PRINT December 1989

Papo Colo

By Dawn Ades et al., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989, 361 pp., 100 color and 150 black and white illustrations.

Facing the enigmatic tragicomedy of the southern part of my continent, the Americas, I read and reread this book, feel its physical weight, put it on the coffee table, stare at the reproductions, see their order and at the same time listen to a record in which the working classes and political ideas meet in popular music, Rubén Blades’ Buscando America (Searching for America): “I’m searching for America, and I fear I won’t find it . . . /Those afraid of truth have made her disappear.” With this tender and inquisitive inspiration I reapproach the book, published to accompany an exhibition of the same title at the Hayward Gallery, London, last spring.

To put in one book the modern history of Latin American art, especially that of the last thirty years, is impossible, not only for the obvious reasons—can you imagine how we would understand the history of European art if it were described only in books pretending to cover it from 1820 to 1980, or from the “indigenous roots” to modern times?—but because complete information cannot be available: the Americas are a continent at war. It is in this context that Latin America is unable to invent its own industrial autonomy, and must live off the opinions of other lands. But South American culture is not only magic realist literature, cliched pictures of the jungle, and the Mexican muralists. There are 23 individual countries here, by my count, and a span of individual inventors of images in each one. Almost inevitably, then, the book suffers from an indecipherable politics of choice. The authors hit with fair precision up to the ’50s, but what is missing is the ferment of conceptual ideas that developed during the ’60s and ’70s. Also missing are those Latin American artists exiled in the political diaspora.

Yet this is a good book, worth reading, a document of the invisible half of our Western continent. It is the first general history of Latin American art to include many of the manifestos written there between 1920 and 1961, crucial information for the reader seeking to comprehend the artistic intelligentsia of those years. Poetry, art, and political history are combined in a meaningful discourse that includes Simón Bolívar, Tupac Amaru, Pablo Neruda, Rubén Darío, and José Guadalupe Posada, to name just a few. In the final analysis it is not the information or the narrative of the book that makes me uncomfortable, but its stated intention of “exploring both the indigenous roots and the colonial and then postcolonial experience.” The countries of contemporary South America are not post-colonial but neocolonial: if they cannot control their economies, how can they control their cultures? Thus the book alerts us to the reality that its commentary comes not from the source but from the outside. I tip my hat to its writers/organizers, but in the corner of my eardrum I still hear the voice of Blades singing, “You have been kidnapped, America; you have been gagged,/And it is up to us to free you.”

—Papo Colo