Category Archives: Latino art

Art for love or money: Latinos and politics, but also, just a bit of a rant

Art for love or money: Latinos and politics, but also, just a bit of a rant
ArtBasel2014 Blog entry
Martha W Rees
December 2014

See Mel Chin on this, much more fun: []

In December, I went to ArtBasel Miami Beach, but didn’t get everywhere, I missed out on Aqua Hotel, and Autobody, but went to NADA, ArtBasel, MiamiProject, ArtMiami and Pinta. I did see a lot of pieces that intrigued and pleased. But I went looking for Latino and/or political art. While I might well have missed it, I found little political art, no Mexican American, (almost) no immigrant, art.

What is art? The question that interests me as an anthropologist is the place of art, as a form of production, in society. While the common view—by artists and society in general—is that art is an individual, idiosyncratic, unique activity–autonomous, Becker argues the opposite: that there is very little artistic production that isn’t the work of a group of people working together. Rather than being outside of society, art is part of society, in this view (1992:14). Becker (1992:7-9) regards art as work that some people do, and this work is social, in that it involves cooperation between a group of workers, with different forms of division of labor, specialists and otherwise, carrying out different tasks.

How is capital appropriated in art, if it is truly autonomous (Garcia Canclini 1986)? ArtBasel certainly shows how some art does represent capital. And class mediates this representation, or circulation through the market. In his book, Distinction, Bourdieu looks at taste (aesthetics) through the optic of class (1984), showing how social class ‘colors’ the perception of beauty (the middle class thinks a cabbage is beautiful; working classes think it is food). Art is a way of organizing class distinctions symbolically, although only in the ‘modern’ West is art constructed as ‘autonomous.’

So, autonomous art is above history, and politics. But, of course, an apolitical position is, in fact, a political position. Reflective (or belly button) art looks at the inner self, aesthetic art plays with form. These last two are important, and made up at least 80% of the pieces shown.
As a caveat, I note that it is likely that there was, and is, much that I missed. Political content doesn’t have to be blatant, but sometimes the unschooled (such as I) may miss it!

Aesthetic Art
One way of defining aesthetic art is in the negative: most people wouldn’t put it in their living room; you couldn’t ask the artist to make you a version in another color! I’m not saying that I don’t like technique and form, but only that it is not sufficient for art as cultural critique.

IMG_0432 3

I saw lots of pieces that were aesthetically pleasing in color, form and design. This example (Figure 1) is a mirror with acrylic paint (see Helen and me, blurry in there)—isn’t reality fun?

Figure 1. Harrogate by Lavier

(Kewenig, ArtBasel)

Lavier's Harrogate

Incredibly elegant and beautiful, Hu Xiaoyuan’s Vortex (Figure 2 (Beijing Commune, ArtBasel) is not political, how could it be? But it is certainly beautiful.

Figure 2. Vortex beneath the Vortex. by Hu Xiaoyuan (Beijing Commune)

Hu Xiaoyuan Vortex

Political art
But art, like other intellectual production is, in my book, a form of cultural critique; a commentary on daily life. That is political art: art that comments on power relations in the larger social, rather than individual, condition. Not how I feel, but what happened (and how I feel about that, maybe).

An example of political art is Live/Work by Brad Troemel of Tomorrow Gallery at NADA (see Figure 3). I like NADA anyway because it seems edgiest and less commercial. There was certainly a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t put on your wall! But this piece is aesthetically pleasing, alive and it makes you wonder. What happens to the ants?

Figure 3. Live/Work by Brad Troemel (Tomorrow Gallery, NADA)

Tomorrow Gallery Ants Nada14 abmb

Another piece (Figure 4) at NADA also wasn’t aesthetic art, but made no overt political statement, although certainly an urban condition overrun by rats might be seen as a political conditions. Chim Pom of Mujin-To Production Gallery in Tokyo displays a video capturing and killing rats, followed up by a stuffed bright yellow dyed rat! Definitely not for the coffee table!

Figure 4. Real Times by Chim Pom

(Mujin-To Production, NADA)


I sought out galleries owned by Latin Americans (and concentrated on Mexican galleries), and Latin American Artists. NADA had one Puerto Rican and one Guatemalan artist (who I could never find). None of this work was political or very edgy.

There was some art that was political. This piece (Figure 5), at ArtMiami, was at an unattended booth with no information or gallery representative. However, the work was technically excellent and pleasing to the eye. I just stood by this desk and saw a young artist suffering through the bonds of education, to express him/herself, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Figure 5. Enslaved Desk (?, Art Miami)


Of course, Kara Walker’s very political, and controversial, pieces shock and remind (Figure 6)—probably the essence of the political art form.

Figure 6. Kara Walker’s Confectionary (ArtBasel)

IMG_0398 2


Possibly a migrant, too, Sarkissian (Figure 7) built, and destroyed, a heart-rending replica of his parents’ apartment building in war torn Damascus.

Figure 7. Sarkissian’s Homesick

(Kalfayan Galleries)

Sarkissian Homesick

Of course, Mel Chin is a major political artist, whose work, most of it only referred to at the Jonathan Ferrara booth at the Miami Project, was reviewed in an exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art (Lash 2014). Technically perfect, deeply researched, his work is often huge. One piece here, Cabinet of Craving, is beautiful polished wood (ebony veneer on oak) sculpture with an English antique tea set inside a ‘spider’ with an ancient Chinese mask (gluttony). This sculpture is not in fact a spider, but the story of how English craving for Chinese tea was (literally) fed and fed by the craving for opium. Cabinet, was a favorite spot for art selfies (see below, Figure 12).


Latino galleries and artists
I guess if you have enough resources to show at ArtBasel Miami, your clients are not immigrants, or activists, but folks looking for art from Latin America, often an essentialized representation of Latin America.

Olaya (Figure 8) takes traditional papel picado, the paper-cut-out decoration of Mexico and makes auto-body picado in a beautiful memory of fluttering flags across the streets at holidays.

Figure 8

IMG_0412 2

This tire (Figure 9, or map, with glyphs was not identified—at least I couldn’t find the label at the show or on the web. It shows Latin American (Mayan? Or pseudo Mayan?) content, or derived content, apparently a turtle glyph on paper on a map of the world (see paper under the tire), and other glyph-like representations carved into a tire.

Figure 9. Juan Ruiz Galeria

(Miami, Venezeula)

IMG_0427 4


Perhaps Nizenbaum is a migrant, and certainly her piece (Figure 10) contains references to Mexico, with images of indigenous weaving under letters to/from home. Here, the Latin American content is background for a personal story.

Figure 10. Nancy’s Dragon

by Aliza Nisenbaum

(Lulu Gallery, Mexico City, PINTA)


Finally, I come to Labor Gallery, who I first saw at NADA in 2011, since then, they’ve moved into ArtBasel. They consistently show pieces with political and Mexican content. None of these peace heroes (Figure 11) are Mexican, as I noted as the Gallery represented point out that it was a sad day for Mexico (as the body of one of the missing 43 students of Ayotzinapa had just been positively identified). Where are the Mexican peace heroes?

Figure 11. Pedro Reyes’s Heroes of Peace (Labor Gallery, Mexico City, ArtBasel)

Pedro Reyes Peace Heroes

Of course, there was plenty of opportunity to watch people at ArtBasel, Miami. I was surprised at all the folks taking pictures of themselves with art (is it contagious?), and not just in front of this sculpture (Figure 12), but many others, too.

All of Mel Chin’s art is political, and it is all aesthetically perfect, and requires a careful reading to understand—from Katrina, conquest, superfund sites, guns, to terror and more. While beautiful and perfect (I’d certainly put any of it on my wall, or in my room), Chin may be too big and too political for a place like ArtBasel.

Figure 12. Mel Chin’s Cabinet of Craving (Miami Project) satisfying a craving for….?


A lot of the art at ArtBasel wasn’t worth the effort, especially with the general confusion and lack of signage about transportation shuttles, and the masses of people. People at ArtBasel (artists, dealers, galleries and buyers) are looking for money, not art. One example was Nahmad gallery.  They had Picassos and more.  And a chain across the space to keep the riffraff out!

An anthropological analysis of art, and political art, immigrant art, Latin American art, shows that ArtBasel is not a space where the critique of culture through art takes place. Rather it is a place where value (capital) is created and circulated in the form of class-based symbols of aesthetics and taste. Is this cultural critique?


Becker, Howard S. 1982. Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press (1991).
Bourdieu, Pierre. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Routledge. (orig. 1979).
Garcia Canclini, Nestor. 1986. Desigualdad cultural y poder simbolico. La sociologia de Pierre Bourdieu. 1. Cuaderno de Trabajo. INAH.
Garcia Canclini, Nestor. 1995. Hybrid Cultures. Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (1989. Culturas Hibridas. Grijalbo. Mexico).
Lash, Miranda, ed., 2014. Mel Chin. Rematch. HatjeCantz.