IT IS PERHAPS DIFFICULT now for the West, where the miraculous has long been banished by rationalism, to imagine the crisis of knowledge precipitated 500 years ago on both sides of the Atlantic by the Spanish conquista. From the European perspective, other imaginary worlds, divine and profane, had long preoccupied the Greco-Judaic consciousness, but these had been the product of a fixed world order. Confronted by a reality challenging the projections of space and time that he had structured through his mythic texts, the European was suddenly no longer the privileged subject of knowledge. The savagery with which he set about eradicating peoples and their symbolic systems and inscribing his own within their territories cannot be explained simply on the basis of his ambivalent desire for the unknown, or for economic gain; it was also, as Tzvetan Todorov suggests in The Conquest of America, an attempt to recenter himself in this expanded universe.
It seems clear that from the outset the European produced, and continues to produce, the Americas as and within a discourse—that is, by analogy with his own, preexisting frames of knowledge, rather than by attending to their external reality. From 16th-century Europe’s description of Inca civilization in terms of its fantasy of imperial Rome to Ronald Reagan’s demonization of Nicaragua as part of his fictitious “evil empire,” knowledge of the “other” America has been shaped through Eurocentric representations. What has this meant for what is now known as “Latin” America, a heterogeneity of cultures, some more, others less criollo or mestizo, African or mulatto, but all haunted on the one hand by Europe and on the other by survivors of a pre-Columbian world, traumatized by the disembowelment of its cultures and the imposition of alien structures of thought? For the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Marquéz, “The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary. . . . we have had to ask but little of our imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.”1
At stake is representation as an expression of other histories, other identities. And it was as an attempt to unravel the protracted iconographic war waged against Ibero-America by the Eurocentric West, from Counter-Reformation propaganda to the present-day mass media, that the exhibition “America. Bride of the Sun,” at Antwerp’s Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten earlier this year, acquired its resonance.
The southern Netherlands, themselves under Spanish rule during the conquista, played a pivotal role in Catholic Europe’s iconographic subjugation of indigenous America. Flemish skills in visual description (especially natural history), and in printing and cartography (maps of the “New World” were among the first targets of modern-style international espionage), were invaluable to Spain. With the relocation of maritime mercantilism from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, Antwerp became one of Europe’s most influential ports, receiving much of the gold, silver, and timber plundered from the Americas. In turn, the city exported books and prints in the Catholic drive to convert the Indians, as well as, later on, luxury goods for the viceregencies of Nueva España and Peru.
This history was the initial alibi for “America. Bride of the Sun.” But curators Catherine de Zegher and Paul Vandenbroeck did not intend to let us daydream in some exoticized past. Rather, through juxtaposing installations by contemporary Latin-American artists with historical art and artifacts of ceremonial, religious, domestic, and scientific purpose, they sought to pull representations from the past into focus with the conditions of the present. Imbricated with this crossing and doubling of time was a crossing and doubling of space, in which Europe’s images of Latin America, structured through both fantasy and the changing face of the conquista—military, evangelical, economic, intellectual, and sensual—were counterposed with their effect on the Americas, and with the Americas’ returning gaze: the evolution of forms of self-representation through negotiations of gender, the doctrines of church and state, and redemption from cultural trauma.
“America. Bride of the Sun,” then, was a text “about” history and the power of images. On this level alone it was astonishing for its scholarship. Furthermore, as it refused the usual prescriptions of chronology, mapping instead a labyrinthine, thematically organized journey through a complex imagery of cultural conflict, convergences, recurrences, and ruptures, it invited the viewer to face her or his own Latin-American imaginary in its accumulation and cross-referencing of signs.
A certain liberalist neocolonialism has marked the major recent exhibitions of work derived from non-European symbol systems, from “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” to “Magiciens de la terre” and “Mexico: Splendors of 30 Centuries.”2 There is a tendency to look for formal or “spiritual” “affinities” and “universalisms,” or for pre-Modern cultural essences, while ignoring the context shaping the work and its meanings, not to speak of the sociopolitical and historical formations of the West’s relations with those others who have produced them. The effect is to disarm difference, and to ensure that Western value systems retain their virginal whiteness. Thus the art of others remains hostage to criteria that measure it by abstract esthetic standards confirming the West’s own world view, rather than by its effectiveness as an expression of the symbolic system that engendered it.
Given this legacy, insofar as “America. Bride of the Sun” was staged in a conventional museum it was compromised from the outset. But the curators made no attempt to mask the contradictions in their own project—and, ultimately, the exhibition served to expose the fact that Latin America cannot be regarded as a cultural satellite of Europe. Its historical trajectories, the heterogeneity of its peoples, and the different degrees of mestizaje of its cultures give its art a salsa y aché (spice and spirit) that renders the West’s current critical tools inadequate to address it. Latin-American difference emerges quietly from the space of the familiar: as Luis Camnitzer writes, “The echo of a resemblance/The beginning of a self-portrait.”
Situated, for the most part, in a suite of galleries beneath the museum’s collection of old masters, the exhibition was nevertheless introduced to us through works by contemporary artists: David Lamelas’ Quand le ciel bas et lourd (When the low and heavy sky, 1987–91), a cluster of trees planted outside the museum under a steel shield that would deform them as they grew, and Roberto Evangelista’s Resgate, 1990–92, a spill of gourds—like so many trepanned craniums—across the floor and steps of the foyer, as if in some uncontainable excess of the museum’s propriety. These plays with the museum’s authority doubled as signs of the submission of the colonial “peripheries” to Europe, yet indicated that the peripheries have struggled for a life of their own.
The irrepressible pulse of this life reappeared eloquently in Victor Grippo’s Vida-Muerte-Resurrección (Life-death-resurrection, 1980), in which maize and red beans (staples of the Amerindian world), previously soaked in water, over time burst the seams of their containers—a violin case and geometrical lead figures respectively. Grippo’s work was a contemplation on discourses generally separated by Western thought—art and science, life and death, the past and present exploitation of American natural resources. Exemplary of the Latin-American struggle to give form to the traumas of conflict, Vida-Muerte-Resurrección was juxtaposed with other exhibits drawing out the economic aspect of the conquista: the skin bags and litters used by Indian slaves to take silver from the mines, and an oil painting, Virgen del cerro (The virgin of Mount Potosí, 18th century), by an unknown artist. Potosí is a Bolivian city founded on the wealth of the silver extracted from the mountain above it, the Cerro Rico. This mountain, depicted in the painting, was also included in Rubens’ design for an arch for the Antwerp mint, in 1635.
Virgen del cerro was part of another story elaborated in the exhibition, that of the Catholic attempt to displace the native world view, either by eradicating its symbols or by resemanticizing them in Christian iconography. From early on, native artists were trained to copy European images, largely from the prints made in the southern Netherlands. In time, however, these artists introduced indigenous motifs, resulting in a “hybrid” imagery. Virgen del cerro, for example (which may reflect more a layering of signs than a syncretism of beliefs), depicts the Virgin Mary as the Cerro Rico, collapsing the Christian devotional image with Pachamama, the Inca “earth mother,” whom the mountain represented. She is flanked by the sun and moon, symbols common to the Inca and the European visual worlds; but at her feet is a little sphere describing a mythic space-time of Inca origin. This is the kind of detail that distinguishes Latin-American devotional painting from its European counterpart.
The plurality of perspectives, symbolism, and materiality of Virgen del cerro are characteristics of a Mannerist/Baroque Counter-Reformation esthetic that perhaps in some way still informs the cultures of the continent, which did not follow the West’s trajectory through Enlightenment, rationalist, and Modernist thought. It is an esthetic in which a multiple spatiality liberates the erotic body from its classical idealizations, but at the same time opens the way to other, more violent mutilations. The exhibition picked up this thread through imagery of the cult of the Eucharist, in particular the festival of Corpus Christi, which in Cuzco echoed the ritual use of blood and maize in the Inca festival of purification. In Cuzco, as Vandenbroeck writes in the catalogue, the mystical body of Christ “linked the human body with the political system and the macrocosm” in a “naturalized” hierarchical social order.3
Where the West tends to figure the human body as “nature,” the body as it appeared in “America. Bride of the Sun” was the site both of the colonizing and regulatory power of authority and of a liberation that often arrived through disembodiment. Luis Camnitzer’s From the Uruguayan Torture, 1983 photogravures of hands, the flesh burned, pinned, pierced—may allude, like García Marquéz, to the way colonialism has disabled Latin America’s ability to represent itself, and to contemporary political conditions in parts of the continent; but it also addresses the sacrificial body, and the mythology of masculinity that links the Ibero-American tradition of redemption through blood and corporeal penetration to popular 20th-century icons of Latin machismo, such as the photograph of the assassinated Che Guevara as the imitatio Christi. The theme of redemption reappeared in Oscar Muñoz’s Cortinas de baño (Bath curtains, 1987–88), which suggests an Inca/Christian purification through water—the body, however, appearing in the process of dissolution. The body as trace or imprint, frequently ephemeral, a sign simultaneously of collective loss (of, for instance, the desaparecidos, whose anonymous deaths haunt time here) and of escape from the inscriptions of colonial repression, is central to the work of Ana Mendieta. This was represented in “America” by an untitled piece from 1976, in which leaves in a plot of grass shape a figure in an ecstatic gesture of ascension or free fall.
Mutilation and regeneration, melancholy and ecstasy: a constant redoubling of signs marks and remarks this “other” body’s restless struggle to represent itself, most poignantly in the suturing of fragments from the shadows of the past in Eugenio Dittborn’s “airmail” paintings. In one cabinet, ex-votos to the Virgin of Guadalupe—whose miraculous appearance absorbed the “earth mother” Tonantzin, unifying the devotions of colonial Mexico’s indigenes and criollos—were juxtaposed with two “eviscerated” hearts, one Frida Kahlo’s Apuntes y Recuerdos (Annotations and memories, 1943), in which a dolorous self-portrait appears within a transparent and fractured heart, the other Gabriel Orozco’s Mi corazón son mis manos, 1990, a sculpture formed by the pressure of his fingers on a ball of clay, a piece both flesh and bone, violent and yielding, collective and personal in its connotations.
Orozco and others in the exhibition tend to use urban refuse as a medium, less perhaps for its esthetic than for its political potential. Residues of the everyday insert the body, memory, and identity in a time tangential to Western history. Alicia Barney’s El Diario Objeto II, Bocagrande (The object diary II, Bocagrande, 1978–79), a series of collections of natural and manmade detritus from Colombia’s Bocagrande beach, “presents human beings through their articles of use,” the artist says, “reflecting and commenting on both personal and public interests represented in the material world, so giving us an image through time.”4 In Jimmie Durham’s work, however, the use of refuse both reclaims what Western culture discards and recriminates against history. Durham’s Ama, 1988–92, represents the ambivalences of the encounter between Spain and Mexico through the figures of Hernán Cortés and his lover and interpreter Malinche.
Malinche and Pachamama symbolize the violation of the American body. At the same time, however, like Tonantzin/Guadalupe, they represent sites where cross-cultural conflict sediments into some form of conciliation. In “America. Bride of the Sun,” they were also signs of a deliberate but understated insertion of the feminine, in excess both of the passive, devotional role assigned to the image of the Virgin and of the masculine presence that usually dominates exhibitions of this kind. Subtly alluded to here was female agency: women as the primary makers of meaning, not its passive object; women as keepers of the threads of knowledge that bind the social fabric, enabling connections between, for example, the makers of the Bolivian ajsu (women’s decorated garments) and Cecilia Vicuña, whose Document in Wool, 1992, draws on the traditions of Andean weaving; women speaking against the violence of repression, through demonstrations like those of Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, or through paintings like Débora Arango’s.
Admittedly, the exhibition’s title was not conducive to this “active” reading of its female presence. But the title was not approved by the curators—which, together with the museum authorities’ sabotage of many of the contemporary works after the show’s opening, suggests that this somewhat reluctant “Bride” may have produced a castration anxiety in the bedchamber of the groom. If metropolitan post-Modernism truly represents a crisis in knowledge, it does so largely as a consequence of those “brides” from the (post-) colonial peripheries, who undermine the Eurocentric West’s self-definition as a centered universal entity.
Jean Fisher is an artist and writer who lives in London. She is associate editor of the journal Third Text, and teaches in the MA Visual Arts Program at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London.
1. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, quoted in Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire, vol. 3: Century of the Wind, trans. Cedric Belfrage, New York: Pantheon Books, 1988, p. 262.
2. “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. in 1984. “Magiciens de la terre” at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. in 1989. “Mexico: Splendors of 30 Centuries,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1990–91.
3. Paul Vandenbroeck, “The Procession of the Holy Sacrament in Cuzco,” in America, Bride of the Sun, ed. Cateau Robberechts, Siska Beele, M. Catherine de Zegher, et al., exhibition catalogue, Brussels: Ministry of the Flemish Community. and Gent: Imschoot, uitgevers 1992. p. 440.
4. Alicia Barney. quoted in Miguel Gonzalez, “Alicia Barney: Bocagrande II,” in ibid., p. 299.