A writer and Professor of Spanish Literature at Universidad de La Laguna, Nilo Palenzuela (Los Realejos, 1958) has focused his creative and research activity on the fields of literature, art and philosophy.
He has penned many books on artists, including: Oráculo de arácnido (1983), Parada para salir al campo (2004. Engraving by the American artist Denis Long); Hendiduras sin nombre (2008. Drawings by José Herrera); La cámara oscura (2009. Photographs by Carlos Schwartz); Pasajes y partidas (2011), La hoja seca (2014), Animales impuros (2017. Drawings by the Cuban artist Sandra Ramos).
Likewise, he is the author of several books of essays: El espectador y los signos (1989); Visiones de Gaceta de Arte (1999), Los hijos de Nemrod: Babel y los escritores del Siglo de Oro (2000), El Hijo Pródigo y los exiliados españoles (2001), En torno al casticismo: los exiliados españoles (2003), Encrucijadas de un insulario (2006), Moradas del intérprete (2007), El arte de la conjunción. Palabras e imágenes de Vicente Rojo (2013), Desde otro mar. Escritores ecuatorianos contemporáneos (2016), La lengua desplazada (2016), De cómo se ahuyentaba el silencio. Escritos de Arte (2018).
In 2009-2010 he co-curated Horizontes Insulares with Orlando Britto Jinorio, and in 2018 the exhibition of the Réunionese artist Jack Beng-Thi at CAAM. In 2021 he curated the retrospective exhibition Escalas (1980-2020), by the artist Luis Palmero at TEA.
The One and the Diverse. From this Side of the Atlantic
We are the product of the time and the place in which we live, of the languages in which we learned to think and of a collective memory always in the making. What moves us, what excites us or causes us fear, what drives or block us, what we see, what is cemented by our choices, the moment in which we learn this or that, this is what makes us individual.
We travel along a journey that expands from the individual towards others, a path often evinced in one of many guises: art, literature, philosophy… We live between the one and the diverse, always on the verge of dispersion and prone to the melancholia of what no longer is, even when it never was. Everything that has been done, what has been written about or what has been silenced, and everything that is to come, converges in a present that does not culminate in complete order, nor in preservation or representation, but simply in a continuance of the experience that sustains us. Continuity, duration, or la durée in the parlance of Bergsonian philosophy, has to do with choices and with the need to see, smell, touch, hear …, and to understand. As this journey unravels, we present who we are and what moves us; and also what we are not, which often exerts just as much influence as what we possess under the domain of knowledge.
For various reasons, throughout the eighties the individuality and identity-based ideas of a culture were upset by dispersion. Identity yielded ground and gave way to heteronomy, projection and masking. It was a time that witnessed the reappearance of Nietzschean philosophy with “a carnival in the grand style”, the work of Pessoa, the death throes of the cultural ‘masks’ that came from Eliot or from Pound, which, in the visual arts, recalled classical self-portraits by Giorgio de Chirico or Kazimir Malevich. At the time, I addressed these processes in the work of Sherrie Levine and of Imi Knoebel. The unfolding of critical or creative discourse back then had to do, in my way of thinking, with dispersion, with the choices of a specifically Canarian cultural space that was heavily marked by a vindication of memory—always on the edge of falsehood or invention—and by the desire to understand the emergence of the contemporary signs of art and culture. La durée, that being in a precise moment, turned its eyes to the immediate past and to an alterity that called attention to itself with questions and with sudden, unexpected and disturbing images: the former conjured an idea of a succession of the same in an increasingly less sustainable identity; the latter advocated a contemporary alterity no less difficult to safeguard as a unit, as if it did not wish to accept its innate tendency to dispersion. In consequence, the ‘porous identity’ was about to be blown apart so that it could listen to what is beyond the limits of a given world, to hear other melodies, other peoples, other silences.
In the seventies and eighties in the Canaries, and in many other cultural spaces, the return to the avant-garde past was part of a wider quest to provide continuity to its practise of creative freedom and risk-taking, but it was generally accepted that it was a belated exercise, a scholarly motivated hope for revival, that would not rescue utopias from the shadow realm. I am brought to mind of the work of my friend—and friend of CAAM—Serge Fauchereau when he recovered the artistic relationships Paris-Moscow in the 1979 exhibition at the then recently opened Pompidou Centre. Paris-Moscow threw light on an exemplary era of international relations and a modern vocation, albeit one difficult to emulate. Some eyes cast even further back in time. Critical judgment, as it were, tried to line up in order the various pieces of a culture to insert them within a ‘duration’ with an almost impossible telos: to put creative activity back on the rails toward a future rooted in a present of loss, unease and tedium.
It was a heroic and also tragic endeavour. At bottom, it was indebted to an academic or commercial ambition or to simple nostalgia for a creative universality that had been buried beneath the ashes of war, bloc politics, propaganda and media manipulation. The desire to regroup what was disperse was at odds with a moment that could only live off the ruins of utopias and of a philosophy that had never accepted the voices of other cultures as equals. The final onslaught of critical dogmatism cast a shadow on a present that was unable to pass through the tattered shreds through which the light of other experiences and other questions filtered. Not even the ascending sign of a culture, in its last gasps, could reabsorb so much alterity, so many different languages. The other, the others, Americans or Africans, had always had their own discourses.
Our insularity, constructed over decades of stubborn affiliation to the ascendant modern project, was forged in universalism and aesthetic cosmopolitism; anything that struck us as familiar was appropriated: certain ideas on landscape and nature, the nostalgia for an origin that would circumvent the tragedy of the conquest and would prolong European culture to the Atlantic… It was a parade of heteroclite motives from here and there, from the Canaries, Europe and America. The Canarian journal Gaceta de Arte (1932-1936) was relaunched, now taking on board the identity-grounded ideas of the creative forces behind the Cuban magazine Orígenes (1944-1956); and other experiences were recovered from the contemporary creative ‘tradition’. All this wishful thinking was ultimately an eclectic project supported by official and academic institutions or, simply, the sum of various personal projects that wished to safeguard an identity already in its death throes.
This was the backdrop against which CAAM came into being in late-1989, under the old idea of the museum that would provide room for European and American aesthetic concerns, and would be a repository for the best and most select art from the islands and internationally. The museum as an enlightened space was also the final attempt at cultural reconnection in the twentieth century: as if what was sacred and ascendant in an already secularized culture could become a temple to consecrate the phantasmal idea of progress.
I followed the exhibitions at CAAM closely, exhibitions like El surrealismo entre viejo y nuevo mundo, Gaceta de arte y su época or Forjar el espacio, curated by Juan Manuel Bonet, Emmanuel Guigon and Serge Fauchereau; I also attended meetings of the journal Atlántica in an advisory capacity. For a moment, contemporary expressions’ desire for revival almost seemed possible. But the melancholia of the contemporary grew over irreparable cracks, which also had their economic and political causes. The dispersion of the present found its way in through the fissures in the thinking on which museums were still sustained. This phenomenon was nor circumscribed to the Canaries. It happened here and there. Where didn’t it? The ‘ascendant sign’ of a universal culture with a teleological vocation, with its strategies to universalize its power, discovered that its wall were cracked. To put it another way: just like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, one could hear the sounds of walls being torn down and the invasion of what was outside.
CAAM was founded in December 1989. The Berlin wall fell a month earlier, in November 1989. Authoritarian positions, including those born from the spirit of the Enlightenment, suffered a similar fate. It was not just the end of an era of beliefs and utopias in art, politics and philosophy, but also the twilight of a project that had been expanding its horizons ever since the Renaissance. The exhibition Forjar el espacio, curated by Serge Fauchereau, already included Mexican, Nigerian and Chinese artists and showed that the globalization of contemporary art opened room for other voices.
In 1998, coinciding with another exhibition, Islas, curated by Orlando Britto, which even further widened the breach of the contemporary discourse towards other frequencies of creation, I directed a symposium at CAAM called Las islas extrañas. Espacios de la imagen (Strange Islands. Spaces of the Image). The simple inclusion of thinking on art, literature and philosophy from an island perspective opened manifold paths that ruptured the hierarchical discourse of unity and splintered the convictions of the old avant-garde and its theoretical groundbase. Images were related with other images, ideas with other ideas, individuals with fellows who spoke very different languages. Insularity was then expressed in a present and in a temporality that were not linear, but revealed in spirals or in labyrinths. For the occasion I invited the philosopher Eugenio Trías, who spoke on the utopias of the Renaissance as a point of departure for contemporary thinking. And while Trías still trusted in a philosophy able to support the structure of a grand edifice for understanding the world (which he defined as limits of the world), he now did so from the certainty that the contemporary space could only subsist, from an ethical perspective, on the frontier. Here art and discourses began to welcome what was beyond their limits, from other cultures and from unknown realms of critical thinking and its hermeneutic tools. The philosopher spoke from CAAM of thinking on the frontier. Trías’s philosophy, in Spanish, was a belated attempt to listen to what could be heard outside the walls of the expansive, constructive universe of the West.
Nonetheless, something could be discerned in CAAM’s symposiums, exhibitions and activities; and also in other places: creative activity could be equally intense whether you lived in the Canaries or in Mali, in Egypt or in Mozambique, in Santa Catarina island or in Latin-American cities, in New Zealand or near Gorée island. It is critical mediation that has to come down from its watchtower and relocate itself in the midst of a vastness that had been left outside circular and expansive thinking.
In 2009-2010 I was to collaborate again with Orlando Britto—this time not at CAAM—in a project, Horizontes insulares (Insular Horizons), supported by the Government of Spain and the regional government of the Canary Islands which sought to strike up a dialogue between creators from different islands. It started out from an impartial and non-authoritarian perspective, albeit following in the legacy of the expressive freedom of the avant-gardes. Contemporary art was global by nature, as one could already note in international museums, CAAM included, and the dialogue did not override differences, but rather underscored them by intertwining disparate languages that could be simultaneous. Was this a rupture or a sign of the nomadism of forms and the things that motivated us, that moved us? Everything could become transfrontier and contiguous. Aristocratic critique and its bastions of dogmas and historicist vision were, to my way of thinking, definitively under suspicion. The world had too many frontiers, too many individuals, too many cultures to only have one single axis of gravity. The strategies of universalization of discourse and power, even if they did not vanish, left too many places where individuals and their expressions could interrelate from difference.
While in the catalogue for Islas I wrote a long essay on insularity, complied later in my book Encrucijadas insulares, and if I pinpointed all kinds of communicating vessels connecting past and present, expressions in different languages and idioms, in Horizontes insulares, with artists and writers from Guadeloupe, Martinique, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde, the Canaries and Réunion, I observed that, beyond specific national histories, the hierarchy of dogmatic universality had been broken and disparate sounds were emitted in different frequencies, in varying intensities, that only a prejudice-free and non-academic ear could hear: political, environmental, metaphysical and religious discourses with vanguard, ethnographic, artisan, feminist, conceptual and poetic nuances. The rising ladder of modern art had been thrown away after reaching a globalization imposed by the education of the will, economic exploitation and overwhelming power. The ‘porous identity’ of islands, like a great wall fallen in 1989, revealed that alterity is not just a hold-all where you can confine differences to give them some semblance of unity.
Back in the 1990s I was not yet conversant with the Whole-World or ‘poetics of relation’ concepts Édouard Glissant developed throughout that decade. In my long text I did not—now ever will—have his clarity, but after getting beyond authoritarian roots and uniformizing concepts, even making use of the concept of the rhizome, I climbed down from the watchtower with its perspective of superiority—and its surplus value which I had not wished to see. And so, the other is not exorcized nor is it exoticized, it simply does away with the idea of a single identity for a culture or an individual.
For a long time, I investigated the avant-gardes, Spanish exiles in Mexico, Latin-American literature (El hijo pródigo y los exiliados españoles, En torno al casticismo. Los exiliados españoles, Desde otro mar. Escritores ecuatorianos contemporáneos); I wrote fragments and aphorisms related with art and philosophy (Parada para salir al campo, Pasajes y partidas) and I spoke about ‘Babelization’ and authoritarianism in the Renaissance origins of modernity (Los hijos de Nembrot. Babel y los escritores del Siglo de Oro); I also penned poems and short stories (Hendiduras sin nombre, La hoja seca, La cámara oscura) and dedicated many essays to avant-garde American and European artists, or to others closer in time (Moradas del intérprete, De cómo se ahuyentaba el silencio. Escritos de arte). But my curiosity and the foundation of certain ideas led to new perspectives after I discovered the island of Réunion.
I met the Réunionese artist Jack Beng-Thi when the exhibition Islas toured to Seville and I met him again in his home island in the Indian Ocean, just before the exhibition Horizontes insulares, for which I was an advisor. I returned to Réunion in 2018 when I was working on his retrospective for CAAM and Casa África. Thanks to Jack Beng-Thi and his island, the experience of African and Asian discourses took on eminent importance in my thinking and in my writing. The crossroads of Hindu, Chinese, Malagasy, African, European cultures which are visible there, speaks to a ‘poetics of relation’ that radicalizes the reflections of Martinicans, Cubans, Dominicans or Puerto Ricans on miscegenation, slavery or créolité. For me, Réunion was removed from melancholia and historicism and, in its duration, afforded glimpses of other ways of understanding and expression, other ways of dialoguing in coexistence that could not untie the bonds with the places their inhabitants came from. The French state and the French language are dominant here, but its peculiar créolité opened incommensurable corridors to which a totalitarian and hierarchical vision of cultures could gain no access. It is unquestionably a personal experience, but for me it was the final push on judgments of unity and difference: all kinds of lights and shadows filtered through the cracks in the wall.
My identity is as porous and lacking in a centre as the images of culture I handle, so interested in others not to be satisfied with what I already know. Identity can be intense but it requires displacement and nomadism; it is in the memory that each individual carries with them as much as in the things they do not know, and it communicates through permanent corridors between areas that could be equalized through the simple contact of relationship. The arrogance of a fissureless identity has been washed down the drain of a discourse which is cracked, and often heteronymous, patched with masks from diverse origins, with voices, sounds and images far removed from one another. Or was it a sameness that had spilled over the limits of its closed circle after centuries of expansion and greed, a sameness that had wormed its way in from outside? And also into my islands?
Ballaké Sissoko or Sonah Jobarteh move from one country to another, in expressions of contemporary music, playing the kora, a traditional instrument; pieces by Calixte and Theodore Dakpoban made with tins and waste metal give an account of Voodoo culture in Benin; with less ritual references, and a fully engaged discourse, the Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp dispels clichés on African sculpture with works that dialogue with Italian Renaissance artists like Botticelli, like in her Three Graces (2015). The Malian photographer Fatoumata Diabaté combines everyday life and fashion in a Pop vein, like her precursor Malick Sisibé, but she also goes further and reverts her investigation towards an inner world and speaks of imaginary metamorphoses of contemporary culture; I am thinking of her portraits of “Man in Object” and “Man in Animal”. Where is one thing and the other, the disjunction between African art and contemporary art, the old avant-garde exoticization of Africa? Many of these artists have works in the CAAM collection for some years now.
Identities come into being in a precise place, they undergo diaspora and displacement, the move in all directions, towards the past, towards present moments in very different geographies. Identity becomes porous, it dissipates or sets out on a journey as duration and labyrinth. To start all over again. To keep on living.
From the beginning CAAM opted for what, in principle, is a simple strategy: tri-continentality. The museum looked to America, Europe and Africa. Atlántica also did the same, it also looked to Africa, though at times, like the old Harlem Renaissance movement, from positions that are born in America, unfolded in the wake of European criticism and its ‘tradition of rupture’, which is to say, under the will to reinitiate the ritual of knowledge and access to its objects without completely abandoning the attitudes and tools of the past, dominated after so much interpretative repetition. Beneath the novelty, the old bone of a way of thinking.
The collection grew with this ability to accept that critical judgment cannot be taken from one single cultural shore. Exhibitions like Otro país: escalas africanas (1994), El tiempo de África (2000), the aforementioned Islas, and other more recent shows like the one dedicated to the Algerian artist Zoulikha Bouabdellah, showed that alterity is multiple and is constructed over the passing of time, even when everything is provisional. But what isn’t? “You make the path as you go”, as a famous Spanish poet of Bergsonian stock once said. What we choose updates what went before and brings it into the present but it also adopts another language, another memory, other identities that we had not foreseen. CAAM, which provisionally invented tri-continentality, when Africa was practically missing from the interests of Canarian culture, has opened previously unthinkable corridors. Who could have told Martín Chirino and his collaborators, who spoke so much about all this back in the 1990s, that the African shore was finally going to have such an intense presence!
With the lectures and exhibitions and what I have been able to see in the three continents, in one and multiple islands, I also rediscovered around this judiciously introduced intercontinental axis, the steps that have led me to the present, between choices and dispersions I have no wish to renounce. In recent times I have written a long poem that would have been impossible to write without the traces of African cultures, a poem perhaps provisionally called Interrogaciones desde África. Over the last few years, after abandoning the increasingly more servile constrictions of academic and university activity, I still know very little and am still embroiled in dispersions not far removed from those I lived through so many decades ago. Each choice might be a masking, a persona, sometimes with greater or less style. The seductiveness of art, thinking, music, and philosophy lead me from one place to another, in all directions, to the past and the present. Today I can speak with the creators of Portuguese visual poetry from Madeira, prepare a retrospective exhibition of the Canarian painter Luis Palmero for TEA (Tenerife Espacio de las Artes), continue to ask questions about the photographs by Francesca Woodman, the stories by Unika Zürn and the philosophy of Albert Camus, perhaps for their relationship with suicides that affect the very context of a culture; or investigate the signs of the art and literature of Mozambique. I let identity continue to empty itself through that which I do not know, towards the past or towards places furthest away. It is part of a duration, of a shared durée.
Or I stop to think about Atlántica. The tri-continental shift is after all an alibi of the identity of the postcolonial space which has proven highly operative. I imagine that Atlántica will continue to make sense and guarantee a presence for the voices of one and another continent, near at hand or far away from the modern project and its utopias, and it will do so perhaps until the barbarism, economic and political powers, completely finish with the Enlightenment, reject individual expression and toss them into the catch-all box of fetishism, of that other dispensable alterity. In this shift one can discern something of the ‘root’ and even the ‘rhizome’ and relationality that remains latent in my islands: the native assimilated or annihilated by European culture, the archaeological and anthropological memory that still poses questions, or the enigmas of all those who have brought their durations with them to these islands. CAAM has also passed through there with the artist Teresa Correa. The bones in the Museo Canario can also be linked with other museums and other memorials. I am brought to mind of the skulls with the names and dates of their owners, accompanied by drawings with flowers, in the Hallstätter Beinhaus museum in Austria; I am thinking of the numbered skulls archived according to old anthropology at Museo Canario which caused such a deep impression on the Réunionese artist Migline Paroumanou; and, above all, I recall the anonymous skulls and bones of the Tutsis in the Catholic church in Nyamata, Rwanda, and in the exhibition of the clothing of those who perished there. The corridors between places are wide, as too are the borders of creation, acknowledgment and interpretation.
Perhaps because the Canaries is a postcolonial and insular place, the journal Atlántica can situate itself anywhere, in any geography or cultural space, because our duration wavers between curiosity, a fear of acknowledging our gaps and the desire to know. In any case, artistic creation and cultural production always have a longer duration and greater density than we had thought. We only have to give them time for them to express themselves. We only have to start out from a certain point, from an island, a culture, a people, an object, graffiti on a wall, doodles, a word, a microscopic cell, or genes, like the Venezuelan artist Nela Ochoa. I hope, nonetheless, that not everything will be hard intellectual bone—like these lines, I’m afraid—and that, similar to my bestiary Animales impuros and meetings with friends, we will also have a good sense of humour, which in the end is probably the best and quickest way straight to the heart of knowledge and an encounter with others. I am not sure whether art and creation can survive without a positive affirmation of life that eschews pure understanding and arouses empathy.