The Western Bias For Latin American
Fantastic Art

A Mexican Artist Questions an Art World Category

by Elizabeth Gomez

One of my latest paintings, The Dove of Aunt Casilda, portrays an iconic woman. She is wearing a bright pink skirt adorned with white feathers. Each feather is attached to it by a delicate red ribbon. Around her a story is developing. On her right side, a dove stands on a branch watching a fierce hawk fly by. On her left side we discover that a reversal of roles has taken place: the fierce hawk has been hunted by the innocent-looking dove who carries its flaccid corpse in its beak.

Most of my work can easily be classified by the viewer as fantastical, surrealistic or belonging to the Latin American magic-realist movement. This conclusion is correct, since I was born and raised in Mexico, I grew up reading the books of Garcia Marquez and Alejo Carpentier, and as a girl I loved visiting the blue house of Frida Kahlo. In my work I like to introduce unusual, fantastic and colorful images into the daily portrayal of life. Moreover, the pairing of the concepts, fantastic and Latin America, is commonplace in the United States, Europe and therefore the rest of the world.

Magic realism does exist in Latin America and in many other cultures around the world. The fantastical, however, is neither the only nor the main characteristic of Latin American art. Even though Latin American culture includes a multiplicity of artistic and intellectual expressions, only art of a fantastical and colorful nature has transcended the local boundaries and become well-known in the art world. Work that does not fit the stereotype is, in the worst case, ignored or regarded as derivative. One example is the Madi movement, founded in Buenos Aires in 1945, which is considered by many to be a precursor to Fluxus, but which lacks mention in the pages of Western art history. In the best case, such work is lumped together with pieces that conform to the stereotype, like the inclusion of postmodernist artist Guillermo Kuitca's paintings in Art of the Fantastic: Latin America 1920-1987, a show that traveled in the U.S. in 1987.

Why have the United States and Europe paid attention mainly to what is fantastic in Latin American art? In this article, I want to explore multiple layers that make the Latin American fantastical movement in the arts so enticing for Euro-American art viewers, curators, collectors and dealers.

Fantastic art is characterized by the juxtaposition, distortion or amalgamation of images or materials that extend our experience by contradicting our expectations iconographically or formally. Fantastic images bend the rules of the perceived world. Devices such as metamorphoses, dislocations in time and space, and shifts in scale and materials create the fantastic.

Day and Sturges, the American curators for the show Art of the Fantastic, Latin America 1920-1987, have made a distinction between the consciously intellectual component of the European fantasy, as in Breton's surrealism, and the unconscious, or "naturally surrealist," version of Latin American fantasy. (1) This Euro-American notion of an unconscious Latin American fantasy is tinted with colonial views. The "primitive" are unconscious and instinctual, the "civilized" are rational and conscious of their acts. The authority of the Euro-American discourse has also led curators and critics to classify as "fantastic" other areas of rational endeavor, such as Latin American art history and criticism, which they label poetic, intuitive, and non-scientific. (2) Fantasy asserts the possibility of a different reality. It can be used as a means of explaining the inexplicable in the external world. It may also be perceived as a utopian element. A fantastic world can represent the world that one would like to live in, a replacement for the "real" one. (3) The Latin American version of the fantastic, whether expressed in the literature of Jorge Luis Borges or the painting of Maria Izquierdo, stands not for an irrational but rather for a rational project charged with connotations of emancipation and liberation. (4) Latin American fantastic art has been sought by the Euro-American art world because it is less threatening than other more overtly "political" works like the mural Diego Rivera painted for the Rockefeller Center. This mural, which depicted a good-natured Lenin helping the proletariat on the one hand and a group of capitalists exploiting the people on the other, was an embarrassment and ended up being dismantled. By providing enlightenment without irritation and entertainment without confrontation, fantastic art is safer art.

The fantastical is neither the only nor the main characteristic of Latin American art. The interest in fantasy in Latin American art could also be related to a feeling of "lacking" that some Europeans and Americans experience. I'm referring to the need for myths, narratives, folklore, culture or "ethnicity"; elements that are, mistakenly in my opinion, perceived to be missing from Western culture. On the positive side, interest in the fantastic has resulted in an unprecedented boom in Latin American art, which has finally been widely promoted and showcased both in Europe and in the United States. Latin America finally exists in the Euro-American art world. However, the need to lump all aspects of Latin American art in shows where the "fantastic" is the unifying theme is mistaken. There is more, and a more active cooperation between American, European and Latin American artists, critics and curators is needed to arrive at a more truthful and ample portrayal of the arts of Latin America in both the United States and Europe. *

1. Holliday T. Day and Hollister Sturges, Art of the Fantastic: Latin America, 1920-1987 (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1987), pp. 38-39,
2. Ibid., p. 8
3. Ibid., p. 11
4. Mari Carmen Ramírez, Beyond the Fantastic: Framing Identity in U.S. Exhibitons of Latin American Art, Gerardo Mosquera, Ed., Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1966), p. 236.

Elizabeth Gomez has studied art in Mexico City, Trieste and Ontario.
She is now an MFA candidate at San Jose State University.

Dreams and Fantasies