Isla Bermeja is the land of make believe. Although appearing in books and on maps dating to the 1500s, the “ghost island” in the Gulf of Mexico, just north of the Yucatán capital of Mérida, apparently never existed.
But visitors to the latest show at the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection — Permission To Be Global — can see Mexican artist Eduardo Abaroa’s humorous rendition of the island, complete with its mythical geographical location and very real role in the sovereignty over oil deposits in the Gulf.
As if the concrete floor at the gallery were the Gulf waters, Abaroa heaped fake gold chains that rise in a lumpy mound roughly a foot above the surface. Abaroa used similar chains to outline a map of Mexico. He also provided a chronological history of the island. Early texts put the coordinates of the island at latitude 22° 33’ north, longitude 91° 22’ west. When modern cartographers failed to locate it, a Mexican official declared the island wasn’t readily visible because it was submerged as a result of global warming. Although a later study by the Mexican government proved “there has not been an island on those coordinates for 5,300 years,” Abaroa pointed out that conspiracy theorists now speculate that the CIA destroyed the island to move Mexico’s international boundary and provide the United States with greater drilling rights in the gulf.
Abaroa’s deft depiction of the island controversy and disbelief in the face of scientific evidence provides much-needed comic relief in an exhibit that periodically deals with some very dark aspects of Latin American history, ones involving loss of limb and life. Whether intentional or not, Permission To Be Global is that rare exhibit that is small enough to be absorbed in one visit and so beautifully paced that the viewer is repeatedly awed but never overwhelmed.
The show is a collaborative effort between the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It will be on exhibit in Miami through Feb. 23 and then in Boston from March 19 through July 13. Not only does the show debut “numerous artists never before seen in Miami,” according to MFA Director Malcolm Rogers, but also it marks the first time the Boston museum has dedicated a show to contemporary Latin American art.
Curated by MFA Senior Curator Jen Mergel and Assistant Curator Liz Munsell in Boston, in consultation with CIFO Director and Curator Jesús Fuenmayor in Miami, the show spans five decades and features 87 works of art, 66 of which were never before exhibited at CIFO.
The overall theme of the show examines Latin American art in the context of the world at large, with the art transcending borders while still examining issues intrinsic to Latin American culture. “We Latin Americans are a mix,” says Fuenmayor, who is Venezuelan by birth. “In a way we have a relationship to our own indigenous roots, our landscape, but at the same time we are very modern.” Repeatedly, this concept of modernity steeped in Spanish colonialism plays out in the art on display.
Mixed-media artist Pablo Helguera uses the centuries-old Donceles Street, with its numerous antiquarian bookstores in the heart of Mexico City’s historic center, as a backdrop for his work. Helguera calls his installation, which takes up an entire room in the exhibition, Libería Donceles (Donceles Bookstore). According to Fuenmayor, the Mexican artist designed his exhibit after moving to New York, which has no used bookstore devoted to Spanish-language books despite a population of two million-plus Spanish speakers.
“I think what Pablo is doing is asking, ‘how do we compensate for the absence of Spanish-speaking bookstores?’ ” Fuenmayor said. “He’s also making fun of himself. I don’t think he is trying to solve a problem, but to deal with it in a symbolic way.”
Entering Libería Donceles is stepping into a place of reflection where one can peruse books or pursue other quiet activities, such as chess. The place is carpeted and cozy, with comfortable chairs and row upon row of used books, some with comical headings such as Buenas Portadas, Libros Pésimos and Portadas Feas — respectively, good, bad and ugly books.
Visitors are encouraged to both touch this art and take a piece of it home with them. They can interact with the exhibit by purchasing one book of their choosing. Each book comes with a bookplate, Ex Libris Libería Donceles, and makes a great souvenir.
The bookstore serves as a refuge from some works that resonate long after the visit. Directly across from the bookstore is Oscar Muñoz’s Sedimentaciones, a haunting exhibit commemorating the lost lives of people who disappeared after challenging various regimes throughout Latin America.
Using overhead projectors and a soundtrack of alternately swirling and draining water, the Colombian artist shows a hand taking what appears to be photographic paper from a tabletop and placing it in a chemical bath from which the image of a person emerges. That same hand then places the image on the table and picks up another image that is then placed in a chemical bath on the table’s opposite end. That image dissolves and slips down the drain. This process progresses with rhythmic monotony that tends to erase the horror the longer one observes.
In a similar theme is Colombian artist Miguel Ángel Rojas’s extraordinary photograph of a soldier who lost the lower part of his left leg in Colombia’s drug war. Posed as Michelangelo’s David, the life-size image is such a clash of youthful beauty and senseless loss.
Peruvian artist Daniela Ortiz also uses photography to tell a story, but hers is more subtle. Ortiz focuses on the omnipresent, but nearly invisible, servant in upper-class Peru. In her photographs commemorating birthdays, weddings and outings, the servants appear as partial images of a shoulder or hands or sometimes just a flash of their white uniforms, always on the periphery.
One of the most moving works on display is by Guatemalan performance artist Regina José Galindo, a petite but fierce young woman who uses her body to speak for those who cannot. Her 2003 video ¿Quién Puede Borrar las Huellas? (Who Can Erase the Footprints?) recalls the genocide of some 200,000 countrymen during Guatemala’s civil war.
After learning that the man responsible for many of those deaths was legally able to run for president in 2003, Galindo launched a silent protest in Guatemala City by walking barefoot from the constitutional court to the national palace, pausing periodically to dip her feet into a white basin filled with human blood so that she could leave behind a trail of bloody footprints. The message is all the more potent because the soundtrack is simply ambient street noise, an occasional car horn or the soft sound of wind whipping through the microphone. There is no cry of outrage, just dignified silence.
It is easy to see how this video went viral, bringing international recognition to both the artist and the atrocities she highlighted. Perhaps once pigeonholed as “Latin American,” Galindo and the other artists in this extraordinary exhibition are a part of the world stage, recognized for works that transcend the confines of Latin America and influence the world at large.
Permission to be global? None needed.