If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Latin America

What are global modernisms?

You might be wondering why this topic is called Global modernisms, as if there is more than just one type of modernism in the history of art. When we talk about art history, it's easy to look at that art through the lens of where we live and come from–and in this case, a great deal of that history has been written from the perspective of art historians and specialists living in Europe and North America.
What's important to remember is that there are, in fact, many different modernisms that have sprung up in all different places around the world–and not just in what we call "the West." Regions like AfricaLatin AmericaAsia, and the Middle East have seen their own artistic responses to modernity, and while some of them might share themes and visual qualities with Western art, others have taken radical new paths.
There are many different voices in art history, and museums like Tate are striving to make them heard as exhibitions develop and collections grow. And while you won't find the whole history here, you can begin by getting to know these modern and contemporary artists, taking a look at their work, and hearing their stories.

Global modernisms: Latin America

Geraldo de Barros, Granada, Spain, 1951, Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, 40 x 29 cm (Tate)
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?
Cildo Meireles, Insertions into Ideological Circuits 2: Banknote Project, 1970, ink on banknote (Tate)
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, AC: Blind Self Portrait: Glasgow-Cove Park, 2008, Acrylic paint on newspapers, postcards, envelopes, tickets, wraps, drawings, posters, flyers, stickers, card, recipes, overall displayed dimensions variable (Tate)
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.
Doris Salcedo, Unland: audible in the mouth, 1998, wood, thread, and hair, 80 x 75 x 315 cm (Tate)
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.

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    I absolutely love the photograph "Geraldo de Barros, Granada, Spain, 1951, Photograph"...

    The stark contrast and the descending "spiral staircase" look of the rooftops seems to draw the eye playfully along. I find that black and white photographs in general seem to appeal to me in general more than color...is there a difference between how our eyes register the two? I wonder why I always am drawn to black and white more readily?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    We read, "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?"

    So did he actually print the writing on the money and then go spend it and hope people would see the message? I looked up more of his works in this style and it seemed to me that they were all intended for galleries or museums, no?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf green style avatar for user Camille @ Tate
      In the case of this piece and a few others, Cildo Meireles was looking to explore the idea of circulation and exchange of goods and wealth, and how he could impact those systems. While the pieces currently on display in museums are no longer in circulation, they and others like them definitely were at some point. Meireles did a similar project with Coca-Cola bottles that he stamped and altered before returning them to the factory to be reused. The artist was looking for a way to spread messages and ideas during a time when censorship was high:

      "In 1970, when Meireles produced the Insertions into Ideological Circuits projects, Brazil was undergoing the most oppressive period of its twenty-one year government by military dictatorship. At the time, the Insertions constituted a form of guerrilla tactics of political resistance in order to elude the strict state censorship enforced by the regime. For Meireles, the texts on circulating bottles and banknotes ‘functioned as a kind of mobile grafitti.'"

      You can read a bit more about these projects here: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/meireles-insertions-into-ideological-circuits-2-banknote-project-t12537/text-summary
      (2 votes)