At MoMA, Latin American Artists Look Back to the Past in Order to Plot Their Future

In 2016, ARTnews Top 200 collectors Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and Gustavo A. Cisneros made headlines when they announced they would donate 102 works from their esteemed collection of Latin American art to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and provide funds to establish a research center for Latin American art.

In 2019, Inés Katzenstein, MoMA’s curator of Latin American Art, mounted the museum’s first exhibition drawing from gift. Titled “Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction” and curated with Maria Amalia García, that show focused on the modernist masterpieces that had entered the collection, including Carlos Cruz-Diez, Lygia Clark, Gego, Hélio Oiticica, Jesús Rafael Soto, and Judith Lauand.

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A blocky museum facade with two people walking into its entryway.

Now, Katzenstein has organized the second major show from the Cisneros gift, “Chosen Memories,” this one focused on contemporary artists from the region who use history as an anchor and as a lens through which to look at the present. From the history of colonialism in Latin America to the importance of cultural heritage, the exhibition looks to broaden the discourse around how our past influences our present. The exhibition is supplemented by several recent acquisitions made by Katzenstein through the museum’s Latin American and Caribbean Fund. Among the 40 artists included are Regina José Galindo, Mario García Torres, Leandro Katz, Firelei Báez, Gabriel Kuri, David Lamelas, Paulo Nazareth, and Las Nietas de Nonó.

To learn more about the exhibition, ARTnews spoke with Katzenstein.

ARTnews: It seems there has been a resurgence of interest in Latin American art over the last several years. What do you think accounts for this sudden interest?

Inés Katzenstein: It is true that this is a moment of great visibility for Latin American art, especially in New York. But I wouldn’t say this is a “sudden interest.” I believe this is, rather, the outcome of the long process of establishment of Latin American art as a field in the US—a process that has been underway collectively since at least the ‘90s. Perhaps what we are witnessing today is the maturity of many institutions in the US, in finally recognizing the importance of producing less localized narratives of art history. In the specific case of an institution like MoMA, that commitment to Latin America is attached to the very origins of the museum, but in the last decades it has grown substantially.  

Was there another time that Latin American artists held such sway over the art world?

I would say we are living a very special moment along those lines. Just think that today many, if not all, of the most important art institutions in New York have Latin American specialists on their staff. This is entirely new. The recent awareness of many US institutions about the importance of giving space and visibility to Latinx art, also, is contributing very strongly to this promising moment.

A blurry still of a passenger-less boat with trees in it that navigates an open sea beneath dark clouds.

Thiago Rocha Pitta, Herança (Heritage), 2007.

©Thiago Rocha Pitta/Museum of Modern Art

How did “Chosen Memories” come together?

“Chosen Memories” departed from the major gift of contemporary art from Latin America that was donated to MoMA by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in 2017. I detected that some of the most interesting works in that gift had a very specific feature: they were “contemporary,” but they were very decisively committed to looking at history. I decided to organize an exhibition that would explore that very specific issue in the art of the region: artworks that look retrospectively at the histories of colonialism, at traditions and kinships as ways to connect across times, in order to repair, and to change the present tense. In order to achieve this, in addition to the majority of works from the Cisneros gift, I included other works from MoMA’s collection including recent acquisitions, some loans, and one painting commission.

To some people, Latin America is a monolith. That’s obviously not the reality. How did your thinking about Latin American identity inform how you organized the exhibition?

Latin America is constituted by so many worlds! It is impossible to think of it as monolithic. Actually, I would say that there is not even an “it,” but an incredibly diverse and large subcontinent, with its many cultures and diasporas. The works in the show address that question in a strong way, very far from any simplifying stereotype. 

What do you look for when adding works to the MoMA’s collection?

The intertwinement between works from the gift and other works was the most delicate and fun part of the curatorial process. I needed to accompany the language and mood of the works from the gift and, at the same time, to add complexity to their narratives. In many cases, I was privileged to add very recent works, especially if they expanded the show in diversity of voices.

What was the last book you read?

Lately, I have become mostly a theory and poetry reader. My last, favorite book is O Livro das Semelhanças by the Brazilian poet Ana Martins Marques. Hidden among the works in the show, I actually included one of her poems, as if it were a clue to the exhibition.

What’s your favorite piece in the MoMA’s collection on view now?

My favorites are always changing. Since I wouldn’t want  to have to choose one work from “Chosen Memories,” I would say that today my favorites are László Moholy-Nagy’s EM 2 (Telephone Picture), from 1923, installed on the fifth floor of the museum, and Graciela Iturbide’s Mujer ángel, Desierto de Sonora, from 1979, which we just hung in one of the galleries of the second floor.

You once ran an educational program for curators. What advice would you give today to curators who are just getting started?

Look as much as you can, and try to build your own voice.

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