Modern and contemporary art in Latin America, which stretches from the southern border of the United States to the southernmost tip of South America, has taken many forms, from painting and photography to more subversive sculptures and performances.  While modernism was thriving in 1950s Europe and the United States, Brazilian artist Geraldo de Barros was becoming a pioneer of abstract photography in Latin America. During the 1950s he travelled to Europe, training in France and Germany and incorporating painting, graphic, and industrial design into his practice. Prints like Granada, Spain reveal his interest in formal composition and abstraction–traditionally modernist concerns–but the material and the location itself speak to De Barros' personal experience, capturing fragments of his life in urban São Paulo, Granada, and beyond.
Among the artists working in the following decades is Cildo Meireles, a pioneer of installation art who took the social and political aspects of making art and put them centre stage. In his Meshes of Freedom(1976), the artist invited gallery visitors to play with small red plastic units that connect and intersect to create an infinite variety of meshes. The mesh is always an open structure, never closing–thus maintaining an invitation for the piece to keep growing, and reminding audience members of their own collaborative power. But Meireles had already been harnessing collaboration and circulation as tools, as seen in his Insertions into Ideological Circuits in 1970. By printing images and messages onto widely circulated items–like the Brazilian banknote below–he developed a political art project which could criticise the establishment and reach a wide audience while avoiding censorship. After all, who would think to throw away money?
Many contemporary Latin American artists working today are similarly playful and inventive (and often just as subversive.) Gabriel Orozco is from Mexico but works all over the globe, creating art on site wherever inspiration strikes him. On the other hand, photographer Graciela Iturbide turns the lens in on her native Mexico, travelling and often living with her subjects for months while she documents them. "For me, a camera is an excuse to know a culture," she says, and even while photographing her own culture, she thinks of herself as something of a travel journalist. Iturbide is a great example of how art can help us step back and see even the most familiar things as new.
Meanwhile, Melanie Smith comes from a different angle: in this case, she is a British artist who lives and works in Mexico City. Her projects confronts the "completely different reality" of her new home, which is an intense and visually saturated place, a mix of epochs, scales, and colours. In her film Xilitla (2010), she captures the strangeness of a modern English garden set within a rainforest. Smith shows us how feelings of alienation and displacement can be great topics for art that explores the fusion of two cultures.
Abraham Cruzvillegas also draws on Mexican practice and history while bringing it into conversation with other cultures. Like many of their neighbours in Mexico City, Cruzvillegas’ parents built their piecemeal house themselves, adding to it over many decades–a process known as autoconstrucción, or "self-building." The artist reflects this process in AC: Blind Self Portrait: Glasgow-Cove Park, in which each red-painted object affixed to the wall is some memento from his everyday life, be it a train ticket, note, or drawing made on a restaurant napkin. But many of the objects are also unique to Scotland, where the artist spent several months researching the local economy and materials associated with it. So Cruzvillegas manages to create art that brings two very different places–rural Scotland and Mexico City–into a dialogue on one wall.
Other Latin American artists like Doris Salcedo have based their work on the darker sides of history. As in the sculpture above, the artist focuses most of her work around the experiences of Colombian people whose lives had been damaged by the country’s civil war. During the 1990s, she interviewed the relatives of dead and missing people and did extensive research into the records of humanitarian workers. From these records, she creates sculptures that tell their stories. Unland: audible in the mouth (1998) is a table constructed from two different halves, drilled through with thousands of tiny holes and woven through with a combination of women's hair (sourced from a local Colombian hairdresser) and raw white silk. So the table is an everyday object that has become a vehicle for a particular Colombian story, and a literal fabric of Colombian identity. In this way, artists like Salcedo share their stories with the world through their work.
© Tate, 2014