We Must Pay Attention to the Accent of the Tropics

July 9, 2015

I note with some concern the increasing use of the term "tropical" in the area of ​​contemporary art, especially when it is used to designate the production of a certain region of the world. The first problem, less serious and more obvious, is the association of artistic works with the climate of the places where their creators live. Less severe, and even verging on comical, because of both its implicit determinism and the supposed characteristics of a production that would justify that association: warm colors, cheerful iconography, among other known commonplaces. One only needs to think of the density of the almost black works of the Brazilian Oswaldo Goeldi, or the almost white works of Venezuelan Armando Reveron, to collapse, even within the modern production of Latin America, this weak and superficial idea of ​​what “tropical” art is.

The second problem with this use of the term—and in my view the more serious—comes from the fact that the term "tropical" and other affiliated terms have specific and already crystallized uses in Brazilian artistic and cultural history of recent decades. To quote only the best known of these:

  1. In 1967, Hélio Oiticica first exhibited his work Tropicália, which was a crucial element of the "environmental program" he developed until the end of his life. Oiticica always reacted against illustrative readings of topics addressed in Tropicália, insisting on the emancipatory elements of his work.
  2. Between 1967 and 1968 the musical movement Tropicalismo exploded, its name inspired by the work of Oiticica, and included, among others, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé and Os Mutantes. Tropicalismo mixed local elements with those of other places, blurring the borders between domestic and foreign.
  3. In 1966, Gilberto Freyre creates the "Seminar of Tropicologia", a space for reflection where converged, over the course of the following decades, efforts to understand the Brazilian Tropics through the connection of diverse disciplines, from a non-Eurocentric perspective.

To use the term "tropical" without a critical dialogue with these uses and understanding is to ignore precisely the relevant part of the cultural and artistic history of the territory that is being presented. Or, even worse, to simplify a complex story in order to insert it, now trivialized, in a market always interested in supposed novelty. To be true to its history, one must take particular care and attention when using the term.

In the contemporary world, where there is a growing and articulated political effort to denaturalize artistic discourse (thus opposing the market’s simplified will), one must understand "tropical" art as an art that exposes and criticizes stereotypes, rather than reinforcing it, as so often happens. As an art that speaks from a certain position in the world, exhibiting an accent that, in its singularity, reveals the history of contamination, subordination, and emancipation to which the peoples who live there have been—and still are—exposed. And not only these, for the Tropics, like the South of Torres Garcia, may also be in other latitudes of the world.