Juan José Olavarría, Padre, eres tú o no eres o quién eres? (Father, Is It You or Not or Who Are You?), 2016, earth and oil on canvas, 47 1⁄4 × 78 3⁄4".

Juan José Olavarría, Padre, eres tú o no eres o quién eres? (Father, Is It You or Not or Who Are You?), 2016, earth and oil on canvas, 47 1⁄4 × 78 3⁄4".

Juan José Olavarría

A few days before Peru reacted to the Covid-19 pandemic with a total lockdown, the Galería de la Municipalidad de Lima Pancho Fierro, located downtown, near the capital city’s usually populous main square, opened a show by Juan José Olavarría titled “La locura más peligrosa de América” (America’s Most Threatening Madness), curated by Fabiola Arroyo. While I was able to visit the show only digitally, it might very well have been the most compelling and dramatic account to date of the humanitarian crisis affecting the American continent caused by the migratory flux of Venezuelan exiles. Fleeing the catastrophic situation of their homeland, 4.5 million Venezuelans have relocated since 2015, and Peru—otherwise a country with few immigrants—has welcomed more than 750,000 of them. These recent arrivals account for about 2.5 percent of the Peruvian population, and represent a sevenfold increase in the number of foreigners living in Peru.

Two large-scale horizontal canvases offered thematic axes for the entire show: the idea of flux and migration on the one hand, and that of stasis and death on the other. Del rigor en la ciencia (On Exactitude in Science), 2020, a drawing made of earth on canvas, presents a bird’s-eye view of a crowd of migrants walking over the bridge that connects Venezuela and Colombia. The bridge is named after Simón Bolívar, the worshiped liberator of both countries and an emblematic figure for the populist authoritarianism established in Venezuela by the late Hugo Chávez. Padre, eres tú o no eres o quién eres? (Father, Is It You or Not or Who Are You?), 2016, in earth and oil on canvas, presents a similarly striking view of the ceremonial opening of Bolívar’s tomb ordered by Chávez in order to verify the presence of the liberator’s remains.

Olavarría’s exhibition was thus, from this perspective, a memorable statement about contemporary necropolitics: the politics of death, and its consequence, the death of politics, as manifested by institutional dismantling, massive emigration, lethal corruption, and literal death. The axis of migration, meanwhile, was expressed in a range of works, almost all made with the artist’s signature technique of earth-based pigments and water on unstretched raw canvas: Venezuelan and Peruvian flags (the artist is known for his series of embroidered colorless Venezuelan flags); an embroidered map of South America with lines in varying degrees of thickness representing the numbers of Venezuelan migrants; and a moving installation titled Páramo de Berlín, 2020, after the Spanish name for a high-altitude section of the freezing Andean steppe that many migrants must cross. This installation—a wooden stick mounted horizontally in a corner with hanging backpacks and personal items that the artist collected from migrants who survived the feat—is a votive antimonument to countless lives lost.

The axis of stillness and death was predominant in Modelos para la fabricación de urnas y otros dispositivos para entierros caseros (Models for Making Urns and Other Devices for Home Burials), 2020, which also brought to mind how people in Venezuela, and recently in other countries as well, have been recycling refrigerators and wardrobes as coffins for victims of Covid-19. El piso 10 (The Tenth Floor), 2018, is an embroidered floor plan of the intelligence headquarters in Caracas where opposition politician Fernando Albán was in all probability tortured to death before his “suicide” was staged by the authorities in 2018.

Among the most striking and moving works in the exhibition, Manta, 2020, depicts twenty-one-year-old migrant Lorena Cardozo, who was violently murdered while passing through Ecuador. Here Olavarría recalls both Goya’s motifs of human disaster and the Spanish artist’s depictions of beautiful women known as majas, particularly important as manifested in Armando Reverón’s monochromatic maja paintings of the 1930s, works that are emblematic of Venezuela’s vernacular modernism—a tradition that now comes to an end, in funereal manner, under the burden of an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. For Lista de mujeres migrantes venezolanas asesinadas en el mundo (List of Venezuelan Women Murdered in the World), 2020, the artist had originally intended to write the names of Venezuelan women migrants who were victims of femicide on the gallery walls as he received information of their deaths during the show’s run—as if the most threatening madness was oblivion, against which art still stands.