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Contemporary Latin American Art at the AGO, Toronto

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) houses a very interesting and considerable collection of Latin American contemporary art, particularly Cuban, which has been acquired during the past few decades through purchase as well as private and corporate donations. The latter come from Brascan Limited, the Volunteer Committee, the Sherritt International Corporation and The New Group, as we gather from the open and transparent exhibition text provided by the museum.

Featuring artists from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela, the show ‘As If Sand Were Stone: Contemporary Latin American Art from the AGO Collection’ curated by Adelina Vlas took place between May 20 and August 7 2017 and was located on the 5th floor of the museum.

The title of the exhibition ‘As If Sand Were Stone’ is appropriated from a quote (‘Nothing is built on stone, everything on sand, but our duty is to build as if sand were stone.’) by yet another Latin American cultural figure: the writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Closely related to the image suggested in the title was the installation called ‘Wasted Time’ by the Havana-born artist Glenda León, which consists of an hourglass sitting on the top of a large pile of sand.

Glenda Leon. Wasted Time, 2013 (Credit © Ana-Daniela Sultana)

One of the (if not the) leading Cuban artist-activist is Tania Bruguera. Her controversial work ‘Destierro’ (Displacement) put on view during the exhibition, is based on a performance from 1998, when she wore a Nkisi Nkondi on Fidel Castro’s birthday and walked the streets of Havana. The Nkisi Nkondi is a Congolese religious object covered in nails, each representing a wish, where the wisher must promise an act of appreciation if the wish comes true. Hence, the artist criticized the government for promises that had never been kept.

Tania Bruguera. Destierro, 2014 (Photo Credit © Ana-Daniela Sultana)

Probably the most eye-catching large object on display was ‘La Montaña Rusa’ (Roller Coaster) by a collective founded in Havana in 1992: Los Carpinteros. It explores the public-private dichotomy as well as a somewhat artisanal aesthetic which goes back to the early 1990s when the artists banded together as art students and would use furniture and building materials from abandoned houses, as they couldn’t afford work materials.

Los Carpinteros. La Montaña Rusa, 2008 (Photo Credit © Ana-Daniela Sultana)

Wandering the AGO's halls, one could have seen even more Cuban contemporary art, like Wilfredo Prieto’s installation ‘One’, a series by José Bedia from the 1990s, or Carlos Garaicoa’s ‘Post Capital’. Made of thousands of glass crystals, and supposedly one real diamond, the first recalls the idea of the real and the fake, whereas the second consists of four minimalist drawings: ‘Simetria inversa’, ‘El ojo de Ogiin’, ‘Gritones’, and ‘Somos iguales’. Carlos Garaicoa’s ‘Post Capital’ was the very first Cuban art acquisition of the museum and it resembles a casino gaming table with symbols of bank notes from around the world.

Wilfredo Prieto. One, 2008 (Photo Credit © Ana-Daniela Sultana)

José Bedia. Simetria inversa, El ojo de Ogiin, Gritones, Somos iguales, 1990 (Photo Credit © Ana-Daniela Sultana)

Carlos Garaicoa. Post Capital, 2006 (Photo Credit © Ana-Daniela Sultana)

Carlos Garaicoa. Post Capital (detail), 2006 (Photo Credit © Ana-Daniela Sultana)

A creative demonstration of how one can elude an oppressive regime and send her/his message into the world is ‘7th History of the Human Face (the Scenery of the Sky), Airmail Painting No.78’ from the series ‘Airmail Paintings’ by the Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn. During Pinochet’s dictatorship, the artist sent around the world sorts of ‘messages in a bottle’ consisting of collages made of lightweight materials, photocopied images and his daughter’s drawings sewn onto fabric.

Eugenio Dittborn. 7th History of the Human Face (the Scenery of the Sky), Airmail Painting No.78, 1989 (Photo Credit © Ana-Daniela Sultana)

The Belgian-born, Mexican-based artist Francis Alÿs had already had a solo show titled ‘Francis Alÿs: A Story of Negotiation’ earlier this year at the AGO. Within ‘As If Sand Were Stone’ he had the video ‘REEL – UNREEL’ exhibited, which was commissioned by dOCUMENTA 13 and was made in collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi. In addition, ‘Trashcan Opera’ (1995) by Gabriel Orozco was another strong Mexican position within the project.

Francis Alÿs. REEL – UNREEL, 2011 (Photo Credit © Ana-Daniela Sultana)

The Colombian-born sculptor Doris Salcedo was part of the group show with a work from the 1990s called ‘La Casa Viuda II’ from ‘La Casa Viuda’ series, which, made from commonplace items such as wooden furniture, fabric, metal and bone, was very representative for her practice. Also made from everyday materials and from the 1990’s was Jac Leirner’s installation ‘To and From Walker’ (1991). The Brazilian artist transformed her correspondence accumulated during her residency in the US at the Walker Art Centre into a sculpture.

Jac Leirner. To and From Walker, 1991 (Photo Credit © Ana-Daniela Sultana)

Other artists associated with Brazilian contemporary art and featured in the exhibition were: Osmar Dillon, Arcangelo Ianelli, Paulo Roberto Leal, Marepe, Cildo Meireles, Vik Muniz, Tomie Ohtake, Yutaka Toyota and Rubem Valentim. Moreover, two prominent Argentinian artists were presented in the show: Julio Le Parc and Guillermo Kuitca, and one Venezuelan position – the late Jesús Rafael Soto with a screen print on paper titled ‘Vibrations’ from 1969.

Vik Muniz. Roses after Fantin-Latour (from Pictures of Magazines), 2004 (Photo Credit © Ana-Daniela Sultana)

Despite the lack of a coherent narrative, apart from the geopolitical affiliation of the artists, the show was overall delightful for the works put on view. The exhibits, although each was great individually, lost their importance somehow in the abundance on display. Even with its designation as ‘Contemporary Latin American Art’, the exhibition was filled with works mainly from the 1990’s and 1980’s, but also from the 1970’s and 1960’s, whose ‘contemporaneity’ appears to be debatable at least.

Text by Ana-Daniela Sultana

Photos Credit © Ana-Daniela Sultana

Art Gallery of Ontario

317 Dundas Street West

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Ana-Daniela Sultana is a freelance curator born in Bucharest during the last decade of Communism, currently living and working in Bucharest and Vienna. She holds a MA in ecm - educating/curating/managing from the University of Applied Arts Vienna and is the co-founder of the MODELiER venue in Bucharest and the [ˈfæbrɪk] transdisciplinary organization in Vienna. Collaborating with creative communities and cultural institutions, her aim is to promote new or lesser known artists and their endeavours.


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