ISLAA is promoting Latin American art in New York and beyond
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
It’s sometimes said that New York is one of the biggest cities in Latin America. Latino people are its largest non-white ethnic group, constituting nearly a third of the city’s population — but this isn’t always evident at local museums, which have relatively limited Latin American art in their collections.
The Institute for Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA), an exhibition and research centre with an emphatically public mission, has sought to fill that gap by loaning works for exhibition and by funding research projects at academic institutions — and it has just opened an impressive new building in Tribeca, New York’s fast-growing art district. From its galleries and archives on Franklin Street, which were inaugurated on October 27, the institute hopes to bring a diverse range of artistic practices from south of the US border to the attention of New Yorkers and beyond.
ISLAA was founded in 2011 by Argentine entrepreneur and collector Ariel Aisiks and its recent loans have included “Simultaneity in Simultaneity”, a groundbreaking 1966 video installation by artist Marta Minujín, to the Museum of Modern Art, as well as support for the first major monograph on the work of Paraguayan painter and textile artist Feliciano Centurión. Over the past decade, ISLAA has also donated more than 500 works to museum collections across the US, all while continuing to acquire more.
Despite these efforts, “We mostly operated behind the scenes for the first 10 years,” says Lucy Hunter, ISLAA’s executive director. “Ultimately, we took a look at what we do at universities and started thinking about how that work could translate to a wider audience.”
The institution’s move from a cramped Upper East Side basement to more than 400 sq m of exhibition and research space on a prime Tribeca corner has not gone unnoticed. Over the opening weekend, ISLAA staff estimate that more than 3,000 visitors attended receptions for two exhibitions which showcase the myriad ways that Latin American artists have responded to the effects of colonialism and resource extraction on the natural environment. The stripped-back design of the space, a gut renovation of the original 1910 cast-iron warehouse by Matthew Ransom and Brad Isnard of Overhead Architecture, has left little to interfere with densely hung works spanning nearly a century of artistic production.
ISLAA follows in the footsteps of El Museo del Barrio, a museum at the opposite end of Manhattan which has staged exhibitions of Latin American art in the historically Puerto Rican community of East Harlem since its founding in 1969. In 2016, a major donation of Latin American art from collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros established a centre at MoMA for the study of modern art from the region.
Still, ISLAA’s exhibition programme, which will encompass up to eight shows a year, is designed to offer a more diverse sample of work rarely exhibited in the US, says newly appointed chief curator Bernardo Mosqueira. “There is incredible attention for geometric abstraction, as if this was the most important or the only kind of art that has been produced from this region,” he says. “One of the main missions that we have here at ISLAA is to highlight the diversity [of Latin American art] and also complicate the narratives that are already here” in New York.
Mosqueira comes to the institution from the New Museum, where he previously held a curatorial fellowship funded by ISLAA; Eros Rising, his 2022 exhibition at ISLAA co-organised with Argentine art historian Mariano López Seoane, was exemplary in this regard, featuring works on paper by queer artists from remote stretches of the Peruvian and Ecuadorean Amazon.
Indigenous artists are front and centre again in The Precious Life of a Liquid Heart, which Mosquiera also curated and which is currently on view in ISLAA’s lower-level galleries. Mesmerising photographs by Uýra show the Brazilian transgender artist and drag performer caked in white mud and crowned with ferns while wading in pristine blue waters. At the heart of a painting displayed on the opposite wall, amid vibrant purple and green abstract patterns, a circular inset depicts fish drowning in a brown river, a reminder of the consequences when natural resources are defiled. The artists, a collective of Shipibo-Conibo women painters from Peru, can sing the zigzagging motifs around the fish like a score.
“We are especially interested in artists who, for one reason or another, have incredible though under-sung practices — people whose recognition is incommensurate with their impact,” says Hunter. These efforts will continue in 2024 with exhibitions such as Threads to the South, which will highlight artists from across Latin America working with fibre and textiles, and New Protocols, a study of the birth of electronic music in Buenos Aires in the 1950s.
“It is not an overstatement to say that the field of Latin American art operates on scarcity — scarcity of opportunities, of access, of resources,” says Hunter. As ISLAA works to change this locally, the impacts of its efforts may be felt far beyond the New York archipelago.