Pangaea: Contemporary art in Latin America and Africa – Saatchi Gallery

The title of this exhibition at Saatchi Gallery, “Pangaea” refers to the possible existence of a supra continent made of all the actual continents, and it is quite appropriate when we consider that Africa and the Latin American subcontinent are great portions of the terrestrial part of our planet. Indeed, as it has been remarked by the Saatchi exhibition, at some point in our geological evolution both parts of the world were joined… Nowadays, albeit sharing much about culture, bio-diversity and ways of seeing the world, the two continents are too distant from each other. If I want to travel from Bogota (Colombia) to Bamako (Mali) I need to take a flight stopping in Paris or London! This is one of the many legacies of European colonialism which left their strong footprint in both parts of the Earth. And yet, we have so much in common. One of the few consequences of that hideous crime of ‘slavery’ brought by the conquer of the New World, is that Latin America is a continent of mixture and mestizaje, where the black heritage was mixed with the indigenous world and the Spanish culture. Because the conquer of Central and South America was an individual enterprise in which men came to find their fortune, thus, it was possible that the different ethnical groups were mixing. In Colombia, we are great dancers thanks to our black heritage of body intelligence and music; we speak Spanish and we are brought up as Catholics, because of the Spanish heritage; and we hold animist beliefs and relationship with our earth and ancestors of our indigenous communities. This is completely different to the experience in North America, where families migrated searching for the promised land that was denied in their own countries of the North of Europe due to religious persecution…. well, but enough of history. The point of this is that the Saatchi Gallery has dedicated a substantial show to celebrate the art of contemporary artists of Latin America and Africa. This, apparently, should be a gigantic enterprise, as big as the continents represented… but it is not about the size, but the fact that the “third world” is starting to attract a refreshed attention from European collectors and cultural analysts.

I was very pleased to see that Colombia was nicely represented by the work of several contemporary artists. Indeed, the poster of the exhibition is the work of Rafael Gomez-Barros:  La Casa Tomada, a large scale installation of gigantic ants crawling through the gallery rooms! Each of the, probably hundreds, ants is made of fiberglass, rope and wood, and coloured with coal from El Cerrejon, one of the largest coal mines of the world, located in the north of Colombia.

Casa Tomada - Saatchi Cerrejon

Brushes Digital Art- Be.a.Art

My friend Nestor reminded me of the link between the discovery of coal in El Cerrejon in the 1980s and the closure of the coal mines in UK… the point of this all is that El Cerrejon is one of those odd places, where diverse economic interests converge and where people of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds meet (or not). Let me explain: El Cerrejon is located in the North side of the country in the area of La Guajira, one of the poorest areas of Colombia, in the peninsula that crowns our presence in the Caribbean. It is a desertic area normally populated by nomad tribes of Wayuu people, an ancient group populating the territory of what is now north Colombia and north Venezuela. For years this area has been considered as a “liminal place”, a place of smugglers, pirates and street sellers, still it is, and with the discovery of the mines, the foreign investment began to appear: highly paid executives and seasonal workers. Notwithstanding, their presence is transitory, they do not mix with the local population, they do not intend to stay or to learn from where they are: these are groups of highly paid executives living in luxury ready made bungalows – pirates in suits- , and seasonal workers…The title “La Casa Tomada” may be referring also to the famous story by the magnificent Julio Cortazar, in which two brothers find themselves cornered by the eerie wishes of the house where they live: as in many of Cortazar stories, this is not a menacing situation, it is rather “everyday gothic”, pointing a the magical in every day life.

El Cerrejon, as well as other economic enclaves in the middle of nowhere land can be perfectly one of Foucault’s heterotopias, places of separation created by economic power and exploitation of mineral resources. This is not fully explained in the exhibition, and indeed, the brochure mentioned that the artist’s intention was to represent the movement of people across the globe in economic diaspora. This may well apply to the Colombian diaspora of the 1990s and 2000s where thousands of people left the country fleeing one of the major economic (and social) depressions of our times. The economic crisis was partly produced by the neo-liberal measures imposed and adopted by the country where previously protected market were “opened” to international commerce of more competitive countries.

At the other side of the Atlantic, similar concerns are expressed through art. The Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama presents this haunting installation of a room filled with coffee/cocoa sacks from the floor to the ceiling: it is like one of these gigantic warehouses or containers bringing the richness of the African hills of one of the most popular beverages of modern world. This transit between the producer countries and the commercial enterprises reveal the unbalance of power: normally buying the coffee beans at cheaper prices to be consumed in urban settings… In both cases, the irony lies on the economic effects of neo-liberal globalisation in migration patterns from “third world” countries into “first world” areas…. as somebody once explained to me, first world countries got rich by exploiting the resources of the third world countries, depleting resources and altering cultural and economic patterns: not only that, their hegemony also made the world think that the only model is capitalism and consumerism, and that the world should be more “civilised” meaning more European… but when the former colonies start coming to the countries, European countries feel uncomfortable as if the migrants are actually eating “their” resources, depleting their fridges and pantries, “abusing” the health services and social benefits… anyway, let’s not dig there!

Some other artists like Oscar Murillo, a Colombian lad brought up in London, where he currently lives; shows an interesting take on painting. He uses different dyes, mediums and even dirt, stressing the materiality of painting, beyond the visual or the imagery. Gabriela Salgado (from Saatchi Gallery) mentions that Murillo’s choice of materials and also the way in he celebrates his Colombian heritage in terms of food and music for his private views, can be a sort of Arte Povera.  I think this is a new kind of “global flaneur” walking Bogota, London or Bamako, with the same ease and awe that the original flaneur of early 20th century Paris.

Another interesting work is presented by Freddy Alzate‘s brick sculptures. His intention is to represent the urban development of colombian cities like Medellin, which receive an average of 100 migrants per day: people from rural areas looking for opportunities or simply having to run away from the violence that still pervades in the country. His choice of brick is an illuminated one, because the orange brick is a favoured material for construction in Bogota and Medellin. Seen from the air, the warm brick illuminated by the fiery sun contrasts beautifully with the green exotic vegetation of these two cities. But the cities are bursting with people, and not everything can be planned by the city government: on the opposite, new roads, new houses without any public sanitation, and new land is taken from the mountain… trained abroad architects sometimes favour foreign materials: steel and glass, snubbing the humble brick… with the result of a mismatched, chaotic and non-harmonious architecture.

photo 1

Apartados-Brushes digital Art. Be.a.Art

This attention to urban spaces is re-interpreted by South African artist David Koloane. His rough paintings depict buildings and neighbourhoods at dusk, savage dogs of blind fluorescent eyes patrolled the streets, the reminder of the Apartheid powers, segregating practices and other separation dynamics. Once again, the concept of heterotopias is useful to understand those inner cities, those invisible yet dangerous borders, the silent language of black and white neighborhoods, poor and rich dwellings, sharing a limited space, disputing the territory: barbed wire, high fences, security and gangs: from the comunas of North East comunas and the posh buildings of El Poblado in Medellin (Colombia); the nicely located favelas crowning the fashionable apartments in Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro; to the shanty towns of Cape of Town and the barbed fences of white neighborhoods, the sights are similar.

Because at the end of the day, we live in a supra continent made of commerce and globalisation, where hegemonic ideas of progress (nicely packed from the North) encounter the realities and deep roots of many diverse people and countries, the plight of the periphery, the otherness, the diaspora, the migrants: the global flaneurs in 21st century Pangaea.

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