Part of one room in Deferred Archive, this year’s Grants & Commissions exhibition at CIFO, is filled with clay objects, many of them in the shape of guns, or pieces of guns. Guatemalan artist Benvenuto Chavajay used a kiln as a way to “freeze” these weapons, making them symbolically incapable of further violence. It’s a powerful installation, and representative of what we’ve come to expect from this annual exhibit of Latin American artists: inventive artistic expressions that never shy from a sense of place, which often relate to the unsettled circumstances of the artist’s particular country.
This stands in contrast to much art made in North America, where politics and social realities sometimes are partitioned off, as though they exist in separate realms. In Chavajay’s case, he lives and works in a land ravaged by gun and gang violence — some would say North Americans do as well, but Chavajay wants to address it head-on. He was the first resident artist as part of this series; he lived for a couple of months across the street from CIFO at the Cannonball art space, where he stoked his kiln and created the installation Freezing. The use of clay also has clear references to the numerous important archaeological sites scattered across his homeland.
The other works in the show — 10 artists in all — follow in this vein in various ways and formats. Sharing the room with Chavajay is Milena Bonilla’s video. Although she is from Colombia, her piece, Enchanted Forest, is about the red deer that inhabit a border region between Germany and the Czech Republic, which for decades was a no man’s land, part of the Iron Curtain that divided people and places, but couldn’t keep the deer from crossing those hidden boundaries. It’s a haunting piece, with narration from people who remember looking at a forest forbidden to them, but accessible to the little deer.
Mexico’s Laureana Toledo has a cordoned-off darkened room for her three screens that follow the impact of the trans-istmico railway on a region of Mexico. For Train in Vain, she has filmed simple scenes involving birds, construction workers and a scarred landscape.
The most dramatic installation comes from Mexico’s Jorge Mendez Blake, Black Pavilion/Open Library. It is made of ceiling-to-floor, open black bookshelves, with mirrors creating the illusion that it descends into the basement. The shelves are sporadically filled with black books that the visitor is free to open and read. The pages are again sporadically filled, with snippets of text from writers who have addressed “in a direct or indirect manner the impossibility of writing and the emptiness in literature.”
The Open Library is an example of another aspect that we have come to expect when taking in the grants and commissions exhibitions: highly intellectual, at times dense and heavy works. Sometimes these pieces can be hard to grasp. Such is the case with Argentina’s Santiago Villanueva’s Geografia Plástica Argentina. The 24 panels form a map based on the theories of a 1940s Argentine historian: “each panel has a determined axis point that is linked to the territorial spaces which inhabit the landscapes, temporary bonds and formal matters.” That’s not very digestible, and the work is hard to decipher without some serious background.
Also delving into historical and social phenomena is Ecuador’s Manuel Ribadeira’s Artificial Horizons, Instruments of Reflection: The Space Between Doubt and Certainty, an installation in the front space that consists of a table covered in small navigational instruments. Like so many of the other works, this again addresses a sense of place in a socially conscious way — without the invention of such navigational tools, the New World would not have been “discovered.” These instruments fundamentally changed the course of history.
But with Ribadeira’s piece, you can ignore the commentary and simply enjoy it. The moveable pieces on the table — you can play with all the elements — made from mirrors, glass, brass and other attractive materials are lovely. You can ask, as the artist does, “Where am I? Where Am I Going?” while taking in the sculpture, or just appreciate its beauty.
On your visit, make sure to make time to view the film from Mexico’s Miguel Calderón, all 25 minutes of it. Warning: this could be a tear-jerker. Titled Sergio, the film follows Sergio the Hawk Trainer, from his debilitating accident and his meeting with billionaire mogul Carlos Slim, to his wife’s kidnapping and subsequent infidelities. With a gorgeous cinematic touch, Calderón films Sergio and his hawk traversing dusty, desert landscapes as he finds that only through suffering could he learn to love life. Critics consider Calderón one of Mexico’s best contemporary artists, and you’ll see why.
Although Miami is often called a capital of Latin America, it surprisingly is not a center for Latin American art. While various exhibits highlight art from south of our borders, institutionally Miami is weak on this front. This is why CIFO’s yearly grants and commissions program is so important, and a real standout. We get to see newly commissioned works from up-and-coming and mid-career artists, chosen by a well-respected group of curators and artists from the United States, Latin America and Europe, who are at the forefront of current Latin art. The chosen artists chosen are expected to make challenging, innovative work (while the exhibitions are often heavy on installation and video, artists are not picked for their genre or their country of origin) and they generally deliver.
The addition of the two-month residency for a granted artist inaugurated this year is a good sign, a small step to bring together two regions that shouldn’t be strangers. It’s a program that will continue, according to CIFO director Jesus Fuenmayor, along with an extensive lecture series. For Art Basel Miami Beach, CIFO will collaborate with the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, he says, for the exhibit Permission to be Global: Latin American Art from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection, which will feature 80 works from 1960 to the present.