Nadín Ospina

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When one returns to any Latin American city after a prolonged absence, it never fails to surprise how much the city has changed. It is difficult not to notice the huge billboards announcing some transnational trademark while at the same time they try to hide the buildings’ old walls. The streets are literally filled with food vendors, where local recipes coexist with imported goods —prickly pear tacos and hamburgers, tamarind water and Coca-Cola, totopos and nachos. Music stores sprout by their side selling foreign stereo components and TV’s, their owners jamming to the rhythms of pop or techno music. Local icons are becoming increasingly ignored; in fact, they are reserved for outsiders: the neopre-Hispanic trinkets —plastic Chacmols or nylon ponchos— and the neocolonial and neobaroque bars are made to appease the tourists' hunger for the exotic. After all, the figures that for long defined many Latin American national identities have been losing ground before a set of new heroes. Bart Simpson, Madonna, and Tarantino today enjoy more popularity among the youth than Bolívar, Sucre or Hidalgo. And if Emiliano Zapata still enjoys a certain prestige, it has been largely due to the modernization —or post-modernization— of his figure through subcomandante Marcos.

In most of the Spanish colonies, the changes undergone by the Latin American identity was a slow process, spanning from the early days of independence until the beginnings of the 20th century. This lengthy process allows us to understand proposals such as Ospina’s. Since the early 1990’s, the Colombian artist has exhibited a series of works in which the icons of today’s entertainment industry mutate into pre-Hispanic figurines. Ospina outsources to several Latin American artisans specializing in the reproduction of pre-Columbian works of art (for tourists or archeology museums) the task of making sculptures of characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck or the Simpsons. The results of this operation never cease to be disconcerting. Cartoon characters, considered to be the emblems of late capitalism’s cultural colonialism, acquire an exotic and peripheral character.

Appropriation, Displacement, and the Search for Meaning. Ospina’s works are the result of the exchange of ideas and the transitory condition characterizing our times. His hybridism is a reminder of the resignification process that members of peripheral societies subject products of the dominant culture. It puts in evidence the state of constant redefinition that local cultures find themselves in as a consequence of the expansion of communication networks and worldwide economic exchanges. Ospina’s proposals allude to a concept of “Latin American-ness” —if such a thing has truly existed— in crisis. They allude to a reality that’s in the bargaining table, where the myth of a lost, pre-Hispanic Arcadia fuses with the sparkling culture of transnational entertainment. To give reality a sense, the revised Calima figures, the Tumaco copulating pairs, or the Aztec warriors —-all with their Mickey Mouse ears— outline a scenario in which the subjects immersed in such force fields (where the global and the local simultaneously attract and repeal each other) must appropriate bits and pieces from different sources. Ospina’s mestizo works are the consequence of a state of affairs in which the subjects —including those from the so-called Western countries— must grant a new meaning to transnational products in order to be able to reconcile them with their most immediate or local realities.

The Fixation Upon the Exotic. It is possible to state that the discovery of otherness by the Western World took place with the great journeys European explorers took starting in the 14th and 15th centuries, precisely when the great scientific, political, and economic principles that gave birth to modernity began to take shape. Thanks to Marco Polo’s travels to China and Columbus’ journeys to America, Europeans began to gain full conscience of cultures other than their own. At the same time, the adventures in strange lands encouraged the contact with art products from non-Western cultures; let’s only remember the now-famous impression that pre-Hispanic works of art made on Albrecht Dürer —a mixture of horror and admiration.

In the long run, exotic creations ended up occupying the periphery of Western art systems. Seen from an ethnocentric and evolutionist point of view, the creations of non-Western cultures were considered products from savage and backward peoples. The interest in art from marginal cultures was not esthetic per se, but anthropological in every case. The works of anonymous authors did not deserve a place in museums of fine arts; they had to content themselves with being part of a glass cage in ethnology museums.

Ospina’s proposals try to question the categories used to classify creative products. He usually presents his sculptures as if they were pieces of a pre-Hispanic art collection. His works are not shown in the same conditions that, as a general rule, contemporary art has been exhibited, that is, in a neutral space, a spotless hall, white walls preventing the pollution of the perception of the works shown. On the contrary, his pieces are usually exhibited in glass cages or pedestals, the lighting accentuating the chiaroscuro to intensify the dramatic effect, just as in a museum of anthropology. This way of exhibiting has a paradoxical effect, since Ospina ends up converting what’s dominant into the exotic. Icons of Western culture, such as Walt Disney’s or Matt Groening’s characters, are placed at the same level as the works by primitive cultures’ anonymous artists, thus acquiring a character of the other. The coordinates defining center and periphery lose their meaning.

In the final analysis, Ospina’s proposals, with all their Pop-exotica, parody the attitude that multicultural capitalism has towards peripheral creation. The globalization of the economy and the generalization of exchanges have brought along an apparent tolerance towards diversity, a tolerance which in reality is not true. Multicultural capitalism has a façade of respect for what’s not the same, where mestizaje, diversity of cultural uses, and difference are celebrated. But such tolerance has its limits: otherness will be tolerated and even celebrated as long as it does not question the market economy, the liberal democracy, and the ethics of glogal capitalism. At the same time that foreign music, exotic foods, and hybrid fashions are celebrated (which end up invigorating the consumer society), political and religious fundamentalisms —such as Islam, which questions the West’s political and economic structures— are condemned. In this regard, Slavjo Zizek states that “contemporary postmodern racism is late multicultural capitalism’s symptom, shedding light on the liberal-democratic ideological project’s inherent contradiction. The liberal’s ‘tolerance’ forgives the folkloric other, who’s been stripped of its substance (the same goes for the multiplicity of “ethnic foods” encountered in any contemporary megalopolis), but it will denounce any ‘real’ other for its ‘fundamentalism’ since the nucleus of otherness lies in the regulation of its joy: by definition, who’s ‘patriarchal’ and ‘violent’ is the ‘real’ other, never the other who has eternal wisdom and charming manners.”

As parodies, Ospina’s sculptures allude to the exoticism that late capitalism so much extols —the domesticated otherness which, far from injuring, ends up conjuring a certain degree of admiration. It’s a desirable exotism, stripped of its essence and unquestioning of capitalism’s preeminence or its ideology. It’s an otherness that doesn’t generate conflict, where all of us, whether we’re black, white or yellow, look a lot like Mickey or Bart Simpson.

Eduardo Pérez Soler
Lápiz Magazine
Madrid, March 2001