Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 7, 2024
Marcela Cantuária: The South American Dream
Pérez Art Museum Miami, March 23, 2023–July 28, 2024.
Marcela Cantuária: The South American Dream, installation view, Pérez Art Museum Miami, March 23, 2023–July 28, 2024 (photograph © Oriol Tarridas, provided by Pérez Art Museum Miami

The South American Dream at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami (PAMM) is a dynamic and colorful exhibition that explores history, memory, and the South American identity through the lens of Brazilian artist Marcela Cantuária’s work. Through five immersive, multimedia artworks, which seamlessly blend painting, textiles, and ceramics, Cantuária examines the multifaceted concept of the South American dream, including environmental consciousness, political struggle, and faith. This installation curated by Jennifer Inacio, was commissioned by PAMM, challenging Cantuária to adapt her work to the high ceilings of the exhibition space and to consider her work in relation to a city that serves as a key gateway for Latin Americans entering the United States. Miami provided a compelling setting for Cantuária to critically explore the South American dream. Through its provocative title, Cantuária’s first solo show in the United States invited viewers to examine how South Americans define their cultural and political identity.

Upon entering the gallery, visitors are greeted by three captivating, large-scale paintings that dominate the space. These are an homage to Latin American activists such as Chico Mendes, Dorothy Stang, Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva, Túpac Amaru, and Juana Azurduy de Padilla. Facing the entrance is the main painting, O sonho sul-americano (The South American Dream), flanked by two others: to the left, The Temperance, which portrays women activists, and, to the right, a portrait of Chico Mendes. The two paintings, each displayed on its own wall, speak to sovereignty, autonomy, and community in their portrayal of the activists along with phrases describing their political causes. The large-scale paintings are characterized by their vivid and diverse color palettes, which draw inspiration from the vibrant cultures and landscapes of South America. They offer a meticulously detailed tapestry of imagery that weaves together symbols, landscapes, and figures that evoke the region’s rich history and political struggles. The central painting, O sonho sul-americano, is a triptych that pays homage to indigenous cultures, matriarchal power, and practices that protect the land. On the left side, the artist poses as “Death,” a skeletal figure on horseback, symbolizing the murder of the South American activists portrayed throughout the exhibition. The center panel depicts Inca emperor Túpac Amaru I in front of the Wheel of Fortune, which resembles a mill in a river of stars spilling into the earth’s center. Three graces emerge from the rivers, portraying the feminine forces that organize the world. The third panel features the Harvest archetype, depicted as a two-faced woman above whom six people restlessly harvest a field. Throughout the three panels, Cantuária portrays ancient and contemporary Andean leaders, activists, and land workers alongside symbols of immortality, seeking, in the artist’s words, to keep their spirits alive.

Cantuária’s work is skillfully curated by Inacio to invite viewers to embark on a visual journey through narratives of South American life, politics, and identity. Mounted above the three main paintings are smaller, eye-catching works cut in the shapes of mermaids, butterflies, and stars, establishing a magical atmosphere for the exhibition. These light-hearted additions frame the more serious themes represented in the paintings. Those themes are made all the more impactful by a large map of South America that hangs nearby. The banner-like map bears a phrase by the Uruguayan writer-activist Eduardo Galeano: “Si no nos dejan soñar, no los dejemos dormir,” “If they do not let us dream, let us not let them sleep.” By including this sentence, the artist underlines the intrinsically political nature of the South American dream.

Cantuária’s belief in Tarot is also woven into the exhibition’s exploration of cultural identity and political struggles. While Cantuária reimagines a South America that cherishes its land and protects its territory, she questions how this dream can persist and where faith in its realization will be drawn from. An altar-like piece displayed on the wall to the right of the entrance features a ceramic representation of the Moon tarot card looking at herself in a mirror that has been incorporated into the piece. Such reflection represents women’s agency and a challenge to patriarchy. Deviating from the tradition of altar-like figures looking out at the viewer, we see not only the Moon’s reflection but also our own as we look at the piece. The work appears carefully designed to encourage contemplation, inviting visitors to engage with the profound themes explored in Cantuária’s work. This combination of cultural references, personal beliefs, and activist histories creates a captivating and immersive experience for all visitors.

The South American Dream beautifully exemplifies the remarkable outcomes that can arise when a curator and artist collaborate closely. Inacio, who had met Cantuária a year prior, had seen Cantuária’s characteristically large, colorful works and was confident in the artist’s ability to create an impactful installation within a relatively small space. Cantuária, however, was worried about how she would effectively fill a nearly sixteen-foot-high room. In response to the challenge, Inacio proposed creating a frame in the shape of arches for each of the three main paintings in the exhibition. This architectural intervention transformed the initial obstacle into an opportunity for Cantuária’s work to shine. Inacio’s three monumental arches were constructed from golden vinyl, providing a distinct, sacred space for each painting. In this way, the artist and curator worked harmoniously to create what Inacio describes as an intimate, chapel-like atmosphere. Surrounding the arches, vibrant colors establish an ethereal environment, inviting us to dream while simultaneously honoring the legacy of lost activists. Neon lights mounted behind each painting serve as a form of tribute, while the map of South America reminds us of our oppressed activists’ unwavering pursuit of sovereignty and empowerment. Cantuária’s grand narratives intertwine the present with the past, shaping a shared vision of the future.

Cantuária’s work exemplifies the diverse tapestry of Latin American visual culture, highlighting the limitations of conventional categorizations in defining art from this region. Echoing Kaira Cabañas’ critique of the “monolingualism” in representations of global culture, Cantuária’s practice resists the homogenizing tendencies of scholars and curators who often impose Western European avant-garde movements’ names and strategies, such as “global pop” or “global surrealism,” onto the vast and diverse field of Latin American art. This tendency to emphasize aesthetic parallels at the expense of distinctiveness fails to capture Latin American artists’ unique and nuanced contributions. In attempting to define Latin American art, such external categorizations often restrict it to predetermined frameworks, overlooking distinctly Latin American currents that demand to be defined on their own terms (Kaira Cabañas, “Contra el monolinguismo de lo global,” Utopía, no.  7, (2021): 59-61, 60). For instance, there are stylistic and thematic similarities between Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and Cantuária’s work: both are figurative, formally sophisticated with rich colors, politically engaged, and highly symbolic. Emphasizing these connections within the context of their shared Latin American heritage allows for a more nuanced and authentic positioning of art from this region in international artistic discourse. Cantuária’s exploration of themes related to activism, environmental protection, and faith in “The South American Dream” not only aligns with political and social Latin American ideals. It is also a powerful counterpoint to the tendency to categorize Latin American art through Western frameworks, highlighting the Global South’s unique contributions to a contemporary international artistic landscape.

This exhibition offers a unique and colorful exploration of the aspirations and realities of South America, as captured through the lens of artist Marcela Cantuária. Values such as reverence for the region’s rich history and the protection of its natural resources are central to Cantuária’s artistic discourse, reflecting the challenges faced by activists in Latin America today. Cantuária invites museum visitors to engage with a nuanced and thought-provoking representation of this complex and diverse region by presenting a subjective yet politically and socially conscious perspective on the South American dream. Her work has the potential to resonate with audiences both within South America and internationally, particularly those seeking a critical examination of the status quo and the lingering effects of colonialism.

Macarena Deij Prado
PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, University of Florida