Cecilia Brunson Projects Founder on
I Am Awake by Feliciano Centurión
Cecilia Brunson opened her eponymous Bermondsey-based gallery in 2015, providing a much needed European platform for historical and contemporary Latin American artists. A champion of art from this region, Cecilia Brunson Projects has introduced London audiences to major figures of Modern Contemporary art such as Alredo Volpi, Coco Fusco and Willys de Castro.
Currently on view at the Cecilia Brunson Projects gallery is a solo exhibition of the celebrated Paraguayan artist, Feliciano Centurión. Centurión was a central figure of the ‘Arte Light’ movement of late 80s Buenos Aires, which saw artists create flamboyant and irreverent works that challenged the oppressive political regime of the time.
I am Awake: 1992-1996 displays the vibrant work Centurión made within the last four years of his life, before his death in 1996 following complications of HIV at only 34 years old, some of which is being shown for the first time since his passing. The show features his characteristic embroidered frazadas (blankets), along with plastic dinosaurs bedecked with crochet outfits, painted paper plates and an illuminating documentary film directed by Mon Ross.
Eric Block had the privilege of speaking with Cecilia Brunson about the artist’s work and life along with hearing more about the inception of her gallery and the Latin American art scene.
I Am Alive will show some works never before seen to the public – how did the show come together and what does it mean to you?
The show took place in my head 19 years ago when I was working as a curator at the Blanton Museum in Austin, Texas under Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro who introduced me to the work of Feliciano Centurión. We travelled from Austin to Buenos Aires in 2004 and saw an extraordinary exhibition of Feliciano Centurión’s work at Alberto Sendros’ gallery. He was the first dealer to uncover the material. Bringing this show to London, and the representation of the Artist Estate, has been a long and extraordinary journey. It means so much to be able to bring to fruition years of thinking and working, and to be able to present this touching and extraordinary journey as an artist on the margins of the margins; a Paraguayan living in Buenos Aires, at the centre of the Arte Light movement, under a dictatorship, who died of AIDS when there was very little research around HIV, and who broke with the traditional canon of ‘high art’ and what it meant to be political in an oppressed dictatorship.
Feliciano was raised by his mother and grandmother (how he originally learned about embroidery and sewing techniques) and was an openly gay man amidst a very conservative country – do you think his work is even more important now that we are seeing notions of nationalism, homophobia and racism coming into politics?
The war of the triple alliance killed 60% of the men in the society, then came the dictatorship of Stroessner. Even though Feliciano was raised by women, he was kept away from doing activities considered inappropriate for young boys, such as embroidery and sewing. When he arrived in Buenos Aires, he had the freedom to explore this world of feminine ‘craft.’ However, it is not only an autobiographical reality but a paradigm shift – an attitude whereby he could transcend categorizations – male or female, high art or low art, craft or painting. This was inspired by the freedom Feliciano experience under the tutelage of Gumier Mier who Directed the Centro Cultural Rojas, in Buenos Aires, a space created by an artist for artists.
Can you tell us more about some of the subjects featured in the frazadas (blankets)? Any favourites?
Feliciano was born in the remote town of San Ignacio Guazú, in Misiones, Paraguay. This is a region that is marked by the Jesuit past arriving to colonize the native population of Guarani Indians. It is continuously transcribed through the powerful handicraft production of wool and cotton fabrics which Feliciano adopts in his work as the frazadas (blankets). The subjects on the blankets are also very close to the fauna of Misiones. Although he lived there only during his early childhood, the memory of that place, and of that period, was a determining factor in the formation of his sensibility. This is something the exhibition wanted to bring out. The works have a recurrence of animals: caimans, flamingoes, fishes, turtles, birds of paradise. These works evoke physical geography as well as a subjective one. My favourite piece is Ave del Paraiso Florecido, it shows both the handicraft and ornamentation that he aspired to achieve and without losing a sense of lightness, yet the image and writing have the irrefutable conviction of a lasting truth.
Can you tell me a little about the art scene at that time in Buenos Aires? Were there any galleries and were people generally responsive to contemporary art?
Due to the Paraguayan dictatorship, there was an exodus of Paraguayans to Argentina due to the oppression of the dictatorship. When Feliciano Centurión arrived in Buenos Aires to study at the Centro Cultural Rojas, he arrived at an interesting historical moment, under the artist Jorge Gumier Mier, there was an emergence of the younger generation that were permeable to the influence of postmodernism. Not believing in the great utopias or in political commitment, these artists established an ironic position on the basis of reworking notions of good taste and ‘high art.’ In this context, Feliciano’s appreciation for the household handicraft and ornamentation acquires new relevance. The critics of the time were not positively responsive to this new aesthetics and attitude, and the first review of their show was critically called “Arte Light” – an art that was light. This is in the context of Buenos Aires heavy dictatorship and entrenched artistic art scene.
Have you met any of Feliciano’s family or friends that gave given you insights into him? How did you come to exclusively represent his estate?
The exhibition presents a documentary about the artist by the director Mon Ross. The wonderful thing about this documentary is that Mon Ross was able to interview all of his friends and family, and the viewer can get an intimate sense of who he was by listening to what his closest say about him.
You opened your gallery in Bermondsey in 2013 – how has the area developed in terms of the art spaces open to the public now? What prompted you to move from curating into owning a gallery and art dealing?
The area changed dramatically when White Cube established headquarters on Bermondsey Street. My husband had been living in our property for 20 years, and there was this old printing press attached to our home which we converted into a gallery in 2015. What prompted the move from curating to art dealing was having the space to do so, together with how in 2015 the institutional world was shifting and the market was guiding the pulse of things. Back then, with the emergence of the big art fairs, it felt like the market framework was not only interesting but increasingly becoming a major factor in what got seen, collected and discussed on an institutional level. For better or worst we shifted wagons!
The gallery is attached to your home. Does it feel a part of it or quite separate?
It feels very much enmeshed. The family is part of it all. I grew up in a world were galleries were the extension of the artist studio and artists were basically part of the family. The gallery system today has become a corporate playground; it’s all great, but I’m happy keeping a more intimate journey alive. A bastion for a less industrialized side of the art world.
There is a lot of interest in Contemporary Art from Latin America right now. Why do you think that is?
In London there has been a long tradition of interest in Latin American modern art – it goes back to Guy Brett, David Medalla and the Signals gallery. With the global practices and the international art scene of the late 90s early 2000s, more established galleries in London started representing Latin American names. And Tate Modern, as part of this global dialogue, opened up a department fully dedicated to representing Latin American art. The interest has a tradition, and it goes back to the European avant-garde of the 1920s with many Latin American artists contributing to its development. So, for my husband and I, opening up a gallery dedicated to a continent – as crazy as that sounds– made total sense; the mission was to be a conduit between the old world and new world. But beyond geographical categories, Cecilia Brunson Projects was about pushing artists who we truly believe are great and historically relevant forth into London, those who have somehow escaped the consciousness and awareness we think they deserve.
Interview by Eric Block.
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