by Cate McQuaid
Bananas are a central motif in “Gonzalo Fuenmayor: Tropical Mythologies,” a small, provocative show of drawings, photography, and video at the Museum of Fine Arts. They’re not as sweet and innocent as you might believe. For Fuenmayor, who grew up in Colombia, they’re freighted with a violent history and the collision of tropical cultures with invasive, entitled Western ones.
A century ago, the United Fruit Co. dominated the banana trade, with plantations and transportation networks in South and Central America and the Caribbean. The US corporation had terrific clout with certain governments: hence the term “banana republic.”In 1928, United workers in Colombia struck for better working conditions. Within a few weeks, sparked by fear of a US invasion to protect the corporation’s interests, the Colombian Army shot and killed an unknown number of striking laborers — perhaps dozens, perhaps thousands. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez fictionalized the horrible event, which came to be known as the Banana Massacre, in the final pages of “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Fuenmayor, who lives in Miami, attended grad school at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where he was known as “the banana man” because he drew bananas. He had wearied of making work that explored the drugs, violence, and other social problems that Americans associated with his homeland, and in bananas he found a gold mine.
The SMFA awarded Fuenmayor a Traveling Fellowship in 2013, and the artist used the money to visit a Colombian banana plantation. Several pieces in “Tropical Mythologies” spring from his experience there.
The managers of the Santa Cruz de Papare plantation on the banks of the Amazon River must have been baffled when the artist made his proposition to them: He would suspend several Victorian chandeliers from banana trees, and light them up at night. The antiques dealers from whom he borrowed the chandeliers must have been bemused. Everyone, it seems, signed on.
His video “Papare Project” follows the effort. It’s part workaday documentary, part magical realism. It begins with snippets of plantation life: workers chopping down fruit with machetes, lime-green bananas being washed and trucked. When the chandeliers arrive in cardboard boxes, Fuenmayor and his crew set to hanging them. Sunlight flashes through the crystals; green bananas jut among them. In the end, night falls, and the chandeliers are turned on, tossing light at the bananas and their great, fan-like leaves.
It’s completely ridiculous. And funny, and rather sweet. The humor is in the contrast of cultures and environments: The light these glittering examples of European refinement shed on this tropical plantation is only enough to reveal how out of place they are.
Photos of the luminous chandeliers, “Genesis I” and “Genesis VI,” have a dusky, metallic green tinge, a sheen of opulence that makes the contrast between chandelier and fruit less jarring; they’re both, after all, evidence of fecundity.
All the works address unwieldy colonialist tensions, sometimes by turning them on their head. The fantastical drawing “The Unexpected Guest” imagines the tropics butting into the business of high society the way empire builders and corporations butted into the tropics.
Working in charcoal, Fuenmayor nimbly renders the finest details of a parlor at Buckingham Palace, a room populated with massive mirrors and delicate chandeliers. It’s a testament to the spoils of empire, a place so involved with its own splendor it would be impossible to relax there.
Not that you could, anyway: A palm tree intrudes violently through a window and fills the center of the room. Its fronds tickle the edge of a divan and brush the surface of a mirror-topped table. It’s a darkly absurd mash-up of indoor and outdoor, the trappings of power and the forces of nature.
The show’s centerpiece is the magnificent, 10-foot-tall charcoal drawing, “Apocalypse Magnus,” of a sparkling crystal chandelier suspended from a bundle of bananas. Lights pop like flashbulbs as the bananas fade upward into the darkness. Fuenmayor is a master with charcoal. He coaxes eloquent, finely tuned chiaroscuro from a dusty and unreliable medium.
The artist takes inspiration from Werner Herzog’s 1982 film, “Fitzcarraldo,” in which an Irish industrialist employs indigenous Peruvian workers to pull a steamship over a mountain in order to transport rubber, which he wants to sell to build an opera house in Peru. The film lampoons the outrageous cultural shortsightedness of Westerners investing in societies outside their own.
For the British, “shortsighted” is equivalent to our “nearsighted.” Fuenmayor’s drawing “Tropical Myopia” places an optometrist’s phoropter — the masklike bank of lenses used to measure a patient’s vision — against a ground of voluptuous tropical leaves.
The drawing is lovely and weird, but the concept is too pat, and this one piece comes off as heavy-handed. Fuenmayor weighs the historical resonances of what it means to be a Colombian living in the United States. As most of his works here show, it’s more complicated — and much richer — than a pun.