The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) is buzzing with activity in preparation for the opening of "United States of Latin America" (Sept. 18, 2015-Jan. 3, 2016). Organized by MOCAD senior curator at large Jens Hoffmann (also deputy director of the Jewish Museum in New York) and Pablo León de la Barra (UBS MAP Latin American curator at the Guggenheim), the group exhibition stems from a decades-long conversation between the two curators about the identity and diversity of Latin American artists. It will feature 34 artists hailing from all over Latin America, including Minerva Cuevas, Ximena Garrido-Lecca, Amalia Pica and Pedro Reyes.
Hoffmann and León de la Barra took a moment away from overseeing the busy installation to speak with A.i.A. about the conceptual foundation for the show, their hopes for a greater dialogue around Latin American identity, and the energy of emerging art scenes.
SARAH ROSE SHARP Can you give me a little taste of the conceptual basis for the show?
PABLO LEÓN DE LA BARRA We first met in 2001, but the dialogue started before then—I remember when I read your interview with Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster in '99 [in an exhibition catalogue]. He [Jens] had a column for Purple magazine called "Avenidas," which means "roads." He would write about each trip that he took through Latin America.
JENS HOFFMANN We were both emerging curators in the early 2000s. We both have roots in Latin America—Pablo was born in Mexico, I was born in Costa Rica. We were both looking at a lot of similar artists that are from our generation—which is also the basis of this show. These are all artists born after 1970.
LEÓN DE LA BARRA I think the oldest was born in '72, the same year as me.
HOFFMANN That generational bracket is also how the show came together, bringing together someone like Pedro Reyes, who is a little bit more prominent, with people who have never really shown in the U.S.
LEÓN DE LA BARRA We wanted to move toward the next generation and put many of these artists in dialogue for the first time.
HOFFMANN And not focus on the usual countries. We have Mexican artists, we have artists from Brazil, but also artists from many other countries that are not usually in Latin American shows.
LEÓN DE LA BARRA We're interested in this idea of dialogue beyond regions, not only between us but between these artists, and what connection they could have with Detroit, and with the art world in general.
HOFFMANN Latin America is not as networked as North America, where artists freely move around.
SHARP Is there a redeeming element to that regional isolation, because you get results that are a more pure reflection of a place?
HOFFMANN Sometimes I think there is a benefit to it, because you have time to ferment something—
LEÓN DE LA BARRA Mature it, to create a humus, or fertile soil.
HOFFMANN But there's a conflict, for me, around whether the work has to be somehow related to the realities in Latin America. We're trying to negotiate those questions with this exhibition.
LEÓN DE LA BARRA I don't think the exhibition pits the United States against Latin America, but even the exhibition's title plays a little bit with the idea that the United States has almost taken the name of America—which is a continent—for itself. You have Europe trying to create a whole European community, so what would happen if Latin America started to work in a more unified way?
HOFFMANN Naming is really at the core of how you define an identity of a place. Every name you give that region is somewhat inauthentic, you know? Even if you call it Latin America, you're referring to a language from somewhere else, a culture from somewhere else. But there have been many Latin American movements about a unified vision for the continent. The whole show is based on the impossibility of defining that region.
LEÓN DE LA BARRA What you find is that there's a diversity of voices, that there's not one single Latin American style. We're trying to show this complexity of practices.
SHARP From where I'm sitting, I see two pieces that mix U.S. culture with Latin American culture.
HOFFMANN That central mural is called America.
SHARP Yes, I recognize Scrooge McDuck, of course, swimming in his vault of money.
HOFFMANN And he's superimposed on a colonial painting of an indigenous person.
LEÓN DE LA BARRA It's by Minerva Cuevas, a Mexican artist who has been very politically active throughout [her career]. We thought it was interesting to present the work in Detroit, because of the Diego Rivera murals just next door [the Detroit Industry Murals, 1932-33, at the Detroit Institute of Arts], which people identify with Mexican art. We saw Diego Rivera murals together about eight years ago in San Francisco.
HOFFMANN The Pan American Unity Mural [at the City College of San Francisco, 1940].
LEÓN DE LA BARRA We thought it was interesting to present work by someone who was rethinking what a political mural could be. When you see the show, it seems very vibrant, lots of color. That could correspond to a certain idea that people have of art in the region—but if you look further into the works, upon closer examination, you start to see these other layers of content.
SHARP Can you talk about a few pieces that capture some of the relationships or themes you are trying to cultivate?
HOFFMANN Nicolás Consuegra's works relate to Detroit and the post-industrial condition. There are 10 photographs taken in Bogotá, in places that removed the letters [from mounted signs on the facade] of businesses. There is this ghostlike presence that is left behind. So the work talks about urban and economical conditions, but at the same time, how much is left of a prior purpose once we take its signifiers away.
LEÓN DE LA BARRA One piece that comes to mind is the work of Ximena Garrido-Lecca, who is installing right here.
SHARP This collection of earthenware vessels of different sizes? Is she connecting them with lengths of copper piping?
LEÓN DE LA BARRA They're ceramic pots from the north of Peru, which were once seen as useful but have now become decorative. She makes the sculpture become a kind of machine, related not only to the past use of the ceramics to contain water, but to the oil exploitation happening in the region today. So what happens with those truths left in the past?
SHARP That's a great question.
LEÓN DE LA BARRA The geometric work is by Amalia Pica, who is an artist from Argentina now living in London. It comes from a performance where plexiglass shapes are mounted on a wall, and the performers select them and bring them together into physical compositions just shy of intersecting, or sometimes overlapping. So this piece is a memory of this moment but it also comes from growing up in Argentina in the '70s, at a time when the military dictatorship prohibited assembly by more than three people in the street. So she's taking realities from the past, but is also moving to the future, envisioning the possibility of people to assemble together in the streets again. I think it's these intersections and unions that we're trying to create-how to shake up what is normally understood as art from Latin America.
SHARP There's obviously a Latino community within Detroit, and I think there is a desire among that community to identify with something besides Midwestern United States culture. The piece that Garrido-Lecca is working on here, for instance, incorporates copper pipes. In Detroit, these pipes get stripped out of houses a lot. They have a specific meaning in this city. So, coming into a place with your own set of signifiers, that then creates a whole different layer of meaning.
LEÓN DE LA BARRA As an outsider, I'm interested in people's perspectives of Detroit. Even Ximena, arriving yesterday for the first time, said, "Oh, I'm going to find a city that's in ruins." And the truth is that once you start looking inside it, you find that there are a lot of people doing things, running spaces—there is an energy. One of the things you can learn from Latin America is the artistic activity of emerging places. There's a tradition of artist-run spaces, artist-run schools, which is discussed in a conversations in the catalogue. It's not only about mounting an exhibition about art from elsewhere, but about how you can connect different cities. One of the strengths here, and in Latin America, is that a lot of these artistic scenes have responded to continuous economic, social and political crisis, and have used art to imagine a world in which to live. Art is a tool that goes beyond the market or museum exhibitions, and is significant in its own locality.
HOFFMANN For me, exhibitions are very much linked to education and pedagogy—even the exhibition as a metaphoric journey to places previously unknown. Whether those are intellectual places or geographic places doesn't really matter so much, because they both come together. So [the show] invites you to take a step somewhere else, which seems geographically so close, but intellectually, politically, socially or economically really far away.