Dispatch: Guatemala City

Guatemala City

Guatemala City

Welcome to Guatemala City, home to one of Latin America’s most exciting art scenes, and one of its best-kept secrets.

Here, a group of artists and curators have been using art as an effective tool for addressing past traumas, and as a way of building a alternative future. (As the CIA notes on their own website, the US was involved—along with the United Fruit Company—in supporting a 1954 coup against Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz. This culminated in a civil war that paralyzed the country for 42 years, and which ended only with the peace accords of 1996).


Guatemala doesn’t have a proper contemporary art museum—even a Guggenheim (though there is a parking lot with a spiral ramp in the city center).


It does, however, have NuMu, the Nuevo Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, which is housed in a giant concrete eggshell that previously served as an egg store. NuMu is a project by artists Stefan Benchoam and Jessica Kairé, and since its opening in July 2012 has featured exhibitions of work by artists including Federico Herrero and Mario García Torres.


Pictured here is Mario García Torres’s exhibition, Cuatro repisas, dos lámparas, un trozo de tela, un pedazo de película rayada, algunos objetos con significado encontrados por ahí y un poco de sal de todos, 2013 (Four shelves, two lamps, a piece of cloth, a piece of film scratched, some objects with meaning found there and a little salt in all, 2013),1 which was curated by María Inés Rodríguez. A white flag atop the egg, salt collected from the museum’s neighbors, and ceramic salt containers made by García Torres together acknowledge the possibility of repairing the social fabric of a fragmented society.


During its exhibition openings, NuMu reclaims the public space surrounding the museum as a social and political arena, something that would have been unthinkable before the peace accords, or in the traumatic period that followed them.


Pictured is the facade of Fundación Paiz, which incorporates an exhibition space and organizes the Bienal de Arte Paiz, Guatemala’s biennial.


A retrospective of the work of Dario Escobar, one of Guatemala’s best-known contemporary artists, at Fundación Paiz. Shown are his car-bumper sculptures, and his paintings made using the accidental traces of car paint on canvas.


Centro Capito, which opened in 1978, is Guatemala’s oldest shopping mall.


Today, it is occupied mainly by gun shops, beauty parlors run by transvestites—


—and video-game arcades.


Inside Centro Capitol is Proyectos Ultravioleta, which was founded in 2009. Through exhibitions, events, and talks, it has been responsible for a micro-revolution in Guatemala’s art scene.


Pulpo (Octopus), an exhibition at Ultravioleta by Yoshua Okon, featured documentation of a reenactment of the Guatemalan Civil War in a Home Depot parking lot in Los Angeles. The dozen participating actors were actual ex-combatants in the 1990s conflict. All recent undocumented immigrants, they gather regularly at the site to look for work as day laborers. The title of the project is taken from the nickname of the United Fruit Company, which for a long period controlled Guatemala’s economy, politics, and industrial infrastructure.


Proyectos Ultravioleta’s founders, artists Stefan Benchoam and Byron Mármol. Not present is Ultravioleta’s third member, its curator, Emiliano Valdés.


While I was visiting Guatemala, artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa was filming a reenactment of a performance2 I had commissioned for the exhibition Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, Yucatan, and other places . . ., which I curated for the Centro Cultural de España in Guatemala in 2010. A son of guerrilla parents, Naufus lived from the age of seven as a political refugee with his grandmother in exile in Canada.


In Ramírez-Figueroa’s performance, Guatemala’s Mayan pyramids, colonial churches, and modern buildings dance to the rhythm of the marimba, collapsing against each other until they reveal the bodies of descendants of the country’s founders.


Inside the 1950s modern Edificio Herrera is the studio of Moisés Barrios (b. 1946), one of Guatemala’s most respected painters.


For the past twenty years, Barrios has been dedicated to researching and painting the resonances of the banana industry in the common imagination.


Antigua, the old capital, which was abandoned after an earthquake in 1773, is now a weekend vacation town for bohos and backpackers.


In a village outside Antigua lives Regina José Galindo, Guatemala’s most respected performance artist, and winner of the Golden Lion for best young artist at the 2005 Venice Biennale.


Shown here is Tierra (Earth) (2013),3 a recent performance and video work by Galindo. The land around where the artist is standing is being removed by an excavator, a reference to the mass graves of those who were “disappeared” during the military regime of Efraín Ríos Montt—a figure praised by Ronald Reagan as “a man of great personal integrity and commitment,” who was recently acquitted for genocide and crimes against humanity.

  1. Installation view: Mario García Torres: Cuatro repisas, dos lámparas, un trozo de tela, un pedazo de película rayada, algunos objetos con significado encontrados por ahí y un poco de sal de todos, 2013 (“Four shelves, two lamps, a piece of cloth, a piece of film scratched, some objects with meaning found there and a little salt in all, 2013”), New Museum of Contemporary Art, Guatemala (NuMu), 2013. Photos: Byron Mármol, courtesy NuMu
  2. Naufus Ramirez Figueroa, Breve Historia de la Arquitectura en Guatemala, 2010–13, performed in Guatemala City, Guatemala, 2013. Performers: Diego Sagastume and Jennifer De León. Musician: Alfonso Tunche. Documentary photos: Byron Marmol
  3. Regina José Galindo, Tierra (Earth), 2013, performed in Poncé sur le Loir, France, during Les Moulins de Paillard Residency Program, 2013, with the support of the University of the Arts, London, and La Maréchalerie centre d’art, Versailles. Commissioned and produced by Studio Orta, France. Documentary photo: Courtesy Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani and Regina José Galindo
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