As Residencias Proliferate, Latin American Cultural Identity is Transformed

SOMA, a bastion of contemporary, didactic art and subversive film, is an independent art gallery, coined ‘residencia,’ in the artistically inclined neighborhoods of Mexico City’s Federal District. A few hundred miles south of SOMA, in Managua, Nicaragua, the equally communicative residencia, EspIRA La Espora, has pioneered the countries’ independent contemporary art scene, with aims of “building bonds among the visual creators of the region, in order to develop critical thinking and the formal strategies for Central America’s artistic production.” Although these art spaces are not the first of their kind, they demonstrate the ways in which Latin American countries are overcoming historical cultural divides through like-minded approaches to producing and sharing art.

Over the past decade, independent residencias such as these have proliferated throughout Latin America. While such residencias have been a facet of the Mexican art scene since the early 1990s, it is only recently that they have popped up throughout Central America, all with the collective emphasis on fostering dialogue amongst Latin American independent galleries, from Mexico to Puerto Rico to Brazil.

Such interconnectivity has enabled Latin America’s residencia scene to develop from being a sporadic collection of like-minded, but insular, galleries into the formidable, independent art circuit it is becoming; a “remarkable network of exchanges and complicities”, as Arte al Dia describes it. This development is an accomplishment in and of itself, given the history of tumultuous regimes obstructing Latin America’s art circuit from developing as a unit. The volatility of the Central and South American governments throughout the second half of the 20th century inhibited the growth of a network of Latin American artists, with militarized borders and harsh regimes serving as both tangible and intangible barriers to the connectivity observed today.

Many now posit that US intervention in the Cold War era exacerbated and perpetuated the brutality of the Latin American regimes, in the process redefining the relationship between artists and states in the region. Policies applied with tacit US approval included the “closing of universities; imprisonment, torture, and murder of teachers and artists; and the decimation of Indian populations and the loss of their rich heritage,” as cited by Shifra Goldman. Although these policies on the surface were meant to purge intellectual communities of radical communists, their result was more wide-reaching, halting the mutually beneficial cooperation between artists and the government that is prevalent in many countries. Artist networks were severed or indefinitely paused. Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean novelist exiled by the Pinochet regime, detailed the incensed attitudes in reaction to the cultural genocide committed by dictatorships when saying, “The [cultural resistence] efforts have one trait in common: they constitute the determination of a people to preserve their identity, to affirm their dignity, to fire up their consciousness.” Only as the military dictatorships toppled throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were the networks able to re-emerge. After decades of the structural and physical violence of governmental institutions in Central America, which, among other fallacies, maintained strict limitations to creative freedom, “we [artists] finally have a real and fluid opportunity to circulate and get to know one another,” artist Patricia Bellei relates.

Struggling domestic markets and the lack of state support for artists also hindered the growth of artistic communities in Latin America. The market explosion of 2008 severely crippled those artists who had remained in the public sphere and “placed their trust” in the market system. This culminating event pushed those artists remaining in the disparate public art sphere towards the growing independent art scene, which was a desirable alternative to a reliance on volatile markets to support their art. The vital role of residencias and the independent art scene is therefore two-fold: they emerged as the independent artist networks’ means of breaking down the barriers that had been erected by the turbulent regimes, as well as serving as the haven for those whose work was deterred by financial crises.

By the turn of the century, the networks substantiated the basis of what is today Latin America’s vibrant independent contemporary art scene. The residencias, albeit subversive, are not fundamentally anti-institutional. Nor do they “imply invalidation of academic circuits or confrontation with the market.” They simply serve as free-forming, independent spaces, coined “common creation scenarios” by Arte al Dia, constructed by artists for the sake of diffusing art to the spaces in Latin America to where it once could not reach. They are thus incorporating all voices into the collective effort to establish and define the emerging Latin American cultural identity of a new era. Their political characteristic derives from being affirmatively apolitical: an irony enabled by the growth of networks between the individual residencia galleries. It is a conscious, metaphorical push against the government regimes whose violence confined much of the mid-20th century Latin American art to reactionary, highly politicized spaces. While residencia art today has the freedom to be political, it also has the freedom to be “Latin American,” an identity that the networks seek to define as being rich in cross-cultural connectivity, rather than defined by the scattered shells of former military regimes.

The independent, rhizomatic nature of residencies has made them important tools for social and political dialogue in Latin American countries. In 2002, the residencia project Batiscafo was founded by Cuban artists in Havana, with the aim of fostering “the dialogue and exchange, in Cuba, between local and foreign artists.” One of their most recent projects included a photographic exposé about Havana, titled Lost Ball, which gathered a group of Cuban artists to depict images of baseball in Cuban society. This was completed in the spirit of residencias: fostering communication among artists, in order to preserve and celebrate a facet of Latin American society. In 2005, Oficina #1 was founded in Caracas, Peru, professing a “particular emphasis on the emerging nature of the country, and to promote a dialogue between works, ideas, artists, and audience.” A similar model was launched in Chile with CRAC, a non-profit residencia space whose aim is to “contribute to the debate on the possibilities of collective citizenships and artistic practices,” and to generally foster regional discussion about the direction in which to take Latin American independent art, and how such reflects a burgeoning cultural identity of the 21st century.

“We are in the presence of a laboratory of the experience of independent residencies that tends to become inscribed in the concept of alternative art school,” Arte al Dia reminds us. This type of artist networking, bound together by a desire to universalize art throughout the region, is revolutionary, and is changing the face of Latin American art as we know it. These networks continue to procreate residencias in all corners of the region, despite a severe lack of government support and history’s odds against them. The artists in this movement have pioneered their niche in the margins of society, and as a result, not only is the Latin American art scene transforming, but the cultural identity of the region as a whole is being constructed from the bottom up, rather than the top down.