Latin American Culture and Identity: Distorted by the West or Unique Hybridization?

Western cultural ideals relating to Latin art had a significant influence on Latin American artists and caused Latin American artists to express their own cultural ideals based on politics and the shifting social organization as a result of this cultural interaction.  Throughout the various texts, articles and research relating to Latin American art, several theorists have generally taken one of two positions. One assertion being that European and North American cultures have dominated and distorted Latin American culture and art.  The other assertion being that even though there is an appropriating dominant western culture, the artists of Latin American continued to create works based on their own cultural identity.

A review of the current works by Latin American artists supports the view that they have continued to create their own cultural identity, which is a result of the interaction of the Western cultural influences and their pre-Western culture heritage resulting an a unique hybrid of post-European Latin American art.

Interaction between the Latin culture and European culture was an unavoidable aspect of Latin American art and their history.  Cultural art theorist Susan Leval explains that since the early Spanish conquest of Latin American regions, artists have been able to recontextualize the past and representing their art by exhibiting the interaction between the two cultures.  Leval, (a part of the 1960’s civil rights movement that saw American Puerto Ricans establish an institution to preserve their Latin culture) argues Latin American art is frequently used to break free from the Western hierarchy to regain a sense of cultural autonomy.  Arguably, some Latin artists such as Brazilian installation artist Regina Silveira, use their art to take events that have been distorted as “official” cultural symbols and extensively reaffirm the culture that is still important to their communities.  In Silveira’s work “O Paradoxo Do Santo” she uses objective language distorting virtual projections with humour such as this Spanish cowboy on a horse, a stereotype of Latin American culture.  By embracing Silveira’s culture in modern art she is creating a genre of art totally unique to the modern Latin American arts being an interaction between the two dominant cultures creating a unique expression of visual culture.

Some academics, such as Shifra Goldman, argue that Europeans limited Latin American culture, especially in Mexico making it necessary to begin a movement called Chicano Art. Chicano murals made by Mexican Americans aim to preserve heritage. Goldman explains that Chicano art is directly influenced by political and social issues relevant specifically to  Mexicans but also to other Latin Americans.  Chicano artists sometimes embrace pre-Colombian culture to stress the non-European and racial and cultural aspects of their community addressing the question of Indian heritage in turn.  Significant aspects of class and labour are injected into Chicano art and murals that celebrate the struggle and survival of hard-working Latinos in America.  Influential Chicano artist Judy Baca, who organized the mural project entitled The Great Wall of Los Angeles, involved barrio youth in the making of the mural not only represent themselves but to reflect their own Chicano culture and community in addition.

Academics such as Edward Smith emphasizes this distinction between the pre- and post- European influences in Latin American art by citing the fact that the church became less influential in Latin American culture and was replaced by traditional western classical art ideals. Smith details how artists such as Pueyrredon, Bustos, and Velasco exhibited an apparent isolation within the artistic and social context of their time.  He asserts that due to a lack of formal art education, Latin American artists, particularly Mexicans, were able to take European influences and create works that became unique to their own culture.

Like Smith, art critc and curator Monica Kupfer cites the inadequacy of local art institutions and the poor economic status of local and indigenous artists as influencing a sense of cultural isolation.  This has resulted in Latin American artists portraying the harsh reality of isolation through realism, symbolism, fantasy and humor reflected in their works. Carlos Merida’s mural “Sacerdotes Danzantes Mayas (Dancing Mayan Preists)” conveys themes and colours stemming from Mayan art and from Guatemala’s popular culture. These reflections of confinement and isolation exhibited in Latin American works demonstrate how art helps to convey a sense of reality and authentic expression.

The relationship between European and Latin American culture founded a unique identity and difference according to Havana based art critic Gerardo Mosquera.  Mosquera describes two important ideas in Latin American culture, one anthrophagy and the other transculturation.  Coined by poet and founder of Brazilian modernism Oswald de Andrade, anthropophagy has been a key concept for the cultural dynamics of Latin American art since European colonization.  Anthropophagy means an emphasis on appropriating dominant culture while still maintaining a strong sense of identity, a aim for many Latin American artists still today.  Mosquera also refers to Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz and his concept of transculturation, the phenomenon of merging and converging cultures, European and Latin American. The concepts of anthropophagy and transculturation characterize cultural dynamics but have also been stereotyped as epitomes for Latin American identity.

Cuban American performance artist Ana Mendieta and her work “Untitled” illustrates hybridity experienced first hand.  Subjecting herself to judgment and identification as well as keeping traces of her Cuban heritage and dramatic aspect of her Latin roots in contrast with American social issues Mendieta used cultural emblems to problematize them and to represent  that  there is no such thing as a homogenic culture.  Every culture is a mixture of influences from other cultures, and every culture is undeniably a hybrid.

Perhaps the best way to characterize Latin American works is to recognize in them the interaction of these various factors and conclude that modern Latin American art is by definition a reflection of the complexity of Latin American culture as a whole.

Alexandra Odette

Spring 2012

Works Cited

Goldman, Shifra M. “The Iconography of Chicano Self Determination: Race, Ethnicity and Class.” Art Journal 49.2 (1990): 167-73. Print.

Kupfer, Monica E. “Central America.” Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century.New York: Phaidon, 2000. 51-58. Print.

Leval, Susana T. “Recapturing History: The (Un)official Story in Contemporary Latin     American Art.” Art Journal 51.4 (1992): 69-80. Print

Mosquera, Gerardo. “Against Latin American Art.” Introduction. Contemporary Art in Latin America. By Phoebe Adler, Nikolaos Kotsopoulos, and Tom Howells. London: Black Dog, 2010. 12-22. Print.

Smith, Edward L. “Social Situation of the Colonial Artist.” Introduction. Art of the Fantastic: Latin America, 1920-1987. By Holliday T. Day and Hollister Sturges. Indianapolis, IN: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1987. 30-40. Print.

Ramirez, Maria Carmen. “Framing Identity in U.S. Exhibitions of Latin American Art.” Beyond  the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America. By Gerardo Mosquera. London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 1996. 60-67. Print.

This entry was posted in Ana Mendieta, Culture of the United States, Gerardo Mosquera, Great Wall of Los Angeles, hybrid, mural painting, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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