Gabriela Salgado is an Argentina-born, London-based contemporary art curator. Specialized in Latin-American artists, she has also developed her freelance work researching in the art scenes of UK and Africa.
She is a former artistic director of Te Tuhi, a contemporary art space in Auckland, New Zealand (2017-2020) where she developed exhibitions with Maori and Pacific Region artists in ongoing dialogue with international art practitioners. Her writings from that period are compiled in the digital publication Under the Southern Stars, Te Tuhi, 2020.
Salgado has a MA in curatorial studies from the Royal College of Art, London.
She was curator of the University of Essex Collection of Latin American Art, UECLAA (1999-2005), and curator of public programmes at Tate Modern (2006-2011), where she created an interdisciplinary programme of theory, art and long-term projects with the artists Cildo Meireles and Humberto Vélez.
She co-curated the 2nd Thessaloniki Biennale PRAXIS: Art in Times of Uncertainty (2009) and the La Otra Bienal in Bogotá, Colombia (2013).
It’s a long way
I am a granddaughter of the diaspora and my own personal path is also defined by a series of migrations.
I started out very early in the world of art thanks to an upbringing that encouraged reading and a love of music, an abiding presence in my life that encompasses everything from jazz to popular Brazilian music. More than class privilege, I would assign this to the unquenchable thirst for knowledge of my parents, who belonged to the first generation to gain access to third-level education. This fact, coupled perhaps with a lack of any religious inclination, explains why art and culture became my creed. In addition, having an artist in the family meant that I often went to see exhibitions with my parents. From the back of my mind, I can still dredge up the odd visual memories of these experiences spent in galleries and museums.
I remember that decades later, thanks to an invitation from the Zurich-based Daros Latin America Collection, I met the Argentinian artist Julio Le Parc with the purpose of penning a critical essay on his exhibition there. At the entrance to the show, they had placed his work Continuel lumière, a mobile with rotating steel discs that reflected and dispersed the light on the surrounding walls into a kind of unsettled constellation. It produced a sensation of dejà vu that immediately transported me back to the magical moment when I saw it for the first time as a child, an epiphany that I often think marked my fate. My aunt was a member of the group of Pop artists associated with Instituto Di Tella, a vanguard movement on which much has been written and which, under the ominous shadow of military juntas and a perpetual state of social collapse, produced an irreverent, transgressive southern-hemisphere version very different from its hegemonic counterparts. As also happened with Conceptualism, our version of Pop was suffused with the revolutionary spirit that spread throughout the region in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution.
As a grownup, carrying with me the seed of that experience and spurred on by a brutal dictatorship that seemed as if it would never end, I emigrated to Europe, setting out on an unconscious return to the land of my paternal grandparents and to a diasporic existence that, perhaps owing to youth’s lack of perspective, I never suspected would become a permanent state.
The art path I travelled along in Barcelona and later in London lead me to specialize in what is called Latin American art, though I have to admit that, initially the very idea of Latin America raised more questions than certainties. In the 1980s and 90s, travelling around the world was the privilege of a few, and that included moving between countries in the vast continent of America. That being said, this restriction was not simply a case of geographical or economic factors but was also conditioned by a colonial predisposition that was still a long way from being ‘post’. When we went in search of the meccas of art, our Western-Christian education conditioned us to travel to Europe, and it was less frequent to seek cultural exchanges with countries in one’s own region and even the desire to meet our neighbours. Additionally, learning European art history was considered a necessary step to reach the scholarly enlightenment that would raise us above our internalised underdevelopment. Such perception still includes the ways of being in the world of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants, as it had been learned straight from the mouth of the invaders and later passed down from generation to generation over the course of four centuries.
Broadly speaking, the civilizing enterprise of colonial empires might present individual variations depending on the historical moment in which they took place, but they all share a common denominator: their legacy is a wound.
Colonization imposed itself doubly: by physically occupying the land of others and by implementing a self-proclaimed education and evangelizing mission to replace the languages and spirituality of first nation peoples in order to erase all signs of sovereignty. Everyone knows that the concepts of ‘Indian’ and ‘Latin America’ are the result of gross mistakes and have been destabilized by a body of decolonial thought that has arisen in the continent in recent decades.
Emil Keme and Adam Coon 1Emil Keme, Adam Coon, “For Abiayala to Live the Americas Must Die: Toward a Transhemispheric Indigeneity”, Native American and Indigenous Studies, Volume 5, Issue 1, Spring 2018, pp.42-68 (article), University of Minnesota Press. call the hemisphere Abiayala, a word from the Guna language used widely in academia and in the social realm. The authors argue that at the time of the first contact with the European colonial empire there were around 2000 cultures in Abiayala with a multiplicity of customs, languages and worldviews. I met Emil Keme and a group of researchers from Abiayala in 2019 in Aotearoa New Zealand, where I had the privilege to attend the conference organized by NAISA at the University of Waikato. In his paper, the issues of remembering and being a subject of history, based on the writings of Fausto Reinaga, resonated with a statement pronounced at the opening of the panel: “For us, colonization means the loss of time”. Throughout the conference, in papers from different peoples of the world, this narrative of dispossession was debated as a discursive recourse of the oppressor and their frequent instrument, anthropology.
Most of the international scholars underscored the threat of extinction of species and the collapse of the environment, which reverberated throughout the conference like a basso continuo in all the debates.
In one of the panels, I heard the following reflection:
“we have to advance with self-determination and sustainability at the same time, recovering the role of other species in the Anthropocene, with environmental focuses that include not just humans. Binary human-nonhuman positions have been overcome. It is a shift to multi-species posthumanism” 2Dana Powell, Appalachian State University, “Beyond the Human? Working the intersections of NAIS, Political Ecology and Posthumanism”, panel 28 June 2019, University of Waikato, Aotearoa NZ..
The legacy of anthropocentrism that led to the emergence of modernity has left us with the mistaken perception of the evolution of peoples subject to an idea of development and Western-Christian civilization whose imperial strategy was the exploitation of resources. In essence, it is an extractivist and genocidal narrative based on the racism that continues dictating economic activity in the present. One thing is clear: much like the subsequent theory of evolution, both schema exemplify a warlike exegesis. The same goes for the so-called advance of our species’ technological achievements: an idea that historically celebrated the benefits of the atomic bomb, and which continues to promote the genetic manipulation of seeds.
I believe that the problem of the idea of progress is its excessive self-belief, its lack of humility. But not everything is lost: we know that nature possesses the cure as well as the illness as it is proven by plants, which grow surrounded by others that protect them and provide them with nourishment.
We share with trees a sign of individuality: our fingerprints resemble the rings inscribed at the heart of a tree trunk, which record its phases of growth. We are water, we are fire and we are also stardust that our bodies shed every day, returning to the Earth. If, in the light of these coincidences there are still any doubts about our belonging to a larger schema than our anthropocentric ego, there is abundant evidence that we are part of a complex web of life. Just as our cells store the DNA and psychic-emotional substance of our ancestors, the physical principles that keep planet Earth in balance directly condition our well-being.
The Mâori language contains a concept that defines this connection: whakapapa. Given that it is a contextual language, the word, which could be translated literally as ‘genealogy’, also means lines of descent enumerated in the correct order. In Mâori society genealogy is elementary insofar as it determines sovereignty, land and fishing rights, kinship and status. It is verbally declared at the opening of meetings, community events and, generally, most public acts in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is a way of recalling that the earth, sky, oceans, rivers, minerals, plants, animals and humans sustain us and that we are bound to them in an interdependent relationship. Accordingly, all these elements are connected by whakapapa while, at once, each part preserves its individuality and a specific place in the whole.
Through the word or pepeha the ways of the elders are expressed, encapsulating a value system that connects the individual with the environment and with the community. During the years I lived in Auckland and as a result of my work with Te Tuhi, I learned to open each exhibition and event in my programme with pepeha, in accordance with protocol. The experience of fulfilling this etiquette was profound, anchoring me to a sense of belonging that goes beyond subjectivity by defining me in relation. The order of my statement enumerates my kinship with my ocean, my river, my mountain, my family context, the place where I was born and the place where I live and ends with my name. In itself, this simple inversion of values opened my eyes to the limitation—and profound isolation—of the individual disconnected from their land and their community environment.
Ko Atlántico te moana, ko Río de la Plata te awa, ko Andes te maunga, ko Argentina te iwi, ko Salgado Orfeo te tângata, kei Tâmaki Makau rau ahau e noho ana, Nô Gabriela Salgado ahau.
In the face of this unavoidable evidence, how can we possibly afford to define an interest in safeguarding the ecosystem as class privilege, as a passing intellectual concern? The unbridled greed of some and the ineffective politics of others does not recognize that over the last two centuries humankind has been advancing its own extinction and dragging with it all surrounding forms of life.
I write these words against the backdrop of growing outcry from various social movements which announce the end of paradigms, calling for responsibility from rulers, and demanding inalienable rights against inherited violence and marginalization. Nevertheless, though globalized and magnified by the hyper-visibility enabled by technology, this struggle is not new. Contrary to the poetic premonitions of Gil Scott-Heron, what we are facing is a simultaneity of televised revolutions broadcast live and endlessly reproduced on social media. With evident echoes of the anticolonial revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the civil rights movements of human groups all over the planet, the recent waves of protest have swollen like a call for an end to multiple forms of violence: against racism, ecocide and femicide, the latter led, among others, by the granddaughters of feminism. Overturning a model of power based on the control of mass media, today the masses control not only the demands, but also lay down the terms of payment for outstanding debts. As if the time machine were accelerating, this chaotic state unfolding before our very eyes discloses the long chain of errors that defines our era. Plain and simple, what we are witnessing is the slow suicide of a paradigm that started with the European colonial expansion in the fifteenth century and its final death throes.
Latin America, Africa and Oceania
As a result of a process of research that led me to work in Africa over the last ten years, I found myself face to face with another southern hemisphere where I was welcomed with sincere familiarity. Basing myself on historical relationships between our continents, I began a series of artist exchanges called ‘Transatlantic Connections’, which took place between 2010 and 2015. This experience radically transformed my outlook in relation to artistic genealogies and their influences. The contemporary art and culture of Africa and its ancient form of futurism encouraged me to explore curatorial narratives underpinned by the theoretical framework of the so-called decolonial shift that dynamically migrated from academia to the art scene charged with reparative potential.
When I arrived in Aotearoa in 2017 my intention was to understand the particular symptoms of coloniality in that remote place in the south of the Pacific Ocean. Among its intellectuals and artists, I discerned signs of an idiosyncratic epistemic disobedience, as Mignolo would put it, that encouraged me to establish dialogues with their counterparts in other parts of the southern hemisphere.
In August 2019, in a conversation promoted by the University of Auckland, I managed to bring together the renowned Mâori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith, author of “Decolonising Methodologies, Research and Indigenous Peoples” and Walter Mignolo during his visit to Aotearoa 3https://vimeo.com/356752108. Part of this conversation focused on the problematic relationship of research into coloniality from academia, defined as a Western model of learning that excludes other knowledge systems. In this regard, Aníbal Quijano’s concept of disconnection, inspired by the sociologist Samir Amin, conjures an epistemic disobedience when affirming that you cannot untie yourself from capitalism without untying yourself from the system of knowledge that justifies, organizes and legitimizes it. One of the most telling assertions in this framework was a comment by Linda Tuhiwai Smith on the urgency of restoring the love of being indigenous which coloniality extirpated from peoples when showing them to scorn their own language, their own social organizations and to hate themselves. In response to the question on current calls for European countries to repatriate objects to ex-colonies, Tuhiwai Smith recommended foregrounding the restoration of relationships of sacred objects with the community over the recovering of the object in itself, given that recovering and reconstructing an object as it was before it was ripped from its context is impossible, as that said context no longer exists. She elaborated on the idea of the reconstruction of the logic that reconnects people with their sacred objects, determined by the community’s current ways of doing things. Therefore, in order to restore an object that has been in a European museum for centuries, one first needs to invoke the knowledge system of its creators. She concluded that repatriating cultural and artistic objects is to repatriate relationships and is an exercise similar to welcoming a family member with whom you had lost contact. The relationship is an epistemological question of great significance, given that in the Mâori worldview the division between objects, other species and humans is not based on hierarchies, with all of them being relatives in a network of affect.
Eyes that send light from the south
Among the exhibitions I conceived for Te Tuhi there was one in particular that focused on artistic intersections from South to South, “From where I stand, my eye will send a light to you in the North”, in 2018. Borrowing the title from a performance by Otobong Nkanga at Tate Modern, the exhibition revolved around Social Consequences, a series of paintings on paper by the Nigerian artist exhibited in a display case at the centre of the space. As if it were a root, the gaze constructed in this specific South propagated like a rhizome from Africa to dialogue with similar processes of colonization, migration and oppression contained in the works contributed by another nine artists 4Artists: John Akomfrah; Fernando Arias; Regina José Galindo; Kiluanji Kia Henda; Runo Lagomarsino; Sarah Munro; Otobong Nkanga; Siliga David Setoga; Jasmine Togo-Brisby and Jian Jun Xi..
The extraordinary series Social Consequences creates visual connections between the land, its minerals and plants with human bodies. Joined by painted red threads, the fragments of the bodies produce a metamorphosis by fracture, pressure and extraction, actions executed by arms like mechanical diggers dancing a sinister choreography. The titles of the images reveal the shadow of economic discrepancy between countries from which valuable raw materials are sourced and their poverty: Entangled, Endangered Species, Seize all you can, Wastescape, The Overflow afford us visual metaphors of the toxic processes of land exploitation.
John Akomfrah’s magnificent film work Tropikos framed the historical circumstance of the rise of capitalism and the slave industry within the British crown’s overseas explorations. In another room, the extreme vulnerability of Regina José Galindo’s tiny body is pitted in a silent duel against a gigantic digger in the performance Tierra/Earth from 2013, depicting the artist gradually isolated on an insignificant island of soil beneath her feet.
Through calls for visibility, questionings of sovereignty and neo-colonial dystopias that disclose the absurd, the artists in the exhibition raised their voices against the supremacist perspective from numerous places in the world.
Nature strikes back: Covid19. The global disaster unleashed by the pandemic currently afflicting us also affords us several opportunities, including the possibility of changing our habits, particularly the toxicity of indiscriminate consumption.
If, as we have said before, imperial actions based on the idea of progress imposed on other lands and communities endemic and irreversible food shortages, dispossession and illnesses, this 21st-century pandemic is also rooted in misguided ways of living. We ought to recall that when antibiotics were invented in 1929, science believed that it had conquered the final barrier to make us indestructible. However, with the passing of time it was proven that the misuse of these very same antibiotics in livestock breeding led to highly infectious diseases when they entered into the food chain.
Over the last two hundred years the world population has multiplied by eight and is headed towards an uncertain situation whose panacea of modernity—while it facilitated advances in health, movement and efficiency thanks to new technologies—has produced alarming amnesia and disconnection. We have moved so far away from an understanding of the world that we are constantly destroying it, whether due to greed—as in the case of the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources—or simple negligence.
On 18 March 2020 I began my first lockdown in Aotearoa New Zealand and the year that is now drawing to a close finds me trapped again in another lockdown in London. Since then, the combination of the global pandemic and the clamour of freedom movements is prompting an unprecedented settling of scores that challenges the illusory normality in which we used to live.
White supremacy is hotly contested, and the resistance movements that have arisen in the indigenous world and the African diasporas are amplified with unprecedented participation. And the foundations of inequity and monoculture are also being rocked in the world of art and culture.
The challenge is to generate a liberating thought that goes beyond simply acknowledging historical absences and activates actions of participation and affect. It will take us time, but the struggle continues.
Os olhos da cobra verde
Hoje foi que arreparei
Se arreparasse a mais tempo
Não amava quem amei
It’s a long way
It’s a long, it’s a long way
It’s a long, long, long
It’s a long way 5“The eyes of the green snake / I saw only today / Had I seen them before / I wouldn’t have loved / the one I loved”. Lyrics from Caetano Veloso’s song “It’s a Long Way”, recorded in 1972 during his exile in London.
- 1Emil Keme, Adam Coon, “For Abiayala to Live the Americas Must Die: Toward a Transhemispheric Indigeneity”, Native American and Indigenous Studies, Volume 5, Issue 1, Spring 2018, pp.42-68 (article), University of Minnesota Press.
- 2Dana Powell, Appalachian State University, “Beyond the Human? Working the intersections of NAIS, Political Ecology and Posthumanism”, panel 28 June 2019, University of Waikato, Aotearoa NZ.
- 4Artists: John Akomfrah; Fernando Arias; Regina José Galindo; Kiluanji Kia Henda; Runo Lagomarsino; Sarah Munro; Otobong Nkanga; Siliga David Setoga; Jasmine Togo-Brisby and Jian Jun Xi.
- 5“The eyes of the green snake / I saw only today / Had I seen them before / I wouldn’t have loved / the one I loved”. Lyrics from Caetano Veloso’s song “It’s a Long Way”, recorded in 1972 during his exile in London.