Between the Shadow and the Soul


MFAH’s latest Latin American exhibition gets sociopolitical through conceptual art, Brittanie Shey reports in this article for The Houstonia Magazine.

AT FIRST GLANCE, artist Miguel Ángel Rojas’ installation, “Broadway,” looks like a trail of leafcutter ants crawling along a gallery wall. Though large, it’s a delicate work of art, full of whimsy. A closer look reveals that the leaves are those of the coca plant, the raw material for cocaine. The work is a commentary on drug trafficking in the artist’s home country of Colombia.

“Broadway” is just one of the pieces in Contingent Beauty, a new exhibition of contemporary art from Latin America opening at the MFAH on November 22. The exhibit is made up of 32 works from the museum’s permanent collection, many of which were acquired in past five years thanks to a special initiative by the MFAH and Fundación Gego to research, promote, and collect the work of artists from the greater Caribbean.

But the show is not just a collection of recent acquisitions, said curator Mari Carmen Ramírez.

“Most of the works incorporate beautiful materials, beautiful textures, or they incorporate visually stimulating strategies that draw the viewer into the work of art,” she said. “But they’re not just works that please the eye. In all of these works, the artists are using the notion of beauty as a tool to engage the viewer with deeper social and political issues.”


A number of works in the show come from countries currently undergoing eco-political transformation. At least three works are by Cuban artists who came of age during the 1990s, an era of time known as the Special Period, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. This lead to economic and political turmoil in Cuba, which in turn led to an exodus of refugees from the country.

Artist Tania Bruguera has described this period as being like the immediate aftermath of a big war, Ramírez said. In one of the show’s key works of art, Bruguera gathered the hair of friends and relatives and used it to weave large-scale versions of the Cuban flag.

“In Afro-Cuban religions, the hair is one of the most important aspects of the body,” Ramírez said. “It has a special energy. When you see the flag from afar, you see a Cuban flag, but it’s not the exact colors of the flag‚ the colors are brownish. The work is called ‘Statistics’ because it’s recalling all those people who left Cuba.”

Another work, a Lego version of a Soviet monument, alludes to the failed utopia of Cuban society. The show also includes a number of video installations and other interactive artworks.

“All of these artists are using visually stimulating, highly creative and innovative approaches, which many times involved the notion of play or games,” Ramírez said. “In the stereotypical notion of political art you would have the artist make a very explicit statement, usually using the form of realism.

“But these works are based on conceptual art, they’re based on minimalism. Everything is non-traditional art, very cutting edge, contemporary. (The works are) done in a very unexpected way. It’s a show that’s gonna be filled with surprises.”

Nov 22–Feb 28. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

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