From the complex, structural gymnastics of Julio Cortazar to the stark, poetic realism of Robert Bolano, the sheer range of Latin American literature has always left me feeling like I’ve only scraped the surface. This is just how I felt leaving The Expatriate Archive, a show featuring seven artists at Mohsenin Gallery through November 21. Sara Lee Burd makes her curatorial debut with a show so comprehensive, it’s hard to believe it’s her first time. Burd focused on artists living in Nashville who hail from Central and South America, a cast with which she’s familiar. The Nashville Art‘s executive-editor wrote her master’s thesis on Latin American art, even though Vanderbilt didn’t even offer a survey course. Born in Columbia and raised in Georgia, Burd knows what it’s like to call more than one place home.
The title Expatriate Archive lends itself to many contexts, one for me being the Latin American writers I revere who went to Paris and Barcelona to write, although they were still obsessed with home. You see that in the work of these artists, such as in Liliana Velez’s Palenqueras that seethe with warmth. Palenqueras are women who don fruit baskets on their heads, specific to a village called Palenque de San Basilio, southeast of Cartegena in northern Columbia. The people of this village are Afro-Columbian, descendants of slaves bought by the Spanish, and they have continued to cultivate their African heritage over the past four centuries. In her artist statement, Velez writes, “I grew up in a Catholic context in Colombia, surrounded by danger and violence; feelings, thoughts, fears and mistakes were expected to be secret.” In contrast, the three Palenqueras on view show a refreshing openness, inviting viewers to share in their bounty. I learned from Burd that Velez is a completely self-taught painter, which adds to the wonder of her work.
As someone who benefits from a lot of context, I always appreciate seeing several works by an artist, and have trouble connecting with one or two alone. Burd’s decision to show many works by Nashville favorite Jorge Mendoza jived well for me, connecting his abstract paintings with his Quipus works on handmade paper. Mendoza’s work alights something old and dear in the imagination. It’s like going back to a very familiar but nearly forgotten story.
Much like a Garcia Marquez novel, Jorge Yances‘ work seemed the natural favorite. At the opening, the crowd lingered at his paintings of 16th and 17th century buildings, or rather, of their walls. Yances is the Expat artist who seems most steeped in literary tradition. He’s a self-described magical realist, and gallery-goers picked up on this, inspecting his wall paintings for emerging faces and shapes. They found many, and although the forms take on a life of their own, they’re almost magically contained in Yances’ canvases, breathing on the gallery walls.
Being a bit more interested in the subversive, I admired Clorinda Chávez Galdós Bell‘s meticulous religious paintings because she is exceptionally skilled, but they didn’t excite me conceptually. Photographer Juan Pont Lezica is on to something with his works that recast famous masterworks with models and actors. While the effects are surreal, I kept returning to them, aching for one to subvert the masters a bit more subversively. Nonetheless, in his frame, the timeless meets the timely, which is always interesting. Jairo Prado‘s Ancestral Fish is constructed from wood, showing his artisan sensibilities. Yuri Figueroa‘s One Line Drawings and paintings are the tip of the iceberg for this artist. His work that includes revolvers, skulls, and daisies is worthy of further investigation.
Of the many things this show accomplishes, Expatriate Archive shows us that there is no single Latin American artistic aesthetic, just as there is no single Latin American novel. But these seven are living and working in Nashville, and I’d be fascinated to know what brought them here and how their work is dually informed by their cultural history and their Music City present. Before you pull out your worn copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, stop by Mohsenin Gallery and take a look. You’ll leave wanting to chart new territory.