Latin American realities inform the Marvellous Real

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The Marvellous Real: Art from Mexico 1926-2011
At the UBC Museum of Anthropology until March 30, 2014

The sliding doors at the entrance to The Marvellous Real are covered in text, and more text is projected in moving patterns across the floor as we walk further into the gallery. The words that wash over us while we encounter this magical exhibition of Mexican art were written decades ago by the Cuban novelist and ethnomusicologist Alejo Carpentier. They form a kind of manifesto that challenges European ideas of what surrealism is. In Latin American culture, Carpentier insisted, a quality of strangeness or otherness pre-exists, one that is quite distinct from the Surrealist art movement championed by André Breton. This strangeness has to do with a heightened awareness of dramatic oppositions—of life and death, wealth and poverty, beauty and grotesquerie, quietude and violence—existing side-by-side. It was Carpentier’s belief that what he termed “the marvellous real” suffuses everyday life and sensibilities in Latin America. The marvellous real, Nicola Levell tells the Straight as she tours us through the show, “is the very basis of Latin American realities.”

An academic who specializes in the interplay between art and anthropology, Levell curated this ambitious exhibition for the UBC Museum of Anthropology. She drew upon some of MOA s own holdings, but mostly borrowed art from the internationally renowned FEMSA collection of Latin American art, based in Monterrey, Mexico. On view at MOA are not only paintings, sculptures, and photographs by the likes of Frida Kahlo, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Leonora Carrington, Juan O’Gorman, Tina Modotti, Rufino Tamayo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, but also folk-art figures and masks. For instance, Leonardo and Felipe Linares have created life-sized, papier-mâché figures of skeletons in the dress and postures of agricultural workers. These figures evoke Day of the Dead celebrations—and the cheerful recognition of death as a constant presence in everyday life.

Kahlo is represented by My Dress Hangs Here, which she completed in 1933 while on an extended and unhappy stay in New York City. An oil painting with unusual collage elements, it darkly criticizes the bourgeois values and social inequities of American society. Kahlo foregoes her usual self-portrait here: instead, her presence is signified by one of her famous Tejuana costumes, hanging in the middle of the composition. (Fuel for Carpentier’s fire: in the exhibition catalogue, Levell quotes Kahlo as saying, “I never painted my dreams, I painted my own reality… I never knew I was a surrealist until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.”) A quite different image of New York is presented by Tamayo in his 1937 oil painting, New York from the Terrace. Tamayo esteemed that city as a centre of art and modernity, Levell says. Still, an altered sense of identity and reality prevails here with the transposition of Mexican colours and motifs to the Manhattan setting.

An important aspect of the marvellous real is the entanglement of indigenous cultures and beliefs with those of the colonizers to produce a distinctive sensibility. In his 1947 mural-sized painting Sleeping Woman (Spring), Siqueiros conflates the landscape and new growth with a monumental, reclining indigenous woman. Among contemporary works on view is Jorge Elizondo’s seemingly abstract black marble sculpture, Mandible #3, which alludes to the pre-Columbian belief that the great grinding jaws of the earth were made of obsidian, a stone that was also associated with human sacrifice. Levell talks about Carpentier’s idea of the accompaniment of the marvellous real with the Latin American (not European) “baroque”, a style that expresses the “amplification of reality” in the coming together of disparate cultures and religions.

The 141 historic and contemporary works in the show richly demonstrate, again, that surrealism in Mexico is not a short-lived modernist art movement but an enduring condition of everyday existence. Still, I’m not fully convinced by the way the exhibition is organized and installed, in small, rectangular galleries that suggest formal drawing rooms rather than different themes and dimensions. Yet the art is terrific—a pleasure to encounter. Part of the pleasure is knowing that the same day The Marvellous Real opened at MOA, an exhibition dedicated to Charles Edenshaw, the great historic Haida artist, opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery. That means that a show we previously would have expected to find in a museum of “fine art” is on at an “anthropology” museum—and vice versa. What both exhibitions signal is the disappearance of old and essentially ethnocentric designations of what cultural production belongs where. New ways of looking at and appreciating creative endeavour—more fluid and less proscriptive—are opening to us all. And that’s marvellous.

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