Mari Carmen Ramírez is the Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and Director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Prior to that, she was curator of Latin American Art at the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art and adjunct lecturer in the department of art and art history, both at The University of Texas at Austin. Ramírez also served as director of the Museo de Antropología, Historia y Arte de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus. She received a Ph. D. in Art History from the University of Chicago in 1989.
In advance of the Shirley Thompson Memorial Lecture (March 30th, 2016, 6-8 pm Lecture Hall, National Gallery of Canada), FASS recently had the pleasure of chatting with Dr.Ramírez about array of topics and issues. Enjoy!
The Shirley Thomson Memorial Lecture that you are giving at the National Gallery of Canada is titled “From ‘Identity’ to ‘the Global’: The Contemporary Art Paradigm in Latin America.” I imagine it is difficult to represent Latin America as a totality, yet you’re able to do so in a way that underlines the endless complexities of ‘Latin America.” How challenging is this and how, tactically, do you take this endeavour on?
Engaging Latin America or Latin American art as a category is a very challenging but necessary task. We have to start by recognizing that Latin America is an invention that each generation or cultural group re-invents according to its historical needs. The term stands for a subcontinent made up of more than twenty countries and a plethora of communities and ethnicities that extend from Tierra del Fuego to the US/Canada border. And if you are surprised to hear me say this, just consider that there are 54 million Latinos in the United States today which make up approximately 17% of the population. This makes the U.S. the largest Spanish-speaking country after Mexico.
From that point of view, there is no such thing as “Latin American” or “Latino art” (in the sense of a readily codified and identifiable artistic style or language). Instead, there is only art produced by individual artists in the countries and communities that make up the region as whole. Those of us who work in this field are fully aware of this paradox. We knowingly and deliberately use the terms “Latin American” and “Latino art” as operative constructs that duly serve us to identify the traits of two broad networks of producers, agents and supporters whose culture shares the common legacies of religion, language and most importantly, a history of colonial domination and utopian aspirations. Our job is to reveal the complexities, contradictions, differences and similarities that both join and separate these complex constituencies in their relation among themselves as well as with the rest of the world.
You have a tendency to use your work, which is grounded in Latin American art, to talk about identity politics and globalizing art history, exhibitions, and museums more generally. Can you tell us how your work forwards this more global approach, and why you think it is important to do so?
For the last thirty years we have been witnessing the “ascent” of Latin American art in global circuits as a result of the combined dynamics of globalization and neo-liberalism. The field has evolved from a marginalized one to with a vibrant, steadily expanding area of visual arts production, collecting, and curatorial practice. More and more artists from Latin America are exhibited and collected all over the world; an increasing number of collectors from the region are joining the ranks of the global elites; old museums are being refurbished and new ones are being constructed; and, more importantly, the markets are booming with Latin American art. In many ways, Latin American art is no longer a marginal or provincial phenomenon. Yet many of the same problems that characterized the field three or four decades ago are still present. Namely, the unequal axis of exchange that separates Latin America from the First World is still there. Latin America produces great art but has no authority to legitimize the art of other countries or regions. Its institutional infrastructure is very weak and riddled with problems. As my friend Gerardo Mosquera has pointed out, our countries have been relegated to the role of supplying artists to the global mall. Despite the success of contemporary art abroad, there is still a tendency to stereotype this art in Europe and the United States. The list goes on…. This situation places a great responsibility on curatorial practices to critically engage with this art and expose the contradictions in which it is operating. Because of the complex networks in which this art is inscribed, we cannot limit our intervention to the interpretation of the art itself; instead we must look at the whole picture that includes markets, museums, agents, exhibitions etc. because all of these factors today are inter-related. Research is fundamental for this task. There are still so many artists and movements in need of visibility and so many issues that need to be tackled.
The 2016 American election is imminent, and the rhetoric of the candidates – one in particular – has breached boundaries that we have not seen in generations (if ever). Sadly, Trump seems to have achieved some success through his transparently dishonest and hateful act of ‘othering.’ He is attacking cultures and people and is threatening to build a wall around the America. What do you make of the 2016 American election campaign, and do you see your work and the art you curate as more important than ever?
Like many of my friends and colleagues, I find the dynamics of this campaign extremely troubling, if not scary. However, it is important to bear in mind that what is happening now has been in the making for decades and is the result of an ingrained bigotry and racism on the part of certain political parties and groups of this society that has been fueled by economic distress, rising inequality, ideological polarization and a host of other critical issues that self-interested political leaders have chosen to ignore. What scares me the most, however, are certain similarities it presents with Latin America where the rise and fall of authoritarianism has been part of the past and recent history of these nations. In the United States, however, the strength of democratic institutions has served until now to buffer us against this ugly monster. Yet we may now be witnessing the unthinkable: that monster rearing its head.
You are someone who is very sensitive and dynamic when it comes to portrayals of identity. Your work plays with the audience self-portrait and conception of their own identity. Often, your teachings and work are meant for an American audience. Do you change anything when you visit and teach in Canada (or other countries)? Are there things you must articulate to non-Americans for them to more firmly grasp American social constructs?
Yes, you always have to articulate or “translate” one situation into the other; when I am in the United States, I have to “translate” Latin American values to U.S. audiences and when I am in Latin America it is the other way around. The same applies to Europe, Canada, or wherever my work takes me since every culture is different. That is why, based on my own experience, I have characterized the function of the curator as that of a “broker” or “translator” of cultures. In this position you are not just converting words from one language to the other as part of your job but rather converting values intrinsic to one worldview into another. As a Puerto Rican—i.e. a bicultural colonial subject—I am well equipped for this task since my entire life has been a straddling back and forth between one culture (Puerto Rican) and a radically different “other” culture (U.S.).
What do you hope participants in your March 31st workshop at Carleton University will walk away with? What do you hope the audience takes away from your March 30th lecture at the National Gallery of Canada?
I hope the audience that attends the lecture will put to rest any stereotypes or misconceptions that they may have about Latin American or Latin American art and are intrigued enough by what I have to say to want to learn more about it. As to the workshop participants, I would like them to walk away with a more complex sense of the relationship between theory and practice as it plays out in curatorial practice. My entire trajectory of 35 years has been about putting big ideas to work in exhibitions, publications and other initiatives such as the International Center for the Arts of Americas (ICAA) and the ICAA Ideas Council, a research center and think-tank that I direct at the MFAH in Houston. For me, theory does not work if it cannot serve to stimulate or give concrete shape to actions.
Any exhibitions, places, people, pieces you’re particularly looking forward to visiting while you’re in Ottawa?
This is my second trip to Canada, a country I always wanted to visit. I lectured in Toronto in 2013 and was fascinated by the people and the city. In a curious way, I find that there are similarities between Canada and Latin America that relate to their peripheral status with regards to Europe and the United States. Issues of identity are also very strong here and on my visit to the National Gallery in Toronto I could see how much Canadian artists have wrestled with this issue since colonial times. So I am here with my husband, the Mexican architect, writer and curator, Héctor Olea, who also shares this interest in Canada. We are here to see as much as we can in terms of museums, galleries and other sites and to absorb everything that can help us understand this country and its culture. Thanks to Ming Tiampo we will also be visiting some artists studios which should be very exciting
Anything you’d like to add, Dr. Ramírez?
Shirley Thomson Memorial Lecture
Dr. Shirley Thomson (1930-2010) was a leading national figure in the promotion of the visual arts in Canada. For more than 40 years she worked tirelessly in the arts community, establishing a distinguished record of accomplishment. She served as Secretary-General of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (1985-87), Director of the National Gallery of Canada (1987-97), Director of the Canada Council for the Arts (1998-2002), and Chair of the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board (2003-07). Dr. Thomson was a Companion of the Order of Canada and Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and Officer of Order of Ontario. Her strong and active presence was also felt in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa, where she served as an Adjunct Professor.
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