Tensions in New Art Worlds: Colombia

JOHN DUROVSIK ON NH GALERÍA IN CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA

A modest structure of amber stucco and terracotta roofing, NH Galería stands— ideologically and physically—at the intersection of debates on place-making, identity construction, and regionalism. The gallery, a contemporary commercial space that professes a dedication to emerging local and international artists, inhabits this critical, and at times contentious, intersection with an innocuous quietude, neglecting to engage with or comment directly on the practices and tropes with which it inherently associates. NH Galería, an extension of the Nohra Haime Gallery in New York, engenders questions concerning the globalization of the art world, the creation of new cultural destinations and districts, and the tensions between universalism and localism that exist, among other spheres, with an inexorable presence in art and related markets.

Cartagena presents itself as an architectural dichotomy—simultaneously engaging with an internationalist structural vocabulary while branding itself through the colonial vestiges of Spanish rule. The divide is sharp. Bocagrande, the city’s commercial center, evokes the Miami skyline. An exercise in urban copy and paste, white skyscrapers with cantilevered balconies and glass curtain walls crowd the narrow peninsula, vulgar in their aesthetic monotony and strict rectilinearity. In Centro, the city’s historic center, avenues contract and buildings renounce their Babel-like ambitions. Thick-beamed balconies cast shadows over lively streets, wide plazas venerate Italianate and Spanish-style cathedrals. Stucco, applied in thick sheets of vermillion and ochre, challenge the achrome modernity of the city’s contemporary constructions. It is between these two worlds—the modern, the colonial—that NH Galería situates itself.

While NH Galería’s exterior professes an aesthetic vocabulary that pledges allegiance to Centro’s colonial charm and historicity, the gallery’s location and interior subvert this façade. Located adjacent to the historic walls of the old city, NH Galería lies at the environs of Centro’s heritage sector. And yet, the gallery, while housed within a vernacularly colonial structure, is revealed to exist beneath a mere veneer. Inside, the gallery sheds all historical identifiers, opting instead for the sleek, generic vocabulary of the white cube. Sculptures, prints, and paintings are positioned within the ageographical confines of the gallery, a space that possesses no clear connections to its locality. These works—existing within this geographically amorphous realm—similarly engage with the global/local dichotomy. Here, canonical giants and local artists coalesce. And yet, this pairing appears as a shouting contest—a forum in which Colombian artists, while great in number, are silenced by a more comfortable familiarity in name and style.

Works by local and global emerging artists—the demographic that NH Galería seeks to support and whose work the gallery strives to circulate—are shadowed, even wholly obscured, by works possessing prestigious international authorship and provenance. Works by Julian Schnabel, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Takashi Murakami line the whitewashed walls. In the gallery’s gift shop, teacups by Damien Hirst, pink plastic bombs by Tom Otterness, and a satchel from the partnership between H&M and Jeff Koons are among the objects for sale. Works by Colombian artists, however present, fail to find compelling voices.

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I visited the NH Galería on a Sunday afternoon. The gallery was between exhibitions—a show entitled Schnabel, Muniz y Otras Obras Maestras had closed two weeks prior and a new show, on Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, would open in the upcoming days. Thus, the works displayed throughout the gallery lacked clear thematic and temporal unifiers. Instead, the visit provided a clear catalogue of represented artists and, through this list, an important glimpse into the efforts made to satisfy both local and international audiences. Aside from my small group—three Americans and one Australian—the gallery was empty. Unbound by crowds, we fell, slowly, into the gravitational pull of individual works.

The first room held an impressive collection of sculptural works by Greek artist Sophia Vari. Acrylic gridscapes and monochromatic photographs by Ruby Rumié, a Colombian artist, commanded similar attention. And yet, it was the prints by canonical artists that we found most intriguing. Maybe it was the unexpected encounter—a Murakami in Cartagena?—or the art historical familiarity that attracted us towards these works. Regardless, works of Colombian origin were left largely ignored or dismissed as craft-like and kitschy. NH Galería thus worked must successfully as a New York annex, an apparatus through which art produced by established contemporary artists is displayed, sold, and propagated. Like its architectural lexicon, NH Galería obscures its Colombian identity, adopting instead the rhetoric of commercialized, Western art.

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And yet, one must take caution when criticizing a gallery in form and work. Can the white cube aesthetic be claimed, in totality, by Western galleries and museums? If so, those exhibition spaces existing outside of the traditional confines of the art world must rely upon local and authentic modes of display (both problematic adjectives), upholding the Western hegemony of museology through exhibitory and stylistic stasis.

The same questions must be asked when confronting the works displayed and sold within NH Galería. Must the gallery exhibit the works of local artists, displaying, foremost, the aesthetic diversity present within contemporary Cartagena? This rigidity—the necessity to ground a gallery within the artistic confines of its locality—is not required of Parisian or New York galleries, which find success representing international artists that break with local conventions. Why, then, can NH Galería be easily criticized for displaying a Schnabel or a Murakami alongside Columbian artists? Instead, one must consider how these juxtapositions can benefit both the local and the global.

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The presence of French, Japanese, and American contemporary art establishes new audiences for already-recognized artists while local artists gain notoriety through association. But again, this conclusion problematizes the existence of non-traditional art worlds, suggesting that Colombian artists can only achieve critical success through associations with the works and histories of well-established, Euro-American contemporaries.

While these questions—those pertaining to inequalities in display practices within various art worlds—remain unsettled, the binaries of Western and global, foreign and local, and authentic and derivative must be challenged, even corrected, in an effort to make serious the artistic endeavors of non-Western, post-colonial communities.

Author John Durovsik is a Baltimore-based writer, originally from Philadelphia, PA.

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