Bolivian Architect Freddy Mamani’s exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, Paris

Review: Southern Geometries, from Mexico to Patagonia .

Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain
October 14, 2018 – February 24, 2019

Bolivian architect Freddy Mamani has brought a piece of El Alto to Paris.  His custom built cholet  – the brightly coloured, multi-story architectural style for which he is famous – has turned the chic, minimalist Fondation Cartier into a quintessentially Andean space.  Orange, red and yellow pillars, patterned all over with Amerindian, and specifically Tiwanaku designs, hold up a brightly coloured ceiling with a spectacular chandelier.  A film detailing Freddy’s life and work, how the room was built, and comment from various experts on the urban phenomenon that is the cholet, was projected on to the main wall.  The Parisians and tourists who were clearly captivated by the installation, sat on stools covered with the traditional Andean fabric the aguayo, to watch.  Visitors asked questions about the historical origin of the designs on the pillars – the condors and Andean crosses – and there was a lot of curiosity about the ceremony that had taken place just before the inauguration.  Freddy, his workers and the models and designers who were going to take part in a Chola Paceña fashion show in the cholet at the opening, burnt a traditional ritual offering to Mother Earth – the mesa, complete with llama foetus and overseen by traditional healers known as Yatiris – in the grounds of the Fondation.  This is a typical Alteño ritual to bring luck to a new endeavour – and the Parisians were the outsiders, watching through the glass, perched on the aguayo stools, aware that they didn’t really understand what was going on.

Freddy Mamani had taken over the room, although compared to the originals in Bolivia the designs were quite toned down.  But given the setting – the Parisian art world, this is still quite an achievement.  Paris has for centuries defined what is ‘culture’: a la mode, chic, avant guarde.  Their reputation for making the rest of the world – including other places in Europe – feel gauche, or lacking in savoir faire, proceeds them.  In a nutshell, Paris is where the rest of the world comes to admire the zenith of urbane sophistication, and, inevitably, feel themselves somewhat out of place.  For an architectural style by an indigenous, informally trained architect, from a city in the Global South, El Alto, which was referred to as a ‘slum’ by one of the world’s foremost urban geographers, Mike Davis, as recently as 2006, to be exhibited as art, is quite a turn around.

The curators at the Fondation Cartier, with their exhibition ‘Geometries of the South,’ had the potential to overturn centuries’ long associations about what counts as art.  The sleek minimal lines of their own building, opposite the architectural school, in the fashionable 15th Arrondissement were placed into sharp relief by Mamani’s bold intervention, and it seemed that the title of the exhibition ‘Geometries from the South’ was going to hold true – that the geometric space that makes up the exhibition hall, with all that colonial baggage, was going to be transformed into a space where the rules of the game could be set by the outsiders.  Rather than assimilate a non-Western environment into a European setting, an area of the Fondation Cartier became a room from a cholet.  However, the curators may not have understood the significance of this or indeed the potential for exhibiting the other works in a similar fashion.

Contrary to initial impressions, Geometries of the South, did not refer to space, but to the shapes which could be found in certain examples of Latin American art.  Whilst the influence of indigenous art was clear in Mamani’s work, there didn’t seem to be a cohesive link to similar geometric patterns and their cultural heritage in the work of many of the other exhibiting artists.  It certainly seemed that there was a preference for characterising much of the work in terms of European precedents.  In the late nineteenth century, it was the indigenous people themselves who were exhibited in Paris.  At the Expositions Universelles in 1878 and 1889 ‘discoveries’ from the colonies were on view to the public in ‘human zoos’.  Such sights, popular throughout Europe and America well into the twentieth century, saw indigenous people presented in ways similar to animals whilst the objects they made were displayed in the more formal, and appropriate, setting of Paris’s first ethnographic museum, Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro.  It is here that many cultural objects, including those which, to a Western eye, were considered as ‘sculpture’, became intrinsic to the birth of modernism.  Artists such as Picasso and Matisse became fascinated with the simplified, non-naturalistic ways of depicting the human form that they saw in African ‘art’.  Whilst indigenous peoples themselves, with their differing physiognomies, dress and bodily decorations, were seen as ‘exotic’ the distinction proved to exemplify them as primitive curiosities who were somehow inferior to ‘cultured’ Westerners.

The overriding premise of the exhibition seems to have been an alleged consistency of straight lines and rights angles inherent in art from Latin America and its indigenous population.  One exhibit in the downstairs gallery was not from Guarani people in Paraguay, but seemed rather to be about them.  The centre-piece of the room was Brumas, an artistically abstract take on a guarani reed hut by renowned Colombian artist Olga de Amaral, whilst the surrounding walls had images of, rather than by, indigenous people.  This included photos from the colonial era which were used in the context of the exhibition to highlight that they wore angular body paint to make them blend in more with nature. And it seemed somewhat irrelevant in a time where Latin American art is beginning to become recognised on the world art scene for the Fondation Cartier to still find it necessary to exhibit such a huge selection of contemporary pieces alongside examples of the nineteenth century ethnologist Guido Boggiani’s fieldwork, and publications by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

In other areas ancient objects, such as Nazca vases, were given the ‘Western treatment’ by being exhibited on plinths and admired for their aestheticism.  Whilst this negates the possible importance of the object in cultural terms there was also little connection made between the decoration used on these ceramics, shapes incorporated into buildings or body adornment and the surrounding artworks.  Whilst this could have been explored in order to overturn colonial distinctions between art and the everyday – it seemed more like a crass reversal than a deconstruction.  Instead there were more comparisons to be made between the art from Latin America and the geometric shapes found in European Modernism (as with the work of Ana Sacerdote) or American abstract expressionism (Carmen Herrera).  Unfortunately, the case for Latin America artists being generative of this trend was not clearly made.

Overall, the Fondation Cartier missed an opportunity here.  But the most interesting thing is that perhaps Freddy Mamani, or indeed the owners of the cholets, wouldn’t care.  They, with the ownership of the space, and the way they used it, had achieved the decentred approach to understanding art and its colonial inflections that many a post-colonial analyst has strived for.  And so, despite the colours and designs that could easily be called gaudy, they may have managed to make the Parisian art scene look gauche.


Dr Kate Maclean, Birkbeck, University of London
Lucinda Towler, PhD candidate, University of Warwick

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