Todo Sobre Mi Padre/Text for an exhibition opening (on Nicholas Arroyave-Portela's New work)
By Oscar Guardiola-Rivera
(After Valerie's wonderful and authoritative intervention, what I have to say is indeed very modest and, hopefully, quite brief. I realise we all get tired after standing up for over half an hour and, in any case, you didn't come here to listen to one of my lectures, but rather, to admire Nicholas's work, and I'll confess, you don't have to-for the free wine. If I don't do terribly badly, I will have earned my right to an invitation for dinner afterwards, paid by our generous friends at DLA and the author. So there you go, the abject truth of my darkest motives is now in the open).
More seriously, I believe Nicholas's work can be understood as part of a constellation of younger and emerging artists with ties in the Americas, which includes writers and thinkers as well as visual and plastic artists. This constellation is part and indeed a symptom of Latin America's wider 'Renaissance'; the subject of my book, cheekily titled 'what if Latin America ruled the world'.
There're many reasons behind Latin America's renewed global significance, but one is particularly relevant to the case of Nicholas's work. It was put to my friend, the novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez and to me by a Welsh novelist, some weeks ago in the context of our participation in the Hay Festival. He said: 'People know about Latin America's search for identity, about its solitude. They've read about it in Neruda's poems or Garcia Marquez's novels. But what would happen if Latin America actually finds one; with which it feels comfortable and confident? Certainly, that would be of historical significance.'
The assertion of our Welsh friend resonates not only with the subject of my book, but also, and this is what we have gathered today to admire and celebrate, with Nicholas' new work, brought together under the very apt name 'Todo Sobre Mi Padre'. Let me say a few things about this work, in relation with the historical significance of Latin America and in connection with the idea of constellations that I mentioned before.
Nicholas's work is his solution to a question-which is particular but can also be general- that only makes sense within the long history of globalisation: this question is, as Valerie puts it in her marvellous essay included in this exhibition's catalogue, the following: 'In the convergent yet dissimilar worlds (portrayed in Nicholas's key pieces), these faded ragged flags, where do individual loyalties lie?' Each and every single one of the pieces in this exhibition deals with individual lives, journeys and stories as 'fragmented pieces of global history'. Nicholas's solution is therefore to accept multiplicity, both the multiplicity implicit in the various motions of the soul as much as the multiplicity explicit in the historical movement of people across the globe.
I believe his answer is universal, rather than particular. It is valid not only to Latin Americans because of our supposedly singular history of hybridity and mestizaje, but to all. It is the most basic and correct assumption about reality as a whole. But it is also a challenge, to me , to you, to the critic, to the spectator of art forms, and to those who aren't here with us tonight: not to cover up multiplicity or cover it over with myths of unity and proper origins; and not to dismiss it, as critics often do, with false arguments couched in much misunderstood words such as 'confusion', 'complication', or 'cornucopia'. But to accept multiplicity, in the depths of our souls as much as in the heavens above.
Nicholas' solution is also perfectly in tune with his technique. Notice his choice of materials: from the more down-to-earth, clay in fact, to the more abstract-maps, words (some of which you don't understand if you're not acquainted with that most sublime of languages,Spanglish), composite flags(such as the union Jack), and in the case of one of his pieces, untitled 1, emptiness or form itself. Notice also that his work starts at the potter's wheel: He begins by throwing pots, which gives you wholes or apparently complete objects; and then cuts and re-models them, composing the seemingly residual parts into new forms and surfaces that expose the inner side of the whole and in some cases transform it into another surface appearance, and so on and so forth. As Valerie pointed out, this is what the earth itself has done over millennia; this is also what cosmographers, cosmologists and cartographers, both pre-Colombian and European have done since at least the 16th century. But this is also what Artists do, at least those of us who subscribe to the notion that all art, including writing in my case is image; ut picture poesis, as Horace put it.
This is what Nicholas does: cut the world, open it up and flatten it out in order to display all its various parts as if on (the oval format of) a map. At the same time that Nicholas does this with the world, he does the same with his inner psyche, his soul. His pieces are indeed the inner mappings of a soul, inviting the spectator to comtemplate its travails, its doubts, its uncertainties and its voyages. These are, ultimately, invocations and depictions of a memory. But notice that in Nicholas' case, the images have no fixity; not one of the pieces you see here is two-dimensional, for they're all images of motion. He throws the inside out, literally, and brings the outside in.
His gesture, let it be noticed, is akin to the vertical flight of slaves struggling for liberation in both sides of the Atlantic- here in the British Isles as much as in the Americas- 200 years ago. And as the successors of John Milton did back then, among them the Londoners Olaudah Equiano, Francisco De Miranda, Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Letitia Barbauld, we can also name this gesture and movement 'Sublime'. If so, we can accurately refer to Nicholas's work as 'Sublime poetry'. Ultimately, what he does is painting-with clay- designed with freedom. And this is precisely the meaning of the sublime. Consequently, today we witness the birth of an exemplary author; for this work, pushing conventional conceptions of the applied arts well beyond their limits, will serve as a model not for imitation but for succession. Alas, this form of vertical flight is also the movement and gesture of the Angel of history; an archetype with a long and venerable history that happens to occupy a central place in the most recent literary and artistic expression originating in the constellation of contemporary Latin American writers and Artists. Indeed, it is only from above that you can contemplate the images that Nicholas has given us today. Each spectator comes to occupy the position of the Angel. Nicholas's theme is thus not only space; it's also, mainly and foremost, time and history.
Crucially, none of the pieces hanging from the walls today are merely a form of representation. There's method to the apparent madness of a mind in incessant motion or fragmentation captured in Untitled 1, After the impact, My Father's migration or Who Am I?, and the, dare I say scientific solidity of Time, Space Continuum and Flag 2, which for me are the central pieces of this exhibition. Let me repeat, these pieces are no mere forms of representation but a method of inquiry. Nicholas shares this method with more people, past and present, than he might realise. Only in few occasions it has been applied to the fine arts, and never before, as far as I know, to the applied arts. It seeks to understand, describe and imagine the transient aspect of society and reality-motion, change, end times, fragility and transformation. This was, by the way, also the 'dreamworld', the interrupted thought of the Indians of the Americas. Nicholas's work continues that thought at a time when indigenous peoples rise up in places like south-eastern Colombia, Mexico or Bolivia.
Finally, let me point out that one of the curious things about our educational, media and artistic establishments, is that the better trained you are in a task, a profession, an art or a discipline, the less used to this method you're likely to be. This means we're also disconnected with our dreamworld, that is to say, with our very souls. In fact, it is young children (and some film-makers, I might add) who are very aware of the intuitive power of this form of inquiry, for they see everything in motion, in contradictions and transformations. No wonder why there're so many kids in the photographs included in Nicholas's catalogue for this exhibition. And notice that most of them include himself as an unnamed child.
Try to look at these pieces with the eyes of a child or a cinema-goer; with Nicholas's eyes. But do not forget that innocence is the adults' imagination of the children's imagination, and never their own. When, as I do in my book and Nicholas in his paintings, you refuse linear timelines and simple cartographies, the critics will call you 'confusing', 'perverse' and 'complicated'. But for us, the writers and painters of the 'New Latin American Sublime' these are compliments; We wear them in our lapels as medals of triumph in a battle. Make no mistake, behind the calmed, child like appearance of TODO SOBRE MI PADRE, and of its author, lurks a declaration of war. I, for one, am ready to sign up to it. And if you don't believe me, look at the bloodstains in Flag 2, subtitled, terrifyingly, Home/Hogar. This isn't just an exhibition. This is a horror story. Welcome.