-macy: Art as Latin America’s Ambassador in Washington, D.C.”—an engaging exhibition of some 60 works now at the Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center—speaks to many issues, not the least of which is the status of Latin American art in Washington.

Almost all of the Latin American countries are represented (with the singular exception of Panama) in this remarkable exhibit curated by Félix Ángel, the cultural center’s director, who foraged for the art right here in his own backyard among the city’s Latin American embassies.

As a viewer, you have to marvel at the great diversity of paintings, sculptures and indigenous art on display here, from contemporary abstract paintings, to pre-Colombian pottery and sculptures, to religious art from the colonial period that could easily be mistaken for European renaissance art.

The variety is of course rewarding for its own sake, but it is also telling because it reveals much about Latin American history as a whole, as well as the history of its individual countries. In fact, it’s an endeavor that’s large and complicated enough to afford its own singular museum.

And that’s one of the reasons for this exhibition—to highlight a certain absence. “Here in Washington, you have museums for Asian art, for African art, and certainly for American and European art, and contemporary art, but there is no museum of size and substance, homegrown, that specializes in Latin American art,” said Ángel, who hails from Colombia. “So yes, there is a subtext to this exhibition. It’s about what’s not here as well as the generous amount of work that’s a part of the exhibition.”

He has a point and the exhibition emphasizes it. “It’s not so easy defining Latin American art per se, or art from Brazil, or Mexico,” he said. “There have been very many important artists and figures in art history from Latin America … but there is no place that tells the story of the development and history of Latin American Art or explores the vast territory occupied by that art—and there should be one.”

Washingtonians do have the museum at the Organization of American States, but it’s a relatively small venue. And the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Cultural Center has certainly done its level best to trace the artistic history of the Western Hemisphere through its individual exhibitions.

In fact, “Artful Diplomacy” bears all the hallmarks of an IDB exhibition on, say, Peru or Guatemala because these individual exhibitions have always been marked by a surprising diversity, even when focused on a single nation or period. That’s the hallmark here as well, with an exhibit that purposefully, it seems, lacks a certain coherence and clarity.

“A viewer, if he is curious and willing to make the effort, will see certain connections and similarities or influences among artists,” Ángel said. “You should make the effort to try to bring some knowledge of history to see the extra little thing.”

There is, for instance, a section in which pre-Colombian figures and a series of five watercolor prints from Peru by 19th-century artist Pancho Fierro seem to echo one another. Likewise, three oil paintings from the early 19th-century Quito School in Ecuador are full of ravishing colors that echo European works dating three to four centuries earlier.

Indeed, most of the works are full of intriguing, though not entirely plugged-in, connections. If the cool, smooth sculptures of Bolivian artist Marina Núñez del Prado, for instance, remind you a little of English sculptor Henry Moore, they just as easily strike a chord of the great Mayan cities that flourished long before the Europeans came. In fact, the history of Latin American art is a tangled web that includes crafts and primal work from the pre-European past, the colonial period and the large, looming shadow of Europe, whose influence is great at least in part because many Latin American artists went to Europe for their education.

But individual identity and intellectual clarity is often hard to pinpoint from country to country when it comes Latin American art. Sure, everyone gets the fact that Diego Rivera’s murals are singularly about Mexico, but it’s harder to say why the exhibit’s religious paintings are Ecuadorian or why del Prado’s art says something about Bolivia. You’d probably recognize “Muerte” as Mexican, but you wouldn’t know that “Dead Bird” by Vicente Forte is related to Argentina.

This variety may be daunting, but it also makes for a rich experience. Most of the works here usually hang in the hallways, dining rooms and meeting rooms of Latin American embassies—expressions of both national pride and individual tastes.

In the end, “Artful Diplomacy” does what all diplomats far from home do: They invite curiosity and appreciation—in this case about Latin American art—and make you hunger for more. Of course, that hunger could begin to be satisfied by a major museum of Latin American art in Washington, D.C.

Artful Diplomacy: Art as Latin America’s Ambassador in Washington, D.C. through Jan. 30 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.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999