by Taina Millsap
It’s almost a requisite—exotic birds very commonly accessorize colonialist art. And it’s troublesome; not only does their domesticity in popular works suggest clipped wings and containment, but the birds are made to preside over situations of exploitation and racism—as simple, helpless, pretty things. Gonzalo Fuenmayor, a Colombian artist based in Miami, embraced and appropriated these fetishistic tendencies as he began to take shape as a fine artist. His black and white charcoal drawings invoke themes of colonialism, performance of identity, and exoticism.
Birds are used in Fuenmayor’s work as a means by which to explore cultural cliches often associated with “the exotic”. Most birds in his pieces are tropical, or living in tropical rainforests. In contrast, he also uses swans, typically associated with the establishment and elegance. The imagery is then juxtaposed into contexts that raise issues of belonging and place. These, along with a wide range of other impressive, commentative works, feature in new hardback, Tropical Burn (Delmonico Books/Oolite Arts)—a subversive survey of artworks through a lens of “theatrical tropical symbolism”, created during his residency at Miami’s veritable Oolite Arts.
Fuenmayor—who is currently partaking in a residency at Anderson Ranch in Colorado alongside 14 other Miami-based artists—graduated in 2004 from the MFA Program at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was there that he, as one of the only Latinx students, first started to explore themes of exoticism by painting bananas. “I was trying to open a conversation about being this exotic Colombian painter in a very white context,” Fuenmayor says, “and I felt, and maybe this is self-imposed, a need to perform. So I started making very colorful banana paintings as a way to paradoxically exoticize myself for the other. That sort of helped me to really explore the tactics involved in that performance.”
After graduating, Fuenmayor decided to recede into black and white, to reject the cultural expectations of color. That hasn’t stopped a celebration of “colorful” scenes, per se. Fuenmayor’s imagery is mainly composed of flora and fauna, which explore ornamentation—a topic of which he feels is conversationally lacking, particularly when it comes to considerations of origin. Other cultures, he contends, are often seen as decoration, which compounds stereotypes and suppresses a deeper exchange. Fuenmayor strives to create a tension between these differing realities that are often subtle, yet potent.
“I’ve been juggling these two strategies of learning how to belong,” he explains. “It’s either becoming exotic for the other, or becoming a hybrid. So when I throw these birds or plants inside spaces that are not expected, where they don’t belong, there’s a certain clash that always happens. And it’s very similar with my own life, trying to hide my accent, or exaggerating it a little bit. It’s like a constant dance. And these sort of cliches or cultural tropes helped me to navigate this idea of how to belong.”
In Colorado, Fuenmayor enjoys a rural distancing from the intensity and clamor of Miami, where he is free to work on ceramics, drawings, and printmaking projects. Back in the city, though, he’s currently showing Palindromes at Dot Fiftyone Gallery. The exhibition is composed of 16 small drawings, and two bigger pieces, that were made during the pandemic. “A palindrome is a word that can be read in either direction,” Fuenmayor remarks. “So I thought it was a great metaphor to explore the expectations of being a part of multiple cultures.” In that spirit, perhaps Fuenmayor’s next colonialist exploration will be Hawaii—home to the beautiful, thin-billed Aidemedia.