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On a one-way street. The relationship between the national and the international art market in Guatemala

For this interview, our correspondent Lisa Harborth talked to Alexis Rojas, a self-taught Guatemalan artist with an academic background in philosophy that he also transfers to his paintings, for example by using quotes from literary texts. Lisa and Alexis spoke about the arts sector in Guatemala and its mutual relationship with politics and society, the influence of the international art market on local artists and the personal purposes of his art. 

Picture © Alexis Rojas

Lisa Harborth: Alexis, can you tell us something about the arts system in Guatemala? What are its characteristics?And how is it influenced by politics? 

Alexis Rojas: Public cultural institutions in Guatemala are organized by the Ministry of Culture and Sports. But, as they favour to support sports, the cultural budget is very low and therefore there are only a few governmental organizations: a small publishing house, a few institutions who support fine arts, a national marimba group and the national theatre. On a municipal level, the influence of politics on the cultural sector depends more on the mayors. For example, Quetzaltenango is a city that is proud of its rich cultural history and supports local artists a lot. In other towns the cultural sector does not matter or even exist, so there is no continuity, no cultural history. Thus, except for the few state-level examples, culture and arts in Guatemala depend mostly on the private sector and the economy. But they create a capitalistic and market-orientated ideology and accomplishment. This leads to a lack of criticism and a lack of discussions about controversial topics. As a consequence, Guatemala has great artists, but a lot of them live abroad. The local politics make it very difficult to develop your own qualities as an artist. You get almost no support, the living conditions are precarious and you have to have a second “day job”. I know a lot of artists of my generation who stopped being creative because the politics in Guatemala make it so difficult to survive that they loose their qualities. It is very disappointing. 

Picture: Museum "National Palace of Culture" in Guatemala City © Rob Mercatante/ Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 2.5

LH: So, what happens if artists return to Guatemala after working abroad?

AR: Most of the Guatemalan society thinks that an artist’s success abroad, especially in the US or in Europe, says more about the quality of its work than local competition among Guatemalan artists. So, when artists earn international acknowledge and reputation, most of society considers this as a symbol for “real quality”. Those artists easily get transformed to a symbol of national pride. But, at the same time, this transformation puts them into a position of special interest from the economy that wants to convert them into an advertisement figure of, for example, a bank or a beer company. So, the upper class, the people with a lot of money and influence, use them for their politics and interests. They create an image that connects the message of an artistic national pride connected to the companies.

LH: What does that say about the art market in Guatemala? How would you characterize it? 

AR: In Guatemala we may not have long-existing, traditional arts institutions with a historical background, but of course there is an art market with all typical parts that are necessary to make to work. There are galleries, curators, dealers, consumers and, of course, artist who know how to make the best out of it. There are also a few artists who are well connected to the international market, who sell their art on international fairs. Whereas, on the national level, everybody and everything gets the possibility to interact and to present themselves – from very simple art, it almost has to be considered as folk art, to very complex art forms like conceptual art, installations or performances. 

LH: And can artists in Guatemala finance themselves with their work? 

AR: I can, but only for one simple reason: my lifestyle is very simple. In generally, they can’t. Of course there are exceptions. You will always find this one, extraordinary artist who is more talented and gets more attention from the outside then anybody else. He might live from his art, even in Guatemala. But aside from that, a lot of artists have a second job that allows them to survive and to have a family. They need a lot of power and strength to both, work for earning money and at the same time being creative to continue working as an artist. 

LH: How important is international success for national recognition?  

AR: It is very important, I think. The most distinguished legitimation is success abroad. To value your artistic quality you need to prove it outside of Guatemala, also because we do not have traditional institutions that serve as a kind of quality control. That’s why there are no reason for an artist to stay in Guatemala. If you are talented, you learn pretty soon that you have to get a scholarship and develop a career somewhere else. After that, you will probably become an object of national pride, as I already mentioned earlier. With staying here in Guatemala, you probably will not achieve something like that or any further acknowledge. But I don’t think that this is the right way to value art or develop a local arts sector.

LH: How does the international art market perceive Guatemalan art? 

AR: I cannot really answer this question. The only thing I can tell you is that there are different kinds of interaction between international audiences and Guatemalan art. For example, those artists who paint the streets of Guatemala as a kind of souvenir export their art to folk art shops all over the world. These shops sell it to people who might have spend some time in Guatemala and now want to remember it by a painting in their house. Then there are artists who work in a more elaborated way. They go to international fairs, for example when the Guatemalan government has a stand to present the country. There, the best Guatemalan artists might achieve some international attention.  

LH: And do you, the other way round, perceive the influence of the European and US-American arts sector as too dominant? How strong does it influential the work of artists from Guatemala? 

AR: To gain knowledge about the artistic traditions of the occident is a very important part of becoming an artist here. In high school pupils get taught the paintings of famous European artists, but also about local culture and art. This shows that what was called “the western project of colonizing the world” by European philosophers still works. It works because educational books mostly teach European art history, also in adult education. This leads to a hierarchy between European and Guatemalan art. Even if I admit that the quality of the techniques in the paintings I have seen there is stunning, it underestimates the value of Guatemalan art. 

LH: Do you think that there is a lack of knowledge in Guatemala about the local art history? 

AR: Yes, definitely. Not only in the sense to create a national identity based on this topic, but also to create a national value system. I believe people become more tolerant, more open-minded, more curious, and less fundamentalist when they are educated in arts. 

LH: Do you think that occupying themselves with western helps local artists to become more successful in the international art market? 

AR: In the international art market you can always identify extraordinary quality, but it almost doesn’t matter where the artist comes from. Let’s say you are from a small village and work about local problems. With this work you might stay in the surrounding of this small village or you might get attention for the fact that your work is exotic. I think the cultural world has a big capacity to put whatever experience and topic in the centre of its interest. But that does not mean that all the artists will become successful on an international level. So, the answer is very ambiguous. If you are looking for a history of success, you will find it. But you will also find someone who failed. Sometimes quality decides, sometimes other things are important – like finding a good curator, being at the right place at the perfect moment. It is very coincidental. 

LH: What is your purpose as an artist? Which issues are important to you to address with your art? 

AR: I don’t have a precise answer to that question. For me, the possibility of working autonomic is most important, with a lot of liberty. Also, I am constantly educating myself about theory, sociological aspects, the economical development of Guatemala and so on. I use this information as a fundament for my creativity and my art. At the moment, I am studying the antique drawings of the Mayas. They have an incredible high plastic quality and impressively logical ideas. Another type of paintings I produce is connected to social phenomena, like the political and social reality in Guatemala. All this is very important for me and my work.

Picture: Mayan temples are an important part of the Guatemalan history and culture © Lisa Harborth

More paintings by Alexis Rojas can be found in his website: https://galeriaphantasmata.blogspot.de

 

Related articles of our series on arts management in Central America

 

Management Topic: Education & Development
Cultural Area: Museum+Visual Arts
Submitted by editor-in-chief on Sep 11, 2017