Gonzalo Fuenmayor, The Striking Beauty of Tropicalia
Bringing together elements that would never be seen together by chance, this artist has created a new form of beauty in extravagance.
It is not possible to look at a work by Gonzalo Fuenmayor without feeling all the weight of his ideological extravagance. His interventions – a giant palm tree in a classical theater, a bunch of bananas in Buckingham Palace – are at the same time both antithetical and conciliatory: they are visual blows that can illuminate even the most negligent of political spaces and start a party among adversaries.
Fuenmayor (1977) is from Barranquilla, Colombia, but he has studied and lived for so many years in the US that, due to the cultural contrast, the themes that have made him memorable ––tropicalia, opulence, cultural identity and the hybridization of cultures –– took root. But in order to talk about him it is necessary to talk of bananas: the fruit with the most connotations (ideological, political and sexual) on the planet, and the central motif of his work.
In each of his bananas is the pop art of Andy Warhol (perhaps now inseparable from his representation) and the sexual potency of the ideas of Freud, but there are also the political and historical relations of the United Fruit Co. with Colombia (specifically the massacre of the banana workers in 1928) and the allusion to all of the exuberant ‘banana republics’ of Latin America, in contrast with the opulence (and the decadence) of Victorian décor. This is where his charcoal drawings come in, with a never-before-seen tropical elegance. Fuenmayor is a master with charcoal, to the extent that his works could easily by mistaken for black and white photographs, except for the fact that what they illustrate would be difficult to bring together in reality, if it were not for his equally unreal installations.
Tropical Mythologies, for example, is the result of a trip to the Amazon that he undertook thanks to a fellowship from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There he visited a banana plantation and that was where he had the idea of hanging Victorian chandeliers from the branches and… switching the lights on. This clever composition is what he would later hang in the dining room if the Hotel Faena during Art Basel Miami in 2014 and entitled Eden.
I am interested in how ornamentation with its grace and excess has the capacity to camouflage and overshadow questionable circumstances of all kinds. What initially began as a lighthearted attempt to exorcize and position myself as specifically ‘Colombian’ -coming from a ‘banana republic’- evolved into an exploration of cultural hybridity and transnational identity.
We could say that his chandeliers and drawings are a visual oxymoron, and as with all functional oxymorons, they produce a surplus of audacious meanings. In the case of Tropical Mythologies, the chandeliers take on a vegetal character (as if they always had had that and Fuenmayor simply showed us that), and the bananas take on the character of lighting, elegant and even more provocative. What happens when Caribbean culture bursts onto the scene in Europe? This. A stunning hybridization that makes its political crossovers and styles of identity look ridiculous, and at the same time dressing them in a new beauty, a new extravagance.
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