As traditional South American modes of expression have fused with a strong lineage of European immigration, Buenos Aires has become the apex of chic. A unique street aesthetic, that predominates from cafes and clubs to boutiques and everyday dress, stands out among other capital cities for its eclectic edge and vibrancy. Strangely, the city's visual arts scene pales in comparison to its contemporaries of São Paulo, Berlin or Paris and only a handful of reputable galleries and small-scale art museums dot the city's otherwise varied cultural landscape. Arguably the top three cultural centers -- Fundación Proa, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, and the Faena Arts Center -- were opened in 1996, 2001, and 2011, respectively. These institutions, known for their progressive programming, polished spaces, and promotion of an international dialogue are -- relatively speaking -- still in their infancy.
The visual arts traditionally serve as a cultural mirror reflecting back into the world the current political, social and artistic climate. Art spaces act as facilitators for these conversations. While Buenos Aires still has a strong visual character, the conversation surrounding a national visual identity has instead largely moved to the streets. Graffiti and fashion have taken on the role of circulating visual culture intended for the masses. Murals are pervasive in even the poshest of neighborhoods with content that ranges from politically subversive to purely aesthetic. This culture of street color has further influenced the commercial architecture, making it commonplace for city blocks to pop with cerulean blue or magenta building facades.
Likewise, personal style is represented in an equal mix of striking statements of fabric and color and cosmopolitan sensibilities. Fusing traditional textiles, palettes and craft aesthetics with modern silhouettes, influences as far reaching as Peruvian knits and as far back as Aztec geometry are seamlessly incorporated into mainstream production.
The traditional artistic practices of South America are rich, varied and, most importantly, exist outside the Western Art paradigm. In negotiating these two opposing historic modes of representation it seems as though contemporary visual arts in Buenos Aires have predominantly manifested through different channels of self expression. Regina Root, author of Couture and Consensus: Fashion and Politics in Postcolonial Argentina, theorizes that in the political upheaval following the Argentine Revolution of 1810 "dress served as a critical expression of political agency and citizenship during the struggle to forge the Argentine nation." This same theory can be applied to Argentine architecture and fashion today.
The question then becomes, what stalled the development of arts spaces in Buenos Aires? The reasoning is complex and most likely the result of several factors. However one could theorize that during the late 20th century in Argentina, decades which served as a key time in other world cities such as New York and London as an era of exponential growth for arts related non-profits, publicly funded arts programs and rising arts university enrollment, efforts were instead positioned towards the immense social, financial and political disorder the country was faced with.
Beginning in the mid-70s, and ending with a financial collapse in 2001, this crucial period not only halted the growth of institutional infrastructure but actively discouraged it. The Dirty War, which ran from 1976-1983, left thousands of the creative class dead or ominously unaccounted for. Some estimate as high as 30,000 "los desaparecidos" (the disappeared) were kidnapped or killed during this time by the military junta who, in an effort to surprise an impending uprising, targeted those with left-leaning political views.
Twenty five years later Argentina suffered a financial meltdown that resulted in a government collapse and nearly a quarter of the citizens unemployed. In the years following, the country's rejuvenation process (started by President Nestor Kirchner and currently led by the now deceased former president's wife, Cristina Kirchner) reoriented national priorities towards housing, education and worker's needs. It is no wonder that the city's museums, cultural centers and galleries have only now begun to flourish.
Buenos Aires remains a beautiful place with a beautiful culture. In light of the city's post-colonial influences and political upheaval, the re-imagination and re-contextualization of Northern and Southern hemispheric influences takes on a new significance. The ubiquity of these essentially "low art" subcultures become loaded with questions of cultural authenticity, censorship and global capitalism. In a time when the world can feel frighteningly small and cities homogeneous, this unique visual voice will hopefully further express itself as the arts scene in Argentina continues to expand.
(All photos by Devon Caranicas)