“I do not believe in art with a flag,” says Alexia Tala, an independent curator from Chile who has been pushing to change the way we see Latin American art. “However, I do believe that context influences art that is produced in a place.”
Tala was in London at the time of our interview, to speak about her work at a conference at the Tate, where she highlighted the importance of narratives coming from within Latin America, something she is very passionate about.
Tala herself is something of an art nomad, moving to wherever her expertise and knowledge is most needed. She grew up in a rural region of Chile, and in 1989 moved to London, in search of art and escaping Pinochet’s regime. In 2007 she returned to Chile and now lives between Santiago and São Paulo, where she is currently working on the next edition of the country’s most important art event, SP-Arte.
Here, she talks about her sometimes masochistic love for what she does, how Latin American art has evolved, and why we all need to be paying it more attention.
Can you tell me about your early life and your first encounters with art?
I was raised in the Atacama desert, Antofagasta, north of Chile and lived a very quiet and provincial life in close contact with nature. Life in the Atacama kept me close with indigenous peoples reality and creativity. While being geographically close to Perú and Bolivia, the presence of their craft and hand-made objects was there all the time from my weaved school bag to our colourful wicker furniture at home. One event that inspired me was seeing the airmail paintings of Eugenio Dittborn. His pieces that went from the form of a letter to become a piece of art when unfolded. Such a smart device to get his work seen in dictatorial times. I thought it was magic, and they took my breath away. Later on in life, through David Medalla, I had the greatest luck of meeting the British art historian Guy Brett, and we became great friends. He has been a great inspiration for me, especially in the way he approaches art from the encounter with it more than from theory. The way he has conducted his relationship with art, artists and the art world has been, in many ways, a path I try to follow.
How did you end up in the art world, and specifically, curating?
I briefly lived in the Chilean capital and then moved to London in 1989. After school, I studied a year of architecture; after that, I studied social communication with a major in graphic design. I knew art was everything I wanted to do, but dictatorial times were not easy in Chile. So, I moved to London where there was freedom and where I could learn a new language. I went to art school in London just at the time of the YBAs. I did my MA at Camberwell College, where I realised my interest was not in making art but in what artists were doing and where their thinking was coming from.
In 2007 you returned to Chile, what brought you back, and how did your career evolve from there?
I went back to Chile and became part of the curatorial team for the first performance Biennial, then Mercosur Biennial in Brazil, and afterwards the Triennial of San Juan, Latin America and the Caribbean. Since then, I have never stopped working. My life is very much on the move, travelling, doing studio visits and researching, sometimes for specific projects, sometimes commissioned by an institution or because of my interests. I am now examining Social Practices in Latin America and the Caribbean. So you might imagine that my understanding of what art is has changed entirely since I first went to London!
I would love to know all about the Museum of Solidarity, which you recently spoke about at the Tate?
Mário Pedrosa, the Brazilian art critic, described The Museum of Solidarity as “a monument to cultural solidarity for the people of Chile at an exceptional moment in its history.” The museum was assembled by hundreds of donations from artists around the world as a sign of support to the first socialist government in Latin America. It was inaugurated in 1972 without having a building, so it used other spaces for its exhibitions while the donations were still amounting in different embassies around the world. Unfortunately, it was interrupted by the military coup d’état, and it had several transformations. Many of the works abroad became museums of resistance. The meaning of the artworks changed from supporting a specific socialist government to an act of resistance that umbrella all of the human rights violations and dictatorships in the region. Only when democracy returned did the museum settle as the museum we know now, with its own designated space and exhibition program. Although one thing that this museum doesn’t have is an acquisition policy, it stays true to the initial premise of being built by donations.
After the Tate conference, I was left wondering how solidarity has changed from those days to the present. Many of the museum projects presented at Tate were in a way institutional experiments which served as X-rays of the political histories of those countries. All of the projects presented had very clear ideological backgrounds, maybe because art and politics at that time focused more on the symbolic values of art. So, it is still a question for today: when does the word solidarity in projects really make sense and how many times is it only co-opted as a discourse?
I think that’s a very valid question for our times, and a very big discussion to be continued! It seems that our current capitalist world has a lot to do with the idea of solidarity. You also do work with commercial events, such as SP-Arte, coming up, where you have curated the Solo sector. What was your vision for it?
SP-Arte is the most important art fair in Latin America and this year will be the 15th edition. Although it is located in South America, it is mainly an international fair. For that reason, this year’s efforts are focused on establishing relationships with the rest of the continent. I developed my proposal with very specific works from a territorial perspective on Latin American. I focused on artists who through their contemporaneity, re-think and invert the gaze of an invented or imagined America created by the West. It has been a great experience working with emerging artists.
You are also working with the Guatemalan biennial — can you tell me more about this project?
Context is a word that you can trace throughout my projects; I find it difficult to think of an artwork that can ignore it. I have conceived the next edition of the Paiz Art Biennial (2020) as rooted in its context, which is a very particular one. Guatemala has a history of colonialism with a 65% indigenous population today and a recent history of genocide. How could one ignore that? The project intends to respond to the present global times from a regional point of view. It hopes to re-think the violence from the past in relation to the future, with Guatemalan intercultural and ancestral culture as points of entry. Some of the possible questions that it will be raised are: How do we approach ancestral Latin-American past today? Where do we identify colonising violence? What past are we building for the future?
How do you feel Chilean art connects with other Latin American countries right now?
Colonialism, indigenous issues, human rights violations, dictatorship etc. is a history that connects us. A new generation of artists is refreshing art produced in Chile, but Chile is a challenging case in itself. During the late ’70s and ’80s the art scene was very productive in terms of resistance art actions, publications, posters, etc. and the international art world is recognising that at last, and those works are entering important collections and being seen and put in context. After those years there was a bit of a transition period in Chile. Today there are very interesting young artists producing fantastic work, but unfortunately, the scene has a lack of collections, both private and corporate and lack of public funding, acquisition policies and international visibility. Despite the amazing art, the system moves very slowly, which brings consequences for the artists.
Do you think Latin American art gets enough attention at the international level?
Definitely not enough, although its visibility is changing and the international interest in Latin American art is increasing. There have been important shows of Cildo Meireles, Doris Salcedo, Paz Errázuriz, Helio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, León Ferrari, Tarsila de Amaral and others in leading institutions. However, I feel there is still a patronising western position in publishing and curating exhibitions with an absence of specialists from the region. So, we have the research and knowledge, and the West has the power and funding. Although some Latin American art is being shown and published, it continues to be without the necessary in-depth research needed.
Don’t get me wrong. I am enthusiastic about seeing Latin American artists being exhibited in the West and think it was about time. I also feel the same colonial mistakes are repeated because the way artists are being shown is through the eyes of the West.