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  • Maria Eggemeyer

From Abstraction to Ancient Gods: Exploring Latin American Art

Emblema - 1972 • Rubem Valentim • Acrylic on canvas The Driscoll Art Accessions Endowment Fund and the William Hood Dunwoody Fund, 2023.35

Every time I walk through the current special exhibition Latin American Art at Mia in Gallery 255, I remember a comment that a student of mine from Argentina made to his classmates – “We Latins do come in all colors, shapes, and sizes.” Valéria Piccoli, Mia’s Ken and Linda Cutler Chair of the Arts of the Americas and curator of Latin American Art, has selected a marvelous variety of artworks spanning ages and cultures from Mia’s collection to fascinate and remind us of the diversity in Latin America, which is commonly understood to encompass all of Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean Islands.


The stunning Emblema-1972 (2023.35) by Rubem Valentim is Piccoli’s first acquisition as curator at Mia. Valentim overcame difficulties as a man of African descent in 1930s Brazil to earn degrees in journalism and odontology. After a few years of practicing dentistry, he decided to make a change, and having never given up experimenting with brushes and paint, Valentim decided to pursue a career in art.


Valentim’s great success as an artist allowed him to travel to Europe, where he would live for four years in Lisbon, London, and Rome. When he returned to Brazil, he adopted a style that combines Western abstraction with the symbols of Yorubá religion and his African culture. In his art, Valentim not only arranges geometric forms in an abstract composition, but also creates a spiritual realm where deities make themselves known through their attributes expressed in those geometric forms.


In its symmetry and ascending aspect of the composition, Emblema gives us the impression that we are looking at an altarpiece. Valentim uses strong lines and primary colors, and at the top, shows us the triangular forms of Ossian, the Yorubá deity of healing. Below that, he highlights the half-moon attributes associated to Yemanja, the Yorubá goddess of the rivers and the seas, and mother of all Orishas (deities).


On the western coast of South America, the Incas revered Pachamama, the goddess of the earth whose form was embodied in the mountains. Curator Piccoli was delighted to find in Mia’s collections Martín Chambi’s Panoramic View of Machu Picchu (2010.40.1A,B), a striking photograph from the early 1930s that gives us a view of those mountains.

Panoramic View of Machu Picchu, Peru, 1934 (printed later) Gelatin silver Print The Larey E. Lundberg and Larey Swanson Endowment for Art Acquisition, 2010.40.1A.B

Machu Picchu was built around 1450 for the Inca Emperor Pachacuti (1438-1472). Pachacuti incorporated many of the ancient and diverse cultures from Chile to Colombia to make a huge Inca Empire with its capital in Cuzco, Peru.


The Inca emperors spent their summers in Machu Picchu about 50 miles away from their capital. This “summer resort” had palaces, temples, warehouses, lodgings for servants, and even an observatory. Amazingly, these Inca buildings had no mortar. Instead, the Incas chiseled stones to fit each other perfectly.


Photographer Martín Chambi was born in a remote village in the southeastern highlands of Peru and was raised speaking Quechua, the Inca language. At 14 and already an orphan, he left school and moved to a mine site to work. He was enthralled by the mining company’s photographers in action, and three years later moved to the city of Arequipa to become assistant to a famous local photographer.


Chambi became well-known, and his photographs frequently appeared in La Nación, an Argentine weekly newspaper. After an exhibition of his photographs in Chile in 1936, Chambi declared that “It is believed that Indigenous peoples have no culture … that they are barbarians.” Considered to be South America’s first Indigenous photographer, he then decided to devote his long career to photographing the lives and surroundings of the Peruvian people during the early 20th century.


Thousands of years before the Incas came to power, the Valdivia culture flourished in coastal Ecuador. It was one of the first settled cultures of the Americas that cultivated crops, produced ceramics, and sculpted in stone. This exhibition gives us an outstanding example of a stylized Valdivian stone sculpture from 4000 - 3000 BCE. This geometric Figure (2004.104.2) is thought to be an owl, which could have been associated with the supernatural because of its nocturnal habits.


Figure, 4000-3000 BCE, Valdivia • Tufa The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund,2004.104.2

The Valdivia culture was first unearthed in 1956 by amateur archeologist Emilio Estrada Icaza in an area of Ecuador relatively close to beach resorts along the Pacific coastline. He had a profound interest and the wherewithal to pursue archeological excavations. Estrada’s grandfather had been president of Ecuador in 1911, and the family was involved in banking and numerous other businesses, including Coca-Cola bottling. Even though he had a master’s degree from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, Estrada dedicated much of his life to archeology.


My cousin Enrique told me years ago that a friend’s father had crates of Valdivia pieces stored in his garage. This may seem surprising, but at the time of the discovery of Valdivia, an appreciation for the ancient cultures had not yet awakened in the country of Ecuador. In the beginning, it was up to archeology aficionados such as Estrada to bring the ancient to light, which eventually led the Ecuadorean government to declare the ancient artwork patrimony and exhibit it in national museums for the attention and appreciation it deserved. With my Ecuadorean roots, I was especially gratified to see this remarkable ancient sculpture from Valdivia in the exhibition and thankful to Piccoli for having included it.


This is just a sampling of what awaits you in Gallery 255. Don’t miss spending time there to admire a wide variety of artwork from ancient pottery to contemporary prints, and from manifold cultures across Latin America. Latin American Art at Mia runs through April 28.

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