Uruguay: A South Balcony

Contemporary Artists from Uruguay

A South Balcony (2016) by Contemporary Artists from UruguayImago Mundi

The Land of Utopia

Diminutive Uruguay – with just over 3.5 million inhabitants – has often attracted the world’s attention over the past few years. Bordered to the north and west by the two great powers of South America, Brazil and Argentina, the country is considered a kind of Latin American Switzerland and today, above all, a laboratory of modernity.

Mauro Arbiza - Untitled, Mauro Arbiza, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Mauro Arbiza - Untitled (2016)

Following the end of the dictatorship, over the past decade in particular, the libertarian and populist administration of the Frente Amplio has brought with it an awakening of consciences, and introduced a profound process of democratic transformation within Uruguayan society. As a result, Uruguay is today an example to the entire continent, wounded by economic and moral crisis. Almost a utopian land, where it is possible to be bold. In addition to the most striking measures – such as the legalization of soft drugs and the authorisation of gay marriage and abortion, still impossible in many Latin countries – many other reforms have been introduced, albeit with less media impact.

Pedro Abdala Estable - Untitled, Pedro Abdala Estable, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Pedro Abdala Estable - Untitled (2016)

These include healthcare reform, launched in 2008, which created an integrated mutual fund, with contributions from workers and businesses, enabling the provision of healthcare for all. And tax reform that placed the employed and self-employed on an equal footing, subjecting everyone to personal income taxation.

Ernesto Vila - Hooray for Torres García, Ernesto Vila, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Ernesto Vila - Hooray for Torres García (2016)

From 2003 to 2015 the unemployment rate in Uruguay decreased from 16 to 6 per cent. In 2003 debt was over 120 per cent of GDP, today it fluctuates around 60 per cent. The economic recovery has brought with it increased social justice and prosperity for all: for example, the one laptop per child programme (the only one of its kind in the world) extends to even the remotest Pampas.

Carlos Seveso - South Cross, Carlos Seveso, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Carlos Seveso - South Cross (2016)

The country provides an outstanding model in a Latin America characterised by social inequality, and this prompted the The Economist magazine to name President Mujica’s Uruguay ‘country of the year’ in 2013, in recognition of its significant achievements and advancements in the field of human rights and democracy, and the economic progress it has attained. By guaranteeing freedom of expression, women’s suffrage, divorce, free and compulsory education, Uruguay is today at the forefront of civil rights legislation.

Doreen Bayley - Lights and shadows, Doreen Bayley, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Doreen Bayley - Lights and shadows (2016)

It has also embarked on a radical new energy policy and aims to compete with Costa Rica and Iceland for primacy in the new clean world, free from the use of fossil fuels. Thanks to a favourable regulatory environment and a strong partnership between the public and private sectors, investments in green energy over the past five years have risen to 15 per cent of GDP, five times the average of other Latin American nations.

Marcelo Carrasco - The time in the south, Marcelo Carrasco, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Marcelo Carrasco - The time in the south (2016)

Furthermore, Uruguay has a long history of struggle for independence against colonial powers and the intrusiveness of its two large, incommodious neighbours. Inhabited mainly by nomadic indigenous tribes, the current Uruguayan territory was explored for the first time in 1516. By the early seventeenth century, bandeirantes, Portuguese adventurers from Brazil, arrived with increasing frequency in search of labour for their plantations. The Jesuits stepped in to defend the natives, and their support proved decisive. However, many bandeirantes chose to stay in Uruguay to run smuggling operations, to the detriment of the Spaniards who occupied Argentina. Smuggling became so prosperous that the Brazilian authorities decided to protect the trade in 1680 by building a fortified settlement facing Buenos Aires, called Colonia do Sacramento. The settlement was the cause of violent clashes with the Spaniards and was ultimately returned to Portugal under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.

Mariabelén Pérez - On the moon, Mariabelén Pérez, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Mariabelén Pérez - On the moon (2016)

To balance this loss, the Spaniards built Montevideo in 1724, making it the capital of the territory and using it for cattle breeding. New conflicts between Spain and Portugal concluded with the Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1777 that recognized the sovereignty of Spain, which undertook to liberalize trade with the opening of the ports of Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

Carlos Musso - - Untitled, Carlos Musso, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Carlos Musso - Untitled (2016)

Santiago Velazco - Night landscape, Santiago Velazco, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Santiago Velazco - Night landscape (2016)

The economic dynamism that followed inspired in the settlers of the Banda Oriental a spirit of independence, which culminated in the establishment of a junta in Montevideo in 1808 that challenged both the power of Madrid and Argentine annexationist aspirations.

Ángelo Stefano Bogni Silva - For Export, Ángelo Stefano Bogni Silva, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Ángelo Stefano Bogni Silva - For Export (2016)

Today, Uruguay is a country rich in history and beauty, much like it was when the young Charles Darwin visited; in A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World, Darwin describes how he docked in Montevideo on the night of 26th July, 1832 on board a ship surrounded by a bevy of penguins and seals that bellowed like cattle.

Clemente Padín - Signography, Clemente Padín, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Clemente Padín - Signography (2016)

Giuseppe Garibaldi (who fought in the civil war and the siege of the city) also spent many years in the Uruguayan capital – as the mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi recalled in an article for the Repubblica newspaper – “his house at 314 25 de Mayo is now converted into a museum: the house number is significant, as the Hero of Two Worlds for some time earned a living by teaching mathematics.”

Virginia Daglio Ksiazenicki - Cause, Virginia Daglio Ksiazenicki, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Virginia Daglio Ksiazenicki - Cause (2016)

In a land inhabited by millions of sheep and cows, the country’s population is concentrated mainly along the coast, where Uruguay offers world-famous resorts such as Punta del Este and La Barra. It also boasts several cities like Colonia do Sacramento, whose Historic Quarter, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city’s narrow cobblestone streets include Calle de los Suspiros, said to be the most photographed street in Uruguay, whose sighs, according to different legends, either refer to the brothels located along one side of the street, or to the cries of the condemned who were led along it to the gallows.

Pedro Peralta (Pichin) - The Taranco Palace, Pedro Peralta (Pichin), 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Pedro Peralta (Pichin) - The Taranco Palace (2016)

Elsa Trolio Bertullo - Water of words, Elsa Trolio Bertullo, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Elsa Trolio Bertullo - Water of words (2016)

Enterprising and creative, Uruguayans share with the Argentineans the honour of inventing the tango, and contend with them, and the Brazilians, supremacy in football, having twice won the World Cup in 1930 and 1950. A passion that writer Eduardo Galeano explained in his book Soccer in Sun and Shadow (El fútbol a sol y sombra, 1995): “The more the technocrats program it down to the smallest detail, the more the powerful manipulate it, soccer continues to be the art of the unforeseeable. When you least expect it, the impossible occurs, the dwarf teaches the giant a lesson, and a runty, bowlegged black man makes an athlete sculpted in Greece look ridiculous.”

María Teresa Ramos Reggi - Ombú (typical tree of South America), María Teresa Ramos Reggi, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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María Teresa Ramos Reggi - Ombú (typical tree of South America) (2016)

A phenomenon of democratic unpredictability and creative madness whose influence can also be seen in Uruguayan art. Evidence of this can be found, for example, in Casapueblo at Punta Ballena, a few kilometres from Punta del Este, where the impressive architectural complex built by the painter, sculptor and ceramic artist Carlos Páez Vilaró is located. It includes the studio of the artist who died in 2014 at the age of ninety, a museum and a hotel, in a mix of styles, ranging from the whitewashed walls of the houses of Greek island fishermen to the fluid and modernist forms of Gaudí.

Federico Osta - We are all works, Federico Osta, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Federico Osta - We are all works (2016)

But Uruguayan contemporary art is also capable of interpreting and reinterpreting its colonial and rural past, as the country’s pavilion at the 57th edition of the Venice Biennale in 2017 shows. The artist Mario Sagradini uses an ethnographic approach to reassemble fragments of Uruguayan history. His exhibit represents a cattle pen called funnel, used in Uruguay since the nineteenth century, which he reconstructed from a barely decipherable old photograph.

Cecilia Vignolo - Untitled, Cecilia Vignolo, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Cecilia Vignolo - Untitled (2016)

Removed from its context, the work is proposed as an empty cubicle, a ghostly scenario whose lost memory is waiting to be rescued, with a direct reference to the law of the funnel, a popular term alluding to the legal system (the broad part for the few, the narrow for the many), whose history encompasses more than a hundred years of rural labour in the Río de la Plata, and can be interpreted as a metaphor of power and the human condition.

Leonardo Gularte - BASQÜADÉ SEPÉ (In charrúa language: GET UP SEPÉ), Leonardo Gularte, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Leonardo Gularte - BASQÜADÉ SEPÉ (In charrúa language: GET UP SEPÉ) (2016)

In this Imago Mundi collection dedicated to Uruguay we can also attest, as Professor Carlos Seveso writes in his introduction to this catalogue, to the “diversity of simultaneous or parallel visions on the metaphorical building of contemporary art.” The 154 10x12 cm works that make up the collection testify to Uruguayan society’s investment in art, where artists are given a central role. “Creativity and imagination are not only encouraged as cultural resources” – writes, in turn, the artistic curator of the collection Maria Laura Mascelloni – “but also supported and socially promoted. Art is a profession like any other, and the artist is asked to create art and amaze, to provoke or reflect, but always for the sake of art, and, of course, of the community.”

Rosario de Mattos - 1492 version 3, Rosario de Mattos, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Rosario de Mattos - 1492 version 3 (2016)

It makes me think that in the land of utopia art too can rediscover its function and social vision. In 1986 Galeano summed up the role of the writer, and I believe his words are equally applicable to all true artists: “I think the purpose of the writer is to help us see. The writer is someone who can perhaps have the joy of helping others see.”

Luciano Benetton

Inés Olmedo - Angel with borrowed wings, Inés Olmedo, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Inés Olmedo - Angel with borrowed wings (2016)

Credits: Story

Art direction, photography and production
Project management
La Biennale di Malindi Ltd.
Maria Laura Mascelloni
Project coordinator
Oriano Mabellini
Giorgia De Luca
Barbara Liverotti
Editorial coordination
Enrico Bossan
Luciano Benetton
Maria Laura Mascelloni
Clemente Padín
Carlos Seveso
Elian Stolarsky - SARA (‘inventories’ series)
Special thanks to
Fondazione Sarenco, Oksana Ignatush, Gisella Marsiglia, Katia Arriola, Lucia Pezzino and Santiago Rivoir, Caterina Bonan and Dario Distefano from Alma Historica, Enzo Valentino Núñez and
César Rodriguez, Michele Gialdroni, responsible of the Italian Institute of Culture in Montevideo
Translation and editing
Carlo Antonio Biscotto
Emma Cole
Giorgia De Luca
Valentina Granzotto
Pietro Valdatta
Art direction
Namyoung An
Photography of artworks
Marco Zanin
Photography of artists
Maria Laura Mascelloni
Piergiacomo Faoro
Marco Pavan

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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