New world of art

Nuevo Mundo: Latin American Street Art
Maximiliano Ruiz
2011, Gestalten
253 pages, hardback, plates

MAXIMILIANO RUIZ has taken the winning formula he achieved in his original overview of street art in his native Argentina and now applied it to the whole of Latin America in this fascinating country-by-country guide to the work of urban artists throughout the region.
It is an important contribution to the field of art history, providing the first systematic study of this form of expression in Latin America with an assessment of its origins and national peculiarities.

It is also a way of highlighting the very political context in which this form of expression in the region developed: street art can be understood as one of the new social movements that began to emerge in the 1970s both in response to the constraints imposed on formal politics by authoritarianism, but also as signs of an impending pluralisation. In that respect, street art groups can be considered along the movements that gave rise to some of the main political movements of the era in Latin America: Brazil Workers’ Party, Evo Morales and the indigenous resurgence.

In a brief introduction Ruiz traces the development of street art in Latin America as a response to the constraints imposed by tradition – and later by military dictatorships – which inspired a search for new forms of clandestine expressions with the streets as its backdrop.

He writes: “Street painting then became a subtle but unerring weapon of free expression for the Latin American people. Groups found a way to rebel within these urban interventions. Risking their own lives, these painters opposed the dictatorships with confrontational messages of freedom.” [p. 7]

Critique of nationalism

Nuevo Mundo surveys the development and distinctive styles of graffiti that have formed throughout Latin America with a critically professional eye, from the much disdained “Pixaçao” gang tagging of Brazil to the professionalisation of street painting in Valparaíso in Chile, where art is everywhere. In all cases, this form of expressionis often seen as something that improves bleak, grey urban landscapes at little cost to the public purse.

Ruiz also notes the solidarity that exists in the region among artists with greatly limited resources, and how they manage nonetheless to create a profoundly rich tableaux that draws upon indigenous and Afro-Latino cultural history and styles to greatly enrich their work.
He begins with Brazil, where artists such as Dalata and Dedablio create cutting-edge work that builds on strong local foundations structure by Os Gêmeos and reinforced by a continuous influx of foreign influences and styles as graffiti tourists began to flock to the country.

Often this artwork is associated with other elements of sub-culture, such as the work associated with music by Firme & Forte. Everywhere strange, monstruous creatures abound in the work of Nove and Onesto among others as if to evoke the country’s gigantism and untapped potential.

Colombian street art moodily reflects the country’s tortuous recent history, replete with heavy brows and lost eyes; Argentine art, well researched and now internationally influential, predicts a country in constant transition that combined the ancient and modern with comic-book styles and urban puzzles.

Chilean work seems to exude convergence and the blossoming of colour amid the dull cityscape, in keeping with the country’s political development. Human burdens and the weight of conscience bears down on street art in Peru. In Mexico, the grotesque and byzantine hybrids of Dhear, Mugre, Neuzz, Saner, Sego, Seher, Smithe and Güereña all point to a fundamental unpredictability about the growth of a culture stuck between worlds.

In a section towards the end of the book, Ruiz takes us on a quick tour of street art in Cuba, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago and, refreshingly, Puerto Rico, where La Pandilla’s themes speak of the quest for unity in a country whose fate has always been determined by its disunity.

In Nuevo Mundo, Maximiliano Ruiz has compiled a highly original primer to the street art of a region whose creative impulse has been unleashed by the possibilities of freedom and democracy where a long neglected vanguard has pushed forward the boundaries of the possible in ways that should inspire us all.