NADÍN OSPINA ‘YO SOY OTRO TÚ (I am the other you)’
It may also be translated ‘I am the Other’
NOTE: THIS A LONG EXHIBITION REVIEW…
When I approached the entrance of the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia in Madrid I immediately recognized a work, a large bright yellow inflatable pre-Columbian figure, by Nadín Ospina – I had seen this work in Havana during the 7th Biennial in 2000, and I believe that I first came to know his work through the 5th Havana Biennial in 1994, possibly earlier. So this was an unexpected, but perfect ‘encounter’ for my last day in Madrid.
Ospina is an artist who I have not just followed for many years, deeply appreciating his take on history and historical representation and the historical present, which early on often focused on how the hegemony of the North continued to exert itself on the lives and culture of those in the South, but I was also so fortunate to have been able to include his work (thanks to the help of José Roca) in an exhibition I curated in 2002 involving 15 contemporary Latin American artists.
Ospina’s early work on one level, at first glance, appears ‘playful’, humorous, and ones first reaction is generally laughter and or a broad smile… but at the core, the message in his work is quite serious and profoundly relevant today.
A main theme for this particular exhibition in the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia, ‘Yo soy otro tú / I am another you’, curated by Isabel Durán, is ‘the encounter’, and the various possibilities that any encounter with ‘the other’ may entail. The encounter between the science fiction characters and the pre-Columbian figures in particular show no fear, or feeling of impending violence, they rather present an attitude, for the most part, of shared contemplation (sitting together on a bench) of an uncertain future, and of a non- hierarchical exchange.
The earlier work by Ospina, similar to that which I had included in the 2002 exhibition, combined the bodies of pre-Columbian figures, often those related to the pre-Columbian culture of San Augustín (in present day) Colombia, an archeological site I visited when I was an exchange student in Colombia many years ago, with the heads of popular characters from Disney (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck…) or from ‘The Simpsons’ (Homer, Bart, and Marge). They were generally made of stone or clay, and carved or formed in a similar fashion to the early pre-Columbian figures by local indigenous artists in the area.
The resulting work clearly had a playful attitude, at least to most viewers, but this unlikely combination could also be seen as the expression and overarching ‘presence’ of the North in the South, and how manipulative and invasive that presence had become, dominating the cultural live of those living in trivialized (by the North) South.
This exhibition takes a different course in certain critical ways, though at times using the same juxtaposition of shifting body and head, but now the body is of the more modern person and the head of a pre-Columbian figure, a significant shift.
And a central issue/theme being explored in this exhibition involves the encounter between peoples. Ospina’s family provides a significant illustration and lesson when recognizing the reality of the cultural mixing that took place a few generations before Nadín was born. His finding of a family photo all wrapped up and hidden when he was 10 began to reveal to him the truth of a past that did not fit the family’s chosen narrative of purity of blood.
Encounters and the following exchanges on all levels can and should be positive, distinguished from the type that characterized the Columbus encounter. And these encounters today are often resulting from waves of immigration and migration by individuals needing to flee political persecution, war, or economic conditions of extreme poverty.
Once again, in this exhibition Ospina ‘plays with’ the extremes (engaging the viewer) to focus on the reality of now… Science fiction characters and pre-Colombian cultures encountering… at times sitting on the same bench, seemingly contemplating what may become of these new possibilities of exchange and intermixing.
Within the exhibition additional related issues are also addressed, including the ongoing stereotyping of Native Americas, as well as how the belief in a fictionalized ‘other’ bares on how we are able to receive and understand the other….
And how relevant and perfect that this exhibition should take place within the context of an museum of anthropology, where the visitor traditionally looks out ‘at’ the other as a distant and disconnected reality, and not ‘with’ the other as the work of Ospina constructs.
Regarding current migrant issues and the attitudes of those in the nations receiving them (or trying to deny them entry):
Théodore Géricault’s ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ (‘Le Radeau de la Médusa’), 1819, provided Ospina with a image that could express the plight and struggle of present day migrants to survive in a turbulent sea while seeking safety on another shore… and I believe in the context of the overall exhibition a strong contrast to the ‘beam me up Scotty’ from Star Trek ‘reality’.
As I mentioned in above, it was Nadin’s the finding of this family photo of his great-great-grandparents when he was 10-years-old that opened his eyes to a family reality of intermarriage that had been concealed and denied in the accepted narrative of his parent’s generation. There he saw his great-great German grandfather standing next to, and with his hand upon the shoulder of, his great-great Indigenous grandmother. This reality clearly dispelled and contradicted the desired narrative of ‘racial purity’ promoted by many European families, his own included, living in Colombia and other countries in Latin America. And in so doing provided a way to acknowledge the significance of the encounter and exchange based in his great-great-grandparents’ inter-marriage, and his identity in the middle of the 20th century was more complex than had been taught by his parents – ‘purity’ was a myth…. And the reality of the inter-cultural marriage was now not a negative but a positive factor in his life and identity.
Ospina’s family photograph of his early relatives is placed in the center of 8 paintings (selected from a larger series) that had been created (uncertain of the artists) in the 18th century to establish a documentation of the ‘casts’ within the Viceroyalty of New Spain, providing visual evidence of the intermarriages and associations among Indigenous, Europeans, and African.
The additional focus by Ospina in this exhibition regarding ‘intermarriage’ can be readily seen in the number of ‘combination’ figures, both in his bronze ‘Family Portrait’ (2015) in the case directly in front of – and mimicking – the earlier photograph, and with the bronzes of ‘monsters’ and ‘bodybuilders’ located in the same room. The monsters refer to the early texts and accounts by Herodotus and writers after him who spoke of humans with wolf heads, or heads in their chest, among others. These stories and ‘beliefs’ persisted for many generations, believing that such creatures lived at the very periphery of the distant ‘unknown’ earth.
The way by which Ospina addressed the stereotype of the Plains Indians in this installation is significant, given that the museum is an anthropology museum and its collections include artifacts from the Americas. Recognizing that ‘context’ is one way ethnographic museums attempt to convey deeper meaning to individual objects, in this first gallery we encounter a case that at one end you see a rather ‘traditional’ museum presentation of material culture, accompanied with an enlarged image, and text (context making). The viewer accepts this reality and then moves on to the other side of the case, with a now ‘normalized’ expectation for ‘information’ that is ‘true and accurate’… so it could take a moment or two before the visitor realizes that at this end of the case Ospina, as a way of critical intervention, presents multiple identical painted bronze figures of a stylized ‘Indian, like one from the movies’… and above you are watching segments from TV films and movies where the stereotype is repeated in another medium…. Even the labels list the objects, both Ospina’s and those from the museum’s collection in an unbroken and ‘normal’ manner.
Hopefully everyone ‘gets it’… some may not, because they are taught and accustomed to believe that what is presented in a museum (and how it is presented) is ‘factual’….
The obvious need to break down that unquestioning attitude and response is critical and most necessary, and hopefully opens up the visitor to also consider questions related to the ‘actual museum presentations’.