Visual culture in Latin America, like visual culture everywhere, is shaped and influenced by the social and political histories that define the realities of the place. The interaction of local traditions with outside cultural influences is instrumental in the formation of social reality. When considering the elements of visual culture: art and photography, film and television, news and advertising, architecture, fashion, design, and the very look of contemporary life itself, the integration of these images is what constructs social, political and cultural meaning in the creation of identity.
In the varied nations that constitute Latin America, manifestations of visual culture are inextricably bound to a history of colonization and military dictatorship. Throughout each nation’s struggle for independence, civil war and the horrors of state imposed terror have (to staggering degrees and at varying periods during the twentieth century) informed visual culture with a uniquely political dimension. The belief that art has a social function like any other craft and is therefore inherently political was famously declared by the iconic Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) when he said, “If art is not propaganda, it’s not art.” Notwithstanding Rivera’s Marxist position, it must be considered that art and visual communication continue to play an incredibly important roles in societies that are, or have been, subjected to extreme censorship, government control and genocide.
Further, in Latin America the assertion of identity through visual culture exists in a state of hybridity, from a position of otherness. Colonial contact creates hybrid ethnicity between regional populations, resulting in the cross-pollination of traditions and intellectual exchanges. Religious imagery, art and craft aesthetics, architectural dynamics of public space and all realms of visual culture inevitably exist within a historical context of political tension and crisis. While the structural theorist Homi K. Bhabha (b. 1949) classifies hybridity as a subversive act against colonialism, anthropological theorist and conceptual artist Nestor Garcia Canclini (b.1939) maintains the link between hybridity and the Latin American history of marginalization. Canclini summarizes this as the ‘shattered provisional self’ of Latin American cultural identity.
In the context of globalization, Latin America’s historical marginalization (within the art historical canon and otherwise) as part of the developing ‘third world’ has imbued lasting tensions between nature and industry, constancy and progress. In this vein, stereotypes of Latin America that were created as tools or resources of colonial domination persist in the negotiation of identity, as expressed in visual culture. It is with awareness of this dynamic that ethnic expression can be understood: as a construct of representation whereby cultural empowerment can be found through recognition of tradition.
However, the honoring of hybrid and native traditions cannot merely take place via notions of nostalgia for a heroic past in Latin America. Memory of the personal and cultural traumas imprinted by decades of horrifying government abuses is psychologically and emotionally paralyzing to social consciousness. Instead, in Latin American visual culture, memory of political events is often suppressed in favour of the necessity to transform reality towards future renewal.
The act of looking, interpreting and making sense of cultural information is a choice involving the power relationships of the looker and subject. For many years in Latin American countries, the simple act of visual expression was considered to be potentially subversive. With the point of representation being to distance the object from the subject, appropriation operates as a form of domination. The practice of appropriation in visual culture operates to empower Latin American identity in a unique way.
The history of cultural exchange between Latin America, the United States and Europe is marked by the influence of many artistic movements, including Realism, Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, Symbolism, Primitivism, Dadaism, Pop Art and Conceptualism to name but a few. Arguably the most relevant theme of these selective exchanges is the philosophy by which Latin American culture engages with trans-cultural appropriation. Antropofagia refers to a creative philosophy drawn from the practice of cannibalism in tales of Brazilian history and folklore. Variations on antropofagia have been a source of identification for Latin American artists since the modern era. The concept of digesting outside cultural material for the nourishment of one’s own culture has served as a tool for establishing identity in Latin America. Never strictly adhering to or completely adopting outside influence, Latin American visual culture utilizes and references multicultural elements with pointed awareness of the Latin American perspective and the political implications therein.
Within this model, varying forms of visual culture serve different social purposes towards the function of defining identity. While photography has lent itself to the collapsing of time, another important function of visual culture in the politics of Latin America is Erich Auerbach’s (1892-1957) theory of Retardierung. Auerbach’s theory refers to the process whereby art is used to understand history by (in effect) slowing down traumatic or obscured events so they can be better understood through an intellectual lens. From the 1960s – 1980s Conceptual art not only served to slow down and translate, or at least acknowledge unintelligible political atrocities in the public understanding, it also allowed for the informal transmission of ideas and networking through shared passion. Conceptual art in Latin America developed an aesthetic more concerned with reality than abstraction. Through expressions of disillusionment, alienation, displacement, exile, mistrust, and loss resulting from political events, Conceptual art subverted social systems as the vehicle that brought Latin American politics into a different dynamic of interaction with global culture and intellectual criticism.
Aside from periods of artistic inactivity (termed ‘artistic suicide’) by some artists who felt a sense of survivors-guilt following cultural traumas, the hybrid expressions of Latin American visual culture have not only served as reflections of politics, but actively used visual art and culture to make politics. From the Zapatista and Modernismo movements during the early twentieth century, to the Tucumán Arde and Neolocal movements of the 1970s and 1980s: high and low arts have complimented ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ politics to articulate the progression of cultural identities.
After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the need to block out the pain of conquest and valorize the past was satisfied by the combined traditional and modern imagery of the Muralist movement led by Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, and David Siqueiros. Additionally, photography provided the (albeit selective) narrative through which to understand freedom and democracy. During the tense and dangerous political climate following the genocide of the ‘Disappeared’ from the 1970s and 1980s under generals Videla and Pinochet, Performance and Body-relational art addressed the needs of Argentine and Chilean societies to mourn the social body. More recently, the influence of widespread multiculturalism and globalization has reinstated Folk-art as a potent political expression in Latin American visual culture. As every Latin American nation evolves politically, the function of symbols, trends and ideological movements in art and visual culture evolves in tandem.