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Latin American art
Latin American art, artistic traditions that developed in Mesoamerica, Central America, and South America after contact with the Spanish and the Portuguese beginning in 1492 and 1500, respectively, and continuing to the present.
This article will not discuss the art of non-Iberian colonial holdings that began late in the 16th century and culminated in the 17th; for these territories, see individual country articles (e.g., Haiti, Guyana, Jamaica). For more technical explorations of media, see individual media articles (e.g., painting, sculpture, pottery, textile). The architecture of the region is treated in a separate article; see Latin American architecture.
The European discovery, conquest, and settlement of the Americas, which began in 1492, created enormous changes in the indigenous cultures of the region. When Europeans arrived, mostly from Spain and Portugal, they came with painting and sculpture traditions dating back to antiquity. (For these artistic traditions, see Western painting and Western sculpture.) For centuries indigenous American peoples had similarly formed civilizations with their own unique artistic practices, from the large political structures of the Inca and Aztec empires to the more scattered presence of small groups of nomadic peoples. (For an exploration of these artistic traditions, see Native American arts.) The importation of African slaves led to the presence of long-standing African visual arts traditions in the region as well. (For these traditions, see African art.)
Over the course of the decades and centuries after the European contact, Latin America underwent sweeping cultural and political changes that would lead to the independence movements of the 19th century and the social upheavals of the 20th century. Visual arts production in the region reflected these changes. Latin American artists have often superficially accepted styles from Europe and the United States, modifying them to reflect their local cultures and experiences. At the same time, these artists have often retained many aspects of indigenous traditions. As Latin America has searched for its own identity, its artists have looked to their past, to their popular culture, to their religion, to their political surroundings, and to their personal imaginations to create a distinct tradition of Latin American art.
The appreciation of Latin American art and its history began as a nationalist endeavour in the second half of the 19th century, inspired in part by the independence movements that took place there at the beginning of the century. At first, discussions of the visual arts were generally written by learned amateurs, often priests or architects, or by wide-eyed foreigners. These writings often had the structure of a travelogue, in which the important monuments of each location were described in somewhat romantic, nontechnical terms. The writers generally did not possess a great knowledge of the history of art, but they often brought the knowledge of having lived in Europe and seen the famous monuments that inspired works in various Latin American countries. Following the secularization of church property in countries such as Mexico, some constructions were not maintained and their contents were looted, making such documentation important.
Native-born art historians initially had to go abroad to be trained, but national institutes for the study of the arts were established in Latin America in the 1930s as part of governments or major universities. As Latin American scholars from this period studied their own visual history, they tended to focus on the history of one nation, and they would rarely examine it in relation to other countries.
During World War II, numerous European scholars fled fascist oppression by exiling themselves to Latin America. These art historians applied European scholarly methods to the body of cultural material they saw and developed a chronology for the region that related Latin American artistic styles to those of Europe. Many scholars from the United States, blocked at this same time from doing the on-site research in Europe for which they had been trained, also applied their methodology to Latin America. Scholars from Europe and the United States tended to emphasize the similarities across national and regional boundaries in Latin America. Latin Americans themselves still tend to emphasize their national traditions, with a few exceptions.
By the late 20th century, as the realm of contemporary art became increasingly global, Latin American art entered the mainstream of international art criticism, and its artists were widely recognized, whether they lived as expatriates in New York City or Paris or exhibited in the cultural capitals of their homelands. The Internet linked the world even more than jet travel, and international museums and critics became increasingly willing to look to Latin America for upcoming artists. At the same time, Latin American artistic centres such as Mexico City developed strong national art scenes with their own established critics, museums, and galleries.
Colonial period, c. 1492–c. 1820
Spanish explorers first traveled to the Americas in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Spanish immigrants settled in sociopolitical units called encomiendas, which were in effect government grants of land and people run by individual powerful Spaniards. Under the encomendero, the head of the encomienda, indigenous people served in a variety of capacities, and African slaves were also often imported for their labour. Ecclesiastics increasingly went to the Americas to function within these encomiendas and to convert the indigenous people to Christianity.
The Portuguese were slower to become involved in the region. Although they laid claim to Brazil for many decades, it was not until the mid-1530s that they became more directly involved, granting sesmerias, or land grants, to prominent citizens. As in Spanish America, Christian missionaries became part of this framework. A huge number of African slaves were imported to Brazil, in part because of the needs of the sugar industry and in part because only a small number of often intractable native peoples remained in the area.
As the colonial period began, a distinct divide at first existed between indigenous artists and European émigrés. In some instances indigenous artists continued to explore their own traditions and themes without alteration. Many European artists also took styles and themes from Europe in a literal manner that had little to do with Latin American culture. Increasingly, however, reciprocal influences could be felt from both groups as more cultural and ethnic mixing came to define the region.