Venezuelan Contemporary Art Breaks Out

Gego’s retrospective in New York’s Guggenheim is a small part of a wider effort by Venezuelan curators and artists of different generations to show the creative treasure still alive in Venezuela and the exiled communities

“Marisol and Warhol Take New York” exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum Miami

On March 31st, a retrospective exhibition of the artist Gego titled “Measuring Infinity” opened in the Guggenheim Museum. Later this year, an exhibition of the works of Venezuelan sculptor Marisol Escobar will open in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In 2021, the Centre Pompidou presented a collection of works synthesizing the influences and inspirations of Venezuelan architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva. In 2020, the Louvre Museum in Paris introduced a permanent piece by Elías Crispín. 

It’s an exciting time for Venezuelan art. The country that once was at the heart of the art world with its luminaries in the world of geometric abstraction, Jesús Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez, continues to get recognition in the most important artistic centers of the planet. Now, is this increase in recognition part of a new phenomenon or something that was hiding in plain sight all along? 

It would make sense to believe that this change is due to the emerging Venezuelan diaspora. Maybe the presence of Venezuelan art curators in different museums around the world has led to a re-consideration of Venezuelan art. After all, the country’s museums were deeply affected by the rise of chavismo and rendered unable to perform their functions. Early in his presidency, in 2001, during his TV show (Aló Presidente), Chávez famously fired the directors of the leading museums of the country including the Museo de Bellas Artes, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Sofía Imber, and the Galería de Arte Nacional. This was followed by an aggressive centralization and ideologization campaign that, in conjunction with progressive budget cuts, heavily impacted museum operations.

The country’s socio-economic collapse further worsened their conditions and forced many employees and curators to leave the country. “I’m sure that there are many heroes still in museums, but those with more experience in preservation and archiving went to live abroad. I don’t blame them, people are struggling to eat, but we don’t know the location or status of many of our artistic jewels and it’s truly sad,” said Isabela Villanueva, a Miami-based Venezuelan art curator, who frequently travels to visit museums in the country. 

These professionals were part of a generation that was able to work when the museums in the country excelled at being museums—Isabela Villanueva

Now, the professionals that left have been making a positive impact abroad. As an example, Villanueva mentioned Luis Pérez-Oramas, who was a curator of Latin American Art at the MoMA, and Gabriela Rangel who was the Chief curator at the Americas Society. 

Given that the Venezuelan diaspora is a relatively recent phenomenon, it will take some time to see the full impact of the presence of these professionals abroad. This is because organizing an art exhibit requires a lot of effort. “An exhibition project like Gego’s at the Guggenheim takes five years or more to put together,” Villanueva explains, “there has to be a whole curatorial research process, an examination of the work of the artist, recognize the most iconic works, the pieces that should be involved, and their careful transportation.”

However, the impact of their presence in the inclusion of Venezuelan artists can already be felt. Villanueva herself organized an exhibit in 2018 titled Deconstrucción: Arte Contemporáneo Venezolano, which included the works of 17 Venezuelan contemporary artists.

While we wait to see the impact of the presence of curators and professionals abroad, it’s important to address another vital side of the coin: artists. For many, it seems like the creation of Venezuelan art stopped during the era of Alejandro Otero, Soto and Cruz-Diez, who are ingrained in our national consciousness because of our constant exposure to them thanks to the commission of public works during the democratic era.

Nevertheless, artistic production in the country did not vanish after the zenith of geometric abstraction. Talented Venezuelan artists are making their mark in the world today. The collages of the Berlin-based Venezuelan artist Arturo Herrera are part of the collection of the MoMA. Part of Alexander Apóstol’s work exploring fractures in Venezuelan modernity is part of the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris and several other international collections. Just last year, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, a Venezuelan-Yanomami artist, was invited to the prestigious Venice Biennale. But the void left by museums and the lack of institutional backing has made it quite difficult to learn about them. Especially those that, because of the crisis, now live all over the world. 

These artists are not operating in a single unified block. In fact, art-historian Ruth Auerbach describes them in the book Contemporary Art of Venezuela Vol. 2 as a “sum of individualities relocated in various regions incorporating into a globalized artistic dynamic” and across different mediums and styles.

Burying the Flags

These artists are pushing Venezuelan art forward. One of the ways they do so is by expanding the repertoire of artistic references they base their work on. This is the case with Miguel Braceli, an artist whose work lies at the intersection of art and architecture; performance, media, and installation. He said to Caracas Chronicles: “These are projects that take the forms of installations or performances, but I like to think that the main medium is education, where the substance is exchange and learning.”

An example of this can be found in his work Enterrar las banderas en el mar (to bury flags in the sea) which was presented in the prestigious SACO Contemporary Art Festival in Chile. Like much of his work, it’s based on collective educational experiences. In this case, that experience was a reflection of an event in Chilean history: “I wanted to explore, with depth, themes that were more specific for each context”. He directed the planting of flags at sea in the region that Chile won in the War of the Pacific—the one that deprived Bolivia of its maritime border. 

“This project talked about migration, nationalism, and xenophobia. While these issues affect people from Perú and Bolivia, they are deeply tied to Venezuelans abroad,” Miguel says. This is not the only instance in which his work explores geopolitics and migration. In fact, just a few days ago, the city of New York announced that, as part of its NYC Percent for Art Program, it had commissioned Miguel to develop a large-scale permanent public artwork titled Ecosistemas Fabulados, which consists of an approximation to the symbologies around the concept of state through the lens of nature. According to Miguel in the press release, this is built on the understanding that “nature and landscape are an unlimited continuum, a flag made of nature replaces the idea of nation with the symbology of a borderless territory, like the earth in its primary state.” Ecosistemas Fabulados will be located in the upcoming Mary Cali Dalton Recreation Center in the maritime front of Staten Island, and will be a close neighbor of the Statue of Liberty. 

A Unique Vantage Point

While artists like Miguel use performance and education to explore profound topics, other artists create connections through photography, sculpture, and other innovative methods. Lucía Pizzani, a London-based artist, aims to reconcile distant territories, ideas, and the universal experience of migration. According to Lucía, being Venezuelan gives her a unique vantage point for this process due to the diverse nature of the country’s culture: “The fact that one grows in a syncretic culture gives us a starting point that is mixed, that is plural. You can see it in music, in religion, and in many manifestations. It all has a mixture of our indigenous people, Europeans, and African cultures.” Her work is deeply tied to research and it doesn’t only deal with different places, but also different periods. She also added “It is not tied to a single place, it explores themes of materiality, body, nature, and gender while it jumps through history to look for things that unite.”

This can be seen in her recent work like the mural Tajinaste Cattleya, finished in Tenerife last year. This mural aimed to be a reflection on the topic of protected areas and national parks and is a combination of collages of textbook photos of National Parks in Venezuela and the Canary Islands, ceramics sculptures marked with corn, and extracts of Tenerife’s plant life. 

Tajinaste Cattleya; by Lucia Pizzani

Her more recent individual exhibition, Meruntö: in the house of spirits, however, focuses on the diversity of Venezuelan plant life and aims to humanize it and is based on her visit to Venezuela in 2022 after spending 6 years without traveling back. The concept of Meruntö comes from the Pemón indigenous culture and refers to the vital force of life that the Pemón believe lives in every organism. The theme of the humanization of plant life and the role of the sun come together in her usage of solar prints where, with the help of photosensitive ink, the sun “prints” different images of plants. 

Passing the Torch

Miguel Braceli and Lucía Pizzani are part of a giant constellation of artists that push boundaries and innovate in the world of art, and while there are many artists abroad, this does not mean that the art scene in Venezuela disappeared. Despite the deterioration of museums, other organizations, especially in the private sector have continued supporting artists working in Venezuela. For instance, Isabela Villanueva mentioned ABRA Caracas, the Carmen Araujo Gallery, and the Fundación Sala Mendoza. In addition, Inger Pedreáñez documented that just last year, there was a wide variety of exhibits still happening throughout the country. 

These are not the only efforts to continue furthering the country’s art scene, Miguel Braceli also has an initiative called LA ESCUELA___ that aims to revitalize art education in Latin America. Most of their staff is based in Venezuela: “One year ago I founded LA ESCUELA___ together with the international non-profit Siemens Stiftung, where we’ve been developing online and onsite art education projects across Latin America; creating a network of artist and scholars, and researching about the legacy about art educators such as Antonieta Sosa, Claudio Perna, and Gego. We’ve developed workshops with international artists in Caracas and Merida and we are working on new projects for this year related to Gego’s pedagogical work”. 

Lucía Pizzani is also part of education initiatives and has conducted a wide variety of workshops and guided visits in Venezuela: “Last year I did workshops in London, at Gasworks, and in Caracas, during my solo show at Hacienda La Trinidad, exploring ideas of migration through plants. We worked with clay and imprinted the textures of vegetation that then we transferred to paper to create monotypes.” This is not the only way she incorporates education into her work: “I also organized portfolio reviews and mutual learning dialogues at ABRA Caracas to open the conversation between the local art scene and the artists working internationally in the diaspora.”