Streams of Being: A First Look

The Art Gallery is currently hosting the exhibition Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas. Curated by Assistant Professor of Latin American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, Abigail McEwen, and University of Maryland graduate students, the exhibition features forty-five artists from sixteen countries across the Americas. To commemorate and celebrate this unique exhibition and collaboration between the Art Museum of the Americas of the Organization of American States and The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland, various University of Maryland graduate students and undergraduate students have taken over our blog. Below, University of Maryland senior Stephanie Gaither recaps the exhibition’s opening.

A First Look
Stephanie Gaither ’15

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The Art Gallery’s Taras Matla addresses the crowd at the opening. Photo by Madeline L. Gent

On March 25th, 2015, The Art Gallery presented the exhibition Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas. Despite earlier previews and some familiarity with the pieces, nothing could beat the feeling of seeing the complete installation for the first time.  Perfectly situated, the artworks create a balanced and harmonious ambiance that guides the visitor throughout the space, sustaining a steady excitement and emotional response through each of the four areas. The opening gathered students, faculty, artists, and art enthusiasts on campus to enjoy the wide selection of objects. Taras Matla of The Art Gallery, Andrés Navia of AMA, and Professor Abigail McEwen all spoke briefly at the opening “We were thrilled to partner with the Art Museum of the Americas, home to one of the preeminent public collections of modern and contemporary Latin American art,” McEwen later stated.  “This exhibition was a true collaboration between AMA and The Art Gallery and one that we hope to advance in future years.  I was delighted to see so many students at the opening, and I hope that the exhibition continues to draw the campus community to the Gallery in the next month.” Close to 200 people attended the opening reception.

A few days later, I had the pleasure to interview some of the students in Professor McEwen’s undergraduate colloquium who attended the opening. Lindsay D’Andelet declared, “I thought that the opening was very interesting; there were a lot of people there including the director of AMA. Walking in the gallery was really cool, because I was one of the first people here and the first thing that I noticed was the large piece on the back wall which drew me in.” Sibia Sarangan, a student and the Gallery’s Collections Management and Research Intern, stated, “The opening was really successful in my opinion. A lot of people showed up from different demographics– students, members of the community, and everyone seemed to really enjoy the art. The exhibition was the result of collaboration between a lot of different people and institutions such as the Art Museum of the Americas and The Gallery here at the university. I think it was a great success and everyone seemed to be either interested in the streams and how the different pieces are connected with each other.” Most people seem to agree that the opening was a success, and are all very excited to have more people visit the show this month!

Stephanie Gaither is a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is majoring in government and politics, and economics. Her interests include traveling, reading, and visiting art museums.


Dust and Ashes: A Poetic Reaction to Berni’s Imaginary World

The Art Gallery is currently hosting the exhibition Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas. Curated by Assistant Professor of Latin American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, Abigail McEwen, and University of Maryland graduate students, the exhibition features forty-five artists from sixteen countries across the Americas. To commemorate and celebrate this unique exhibition and collaboration between the Art Museum of the Americas of the Organization of American States and The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland, various University of Maryland graduate students and undergraduate students have taken over our blog. Below, University of Maryland senior Angela Seo-hyun Cho employs poetry to analyze and interpret a work featured in the show.

Dust and Ashes: A Poetic Reaction to Berni’s Imaginary World

Angela Seo-hyun Cho ’15


Antonio Berni, Ramona, 1965, Xilo-Collage Relief, 14.75 x 10 in. AMA | Collection OAS Art Museum of the Americas

Antonio Berni fixated on two subjects, Ramona Montiel and Juanito Laguna, beginning in the mid-1950s. What was it about these two characters that so enchained him to their existence? One of these characters, Ramona, is on display in The Art Gallery. The artwork is black and white, slightly raised as to give it a three-dimensional appearance, but still almost cartoon-like and eerie. Berni might have appreciated a poetic rendition of and reaction to his many studies of the characters Juanito, a poor boy struggling to survive in an industrial shantytown, and Ramona, a working-class girl turned high-class prostitute, selling her body and soul.

Here follows my poetic take on the world of Ramona:

Dust and Ashes

Is poor so poor or rich so rich?
As far black as blackness goes or as far light as lightness goes,
you dig and build empires of dust all around you

So, is dust then so delectable and so palatable to your lips
that you should guzzle it down and stuff it down your throat?
Why are you so unquenchably hungry?

You fill your belly with dust and excrete human ashes
And you use the excrement to fashion ornaments
And figurines that resemble the echo of love

And you decorate your empires with lace and pearls,
and paint the towns with black ashes,
all the while licking off more dust from the sides of cars, buildings, anything you can find

But, alas, the empire rocks to and fro and finally, collapses on top of you:
Shards of wealth pierce you in between your second and third rib.
You choke on your own excrement and you violently cough up rubies and emeralds

And you wonder what happened to your soul
And you realize your soul was made dust too
And you ate it 634 days ago when you forgot that
To be unimaginably rich is not always rich
and to be desperately poor is not always poor.

I leave you with some questions. From whose perspective does this poem come from? And secondly, what is your personal interpretation of this poem? Of Berni’s work?

Angela Cho is a senior at the University of Maryland. She is studying english literature and is interested in art of all forms.

Strange Fruit: The Banana in the Americas

In anticipation of our current exhibition Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas, The Art Gallery’s blog featured posts from the University of Maryland graduate students who curated the show with their professor Abigail McEwen, Assistant Professor of Latin American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology. Below is the final graduate student post. Please stop by The Gallery before the show closes on April 25th!

Strange Fruit:

The Banana in the Americas

Tyler Shine

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Antonio Henrique Amaral, Banana, 1971, oil on canvas 66 3/4 x 50 1/2″ AMA | Collection OAS Art Museum of the Americas

Several rows of green and yellow bananas greet shoppers at my neighborhood grocery store in Washington, D.C. Stocked in groceries across the country, the banana is a familiar fruit that calls little attention to itself. But in a series of paintings made between 1968 and 1975, the Brazilian artist Antonio Henrique Amaral (b. 1935) transformed the humble banana into a monumental subject. Conjuring up associations to warmer climates, exotic bodies, and perpetual leisure, the banana has become a strange, but vivid metaphor for micro-histories of commodity markets, migration, popular culture, global economic regulations, ecological issues, and even the performing arts.

In our graduate seminar last semester, we discussed the physical and conceptual boundaries that mark the experiences of exile in Latin America. In this post, I explore the multiplicity of meanings embodied by the banana, particularly as it represents the landscape/body of the Americas. “Bananas are so common that they are almost invisible,” historian Virginia S. Jenkins remarked in Banana: An American History.[1] What forms of agency belong to this ubiquitous and allegorical fruit?

I began my research on Amaral’s paintings with a visit to the archives at the Art Museum of the Americas (AMA) where I found, in the artist’s file, an unexpected pamphlet for the Ninth Annual Banana Festival in the twin cities of Fulton, Kentucky and South Fulton, Tennessee. This slim volume led me to think about the ways in which the banana has continued to connect the United States and several Latin American countries. The banana arrived in the Americas from Asia by way of Africa, on ships of sixteenth-century Portuguese explorers. Bananas were a luxury import until the late nineteenth century, but the advent of new technologies – steam-powered ships, refrigeration, canning, and boxing – allowed tropical fruits to become widely available on the world market. The banana became popular in the United States following the Centennial Exposition (Philadelphia, 1876), which included a forty-acre display of “orange trees, a banana plant, date palms, wax plants, century plants, sago palms, fig trees, orchids, and pineapples.” As Jenkins explains, “The banana plant was so popular that a guard had to be posted near it so that visitors would not pull it apart for souvenirs.”[2]

Amaral developed his large-scale banana paintings in two phases. The first (1968-72), broadly titled Brasiliana, features solitary clusters of bananas in the green, yellow, and blue colors of the Brazilian flag. Paintings of the second phase (1973-75) are characterized as Campos de batalha (Battlefields). Amaral created the Battlefield paintings while in the United States, where he went in order to avoid censorship from the Brazilian government. These later paintings introduce sharp, metallic objects, such as forks and knives that stab and cut the ripening and rotting flesh of the bananas. In stating, “I reject all repression,” Amaral suggests both the specificity and universality of his artistic project.[3] We can see in Amaral’s banana paintings not only political resonances, but also ecological, racialized, and gendered meanings that reinforce the artist’s affirmative stance against oppression. In the lines that follow, I will briefly address the latter issues of race and gender.

In popular culture, the banana is often conflated with the Latino/a body and the tropical landscape. Sociologist Mimi Sheller, in an article on how the banana connects the complex systems of global transportation, communication and politics, writes that “food…is not simply something we consume; rather, it is a crucial part of the daily routines and actions of bodies through which racialization happens. Bananas contribute to racing space and bodies in several complex and interacting ways.”[4] As a tropical export crop, the banana depends on a racialized labor force of ‘Black’ and ‘Brown’ bodies distinct from its presumptively ‘white’ consumer in North America. (This distinction can be problematized if we consider that consumption of bananas in the North does not necessitate a white consumer.) Bananas also figure into evolutionary hierarchies as a food eaten by non-human primates like monkeys and chimpanzees, thus becoming a sign of ‘primitive’ association with animals. Lastly, the banana is sexualized due its phallic shape. In these ways, the tropics manifest a sexualized space inhabited by raced bodies deemed lower on the evolutionary chain of being, bodies that are further sexualized by their association with the banana.

Myra Mendible’s “ironic reference to bananas and buttocks” in the title of her edited volume, From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture, “conjures images of banana republics and fertile natural resources—literal and figurative ‘booty.’” Her words connote “a history of U.S. tropicalization vis-à-vis Latin America and evoke the kind of ambivalent desire and disgust that characterizes North-South relations and, by extension, inflects the Latina body as transnational signifier.”[5] (See Ellie’s post on the female body in exile, here.) One embodiment of this tropical, nonthreatening vision of South America was given by the Brazilian actress, singer, and samba dancer Carmen Miranda, whose flamboyant persona served as the inspiration for the United Fruit Company’s creation of Chiquita Banana a half-banana, half-woman cartoon character. With a heavy accent and fruit-topped headdress, she acted as the company’s “friendly face.” Caetano Veloso aptly summarized Brazil’s love-hate relationship with Miranda:

For the generation of Brazilians who…became adults at the height of the Brazilian military dictatorship and the international wave of the counterculture…Carmen Miranda was, first, a cause for both pride and shame, and latter, a symbol that inspired the merciless gaze we began to cast upon ourselves.[6]

The critical self-consciousness Veloso describes is embedded in Amaral’s paintings. Their protagonist is a discursive symbol reflecting nationalist struggles, oppression, economic exploitation, migratory patterns, racial and sexual tensions, subversive politics, and environmental denigration.


[1] Virginia S. Jenkins, Banana: An American History (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), ix.

[2] Ibid., 11.

[3] Edward J. Sullivan, “A View from Abroad,” in Antonio Henrique Amaral: Obra em Processo (São Paulo: DBA, 1997), 281.

[4] Mimi Sheller, “Skinning the Banana Trade: Racial Erotics and Ethical Consumption,” in Geographies of Race and Food: Fields, Bodies, Markets (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), 292.

[5] Myra Mendible, From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 7.

[6] Ibid., 12.


Hybridity and Exile in María Martínez-Cañas’ Photomontage

In the following weeks, a series of guest-blog posts will be published in anticipation of The Art Gallery’s next exhibition, Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas. This exhibition has been curated by Professor Abigail McEwen, Assistant Professor of Latin American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland, and Ph.D. students from the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland.

Hybridity and Exile in María Martínez-Cañas’ Photomontage

Ali Singer 

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María Martínez-Cañas, Fragment Pieces #4, 1982, silver gelatin photograph, 16″ x 20″.            OAS AMA | Art Museum of the Americas

Last fall, I had the opportunity to visit the archives at AMA to research a handful of artists for Streams of Being.  Each time the archivists brought out a new folder, they reminded me to be attentive to the order of its contents, prompting me to visualize the ways in which we might think of each folder as a fluid text in and of itself.  The loose documents read like the pages of an artist’s book, with pieces added as AMA acquired them.  Yet the narratives nonetheless remain fragmentary, almost like a photomontage.  What I became more interested in as I read and studied each new document, each new trace of some history, were the spaces in-between this narrative.  Michel Foucault, in his text The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), envisions the archive as a way of studying, or constructing the past to shape meaning.  Foucault’s definition allows us to further think about the archive as a space of making.  One of the artists in our exhibition, María Martínez-Cañas, has helped to shape my own ideas about this exhibition through her own work, which acts as just such a constructed archive.  In particular, her photomontage Fragment Pieces #4 fits into a larger artistic narrative in which the medium of photography, and any singular image, is pointedly relegated.[1]  In its place, she often draws on her own histories, both personal and collective, tapping into many of the themes we studied throughout our seminar: exile and diaspora, global and local histories.  Her work strikes a balance between her own biography and the ways in which the objects themselves have meaning and agency, a theme that Raino Isto has explained here.

A topic that we explored in theoretical depth last semester, the theme of exile runs throughout our exhibition.  In this regard, the medium of photomontage has been particularly important to Martínez-Cañas because, as she says, it helps her “to create new memories that have to do with who I am.” Artists have often used the medium as a form of political protest, and Andy Grundberg suggests that perhaps the majority of these artists were also in exile or refugees.[3]  From this perspective, Martínez-Cañas engages her historical ties to a larger network of artists in exile at the level of medium.  We can see the fragmentary nature of her photomontage technique as operating at this initial level: the work exists as a single fragment of a larger narrative of artists in exile linked through this condition of medium specificity.

The images within the piece itself are also significant in their representation of the intellectual trajectory of our class as we shaped this exhibition.  The photographs depict pre-Columbian objects, suggesting a historical and hemispheric link for Martínez-Cañas as a Latin American artist.  The written text above and below the object on the left reads, “That which narrates can make us understand.  The primitive begins alone; he inherits no practice.”  The notion of inheriting practice subtly implies cultural hybridity, whereas “beginning” and “alone” taken together describe points of origin unfettered by outside input.  Cultural hybridity as well as the complex relationship between the local and the metropolitan, as we explored through the work of writers such as Fredric Jameson and Arjun Appadurai, resonated at the fore of our thinking around this exhibition.  Martínez-Cañas’ piece speaks well to these larger themes as the text, visually paired with pre-Columbian objects, engages to one half of the equation: the indigenous.  Yet the text also foreshadows later European conquest, particularly in the use of the word “primitive,” a European notion that relegated indigenous populations to a presumptively less civilized, and thus lower, social standing.

Many of the artists in this exhibition deal with notions of cultural hybridity.  Hybridity implies an initial flow and movement, perhaps due to exile or immigration, or even the liminal condition of the refugee.  Martínez-Cañas was born in Cuba, but she and her family fled to Puerto Rico as exiles shortly thereafter.  Thus, she has lived not only a life in exile but also one defined by cultural hybridity.  She moved to the United States only a few years before she produced Fragmented Pieces #4, a work that frames and augments the feeling of displacement.  The photomontage medium, as adapted in this piece, allows us to imagine the work itself as expressing a kind of hybridity.[4] The image of the book onto which Martínez-Cañas has placed the pre-Columbian images returns me again to the notion of the archive and the experience of flipping through the various fragments contained within each folder, a metaphorical “artist’s book.”  Fragmented Pieces #4 is emblematic of the themes and ideas we explored together as a class and, at a personal level, it registers the ways in which my thinking has been further shaped through the use of AMA’s archives.  My visit to AMA was crucial to my understanding of individual artists work.  Tellingly, it also inspired new creative conjunctions between  an artist, as pieced together by the archive, and the fragmented narratives and cultural fragmentation as experienced by an artist (herself) in exile.


[1] Although this specific piece is not included in our exhibition, this work by Martínez-Cañas expresses many of the themes central to our exhibition and guided my thinking during the course of my research in the archives at AMA.

[2] Andy Grundberg, “A Storm of Images: the Photographs of María Martínez-Cañas,” in María Martínez-Cañas: A Retrospective, April 30 – July 28, 2002 (Fort Lauderdale: Museum of Art, 2002).

[3] Andy Grundberg, “A Storm of Images: the Photographs of María Martínez-Cañas.”

[4] Olga M. Viso, “With Feet Firmly Planted,” in María Martínez-Cañas: A Retrospective, April 30 – July 28, 2002 (Fort Lauderdale: Museum of Art, 2002).

The Body in Exile

In the following weeks, a series of guest-blog posts will be published in anticipation of The Art Gallery’s next exhibition, Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas. This exhibition has been curated by Professor Abigail McEwen, Assistant Professor of Latin American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland, and Ph.D. students from the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland.

The Body in Exile

 Eleanor Stoltzfus

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Domingo Batista, Cementerio Dominicano, c. 1988. Photograph, 14¼ x 18¼ in. Collection OAS AMA | Art Museum of the Americas

As Raino Isto and Kathleen Weigand have already discussed in their posts (accessible here and here), our seminar, led by Dr. Abigail McEwen, focused on conversations surrounding globalization, diaspora, borderlands, and exile. The fruitful results of these conversations underpin our exhibition, which is broadly grouped around such themes as flows of capital, the body in exile, the agency of the object, and animals, to name but a few. In this post, I approach just one of the themes considered in the exhibition — “the body in exile” — and consider how two Latin American artists have entered into dialogue with it.

I begin with a disclaimer: to consider the concept of exile requires an understanding that there is not one exile but many. It is important to emphasize that exile is an individual experience and manifested in many forms. In bringing together works of art that engage with “exile,” our exhibition seeks not to homogenize such experience, but to consider together some of the commonalities of exilic experience across Latin America.

The concept of “exile” carries with it the weight of multiple associations. It can be both an internal and an external state of being, a form of punishment and of displacement. To be exiled implies a rift between the self and the home in some fundamental and irrevocable manner. It engenders dislocation, fragmentation and dispersal; affects and alters memory; and enforces separation and cultural displacement. Exile both denies an identity to a person or people and simultaneously—forcibly—forges a new kind of identity, one necessitated by geographic or psychological dislocation. For those exiled, the remembered homeland they once knew, from which they have now become alienated, is a place that no longer exists; their experiences of home are located firmly in the past and cannot be reconstructed as present-day reality.

In many of the countries of Latin America, exile has been a continuous experience since the period of colonization. Beginning in the late fifteenth century, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic, among other territories, were subjected to colonial rule by the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English; they became geographic sites over which imperial powers fought for control over three hundred years. From the subjugation endured under colonial imperialism to the mass terrorization and displacement enacted by modern dictatorial regimes (some of which remained in power until the 1990s), exile has been a corollary of continuous upheaval and instability.

The mark of exile upon Latin America’s recent history finds expression in many of the objects that we considered for our exhibition. Some works examine the multiple alienations that exile engenders and the enduring consequences of rupture and homelessness. Many of these artists turned to the body as a principal site for the exploration of the social, psychological, and physical ramifications of exile; for those who have no physical location, the body has functioned as a locus of identity and stability. It is also, however, an agent that is migratory, that can transgress boundaries and borderland spaces, that is a site of power in itself. In the exhibition, one witnesses both male and female artists appropriating the body as a medium in flux, as a tool for self-representation or emphatic self-inscription capable of reclaiming an identity contrary to that of the colonized, subjugated, or subaltern.

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Frieda Medin Ojeda, Rumbos III, 1984. Photograph, 19½ x 15½ in. Collection OAS AMA |Art Museum of the Americas

Frieda Medin Ojeda’s Rumbos III exemplifies artistic expressions of the exilic body. Born in Puerto Rico in 1949, Ojeda was educated first at the University of Puerto Rico before moving to New York to complete studies in film and video arts. Rumbos III, somewhat mysterious in its subject matter, evokes the trauma of fragmentation and exile. A woman’s body lies upon a ground line slanted at an angle, her upper torso, arms, and head visible to us but her lower body inaccessible – either fragmented or hidden, it remains unclear. The photograph itself is fragmentary, seemingly composed of a series of montaged images that simultaneously reveal and conceal the subject; she is bounded within an amorphous border that in sections seems to be a collapsed wall through which the viewer looks.

Ojeda here elicits a sense of the potential violence enacted upon the body. The woman’s position and her nakedness place her in an exposed state, a vulnerability underscored by the viewer’s privileged position of gazing at her unseen, from an unknown vantage point. The image speaks to the gendered experience of exile and to the particular dangers of violence for women dislocated from their homelands and forced into migration. The importance of differentiating between the male and female experience of exile cannot be overlooked. For many women, forced exile and migration were fraught with peril, the threats of violence and isolation heightened not only in terms of the journey “elsewhere” itself, but also in relation to societal norms in their newfound locations. Relocated to a new culture, these women found themselves as doubly “other:” living as both a woman and an immigrant in a foreign land.

Domingo Batista’s Cementerio Dominicano, the photograph at the beginning of the post, also engages with the concept of exile; although here it is the total absence of the body, rather than its partiality or its embodiment, that signals fragmented experience. An open gate frames the central space of the photograph, drawing the viewer’s attention to the clusters of grave markers visible in the background. The relative emptiness of this focal point, as contrasted against the fenced space of the foreground, itself suggests a lack or an absence. The cemetery, of course, is a site of death, of the absence of the living body, and is an ultimate exilic space. Here, the body disappears, its presence in the landscape marked only by the tombstones that locate the sites of burial. The silence of this landscape marks the raw absence of the body from its space and elicits a sense of rupture, disappearance, and exile.

For Ojeda and Batista, amongst others in the exhibition, the theme of exile is a permeating undercurrent in their work. Many of the artworks drawn from AMA’s collection address the experiences engendered by exilic conditions, including the loss of identity, alienation, subjugation, rupture, and fragmentation. These works enter into a broader consideration of the experience of the exiled, the involuntary migrant, and the diasporic communities that result from the relocating of a people or culture.


Recovering Renart

In the following weeks, a series of guest-blog posts will be published in anticipation of The Art Gallery’s next exhibition, Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas. This exhibition has been curated by Professor Abigail McEwen, Assistant Professor of Latin American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland, and Ph.D. students from the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland.

Recovering Renart

Cecilia Wichmann


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Emilio Renart, Drawing no. 13, 1965. Ink on paper, 44 x 30 in. Collection OAS AMA | Art Museum of the Americas


These untitled drawings suggest . . . that life is a recalcitrant force, not to be contained or defined by attributes given it by the human mind.

-Benjamin Forgey, The Sunday Star, December 5, 1965








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Entrance to “La Casita,” home to the archives and offices of AMA | Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC

Entering “La Casita” on November 6 for my first dive into the archive of the Art Museum of the Americas (Organization of American States), I was greeted by intrepid AMA collections curator Adriana Ospina. Adriana led me upstairs to a brightly lit landing, outfitted with a copier/scanner and desk on which she had neatly arranged what archival materials she had been able to unearth on Argentine artist Emilio Renart (1925–1991).

A month or so earlier I had happened upon an image of Renart’s Drawing no. 13 in AMA’s online collections portal and was intrigued. By the time that I encountered the work in person, a few weeks later, I had developed a minor obsession with the gossamer threads of white and ice blue inks that seem to materialize out of dark, oceanic depth and onto its raw paper surface.

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Photographs related to Argentine artist Emilio Renart’s 1965-66 exhibition at the Pan-American Union. [Archives of AMA | Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC]

The resources now arrayed in front of us included the artist file, the exhibition file for the 1965–66 show from which Drawing no. 13 had been acquired, and country files on Argentina covering the years immediately preceding the exhibition. Adriana wasted no time in confirming what we had both suspected about records for this little-known artist and unstudied drawing: the files were slim. But Adriana said she had also found something unexpected, something tantalizing, that she knew that I would like: an envelope containing fifteen photographs associated with Renart’s exhibition.

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Archival materials, AMA | Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC

The photographs tell a curious story of absence and surrogacy. As it turns out, José Gómez-Sicre, Chief of the Pan-American Union’s Visual Arts Unit from 1948 to 1976 and organizer of Renart’s exhibition, was not primarily taken with the artist’s drawings. He settled for the exhibition of works on paper only when it proved impossible to present Renart’s series of “strange and haunting” assemblages that the artist had begun to construct in 1962. These “queer . . . objects,” which Gómez-Sicre understood as simultaneously inhabiting the worlds of painting and sculpture, could not easily be transported. They may have been impossible to reassemble without the artist present (he was apparently unable or unwilling to travel to DC), and they were too large to fit comfortably in the Pan-American Union’s exhibition hall. The photographs serve as proxies for these three-dimensional “monsters,” as Gómez-Sicre refers to them in a brochure text, or “Biocosmos,” as inscribed on the back of each black-and-white print.

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Emilio Renart with Biocosmos no. 1, 1963. Archives of AMA | Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC

The photographs show three iterations within the Biocosmos series (a fourth is pictured elsewhere in the archive). In some instances, the artist is pictured, his body positioned behind or between the ridged skins and wiry cilia of these ambiguous, mammoth forms that suggest (extra-)terrestrial outcroppings, animate feelers, or perceiving machines.

Gómez-Sicre’s desire to show Renart’s assemblages in DC by no means suggests reluctance about the drawings. Though “calmer” than the “monsters,” they are “no less intriguing” in his view and may be intimately connected, spun of the same creative DNA: “In these refined and exquisite compositions, threads interweaving like strands of silk or human hair emerge from darker zones of free forms which can be considered the nucleus of every composition. Each thread flows miraculously in a different plane. When the lines are straight and cross each other, there is the same charm and the same definition of space as in the free lines. These lines and Renart’s eye-catching concept of three-dimensional and aerial space constitute the purest elements.” The archival envelope contained three photographs of drawings likely included in the exhibition, all part of the same series as Drawing no. 13.

Emilio Renart, Drawing no. 4, 1965. Archives of AMA | Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC


This cache of photographs left me with questions—what is the relation of Renart’s drawings to his assemblages? How did he achieve these fluid, interlacing lines and faulted surfaces in two and three dimensions? How might this body of work congeal an interrelation of the body, the biosphere, and the cosmos, and how do these forms signify beyond abstraction, fifty years ago and today?

Visit the online interactive Emilio Renart’s Creative Ecology: Anatomy of a Research Project on the Streams of Being exhibition website to explore these questions about Renart’s work in a constellation of contexts, from art history and anthropology to science and world politics. 

Workshopping Networks: Generating Lists, Synthesizing Lists

In the following weeks, a series of guest-blog posts will be published in anticipation of The Art Gallery’s next exhibition, Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas. This exhibition has been curated by Professor Abigail McEwen, Assistant Professor of Latin American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland, and Ph.D. students from the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland.

Workshopping Networks: Generating Lists, Synthesizing Lists

Raino Isto

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Eduardo Mac Entyre, Seis Formas en Dos Circunferencias [Six Forms in Two Circumferences], 1966. Oil on canvas, 56 ¾ x 70 ¾ in. Collection OAS AMA | Art Museum of the Americas.

How might one incorporate the critical legacy of postcolonial theory in its diverse forms with more recent work foregrounding the agency and autonomy of objects? This was one of the central questions that occupied our graduate seminar, offered by the Department of Art History & Archaeology, as we set about planning an exhibition of works from the Art Museum of the Americas (AMA). We wanted the exhibition to strike a balance between the complexities of artist biographies—no less, the formation of subjectivities in global, diasporic, and exilic contexts—and the agency of the art object itself as a unit in shifting networks of (cultural) capital, material goods, and ideas. In this post, I present an overview of our collaboration on the exhibition concept, tracing our ideas from their inception in particular theoretical models. These ideas, born from the themes of our seminar, underwent a long process of incremental revision and refinement. This process, I think, shows both the difficulties and rewards of trying to make objects speak about each other, about the artists who made them, and—ultimately—about themselves.

Our seminar readings focused primarily on questions of identity, self, and meaning in the conditions of late-capitalist globalization, drawing from an array of thinkers including Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Stephen Greenblatt, Stuart Hall, Arjun Appadurai, Edward Said, and Walter Mignolo. Over the course of the semester, Cecilia Wichmann and I simultaneously delved into writings on Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) as part of the Theory Colloquium on “Subjects and Objects” offered by the Center for Literature and Comparative Studies. Actor-Network Theory treats both humans and nonhumans, subjects and objects, as parts of a social network in which all participants exercise agency and affect other members of the network. It often emphasizes the ways in which things commonly considered simply as objects, unable to produce change, in fact help to constitute a social world mutually conditioned by human subjects. In a parallel vein, Object-Oriented Ontology investigates the world of objects divorced from subjects; it ponders the strangeness of objects, seeking to understand the ways that they transcend the meanings we ascribe to them.

The conjunction of object-oriented models and postcolonial thought suggested a productive viewpoint from which to plan an exhibition. While curatorial practice can sometimes deal directly with artists and subjectivity, its engagement with objects (in our case, with many objects that have not been previously exhibited) is intrinsic.

Since both ANT and OOO are deeply interested in the notion of “workshopping” their theoretical models, we thought: what better way to workshop the intersection of these theoretical spheres than by designing an exhibition to explore the micro-histories of objects? Our exhibition explores their potential agencies, their relationships to a shifting collage of identities and representations, and their sly retreats; we probe their participation in assemblages of influence and expression and their roles in mutually constituting the subjectivities of the artists that created them. Particularly key to our thinking was the plausibility of applying Greenblatt’s “cultural mobility” model within the “white cube” of the gallery space.  We wanted to foster an understanding of how particular art objects and artists had moved along and across various borders, through various networks…but we needed to create this sense of motion and flux in a relatively isolated space. How could we show interconnection in an environment more favorable to sensations of timelessness and placelessness?

This question and the ideas it inspired floated across our minds as we prepared for our visit to AMA on October 2. In fact, the visit (about which Kathleen Weigand has written) served as the most important, conceptual catalyst for the exhibition. Seeing the works in person put our rather vast net of theoretical references into a new perspective, suggested fresh formal and critical connections, and—above all—made us tremendously excited about translating abstract ideas into discrete, visual narratives constructed around the objects themselves.

The curatorial process began in the wake of the museum visit, when I created a Google Doc and invited the other members of our seminar to enrich it with theoretical insights, specific ideas about works of art and groupings thereof, and installation models for The Art Gallery’s space. I asked: How might we make ANT or the concerns of OOO work in tandem with postcolonial critical approaches? I intended the concept to be as open-ended as possible, suggesting a hazy series of groupings related to “maps of networks,” “the multiplicity of connected objects/people/entities,” “the discrete self-contained aspects of objects,” and “the potential hybridity of nonhuman subjects and their position in networks of agency.”

Eduardo Mac Entyre’s Seis Formas en Dos Circunferencias serves as an apt visual metaphor for the refinement of our exhibition concept. In this work, Mac Entyre repeated the linear trajectory of a simple geometric form: the circumference of a circle. In doing so, he produced an image that possesses an overarching unity created out of a plethora of discrete and subtly displaced interior units. Likewise, our work on the exhibition unfolded as a gradual expansion and synthesis of lists of overlapping and disparate categories and objects. Over the course of the next month, our categories and groupings of artworks expanded, contracted, reformed, and redoubled as we established new relationships between works dealing with animals, the body in exile, maps and cartographies, the agency of objects, transnational flows of capital, and the materiality of particular media. These new sets of interrelated frameworks informed our initial exhibition roundtables and, alongside this proliferation of interpretive frameworks, our list of potential objects grew at a dizzying speed. Several weeks of slow circling around the problems of object agency and the formation of transnational subjectivities set the stage for both our research forays into the AMA archives (addressed in Cecilia’s upcoming post) and the expanding vision of the exhibition’s online companion (see Grace’s post)—two processes that have introduced a fresh cast of objects and their agencies in new and exciting ways.

I like to think that our collaborative process has tested the possibilities of “workshopping” encounters with objects, as envisioned by theories like ANT and OOO. Some objects we saw in person; others we encountered only through the mediation of digital reproduction (and still others only through their metadata). Likewise, our own interactions took place in person and through a vast network of digital mediators (email, Google Docs, Facebook, and others). And, like the asymmetrical networks of Actor-Network Theory, the complexity of our own interactions with each other was sometimes as confusing as it was enlightening—struggling to find the unified form within an increasingly disjunctive set of units.  As we continue to think more about how artists and objects function in webs of agency and signification, we find ourselves facing bafflement as much as understanding.  That, perhaps, is the most salient lesson to be gained from our work together on the exhibition: things of all kinds—objects, subjects, and their interstices—push us in new directions, outside of simple ways of thinking and away from reductive syntheses, into hidden spaces. Always shifting, they push us across borders.