Latin Exchanges: the Connections Between and the Reception of Latin American Art in Britain

May 18, 2014

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Mira Schendel with a Droguinha at Signals Gallery in London, 1966. Image by Clay Perry

From the perspective of the UK, it has often seemed that the much contested field (and term) of Latin American art has been far less evident as a self-sustaining category than in other countries where histories of intervention and the consequent demographic influences have demanded it. Nonetheless, one might hope to write an account of the role and reception of Latin American art in the UK and likewise of the place that Britain has claimed in its inverse history. 

The history of artistic exchanges between Latin America and the UK is marked out not by sustained and strategic engagement, but rather by the profound and peculiar connections made through the agency of individuals. At different moments, diverse aesthetic interests have flourished so that Britain, despite having fewer cultural, economic and political ties with the region than with other parts of the globe, throughout the past century has nevertheless been engaged with and touched by key aspects of Latin American art. While at the time these developments and connections often only occurred between a few key individuals, operating at a distance from the mainstream, in retrospect, their activities have become the focus of much wider interest – or else should be so.

In the twentieth century we might trace this phenomenon back to the exemplary and eccentric figure of Francis John Hastings (1901-1990), who was, from 1939, the 16th Earl of Huntingdon. Hastings was an artist who in the 1930s became an apprentice and assistant of Diego Rivera in San Francisco and Detroit. His wife Cristina, an Italian aristocrat and communist, is the subject of a portrait by Frida Kahlo. Hastings donated a monumental drawing by Rivera (depicting a woman’s head that was to form the central, allegorical figure representing California in Rivera’s San Francisco mural) to the Tate. A Professor at Camberwell College of Arts, later on becoming a Labour peer who served in the post-war, reforming Attlee government, he painted his own murals at Buscot Park, Birmingham University and the Women’s Press Club in London, and his large-scale fresco Worker of the Future Upsetting the Economic Chaos of the Present 1935 is at the Marx Memorial Library in London.

In the 1940s the British-born Leonora Carrington settled permanently in Mexico City, becoming one of Mexico’s most important surrealist artists. Likewise, the British surrealist collector Edward James, another exemplary eccentric, relocated to Mexico in the 1940s. There he built his garden of surreal concrete sculptures ‘Las Pozas’ at Xilitla between 1949 and 1984, among the tropical vegetation and pools that gave the garden its name. James funded the garden’s cost—a reputed $5million—by selling his collection of surrealist works. His influence still holds in Mexico; James’ garden was the subject of a film installation by British-born Mexican artist Melanie Smith with which she represented Mexico at the 2011 Venice Biennale. 

In the 1950s Henry Moore travelled to Mexico where he met and developed a working relationship with the German-Mexican artist Mathias Goeritz. Moore’s work had been influenced decisively by Pre-Columbian Mexican art. In 1953, he collaborated with Goeritz to produce a mural for the interior of the Museo Experimental el Eco in Mexico City. In that year, the first major exhibitions of art from the continent were staged in London; the Mexican Government mounted an Exhibition of Mexican Art: from Pre-Columbian times to the present day organised by the innovative and influential curator Fernando Gamboa and presented at the Tate Gallery. It included a number of works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in its modern and contemporary section.

In the post-war era, interest in and connections between the UK and Latin American art shifted away from surrealism and muralism towards abstract geometric, kinetic and op art movements and then towards forms of conceptualism. In this, several individuals interacted to forge a new set of connections between Britain and Latin America. In the context of a burgeoning experimental art scene in London, several relatively short-lived galleries whose focus was on new art have since been seen as crucial to a retelling of the history of British engagement with Latin American art. 

Exemplary among them was Signals London (1964-66), which was connected to artists across Latin America, and also those based in Paris, often through the Brazilian artist Sergio Camargo. The gallery brought together a circle including critic and curator Guy Brett, director Paul Keeler, artists David Medalla, Camargo, Gustav Metzger and Marcelo Salvadori. Signals showed the work of Lygia Clark, Mira Schendel, Jesus Rafael Soto, Alejandro Otero, Carlos Cruz Diez and Camargo himself in a series of ground-breaking solo presentations, and staged a number of group exhibitions as well. Brett and Keeler both visited the 1965 São Paulo Bienal in Brazil and Brett highlighted the work of Mira Schendel in his review for the Times. Brett had been planning a solo exhibition for Helio Oiticica, and the works were already in London when the premature closure of Signals necessitated finding an alternative venue.  Oiticica’s most important lifetime exhibition—the Whitechapel Experiment—was finally realized at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1969. Brett has been one of the most consistent and sensitive interlocutors of Latin American art in the UK in the intervening decades. Only in retrospect has the crucial importance of Signals to the history of experimental art in London been fully appreciated., Much still needs to be done to examine its history and role in introducing many key artists to London.

In 1965, then Tate Director Alan Bowness was invited to serve on the jury of the Instituto Torquato di Tella directed by Jorge Romero Brest in Buenos Aires. That year Leon Ferrari’s work Western Christian Civilization 1965 was controversially withdrawn from the exhibition. But, it seems, Bowness’s presence had a decisive influence on a younger artist, David Lamelas, who was interested at the time in the work of British sculptors like Philip King, and whom Bowness encouraged to come to London. Lamelas duly arrived and in London made a shift from geometric sculpture to an investigation into narrative made manifest in a key work of the 1970s, Film Script (Manipulation of Meaning) 1972. He also made the work London Friends 1974, a piece that would later become the title for a show organized by the Mexican-British curator Pablo Leon de la Barra and Carmen Julia at the David Roberts Art Foundation in 2013 investigating the history of Latin American exchanges in London in the late 1960s and 1970s. 

The Mexican painter, printmaker and performance artist Felipe Ehrenberg came to Britain in 1968, staying until 1972. With the architect Martha Hellion and the critic and historian David Mayor, he founded Beau Geste Press/Libro Acción Libre in Devon to publish the work of various artists including those involved with the Fluxus movement. In London, Latin American exiles and emigrés congregated also around the Arts Laboratory in Drury Lane. Along with Oiticica and Brazilian musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, it also attracted the Argentinean Leopoldo Mahler, who was responsible for adapting Leon Ferrari’s textual-collage work Otras palabras into the performance Listen Here Now! which was staged at the Arts Lab in 1968. In London Mahler also mounted his own performances including Outrage 1969, in commemoration of the Sharpville Massacre, and Crane Ballet 1971. In 1973, Chilean artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña arrived in London to study, making paintings influenced by Leonora Carrington. When the coup in Chile that deposed Salvador Allende occurred a few months later, she and several of the former Signals circle, Guy Brett and David Medalla, along with poet John Dugger, founded Artists for Democracy.

In 1968 the University of Essex, one of the newly founded ‘red-brick’ universities which had admitted its first students in 1964, decided to prioritise Latin America, making it one of the focus areas of that institution’s teaching programme and founding a study centre devoted to the region. In the years that followed, the university, mostly under the aegis of Professors Dawn Ades and Valerie Fraser, contributed massively to the Latin American art scene as successive generations of students from the institution came to hold some of the most important and influential jobs across the Latin American art world. Alumni of Essex include Oriana Baddeley, Cuauhtémoc Medina, Gabriel Pérez Barreiro, Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Isobel Whitelegg. At the University of the Arts, London, Professor Oriana Baddeley, along with Dr. Michael Asbury and Dr. Isobel Whitelegg, have ensured that Latin America is at the heart of the activities of the TrAIN (Transnational Art, Identity and Nation) Research Centre.

Exhibition histories that mark out the UK reception of Latin American art gathered momentum in the 1980s with greater institutional activity. In 1982 the Whitechapel Art Gallery, directed at the time by Nicholas Serota, continued its engagement with the region by staging the landmark exhibition Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti. When Catherine Lampert took over as Director in 1988 she continued this institutional commitment by organising regular shows that gave prominence to Latin American artists, from solo exhibitions of artists such as Tunga, Alfredo Jaar, Guillermo Kuitca, David Alfaro Siquieros and Francisco Toledo, to hosting group exhibitions such as New Art from Cuba, Inside the Visible and Lines from Brazil. Alongside these stands the continued work, writing, and curatorship, of Dawn Ades and Guy Brett. Both organised what would become landmark shows in the exhibition history and historiography of Latin American art in the UK. At the Hayward Gallery in 1989 was Ades’s show (on which Brett was a key collaborator) Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820-1980, while in 1990 Brett curated the smaller but also influential Transcontinental: Nine Latin American Artists at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, following it in 1999 with a solo exhibition of the work of Victor Grippo, also at the Ikon, and with Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic in 2000 at the Hayward Gallery, London, the exhibition which most clearly continued the aesthetic concerns first raised through Signals.

More recently, histories of engagement have seemed to proliferate and bifurcate, spreading out into different networks. In 1982 Anthony Caro and Robert Loder founded Triangle (now Triangle Network) and in 1994, under this umbrella, Gasworks, an arts organisation combining studios with a modest exhibition space, was established. Since its inception, Gasworks’ residencies and shows have allowed a steady stream of artists—including numerous Latin Americans—to spend time in London. Many of those have had exhibitions that proved foundational for their later careers: Javier Tellez, Luis Romero, Pedro Reyes, Mario Garcia Torres, Wilfredo Prieto, Laureana Toledo, Cinthia Marcelle, Gabriel Sierra, Renata Lucas, Mateo López, Catalina Bauer, Jonathas de Andrade, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz and Tania Pérez Córdova to name a few. Alexandre da Cunha and Tonico Lemos Auad became permanent residents of the city through their base at Gasworks. Likewise the Delfina Studio Trust founded in 1988, becoming the Delfina Foundation in 2007, has hosted artists including Jorge Macchi and Rivane Neuenschwander in London. At Modern Art Oxford, in 1991, Jac Leirner spent time on residency creating one of her key early shows, later to be followed by solo exhibitions of Regina José Galindo (2009), Abraham Cruzvillegas (2011) and London-resident Argentine artist Amalia Pica (2012).

In 1973, Brazilian-born artist Lucia Nogueira came to London to study. She developed a practice and distinctive presence in London during the 1980s and 1990s. Prior to her premature death in 1998, her preoccupations and approach coincided with and influenced a number of younger artists including Tacita Dean. Her work is perhaps too little known in her native Brazil and across the Americas and too infrequently seen in the UK. Pablo Leon de la Barra arrived in London in the 1990s. He testifies to the importance of British experimental artist Shelagh Wakely, an associate of Nogueira’s, as an influence and mentor to him; as Guy Brett also affirms, her home had become a meeting point for Latin American artists passing through London. Wakely’s delicate works are themselves testaments to a fruitful exchange with a number of artists—principally from Brazil—that included Tunga (whom she met when he came to London for his Whitechapel show) and Tatiana Grinberg. Pablo Leon de la Barra’s work as a curator, artist, researcher and blogger has made Latin American art – and the tropical modernisms, their contemporary heritages and grass roots manifestations – a part of London’s art scene that is impossible to ignore. His collective and pop-up gallery project 24/7, a collaboration with Beatriz Lopez and others which lasted from 2002 until 2005; the gallery he founded with Dietmar Blow, Blow de la Barra; his later independent curatorial projects; and his ‘community art space’ at the White Cubicle Gallery have all been influential. He also founded the self-invented Novo Museo Tropical, an artwork and itinerant museum he describes as ‘a museum yet to physically exist somewhere in the tropics’ most recently seen as part of the exhibition The Insides are On the Outside curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist at Lino Bo Bardi’s Casa de Vidro in São Paulo in 2013, and was the curator of the first and equally self-initiated Bienal Tropical in San Juan (2011).

A more strategic and consistent engagement with Latin American has been consolidated in the past two decades. The first Liverpool Biennial in 1999 gave prominence in the UK to artists such as Luis Camnitzer, Doris Salcedo, Adriana Varejão, Ernesto Neto and Miguel Rio Branco. Tate Modern has played a role in bringing new attention to the artists of the 1950s and 1960s, many of whom showed in London decades previously; in Century City (2001) a section of which was devoted to Brazilian Neo-Concrete art, solo shows have also been staged of the work of Helio Oiticica and Mira Schendel. Another exhibition at the museum brought the work of Frida Kahlo back to the UK, while in the contemporary field, still others have shown the work of artists including Cildo Meireles, Gabriel Orozco, Francis Alÿs and Doris Salcedo. Curators Cuauhtemoc Medina, Julieta González and José Roca have brought more work of Latin American artists into the Tate’s collection. 

In what seems like a new era, when Latin American artists might finally be gaining some of the prominence that they deserve in the written, exhibition and institutional histories alongside their European, US and indeed global contemporaries, it is perhaps to be hoped that some of the idiosyncratic, inventive and extraordinary nature of precursor projects and initiatives, and the personal commitment that they all entailed, can continue, as any new achievements are undoubtedly founded on those that preceded them.