By Sol Astrid Giraldo E.
During the worldwide lockdown, cities empty of people were overrun by wild creatures. They emerged from nearby forests to claim parks and avenues. Madrid was no exception. These foreign species were joined by a notable creature, several meters tall, that was like those animals in that it was not invading, but reclaiming its space. Its closed eyes were no barrier to its ability to observe everything from on high. Lofted by the wind, it serenely drifted toward the apocalypse. In the sepulchral silence of the pandemic, its shockingly yellow synthetic skin positively screamed. In the face of widespread panic, it roared with laughter: at the city, history, the virus, and death. Sphinxes understand the ephemeral nature of all things. Even tragedy.
“The Stroller,” inflatable sculpture. 26 x 15 x 15 feet. Entrance National Museum of Anthropology in Madrid, Spain. 2020.
The sphinx was not alone. Just days before the plague-ridden city locked down, the balloon creature led an invasion of floating aliens, plastic Indians, pre-Colombian gods with cartoon heads, and human bodies with elephant tusks. With its companions, it took up its station outside the National Museum of Anthropology, shamelessly usurping the space. As part of the exhibit, “I Am Another You,” the creatures climbed the stairs and made themselves at home in salons, display cases, and corners. Their mere presence daringly upended the script of Western history. Western history has always maintained that Spain “discovered the Americas,” but now, this tribe from the Andes is “discovering Europe.” A clash of worlds like that of 1492, only now the weapons are not swords or gunpowder, but wit and insolent laughter.
For decades, Colombian artist Nadín Ospina, the creator of these unruly beings, has wielded the tools of irony and humor in his work. In the 1990s, his keen vision turned the tables on centuries of history, without bloodshed or speeches. His installation, In partibus infidelium (Land of Infidels), recreated an archeological museum, complete with fake pre-Colombian pieces. The work earned him the Colombian Salon of Artists Prize and marked a watershed moment, not only in his career, but in reflections on all things pre-Colombian in his country. He went even further with the series Críticos bizarros, where the head of Bart Simpson sits disquietingly atop a stone body. This work is so shattering that Eduardo Pérez Soler asserted: “It is as iconic for Latin America in the late 20th century as Warhol’s Marilyn was for the United States in the 1960s.”
“Encounter,” 2015. Painted bronze. Installation at the National Museum of Anthropology in Madrid, Spain. 2020.
His approach to pre-Colombian history may depart from the idealized indigenous past favored by the Americanists of the first half of the 20th century, but it does not scorn it. Turning to irony and sarcasm, Ospina unequivocally claims a place in our current complex and multicultural present, where differences must be confronted and reconciled. The existing logic of first and second world countries and cultures no longer applies. Times have changed and the map has been redrawn.
Since the 1990s, Ospina’s perspective has produced works that slap Goofy’s snout on the body of the Meso-American Chac Mool and recreated shamanic feathers with the geometry of LEGO pieces. These sculptures are not mere facile jokes; they express his disregard for traditional categories that distinguish art materials from industrial ones, civilization from barbarity, and great legends from cartoon superheroes.
“Príncipe de las flores”, 2001, piedra (stone), 60 x 34 x 34 cm.
His figures are monstrous precisely because they reflect the clash of irreconcilable worlds. They evoke the origins of Latin America, where no one culture managed to definitively erase any other, thereby creating a lasting incongruity. We happen to be a society built on ruins, with a history of people joining and separating, creating a blend of indigenous and global traits. Perhaps the time has come to see this fusion of cultures as more than a function of wars, victories and defeats, winners and losers, natives and immigrants, or us and them.
Ospina’s work encompasses all of this and takes it to Spain (invited by curator Isabel Durán), bringing an outrageous reverse invasion of the country that sent those colonizing ships out into the world. Venerable 18th century portraits, with their visual nuances of class and race, disturbingly rub shoulders with the Ospina family portrait, his German grandfather and indigenous grandmother front and center.
“Los americanos”, gráfica. 19,5 x 118,5. Pieza única, 2014.
The museum’s portraits of North American indigenous people shed their scientific aspirations when juxtaposed against Ospina’s digital photographs of the plastic toy Indians that have long taught children the concept of “savage.” An alien sitting next to a Muisca statue in the museum lobby calls to mind the intergalactic fantasies of the 20th century, which go hand-in-hand with discourses of exclusion and the fear of other people and cultures.
The way the exhibit positions pre-Colombian imagery in Spain is powerful, and the fact that the exhibit itself was quarantined with the arrival of the pandemic ended up strengthening it further. If the virus, with its indiscriminate attacks on both “us” and “them,” has taught us anything, it is that everything is interconnected and that the human race will only survive (or perish) together, knowledge that lurks behind the closed eyes of Ospina’s inflatable sphinx during days lived on the razor’s edge.