In 1987, as Guatemala experiences its first democratic government in 30 years, Galería Imaginaria is founded by a group of young art practitioners committed to experimenting with new modes of production, in a context that had until then been hostile to the freedom of expression.
Vista de la Galería Imaginaria
Interview conducted by Emiliano Valdés in Guatemala between March and June of 2013.
It was in 1987 – one year into the rule of the first truly civilian president of Guatemala, after 30 years of disguised dictatorships and military governments – when Galería Imaginaria was born in a small room inside Katok, a cold meats restaurant in Antigua, Guatemala. It was founded by Luis González Palma and Moisés Barrios, the gallery gathered a group of artists including César Barrios, Daniel Chauche, Sofia Gonzalez, Erwin Guillermo, Pablo Swezey and Isabel Ruiz, as well as a young Rosina Cazali at the beginning of her curatorial career. The initiative also summoned practitioners from other fields such as dancers Delia Vigil and Carlos Andrade; these relationships brought Galería Imaginaria closer to the now fashionable notion of interdisciplinarity. It was a complex but optimistic moment in Guatemala’s political and social history. Los Imaginarios as they were informally called, found a space to experiment and get closer to new and innovative models of artistic production and cultural management -including curating. Above all, it was a space to unite efforts, share information and ideas, and to thrive in a context that was particularly hostile to contemporary artistic practices and freedom of expression.
This multiple conversation –including the founders of the project, some of its members, and curator Miguel Flores, a friend of the group– discusses its origins and the influence it had on the landscape of Guatemalan art in the 1980s and early 90s.
Emiliano Valdés: How did the project begin and what was the relationship between its members?
Moisés Barrios: Imaginaria emerged as a project without cultural pretensions, as a commercial gallery. I had just left advertising and Luis [González Palma] wanted to pursue photography. The idea of creating a gallery administered and funded by artists was inspired by the experience of Galeria Vértebra, which was founded by the group of the same name in the late ‘60s. As one of the oldest artists, I knew of these previous experiences and convinced Luis into doing a similar thing. Being an architect, he came up with the design of the small gallery of 3 x 5m.
With time, we became known as Los Imaginarios, and without even noticing it we had become an artist collective, sharing the limited information coming from abroad and discussing our creative anxieties in a very personal manner. The democratic spirit worked well for us, everything was discussed collectively and tasks were naturally shared among members. There was no director and the exhibitions and activities were scheduled in consensus. Rosina [Cazali] solved many difficulties with endless enthusiasm. Pablo Swezey’s take on the conceptual direction of Imaginaria was crucial as he was the only one with an artistic academic education. While some of us had attended local art schools, we had never bothered to delve into the work in a theoretical manner. Isabel Ruiz and [writer] Francisco Morales Santos contributed passionately. Paco was the link between the world of poetry and literature. Luis reached a meteoric success soon after and decided to travel.
Moisés Barrios y Pablo Swezey
Rosina Cazali: Imaginaria acted as a turning point in the collective paradigm. Previously, artist collectives were understood and assumed as working in a private manner. In Guatemala, these groups were permeated by political activism, leftist narratives, etc. They were based on vertical structures where one way of thinking prevailed, one main goal sealed under the traditional form of manifestos. The members were not interested in that model of society as a pact, but more in the idea of a platform to meet and grow together. We hoped for a forum where no specific issue was researched but where a space for doubt could emerge, an environment allowing us to question things rather than create discourses.
EV: What were the conceptual and aesthetic problematics that Los Imaginarios worked on?
Luis González Palma: Initially our idea was to create an open dialogue among all participants. I think it was meant to identify the very directions that would interest us. This happened slowly but I think the addition of Pablo Swezey to the group helped shape our ideas. As far as I’m concerned, I had a deep interest in seeking an “other” way to reflect or represent what happened in Guatemala through the photographic image, and also what was happening to me as an individual facing life with fear and uncertainty. To search for a model that would distance itself from representations related to photojournalism, which was present during the armed conflict, but also to find distance from the touristic images promoted by the INGUAT, which depicted Indians and colorful land. The conversations with the group helped me understand that other paths of research could be pursued. I think we all experienced similar processes in this regard.
Los artistas Isabel Ruiz, Luis González Palma y Moisés Barrios
EV: What was the role of experimentation within the group, both from a formal and content related point of view?
Isabel Ruiz: At that time, the members of Imaginaria didn’t have to comply with the requirements of the national art market, which was not only quite small but also often sought out more superficial, decorative works. Our names had exposure at a national level, some of us had won a few awards, but that was pretty much it. We all lived the life of artists of the Third World, covering our daily expenses by working in advertising or other fields that had nothing to do with art. We were moved by a sense of freedom and by the constant search for new forms of expression. We pursued the realization of an idea without giving too much importance to format itself. We paid attention to objects and materials of everyday life. As for experimentation, Pablo Swezey is an example of it, favoring cement (a hard material present everywhere) over marble. Luis González Palma took photography through unexplored paths, using tar to give a different tone to his work. I experimented with carpets made of carbon; my series Sahumerios led to a dance performance of the same name with the Experimental Dance Workshop. Moisés Barrios painted with a renewed approach towards his subjects. Something that also characterized the members of Imaginaria was an interest in other arts fields, including music, theater, dance and particularly literature.
EV: What role does Imaginaria occupy in the history of Guatemalan art?
RC: It’s the group that most precisely defines the arrival of postmodernity as seen specifically from Guatemala. That is, the complex process of assimilation arising in peripheral countries and that can be summarized by a mixture of open-ended ideas, the adoption of new forms, experimentation with new media, the breaking of traditional paradigms and a sense of globalization experienced from there (perhaps an early definition of the global-local phenomenon).
EV: At a time when the term “curator” was not even part of the Guatemalan art lexicon and artistic training opportunities were limited, what role did theory and curatorship play in the development of the group and the work of its members?
Miguel Flores Castellanos: Theory was fundamental. Moisés was the most informed member of the group, given that he had always been a regular reader of art magazines (Artforum in particular), and knew of trends taking place both in the United States and Europe. Pablo also brought a university education that others did not have. After some of the members started to travel abroad, our bibliography grew. I think Los Imaginarios was not a group in the common sense of the word, they were more artists with common interests and united by the same problems: the lack of space for their work and little recognition. It was curators such as Shifra Goldman and Paloma Porraz that induced a sense of collectivity in them. I presented these artists to Virginia Pérez-Ratton during her first trip to Guatemala when she was seeking artists for her exhibition Mesotica (1995). I think the curators were instrumental in the success of Imaginaria. At that time the term “curator” was not used in Guatemala, but the members knew the term and adopted it in their exhibits. The fact that their work was recognized by a curator and not by the market made the symbolic consecration of these artists possible, and established art as committed on a symbolic, conceptual level and distinct from market demands.
RC: Discussion was fundamental to how Imaginaria operated. Luis and I (we were the youngest along with Pablo) used this space to venture into a territory that had not been evoked before. I mean the personal territory, what could be called “private world”. It is evident in Luis’ work. Often his works were read as expressions of a common social concern, when in fact he was reflecting from his middle class background, with a very strong Catholic education and a whole range of cultural archetypes that he undertook to analyze and dismantle. There was a very strong personal and existential experience in all of this. I talked with Luis all the time. I had the same rush to understand that territory. Pablo was the engine that forced us to speak and fight for our ideas.
Cover of the catalogue “Imaginaria en Nueva York”, Exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, MOCHA
Imaginaria at Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno, Guatemala, 1997. From the second, from left to right : Maestro Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Erwin Guillermo, Luis González Palma, Isabel Ruiz, Pablo Swezey, Daniel Chauche, Sofía González, Moisés Barrios
EV: What was the relationship of Imaginaria with the international art world?
MB: After one year of existence, we exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico, in a show that was also presented at the National Museum of Modern Art in Guatemala. That was the beginning of a series of exhibitions abroad, in San Antonio, Texas; at the Museum of Latin American Art in New York; in England, etc. For this latest exhibition, the gallery did not exist anymore, but the participating artists were the same. The spirit of companionship and collaboration lasted for many years, with exhibitions at the Museo del Chopo at UNAM in Mexico City, at ARCO with the gallery Sol del Río and at the Wifredo Lam Center in Havana.
EV: What influence do you think Imaginaria had on the artists and on Guatemala’s later art history?
LGP: I think there is a group of young artists who identified with our desires and creative needs, and who understood our necessity to create new ways to explore the image in its political and poetic dimension. We might have prompted other creators to find new ways of expressing themselves and taking risks. Other than that, I think our need for market integration and a dialogue with the global art world was a step out of a kind of creative provincialism. This awareness generated a clear need to leave the country, to look at and give direction to the work from the outside, and to seek other perspectives and other dialogues proved instrumental to the group. Undoubtedly, I think that is one of the most important aspects of what we generated: we tried to get our work to be read in Guatemala and beyond, for it to be conceptually sophisticated, aesthetically complex, and even provide another perspective on what happened there.
EV: How did Galería Imaginaria come to an end?
MB: Tensions and conflicts arose over the maintenance of the gallery space, especially regarding the economic aspects and the selection of what was exhibited, but there was always a strong will to discuss everything and to give in for the sake of the project. This very mature attitude made the project successful and pushed it to last four full years.
All images of Pablo Swezey courtesy of Sol del Rio Arte Contemporánea, Guatemala City.