On October 17, 1979, six years after a US-backed military coup in Chile toppled the democratically elected government and established Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, residents of Santiago witnessed another kind of insurrection. A procession of ten milk trucks drove through the capital city and parked in front of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The drivers disembarked, lowered the Chilean national flag from the flagpole out front, and hoisted up an immense white cloth that covered the museum entrance. Their message: the real museum was in the streets.
Inversión de Escena/Scene Inversion, organized by the Colectivo Acciones de Arte (CADA), was one of more than 100 art actions represented in the 2008 exhibition at East Harlem’s El Museo del Barrio, Arte ≠ Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas 1960-2000. In stacking a critique of the traditional art museum on top of an image that evoked the military coup, CADA shared an impulse reflected in the title of the exhibition: there is life, with its political injustices, and there is art, and whatever entangled relationship the two have, they are not the same. This gap between artistic representations on the one hand and embodied experience on the other was the setting for another exhibition in 2008, Chicago’s Renaissance Society’s Black Is, Black Ain’t. Yet, whereas Arte ≠ Vida was first and foremost organized around specific identities—with the aim of presenting performative work by Latin American artists working in particular contexts—Black Is, Black Ain’t struck a conversation about race that implicated all identities. A show about blackness is not the same as a show of black artists. Curator Hamza Walker joked that he instated a quota in the curation process.
Black Is, Black Ain’t signaled a turn in the rhetoric of race, from “inclusion”—a la ‘90s multiculturalism—to a moment when race was being “simultaneously rejected and retained”—when one could talk about blackness without (necessarily) talking about African-Americans. In the introduction to the exhibition catalog, Walker asks, “But what kind of fact is race?”
The show offered a range of answers. Mickalene Thomas’s Lovely Six Foota, in which a black women lounges in a domestic pastiche of patterns in browns and oranges and greens, plays on ‘70s Black Power-era cultural nostalgia. One Substance, Eight Supports, One Situation by William Pope.L is almost pure formalism in its conceptual rendering of color: mounds of white flour atop brightly colored platforms (the flour particles inevitably clinging to all who exhaled too heavily near it). Some, like Daniel Roth’s Cabrini Green Forest (Portal) and Paul D’Amato’s 624 W. Division, dealt with specific historical injustices such as the infamous dismantling of public housing in Chicago. Still, those two works differed in tone: whereas D’Amato, who lives in Chicago, took a candid approach in his photograph of a demo’d housing project, the German artist Roth imagined a portal linking the Cabrini-Greene projects with the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago via a pool of black liquid on the gallery floor.
Rather than produce a “roll call of statistical inequality,” Walker wanted to curate a show about race that could be—in terms of tone—“fun.”
“Can we actually have a conversation about race,” he wanted to know, “that is—as far as tone and tenor and complexity—an investigation into who and what we are as human beings. It was very wide-eyed.” Walker likened the process of developing the show—which takes its title from a passage in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—to gingerly piecing together a puzzle. At the time, he was collecting clippings emblematic of the moment: bus ads for skin care products, the NAACP’s symbolic burial of the “‘N’ word,” the news that Al Sharpton was a descendant of slaves owned by the family of senator Strom Thurmond. To curate a show about race today, however, would require a different method and rise from a different set of clippings. Public discourse around race, Walker observed, is overt in a way that was not the case in 2008.
“It would be impossible to do the show today without foregrounding in an explicit fashion—police shootings, #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo,” said Walker. “It’s not as if those things weren’t happening then; they weren’t foregrounded.”
An exhibition with that stride is not on the docket for Walker, who said it’s the kind of show one curates while still young and “hard-headed.”
The very different curatorial strategy employed in Arte ≠ Vida was necessitated by its circumstance. While doing research for an earlier exhibition, No lo llames performance, which traveled from Spain’s Reina Sofia to El Museo in 2004, in order to include more Puerto Rican and Latin American artist per El Museo’s mission, curator Deborah Cullen realized that no anthology of those artists existed.
“You just get blindsided by these things,” she said. “Like, oh my god, there’s no place to go to find this.” By necessity, Cullen and her team generated a timeline of Latinx and Latin American art actions that served as the basis and impetus for Arte ≠ Vida. In doing so, Arte ≠ Vida addressed a historical omission. Canonical texts tend to locate the origin of performance art in early 20th century Dadaist actions in Europe. Arte ≠ Vida expanded that narrative in time and space by emphasizing not just the abundance of work made in Latin America, but also a tradition of performance that extends beyond pre-Columbian times.
While Cullen and her team pointed to the vast heterogeneity of the works in the show, Latin American artists were working in political contexts that required different strategies than those of their peers in other parts of the world. In the years that performance art was taking hold of the global art world, Latin America and the Caribbean were undergoing the violence of dictatorships, civil wars, poverty, and political oppression.
As the title of the exhibition indicates, the relationship between the art works and the political violence they addressed was not one of equivalence. Cullen was surprised that the title sparked any controversy, because, for her, to say art is not life does not diminish art, but point to its agency within life. “For me, it was that art is an addition,” said Cullen. “It’s more than life. It’s something that provokes us further than our day-to-day reality. It is not protest. It is more than that, although it is often also a protest.”
To that end, Cullen and her team made a point of only including actions by artists who made work as fine artists, as opposed to actions that took on the appearance of art but were made by political activists, or theatrical work intended for the stage. These included artists such as the collective Border Arts Workshop (BAW), whose work in the late 20th century along the border between the U.S. and Mexico took on many forms, from absurdist performance, to direct confrontation of border officials, to journalism. For Border Sutures, which took place over the 2,000 miles between San Diego-Tijuana and Brownsville, Texas in 1990, artists in the collective erected giant staples over the border in order to heal its wounds.
Presenting ephemeral work enacted many decades ago presents several curatorial challenges. Cullen originally wanted to recreate some of the performances in the gallery, particularly those that had been shut down or censored. But every artist she asked declined the invitation. There was no sense, she later understood, in reenacting a performance interrogating the Brazilian dictatorship in the 1970s, in New York in 2008. The exhibition largely consisted of documentary photographs, short videos, and other ephemera dug, in many case, from the basements of family members and photographers. It also included objects that incited a kind of performance—such as Daniel Joseph Martinez’s metal museum tags made for the 1993 Whitney Biennial that read, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white”—or were the final product of one—such as El Museo founder Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s 1961 Archaeological Find #21, a smashed and flattened sofa that hung near the entrance to the gallery like a sacrificial offering.
There is of course an irony in presenting work critical of the museum setting in a museum setting. But that irony is less a reason to be cynical about the exhibition than it is an occasion to parse the different effects of artistic production and curatorial practice. Art is not life and an art exhibition is not the work of social justice. But dismantling the structures that produce injustice requires an understanding of the cultural and rhetorical ways those structures work. Arte ≠ Vida and Black Is, Black Ain’t, and the historical resources they generated, provide such an opportunity.