art ltd.'s Dewitt Cheng reviews Gonzalo Fuenmayor's recent exhibition

Gonzalo Fuenmayor: “They Say I Came Back Americanized” at Dolby Chadwick Gallery

September 2013

Gonzalo Fuenmayor: “They Say I Came Back Americanized” at Dolby Chadwick Gallery

Casual viewers, perusing Gonzalo Fuenmayor’s charcoal drawings of precariously top-heavy hairdos in the style of the 1940s camp diva, Carmen Miranda, will admire their exquisite draftsmanship and cheerful Pop humor.  What’s kitschier than headscarf-mounted towers of bananas, flamingos, toucans, orchids, palm trees and mirrored disco balls?  There is a serious side to the fun, however.  The Brazilian Bombshell, assailed at home for her exploitation of the “Latina bimbo” stereotype in Hollywood, defended herself in the song Disseram que Voltei Americanizada (They Say I Came Back Americanized);likewise, this Colombian artist, educated in the United States, embeds covert criticisms of imperialism in this show, which borrows Miranda’s title.  The main target of Fuenmayor’s ire and ridicule is the notorious United Fruit Company, which protected its monopoly in Latin America’s “banana republics” through strike-breaking, land-grabbing, and government-toppling (e.g., the 1954 Guatemala coup engineered by anti-communist Eisenhower administration officials paid by or invested in UFC).  The shooting of several thousand farm workers that ends Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” is based on a 1928 “Banana massacre by the UFC-dominated Colombian army.

For Fuenmayor, this history is familial: his maternal grandmother worked for UFC; his paternal grandfather was an oppositionist writer, a friend and colleague of Marquez (who is fictionalized in the novel).  The artist differs, however, from earlier political artists like Siqueiros (with whom he shares a dark, dramatic style) by ironically juxtaposing “cliched aspects of [indigenous] tropical culture... with [forcible imposed European] Rococo and Victorian style elements.”  The assimilation of the foreigner proposed by the anti-imperialist writer Oswald de Andrade in his 1928 “Cannibal Manifesto” takes form most overtly in Fuenmayor’s drawing, The Moment of Surrender, with its knotted anaconda engulfing a bentwood coat rack.  But a dark humor also pervades the nocturnal Apocalypse VIII, with its crystal chandelier hanging from a banana cluster and Self-Portrait as an Alien, with its spotlighted caped superhero (sporting a banana cluster for a head), standing above a vanquished Captain America, while the four Carmen drawings, with their faceless foreheads, anchor rocks for fantastic growths of culturally coded nature.

- DeWitt Cheng