by Francine Birbragher-Rozencwaig PHD
Gonzalo Fuenmayor’s interest in art began as a child in his native Barranquilla. He grew up in a family where literature and the visual arts were important. His paternal grandfather, Alfonso Fuenmayor, frequented La Cueva, a gathering place for writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and painters such as Alejandro Obregón and Enrique Grau. When he finished high school, he planned to study advertising, a career in which he could draw. However, when the time came for him to enter university, his parents, both chemical engineers, influenced his decision to study business administration to “give weight” to his artistic inclination. At the end of the fifth semester at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, he failed the cost accounting course. It was a traumatic moment during which, as a therapy, he began to paint. He recalls, “I bought canvases and paint and began to exorcise that sadness, that depression that consumed me, caused by the fact that I was studying something that I didn’t like.”1 He steeled himself and told his father that he wanted to study art. He suggested that if that was what he wanted, he should pursue studies in Europe or the United States.
Gonzalo Fuenmayor | The Sin of Standing Sideways, 2001 | Oil on canvas | 51 x 57 inches
On January 17, 1998, Fuenmayor traveled to New York to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) at the School of Visual Arts, and there he began his formal foray into the art world. However, even though he was studying what he wanted, he felt a sense of guilt as he often wondered if he had made the right decision. Therefore, he took on his academic commitment with the rigor he learned during his years as a business student. A great incentive was being in New York. He read a lot, visited museums, and the city was a university for him. Painting clichés, especially sad clowns, transmitted the dichotomy that gnawed at him. He didn’t know how to get on, how to “tell his story.” On the other hand, he felt he received a legacy from Colombian artists dealing with issues such as violence and drug trafficking. Still, he did not identify with them because he was distanced from the political issue. He was looking for something of his own, something closer that was autochthonous and global at the same time.
After graduating from college, he worked for a while and, thanks to a scholarship, he joined the Keith Haring Foundation as an archivist for a year. He learned a lot from the artist and consolidated his desire to continue the artistic path. He applied to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts master’s program and was accepted. Boston was a city with few Latinos, and the population was predominantly white. Because he was Colombian, he was associated with the cliché of Magical Realism and tropical life. Fuenmayor felt a lot of pressure because whatever he produced was related to the expectations that others had. He wondered: How to be honest and not show the facade of a false speech? It was challenging. He opted for abstraction to break away from Latin America. He began to make abstract paintings of television screens with no signal, square canvases with bars of color. The idea was to tell stories without the use of a figurative style. He went through several iterations until he got bored and decided to go to the other extreme. He said to himself: “Do you want to exoticize me? I’m going to exoticize myself first!”
Gonzalo Fuenmayor | God Bless Latin America, 2013 | Charcoal on paper | 22 x 29 inches
At that time, he did the first paintings of rotting bananas as still lifes on a human scale. He remembers that in The Sin of Standing Sideways (2001), he represented a colossal banana peel on a large canvas. What led him to represent an apparently banal object, and why did he give it significance by painting it on a large scale? His decision was the answer to a question that emerged when, as an emerging artist, he had to find a way to communicate his concerns. At the same time, as an individual, he sought to define his own identity as a Colombian residing in the United States. The still life served as a starting point for talking about certain clichés. The banana had a symbolic meaning that allowed him to develop a conceptual discourse based on his own caricature. As a global consumer product, the image of the banana was universal in scope. During the 1920s and 1930s, the banana peel became a cultural icon associated with the comic and the ridiculous in comic strips and movies. Subsequently, the United States government created an iconography of the banana through which Latin America was seen as exotic, erotic, and primitive. Eventually, it was inserted into North American popular culture. As a student in Boston, he experienced it firsthand since he was considered an “exotic and tropical Colombian.” The funny thing is that when traveling to Barranquilla, they called him a “gringo.”
After obtaining his Master of Fine Arts, he returned to New York. Instead of painting, he preferred to draw with charcoal because it did not require as much investment in materials and space. He realized that when drawing, he had more control over the line and, doing it in black and white, subtracted color from the equation. If the tropical was associated with bright colors like the yellow of the banana, using black and white worked as a kind of camouflage and a way of rebelling against the chromatic expectations of his Latin American identity. He began to explore other facets of tropical fruit iconography, particularly the erotic aspect that associated the banana with the phallus. As part of the exploration process, he worked on the playful aspect of the image until, distancing himself from the banana and seeing the fruit in the context of the plantation, he discovered themes familiar to him he had not considered in his pictorial work. He was interested in the relations between the north of the banana companies and the south of the producing countries; the sowing, collection, commercialization, and export processes; and the precarious working conditions of the workers in the banana plantations. It should be noted that, as indicated by Valeria Baker in her thesis The Banana as Icon: Orientalism, Violence, and the Problem of Memory in Falla’s Mamita Yunai, Reyes-Manzo’s Photography and the Cultural Imagery, the dissemination of banana iconography through which Latin America was seen as exotic, erotic, and primitive mentioned above, in some way justified or facilitated silencing the illegal expropriation of land, the exploitation of the workers and even the massacres perpetrated by local governments and North American multinationals that have controlled the plantations in the producing countries of Central and South America, since the twenties of the last century. Characters like Chiquita Banana and Carmen Miranda in the 1940s were marketed as part of the strategy of the “bananization” of Latin America to justify an imperialist discourse and define Latin America as exotic and primitive. Fuenmayor transforms these symbols, printing Chiquita’s label with her last name and drawing the heads of Carmen Miranda with flamingo headdresses (Carmen Medusa, 2012) and tropical fruits (Carmen Cornucopia, 2013).
In 2013, thanks to a scholarship from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Fuenmayor traveled to Leticia in the Amazon. He wanted to experience being a Colombian tourist in Colombia and study how the environment became “exotic.” For a week, he stayed in an indigenous reservation on the border between Colombia, Peru, and Brazil, where he could see how different cultures faced each other and integrated simultaneously. Upon his return to the United States, he submitted a proposal for a solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (MFAB). They chose a winner of the ten scholarships awarded, and Fuenmayor was favored. His solo show Tropical Mythologies (April 18-September 13, 2015) included charcoal drawings and photographs. In the drawings, he showed a novelty: the banana was no longer the central axis but the Victorian, the baroque. Large charcoals inspired by the decorative arts of the Victorian era were loaded with infinite detail and great opulence that reflected the eagerness of the bourgeoisie to imitate the tastes of the nobility. On the other hand, the excess in decoration camouflaged the illegal and lewd activities of a moralistic and prejudiced society. Fuenmayor was also interested in the dichotomy generated when different cultures meet, especially on the material level, and in exploring the tension that emerges when these clashes of cultures occur.
One of the iconic works featured in the exhibition is The Unexpected Guest (Palm Tree: Buckingham Palace, 2014), which depicts a fallen palm tree traversing an elegant hall identified by the work’s title as a room in London’s royal palace. According to Fuenmayor, the image arose from an experience he had while doing a residency in Nebraska. Sounding alarms and sheltering in a basement from incoming tornadoes, he thought of the image of a tornado transforming a space at Buckingham Palace. He decided to place a palm tree, a symbol of “tropicality,” in the very cradle of Victorian society, suggesting the possibility of the coexistence of two worlds geographically and culturally distant but at the same time historically united by colonization.
Another important piece that he presented at the MFA in Boston, in which he fills the lavishly decorated interior of the Paris Opera with palm trees, is Intermission (2014). In this work, he surprises again by placing tropical vegetation out of place in an iconic space of Western culture, but he also demonstrates his ability to stage his compositions theatrically. On a conceptual level, this drawing tacitly conveys his interest in Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity. For Butler, gender is what a person does, not who they are. Instead of seeing gender as something natural or internal, she roots gender in external signs and actions. Fuenmayor wonders not how to be a man or a woman but how to be Colombian or an American as an emigrant in the United States. Through the visual language he is developing, he explores the symbology and the “performance” he himself performs when jumping from one culture to another to belong.
Gonzalo Fuenmayor | The Seeds of Decadence, 2017 | Charcoal on paper | 7 x 12 inches
It is important to mention that the world of cinema influences the monumental formats of these two works. As the scale of the drawings increases, the different elements represented in them, particularly those that symbolize the exotic and the tropical, become the protagonists and, why not say it, the “stars of the film.”
Photography is another prominent medium in Fuenmayor’s work, which he began to dabble in during his stay in Leticia. Not having electric light, he experienced darkness from another perspective and devised the Papare Project (2013). For its realization, he traveled to Ciénaga, Magdalena, where, with the collaboration of several assistants, he hung three Victorian crystal chandeliers on banana clusters in the middle of the Santa Cruz de Papare Banana plantation. The chandeliers were connected to a portable power plant, turned on, and photographed in the dead of night. According to Fuenmayor, in this project, “the theatricality and drama of the imagery subordinate the contradictory to a delicate and imaginative order, evoking a certain type of reconciliation or tense harmony between two disjointed realities. As the past, the present, the exotic, and the familiar collide, absurd and fantastic scenarios emerge.” The Papare Project was significant in many ways. For the first time, his hand was not part of the work because, unlike the drawings made up to now, this was achieved through photographic recording. On the other hand, the pieces were the result of collective work. Working with other people and managing the project were enriching experiences.
Gonzalo Fuenmayor | How would you like me to exoticize myself for you? 2017 | Arches mounted on wooden panel | 24 x 18 inches
The photographs of the chandeliers hung from bunches of bananas from the Papare Project constitute a new starting point for “examining the ideas of exoticism and the complicit and amnesiac relationship between ornamentation and tragedy. Opulent Victorian chandeliers and other items, reminiscent of a decadent colonial past, proliferate from banana clusters, alluding to a tragic and violent history associated with the worldwide banana trade. I am interested in how ornamentation, with its grace and excess, can camouflage and outshine questionable circumstances. The images were so powerful and significant that Fuenmayor decided to reproduce them in charcoal, which had become his favorite medium by then. Using chiaroscuro as his primary tool, he drew a series of large-scale banana chandeliers, including Apocalypse XXI (2017), featured at EVA International, Ireland’s Biennial of Contemporary Art, in 2018.
His work continues to deal with themes such as cultural hybridization, exoticism, and identity. Still, his conceptual handling and new tools, such as video and large-format diptychs in which he inverts black-and-white, present a more somber and openly critical proposal. In The Seeds of Decadence (2017), he represents “in negative,” one of Buckingham Palace’s halls decorated in the Victorian style with all the elements that represent the decadent opulence of the time. To invert the values, he darkens everything shiny, luxurious, and lavish by masterfully drawing it in charcoal while at the same time turning shadows into light, rendering them with the pure white of the paper. The work resembles a photographic negative in which the acts of drawing and erasing are closely related. His idea was to return to the Victorian era, which wanted to “illuminate” through culture and religion but created many “shadows” with his colonizing activities.
In some cases, the word, loaded with sarcasm and humor, plays a fundamental role. In Col_mbia (2014), he writes the name of his country of birth with Columbia Pictures’ typography and image design as a nod to the work of Colombian conceptual artist Antonio Caro known for his work Colombia written with Coca-Cola’s typography. Fuenmayor alludes to cinematography and, at the same time to the fact that it is common for the United States to spell Colombia with “u” instead of “o.” In God Bless Latin America (2013), he appropriates the logo of 20th Century Studios. In the series Macondo (2016), he refers to the population of the banana zone in the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by García Márquez, using the “M” of the McDonald’s fast-food chain. All these pieces are conceived from questioning his identity and the generally pejorative categorizations with which individuals from Latin America are identified in the United States. This is clearly stated in a drawing that represents a cameo with a Victorian still life of flowers on which he writes How would you like me to exoticize myself for you? (2017).
Fuenmayor continues to enrich the archive of images he uses to make compositions or “collages” in which he combines, using light, different or opposite worlds related to the exoticization of Latin America and his questioning of identity. Charcoal drawing is his favorite tool. It allows him to create new scenarios in which the overload of details and ornamentation constitute a backdrop for his conceptual proposal. Standing before the white paper, he thinks about the different clichés, the variety of symbols he can employ, and the archival images he decides to use. He takes a leap of faith before starting to draw.