Monday, February 11, 2008

El Museo Del Barrio: "Arte ≠ Vida"

All the way up on 104th street, looking over the upper east corner of Central Park, I recently visited El Museo Del Barrio for the first time. El Museo is New York City’s only museum focusing on Caribbean, Puerto Rican and Latin American art. Founded in 1969 in East Harlem’s Spanish speaking neighborhood, the museum seeks to educate a wider public on the cultural experience and history of the Latino community in New York City. Born in the context of the civil right’s movement, El Museo has been politically engaged since its outset, supporting a sense of “cultural pride and self-discovery” in its neighboring community. It seems only appropriate, therefore, to have discovered it through its latest and highly politically involved exhibition, “Arte ≠Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas 1960-2000.”

Curated by Deborah Cullen, director of curatorial programs for El Museo, “Arte no es Vida” focuses on the documentation of performative acts by artists all over “the Americas:” whether Latinos in the United States, or artists from different countries in the central and southern parts of the continent. On one hand, the exhibit works as a contemporary art show, displaying performance art by artists from the second half of the twentieth century through oral histories, photography, primary documents from the time, and videos. Especially in the first half of the exhibit, works and their authors are presented in relationship to a particular artistic practice, such as “signaling,” “destructivism,” and “neocentrismo.” This level of contextualization defines the pieces within the sphere of contemporary art, placing them in line with wider artistic attitudes.

On the other hand, “Arte no es Vida” also works as an educational display dealing with the turbulent political history of the continent in the four decades from 1960 to 2000. Each of the pieces on the floor could not exist outside of the specific context for which it was created: whether in relationship to desaparecidos’ missing bodies, as in the section entitled “¡Junta No!,” or as a commentary on environmental pollution, such as Nicolás García Uriburu’s water colorations. The aesthetic choices of the artists speak directly to the issue they are addressing with their work. As a result, half of the experience of the works relies on the awareness of the viewer/participant of the issues addressed by the artist. In other words, the exhibit, while displaying art, also demands of the spectator a degree of awareness that goes beyond aesthetic appreciation and relies on historical and political insight.

In “Arte no es Vida,” El Museo offers an exhibit both valuable for its contributions to the world of contemporary art, as well as useful in raising awareness about political and social issues at the heart of Latin American history. Coherent with the museum’s mission, the exhibit provides a space for discovery as well as an important collection recording some of the most difficult and fleeting work to document: performance art.

El Museo Del Barrio
January 13 - May 18, 2008

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