Recent Acquisitions by MFAH Shed New Light on Latin American Artists

Since the 2001 establishment of the Department of Latin American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – and aided by the keen eye of Mari Carmen Ramírez, Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and Director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas – the museum has launched an ambitious campaign to research, document and acquire modern and contemporary art from Central and South America.

In 2010 the museum, along with Fundación Gego, created a joint project called the Caribbean Art Fund; this partnership has enabled the museum to acquire 41 works by 20 artists; a large segment of these new acquisitions can be seen in the “Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America” exhibit.

Thematically, the pieces in the exhibit are linked not by traditional beauty, but through a common thread of extra-aesthetic factors. The works reference poverty, violence, gender inequality, political repression, the war on drugs, industrialization and even games and digital technology. Veering away from the traditional wall-mounted painting, the sculptural pieces incorporate teeth, human hair, coca leaves, LEGO® bricks, sugar cubes, tulle and copper wire.

Three artists reference Cuba’s Special Period in Time of Peace, when the dissolution of the Soviet Union resulted in shortages of food and gasoline, and the creation of an economic crisis. Tania Bruguera, who was briefly incarcerated for promoting free speech, replicated the Cuban flag using rolled up human hair and fabric as a way to restore humanity to the flag. Thousands of human teeth are arranged in a square box under a convex rock, demonstrating the grinding of teeth due to stress in a minimalist piece by Yoan Capote. Los Carpinteros, a Cuban collective, became fascinated by the abandoned Soviet-era monuments and replicated Dušan Džamonja’s Monument to the Revolution of the people of Moslavina using wood and LEGOs.

Several Colombian artists paint a grim picture. Miguel Ángel Rojas’s Broadway consists of a trail of coca leaves marching across the wall, representing the struggles of migrant workers in the coca community in an ant-like assembly line. The same artist offers a video of a young mutilated soldier who has lost both hands trying with great effort to wash camouflage paint off his face. Óscar Muñoz’s video projection on a table shows a ghostly arm lifting and placing photographs of those who have died under violent circumstances interspersed with figures from popular culture who died too young.

María Fernanda Cardoso’s floating dried starfish sculptures and Magdalena Fernández’s video installation with sound each offer immersive, sensory experiences for the viewer.

While not new acquisitions, we see a return of the oversized clay relief calaveras by Grupo Mondongo (Juliana Laffitte, Manuel Mendanha and Agustina Picasso) that offer a level of detail rarely seen. Interspersing pop culture with artistic and biblical history, the pieces are part of a series of 12 and mix tongue-in-cheek humor with contradictory images in the shape of skulls against a Pac-man background.

"Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America" continues through February 28, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, open Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sundays 12:15 to 7 p.m., 713-639-7300, mfah.org. $15.

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