On ViewThe Museum Of Modern Art
April 30–September 9, 2023
The MoMA’s newest exhibition opens with a captivating video of a waterline, swerving violently from side to side as a small white boat drifts aimlessly farther from shore, carrying two palm trees that sway like makeshift sails. It evokes a sense of resilience that emanates tenderly against the disorienting swerves of the waves. The opening artwork’s title, Herança (Heritage) (2007), by Thiago Rocha Pitta, speaks directly to the idea of inherited knowledge and the uneasy weight of past legacies. This is a throughline of the exhibition, which features a selection from a major gift of contemporary Latin American art made by trustee Patricia Phelps de Cisneros placed in dialogue with works drawn from MoMA’s collection. It showcases contemporary explorations into collective histories or, as the exhibition’s title puts it, “chosen memories.” Despite the expansive subject matter, the exhibition is tightly curated by Inés Katzenstein, bringing together forty artists who reach backward in time to argue that history—from colonial to modern, individual to collective—is not fixed, but rather actively contested and constructed.
The exhibition takes as its starting point inherited modes of representing nature, landscapes, and topographical features, including the use of maps. It considers the ways in which colonial accounts of land have influenced these modes, as seen in Firelei Báez’s Untitled (Terra Nova) (2020). The painting draws from a 1541 atlas map, featuring vignettes of cannibalistic natives, flora, fauna, and notation on the discovery of “Hispaniola,” (now the Dominican Republic). Inspired by the myth of the Ciguapa, a knotted-haired hybrid creature crouches at the center, adorned with leafy orchid-like plant life. The threatening figure personifies the colonizers’ joint attraction to and fear of unfamiliar cultures. Claudio Perna’s Untitled (1990), a photograph of a semi-meridian stand without a globe (made in collaboration with Abel Naím), does away with the world atlas altogether. It reminds us of the tricky relationship between representation and truth, as well as the ways in which our perceptions of the world are shaped by the tools and systems we use to understand it.
Some artists work from and against unfaithful archetypes of the region. For Secrets of the Amazon (2011), Gilda Mantilla and Raimond Chaves dismantle the colonial gaze by pairing quotes from a 1981 eponymous text about life in "semi-civilized" places with black-and-white photographs of the Amazon, devoid of the picturesque. The notion of the beautiful and dangerous tropics remains close to Suwon Lee’s four urban landscape photographs, whose titles invoke and neutralize the potential for exoticization. In Purple Haze (2011), the São Paulo skyline—excluding any iconic structures—is washed over by a lilac fog that saturates the image with a soft romanticism. Her photograph of Caracas diverts away from the city’s key topological feature of El Ávila mountain. Despite its suggestive title, The most dangerous city in the world (2011) unveils a delicate radiance emanating from Petare, Caracas’s largest neighborhood and one of the poorest barrios in the Americas, subverting common expectations of precarity. Such paradoxes of the tropics—dangerous, beautiful, and altogether alluring—guide the logic through which many exhibited artists filter their artistic explorations, subverting clichés of representation to illustrate preconceived notions of Latin America.
Opposite Suwon Lee’s landscape of Caracas—both conceptually and spatially—is Luis Molina-Pantin’s Mouse Pad (1999–2000), an enlarged photo of a mousepad bearing a postcard-like image of El Ávila mountain. The landscape image that circulates as a souvenir, and is meant to be covered by a computer controller, has been resized and transformed as a work of art, thereby reclaiming a certain status as landscape art. The mousepad, now considered a somewhat outdated technological accessory, aligns with the archivable objects explored in other artworks within the exhibition. For instance, Gala Porras-Kim’s 122 Offerings for the Rain at the Peabody Museum (2021) inventories textile offerings to the Mayan rain god Chaac, stored out of sight and conserved by the museum, through schematic graphite drawings. This gesture restores these items through their reproduction, allowing them to enter the MoMA’s collection in the form of a reconstructed archive. These are a kind of art that works with and plays against the logic and systems of museums by rescuing the visibility of Latin American landmarks and artifacts, even those paradoxically already within a museum collection.
A variety of artworks echo ancestral practices and Indigenous traditions, unfolding into a contemporary practice of animating and giving recognition to cultural heritage that has been historically undervalued. With intricate and detailed linework, seven works on paper by Yanomami artist Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe explore the interplay between the cosmic and material aspects of his community’s worldview, revealing a profound connection between nature, spirituality, and daily life. The graphic traditions of body painting and basket-making are skillfully translated onto paper, inviting us to explore the interaction of cultural tradition and contemporary artistic expression. Meanwhile, Las Nietas de Nonó’s video FOODTOPIA: después de todo territorio (2021) envisions a future where ancestral knowledge and sustainable practices serve as the foundation for ecological balance and collective well-being.
In her video piece Notes on the limit of the sea (2011), Maria Laet stitches onto the beach a line of thread that marks the low tide, an endless and ephemeral gesture that will eventually be washed away. It exposes the absurdity of the invisible boundaries we construct, which are often precarious and mutable. Aline Motta’s (Outros) Fundamentos (2017–19) explores intangible connections that transcend natural and artificial borders, using her own journey between Brazil and West Africa to reflect on belonging and the consequences of severed ties to homelands. The video presents a captivating series of scenes featuring handheld and full-body mirrors, as well as lakes, rivers, and seas, reflecting their surroundings and evoking parallel imagery across distant shores. This evocative montage captures the deep yearning to capture one’s own image in distant origins. The piece suggests that the quest for identity does not necessarily require one to seek a singular, fixed identity rooted in the past. Instead, it embraces finding resonance with others beyond borders.
As a whole, the show calls to the past to say something meaningful about our present and future. The histories of Latin America are easily problematized and remain always complex. Although the show’s title, Chosen Memories, may afford its artists greater agency, it also illustrates the challenging terrain of ongoing debates concerning cultural preservation, identity, and the multifaceted narratives that shape our understanding of the region. MoMA’s exhibition reminds us how important it is to actively engage with history, not only as a passive observer but as an agent of transformation, working towards a future that reflects our collective values and aspirations.