Nature in Latin American art history

I have been working on a genealogy of Latin American art history to find the first movements of eco-art or environmental art not only within the region, but in styles or techniques used in the mentioned area. Something that has become quite clear is that there has always been a certain fixation with nature and landscapes in Latin America, but not such a clear path to trace our connection with sustainable practices, and environmentally conscious art, at least not from the Western-focused academic articles.

Can we talk about eco-art, environmental art and sustainability in Latin America artistic practices? From the nineteenth century when the different nation-states started to emerge in the continent, Latin Americans sought to find a new way to represent their own identity, and to create their own symbols. Holding ourselves to the bon sauvage ideal, and also based on the pictorial and decorative trends of travellers at the end of the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, many artists worked on landscapes inspired not only in their local surroundings, but in the European amazement over the depiction of the natural beauties of the continent. Although not an entirely clear path, we can draw on the relationship between artists and nature throughout time, to find a pathway that will possibly lead us to environmental art created in Latin America and other movements that can be related to sustainable practices. However, it is safe to say that the academic articles in English do not have much information on specific eco-art or environmental art in Latin America and their main focus is on the creation of an identity which, apparently to most academics, has been the main preoccupation of artists.

Nature and Nation

The nations emerging in Latin American during the nineteenth century used different resources to build an image of nation and new-ness in an attempt to create a cohesive identity to finally mark down a separation from the colonised past. In the Mexican case, for example, there was a strong usage of the Virgen de Guadalupe as a unity symbol, while in other countries certain elements representing the civil triumphs and even portraits were more prominent, such as the apparently most popular paintings in the Venezuelan region after the second half of the nineteenth century. In this way, each new-born country thrived to create its own myths and origin stories. Because of the differentiated processes that occurred within the continent, different histories and different nationalisms were devised. In this sense, States may make their own history and may try to control the narrative, but this control will always be imperfect and incomplete.

One of the elements to take into consideration, is how this mythical creation of nation-ness was devised by the governing elites, for which the sub-altern, non-European masses were usually left out of the representations. This phenomenon has to be observed in par with the latent pessimism about the possibility of achieving modernity, as there was a constant comparison with other Western centres.

 Second half of the twentieth century

In general, it is seen as if the Latin American region has a particular, more pronounced relationship with nature in comparison to the Western world, possibly due to this ideal that the region may not entirely belong to Western traditions or to connect us more to the history there was before the colonisation and conquest processes. In an attempt to restore, create, or modify identity traits, several artists have gone back to the objects done by the populations that were in the continent before the conquest and colonisation, or looked at the current practices of the indigenous, to inspire themselves and build from these traditions.

Joaquín Torres-García (1944-1953) Removedor. Source.

Some of the dictatorships and revolutionary movements that emerged during the first half of the twentieth century, as a way to show the subversion in who detents the power, used local, indigenous elements to create a new identity, linked to those that were not part of the elites. Two of the cases that can be mentioned is Peruvian Dictator Velasco Alvarado, who used Inca and Aymara elements in the new representations, and Venezuelan Dictator Pérez Jiménez, who instilled the indigenous imagery and other local elements in statues, and representations. Nonetheless, these autochthonous elements were contrasted, or cohabited with the idea of developmentalism, a veneration of industry and progress far above anything seen in European or North American iconographies during the same period. Nonetheless, the indigenous elements were generally used in a superfluous way, and the myth of origin of most nations is made of silences still today.

Around the second half of the twentieth century, artist Fernando de Szyszlo divided Latin American art into three large classifications: transfigured reality, geometrical abstraction, and lyrical abstraction; artists that fell within the first category were seen as those with tendencies tied to European expressionism, using elements taken from the real world and transforming them to serve subjective expression. It is within the “transfigured reality” that other art critics, such as Marta Traba, observe the influence or domination of the North American culture, expressing a cultural dependence that has existed, more prominent in some regions than others, for the past decades.

This was the cornerstone and main concern of Latin American artists when creating artworks; what identifies them to a specific nation and, just in some cases, what does it mean to be Latin American. It has been around this concerns that most innovations and creations have been done in the region, relegating other topics to a second tier of importance. In that sense, the call to tradition is seen as a social requirement, and the recuperation of popular culture was the way to express vanguard ideals and to advance the project of national construction.

Globalisation and the beginning of the twenty-first century

It is at the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties that the “transvangardism” proclaimed the first realignment of global economic and cultural priorities. Another tendency that started to arise in the eighties was the incorporation of found objects and materials of popular art into the artworks, as a conscious effort to make them more accessible as either an act of social protest, or to narrow down the gap between what is considered “high” and “popular” art.

Mariano Sapia (1990) Harvest of Woman. Source.

It is on these decades that there is an even more focused concern with the interpretation of Latin American history and establishing our own identity based more on the problems that derive from the political and economic instabilities, mixed with the aesthetic and cultural resources of the region, and a greater experimentation in techniques and forms arises. It is within this conflict with local traditions that a new preoccupation with globalisation arises, and there is an interest in “deterritorialising” identities, in which it is possible to be modern without being national:

Now that modernity and national have become disjunctive terms, the very idea of a “national project” becomes somewhat problematic; indeed, the term is itself in “crisis.” How are differences to be preserved and defined in a globalized world? Indeed, if the very idea of nation is now in crisis, what does this mean for Latin America (Ortiz, 2000: 259).

Eco-art, environmental art, sustainability

It is true that cultural mestizaje (mixture) tends to be at the centre of the discussions to define or describe Latin American art, not only on every nation-state but in the region. And, as such, most academic articles in English centre on this almost as the raison d’être, as a search for identity and the positioning of art production within the Western world. It has been, after all, the main exploit of many of the governments of the region since the end of the nineties and the next couple of decades, as there was an increased state support for indigenous cultural expressions and an more funding for the arts in some Latin American countries.

Notwithstanding, as mentioned before, as the idea of nation is in crisis, individuals are able to exploit their artistic endeavours separating themselves from this idea of having to define and re-define over and over our own identity, separate from the ideals of the state. Due to the current global-scape, it is possible to take active part and a stance in any of the current affairs we want to engage with. As such, there have been some initiatives to talk about environmental art and sustainability, which although comes as a jump from previous conversations, it is able to take elements from our historical relationship with nature and local elements, and our slow separation from the main concerns that have been presented in Latin American art history.

There are programs being created to talk about climate change and art, such as the one proposed by the Centro Internacional para el Estudio de la Preservación y Restauración de Bienes Culturales (Iccrom), after countries like Peru, Chile and Mexico have made the request for it (2019), and the creation of an Ecological Centre for the Arts in Oaxaca, Mexico (2015) founded by known artist and activist Francisco Toledo. Other artists are having the support of localities to display their artworks, such as Lorenzo Quinn (2017), and in some cities like Valparaíso, Chile (2017), or in Minas Gerais, Brasil (2015) climate change exhibitions are being organised.   

This is not to say that there was no prior concern with nature, or with our relationship with it, that there was no consciousness of the effect the Anthropocene has had on earth. However, our focus on these elements has been to retain or recover identitarian, mythical elements to create a sense of belonging, instead of having a formed and conscious opinion of the current state of the world. This does not mean that there have not been artists concerned about sustainability and the environment, such as Rafael Villares, or Alejandro Durán, but a systematic study and compilation of artists that are truly beyond the identitarian conversations based or originated in the continent is a pending and necessary endeavour, to observe how Latin American artists are too, part of the global retaining their local elements.


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Author: laverias an anthropologist interested in art history, Latin American art, and sustainable practices. You will find her trying to pick up some free furniture from the street and re-purposing old fabric. Spanglish speaker.

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