The black and white photograph of a dead dog, taken in Lima in 1989, that now hangs on the immaculate walls of the Reina Sofía in Madrid seems to have little in common with the Caetano Veloso album covers also on display or, come to that, with the image of a young Chilean artist suspended by his feet alongside a map of his homeland.
But they – and the 100 or so other works that make up the museum’s latest exhibition – are all bound together by the volatile and often violent times in which they were created.
The new show, Enemies of Poetry: Resistance in Latin America, focuses on the artistic boom in the region between 1964 and 1987 and examines how the political upheavals of the era and the emergence of new artistic practices “favoured a series of transcendental exchanges in the development of contemporary art”.
As well as paintings, photographs, sculptures and books, the exhibition features installations including a multiscreen video tour, a lovingly tangled mattress and a room whose floor and walls trace the trajectories of the bullets fired during a 1969 massacre in Chile.
The project is part of the Reina Sofía’s continuing effort to reorder its vast collection to help visitors better understand the political, cultural and historical contexts.
If the previous “episode” of the reorganisation was about the postwar world, US cultural hegemony and how the Franco regime used tourism and culture to its own ends, the second is concerned with how politics, rebellion, technology and novel techniques gave rise to something very different in Latin America.
The aim, according to the museum, is “to treat the reality of Latin America as a complex, wide, plural and diverse concept that takes in a large number of countries – each with its own distinctive features and indigenous traces – and in which the idea of place extends beyond what appears on the map”.
Manuel Borja-Villel, the director of the Reina Sofía, also wants to move past European and US-centric notions of Latin America and its recent art.
“From the 1960s, all these artists started engaging in an extraordinary experimentation when it came to a kind of expanded art that included everything from paintings to books to bodies to public spaces and streets,” he says. “It also extended from the streets across the whole territory.”
But even today, he adds, Europe and the US tend to peer a little condescendingly at the region.
“Traditionally speaking, we in the north have looked at the south – Latin America in this case – as a place of avant garde art, but whose art was more politicised because the political institutions were less developed than in the north, and there were dictatorships,” he says. “We need to decolonise that gaze.”
Each of the works on show tells its own story. The dead dog, photographed in the Peruvian capital 32 years ago by Jaime Rázuri, was one of the animals that Shining Path terrorists used to string up and boobytrap to spread fear and dissuade people from voting. The Caetano Veloso artwork references the Tropicália artistic movement that flourished in Brazil until the military dictatorship decided to crack down on it.
And then there is Elías Adasme, the Chilean artist who used his body to dissolve the boundaries between the public and the private and to protest against the Pinochet regime. Hanging himself by his feet next to a map of Chile, Adasme appears to be inviting the viewer to consider the situation from his country’s point of view, while also echoing the tortures meted out to dissidents and opponents under Pinochet.
“We’ve always looked at this art art as happening a little after it did in the north … but in terms of art history, a lot of it actually happens there before it does in the north,” says Borja-Villel.
He points to Adasme’s work and that of the other Chilean exhibitors from the 1982 Paris Biennale, adding: “They warned people against mistakenly believing these dictatorships were just remnants of the past; they pointed out that they were a taste of things to come and of neoliberalism.”
The comparative lack of fame of many of the artists on show may be explained by the fact that artistic movements in the region tended to prize the collective above the individual – unlike their northern neighbours. But, says Borja-Villel, they are long overdue a reappraisal.
“The whole expansion of US art happened against the backdrop of the cold war, and Latin American art also developed according its own realities,” he says. “It was an extraordinary cultural expansion.”
Enemies of Poetry: Resistance in Latin America is at the Reina Sofía in Madrid from 16 June to 26 July