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1989–1992: MYTH AND MAGIC

Myth And Magic

In 1978, the 1st Latin American Biennial of Sao Paulo was organised with a view to broadening the spectrum of national exhibitions that were taking place in the city at the same time as the International Biennale. The chosen title was 'Myth and Magic'. The project revived the Latin American spirit that had been generated after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, which had a significant impact on Latin American art systems. At the Biennale, Mário Pedrosa, a guest curator who had recently returned from exile, read the essay 'Variacoes sem tema' in which he suggested addressing the crisis of the Third World by building a great Latin American union based on its common elements: poverty and mestizo. Myth and magic, as well as poverty and terms like mestizo, hybrid and autochthonous, have been clichés for naming and neutralising Third-World thinking and actions that lie outside the Western canon and, as such, are not a source of primary knowledge.


In 1989, the 'magicians' of Magiciens de la terre, the Paris exhibition organised by Jean Hubert Martin and cited ad nauseam, became the human spectacle of this primitivized otherness rather than the supposed opening up of the art world to the peripheries. It was one gesture among the many that were generated in the context of the recovery of the 'age of discovery', which was the theme of the Universal Exposition in Seville in 1992. The end of the misnamed Cold War turned attention back to thinking and acting in regard to the inhabitants of places that had been colonised during the 'modern age', whether or not they had gained their independence. In this arc of time from the eighties to the early nineties, 'myth and magic' was used by other exhibition projects, such as the already much-criticised Art of the Fantastic. Latin America, 1920–1987, presented at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1987 and 'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern presented at MoMA, New York, in 1984. There were also other instances of exoticisation through magic that are not contemplated by the canon, such as El surrealismo entre Viejo y Nuevo Mundo at the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in 1989. Art of the Fantastic, in particular, drew responses from Latin American curators and critics linked to the United States scene, especially from Mari Carmen Ramírez who reacted by falling into a Westernising strategy, creating a new hegemonic paradigm consisting of going 'beyond the fantastic' to defend the modernity of peripheries. Given the surrealising flow that connected supposedly sophisticated European art with the 'intrinsic' magic-realism of the New World, exhibitions such as ART/artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collection at the Museum of African Art in New York and the 2nd Havana Biennial, both in 1989, offered a critical reading of the production and interpretation of Third World art.

Coinciding with the 500th anniversary of the conquest of America, Stephen Greenblatt published Marvellous Possessions: The wonder of the New World, in which he probed the genealogy of the idea of the marvellous and the supernatural that persisted in the imagination of historical and contemporary peripheral territories as places of magic. Even the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey opened its doors in 1991 with a show entitled Mito y magia en América: los ochentas. I mention this exhibition in Mexico in order to avoid giving the impression of Latin America as an affable self-critical space, and to draw attention to the way in which certain stereotypes function as 'internal colonialism' within the very territory that is the object of these projections. Similarly, we would like to testify to the critical capacity that emerged from Europe and the United States. Also in 1991, for example, a group of New York-based artists, including Caterina Borelli, Ana Busto, Steve Schiff and Cris Bratton, created a fanzine entitled 1492–1992 Re-View, which critically confronted the commemoration of the event and invited other artists such a Nicanor Parra, Juan Downey, Rogelio López Cuenca and Antoni Muntadas to participate. The latter two were also included in one of the few critical projects that were carried out in relation to 1992 in the Spanish state, Plus Ultra, curated by Mar Villaespesa and organised by BNV as part of the Seville Expo.


The desire to recover and display the 'marvellous possessions' was also influenced by a conceptual discourse that developed around the body, which designated 'Indians' and 'women' as objects of possession and desire, as had had been the case during the conquest and colony. This became patent in Magiciens de la terre through the physical presence of the third world 'magicians' who were presented to Parisian society in a gesture reminiscent of human zoos of the nineteenth century.

A biopolitical critique of the apparatus of colonial domination must necessarily include a critique of the patriarchal system. In parallel to the implementation of these exhibition projects there was a symptomatic rise of early 'cuir' (queer) theories and practices, based on a cross between feminist critique and other resistant subjectivities. In the arts, the work of Cecilia Vicuña, Adrian Piper, Carlos Motta, Coco Fusco, Ines Doujak, Daniela Ortiz and Guiseppe Campuzano's Museo Travesti del Perú, among others, drew attention to this inevitable intertwining of sex and race. And along similar lines, there is also the particularly noteworthy activist collective Mujeres Creando – that also but not exclusively worked within the art system – which sprang up in Bolivia in 1992 and used direct action and graffiti, among other strategies, to work on the idea that 'you can't decolonise without depatriarchalizing'.


The rekindled interest in the abovementioned exhibitions, particularly Magiciens de la terre, reminds us of the need to stay alert to the drives of the global art system. We should obviously avoid reductionism: the analytical exercises on the exhibitions carried out by Afterall cannot be equated to the ZKM exhibition The Global Contemporary. Art Worlds After 1989. The opening of the interactive museum World of Discoveries in Porto this year is significant in this debate, given that it reclaims Portugal's imperial past from a perspective that doesn't just aim to recover this reading of the past, but encourages the Portuguese people to relive this past in an experiential, relational way: through magic, the imperial myth is repeated.

Given this scenario, all that can be done is respond by proposing dislocated ways of recovering those 'marvellous possessions' and those mythicized colonial pasts. Orthodox colonial history and this recent past of events in the 1989-1992 arc of time require a critical analysis that does not magically fetishise their status as a supposed 'universal' paradigm change. Rather, it is necessary to identify their devices of imperialist commemoration, and the critical cracks that may have been generated in this context, as we've set out to do for example in the research by the group Peninsula. Colonial processes and art and curatorial practices, presented in part early this year at Bulego z/b in Bilbao at the seminar '1992. Capital Status, Exhibitions and Critical Strategies'.

It is not sufficient, however, to fight the racist and xenophobic imaginaries projected in some of these exhibitions, and their recovery, through a critique of representation. Rather, the resistance must be based on a process of deactivation of the 'colonial unconscious' that Suely Rolnik talks about, which suggests filtering the experience of colonial processes through bodies and desires in order to activate the long memory that resides in them. In the current situation of the financial crisis of capitalism and its policies of repression of the racialised other, this memory reaffirms the need to recognise the structural faults of the modern patriarchal colonial system, and, from there, to imagine productive forms in which Third and Fourth world thoughts and practices come to life.

Translated by Nuria Rodríguez

The views and opinions published here mirror the principles of academic freedom and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the L'Internationale confederation and its members.