Painting and the Insurrection of the Imaginary: Between the Future-Past and the Present to Come

How can we weave together a memory that allows us to glimpse new horizons of justice at the periphery of hegemonic narrative? Recognizing the counterfactual character of history, the curator Aldones Nino speaks with the painters Herbert de Paz and Marcela Cantuária, who share their impressions of what the role of the imagination is in the face of a constantly regenerating colonial project.

One of the most difficult things, for a person as well as for a country, is keeping the three elements of time, past, present, and future, ever present in front of your eyes. [1]

When we look at the pictorial tradition in “the Americas,” we find figurations that contributed to the materialization of our sociopolitical reality. Through formal education, painting was used to mold official history and, consequently, imaginaries. Standing before the paint ings of Herbert de Paz and Marcela Cantuária, we can see images that spill over beyond the recognizable limitations of the world that surrounds us; these images open up possible points of access not only to previously interred stories, but also to invented stories that materialize unrealities as propositions of the future.

ALDONES NINO (AN): At one time, the past of our present was barely a proposition. This eventually ended up materializing itself as the floor upon which we walk. In this sense, we know that at the same time that this past guided us to the present, it also indicated what the desired future would be. Thus, we live at the juncture of the past-present and the past-future. Locating ourselves in this latter zone, we can still be agents of change; the seed of what we imagine today can alter this chain of events. What are the principal legacies that you two send into the future?

MARCELA CANTUÁRIA (MC): I think that the greatest legacy we can send to the future will germinate with the support and dedication of many hands. When I think of the history of our people through painting, I feel that I never paint alone. In Brazil, as opposed to many of its neighboring American countries, we never had a fair policy of memory that could live up to the heights of the massacres committed by the bandeirantes (during the Portuguese invasion) and torturers (during the period of the military dictatorship). Therefore, I believe that our role as painters is directly related to a liberatory and just politics of memory.

I understand legacy as giving a face, a body, color, and narrative to those whose lives were annihilated by the predatory structures of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy.

HERBERT DE PAZ (HDP): When I make my work, I like to think that it can change our notion of the past. Understanding that the “hegemonic past” we learn about through images is nothing more than a big invention that serves to establish and maintain the colonialist regimes under which we are obliged to live to this day. Historical images that were and continue to be produced at the behest of these regimes are responsible for perpetuating notions of “conquest” and “victory.” In contrast, images of resistance are few and far between because they don’t favor these regimes. By uncovering history, we can create more possibilities for thinking about the past, which in turn reveals new protagonists and other narratives that feed a desire for transformation in the future.

AN: Perhaps collective dreaming is the only way to dematerialize the tools of oppression that our world has constructed. How do you view the importance of imagination to the recuperation of memory through painting?
MC: What I like best about painting is the mechanism we must activate in order to create and enter into other worlds. When I went to Mexico in 2019, I was exposed to a lot of Zapatista thought, which led me to incorporate into my imaginary the phrase, “Por un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos” (“For a world where many worlds fit”). I know that in the past, individuals were deprived of a place in this world; painting creates a space that makes room for the existence of these lives.

HDP: From its earliest days, painting was always used to record or imagine something, using real events as a starting point and expanding outward to other planes, like the idea of heaven and hell in the European Christian tradition, or spirits in Indigenous cosmovisions. Painting and imagination exist hand-in-hand. The ancient scribes knew this very well.

MC: Collective dreaming is always a dialectical exercise in reimagining the past, in which we borrow the official story and transform it into real and possible inventions.

Every revolutionary triumph has passed through imagination before existing in the real world.

HDP: In the exercise of looking at the past, painting can act as an explosive force that can help reinvent memory and offer a cure for the historical wounds inflicted by the experience of colonial submission.

AN: Both of your pictorial investigations use figuration as a defense strategy against the possibility of narrative annihilation. How does speculation relate to ideas of recognition and justice?
HDP: From the very moment figuration becomes suggestive, it is dangerous. Events like the Haitian Revolution
were pictorially recorded in images, but those representations were not made by Black Haitians to recount their
story of resistance. They were made by whites in order to warn against the danger such organized groups posed
to their power. Today, we can read those images from a perspective that is more aligned with the reality of the
oppressed people; it is in this equation that I feel we can find some historical balance.

MC: I agree. Political narrative is always indisputable: by the power of the press, by institutions, by organized crime that destroys the street sign honoring Marielle Franco, for example. There are two paths open to us when we find ourselves in front of a painting representing political imagination: you can think, “It’s only a painting,” or you
can think, “It’s a possibility.” Since I have already had work be censored, I know that deep down neoliberalism is terrified of the prefiguration of horizons of justice in art.

AN: History is one of the primary source materials for your compositions, but at the same time they are points of departure. Other of your primary sources include those central problems that pose destabilizing fractures, oscillating between historical archives and oneiric yearning. What is it like manipulating history beyond its logical limitations, taking into consideration its flaws as triggers for the poetic process?

MC: I see painting as the matter of possible fabrications and re-enchantments that don’t lose sight of material reality. For example, when I was doing research for a portrait I painted of the guerrilla fighter Sonia de Araguaia, I came across three different versions of the story of her murder at the hands of three soldiers and a general. I solved this conundrum by mixing the three stories together in the painting to evoke the idea that the fighter remained enchanted on the banks of the river where she was murdered. When I put my brush to the depiction of the failures and cruelties that guerilla women have suffered, I try to celebrate their existence through the representation of dense, virgin nature, represented from life. In painting rivers, forests, and spaces of life and abundance, I inevitably use warm colors. The imagination moves beyond the denunciation of the murder. It attempts to understand—in the words written on Chile’s national stadium —that “a people without memory is a people without a future.”
HDP: When you look to the past, you become aware of the contrast between the gaping holes and the countless
characters that struggled in defense of the lives of people oppressed by colonialism. When I hear Marcel talk about
re-enchantment, I think of it as bringing memories of the past back to this plane through the magic painting makes
of imagination. Each name evokes strength with its history: Gaspar Yanga (Nyanga), Mamá Dolores and Mamá
Tránsito, Juana Azurduy, Berta Cáceres, Marielle Franco, La Revolución de Haiti, El Carnaval de los Cucumbis, etc.

AN: Looking to the past is a strategy that serves as a warning in the face of the ceaseless transformations of the
colonial project, a project that has often manipulated artistic production into aiding and abetting its construction of
so-called universality. What would it be like to think of futures where the instrumentalization of contemporary art in an elite agenda comes to an end?

HDP: I believe it is important to create bridges of communication that go beyond the bounds of traditional art spaces; the imaginary repertoire that we have inherited from the past can also be updated on a collective scale. By amplifying these images and making them part of the collective imagination, we can contribute to the dissemination of histories that can help to generate political consciousness.

The elite are responsible for the demarcation of borders. Art can serve as a tool for thinking about our lands through our shared experiences of resistance, rather than through ideas of limited geographies.

MC: Taking art out of the claws of the bourgeoisie depends on the organization of artists, but above all, on the end of the capitalist system. I believe that the construction of the present in my painting is due to a commitment to basic education: using painting as a pedagogical tool, following the lead of autonomous groups, communes, modes of economic solidarity. Sharing the technique that I was able to learn with those who haven’t had the same opportunity as I to pursue a university degree in art. In order to germinate the seeds of the future it is necessary to reject cynicism.
AN: If Western hegemony was made possible through genocide and expropriation, how would it look to articulate its dismantling through insurgent imaginaries? Can land and culture be articulated beyond these barriers, can justice be accessed without falling into utopianism?

MC: Images have the power to make people uncomfortable, feel inspired, or reflect… I strongly believe in the Global South’s potential to create new images that can sulear [2] a just history for Indigenous people. There is something defeatist about the idea of utopia, as though the dream weren’t enough on its own.

HDP: Mainly through sharing with our peers, forging narratives that can awaken in our imaginary other possibilities about the past in order to think about possible futures through them.

AN: Unfettered consumption and the draining of our natural resources that results from this consumption is perhaps the greatest threat to the continuity of life on earth. Is it possible to create bridges forward in the face of this imminent abyss?
HDP: It is important that we don’t forget that equilibrium with the earth and nature and the common wellbeing of all peoples are the pillars of a more conscious society, and the opposite of the annihilation of ancient cultures. They
are also totally opposed to the neoliberalism under which we currently live.
MC: Unfettered consumption and the ceaseless invention of unnecessary needs are the poison fruit of capitalism.
Caring for the planet’s life is self-care; it is vital that we come together to fight against mining, multinationals, and big corporations. Ecosocialism or neoliberal barbary!


  1. Translator’s translation.

  2. “The term sulear problematizes and counteracts
    the ideological character of the term nortear
    (north: above, superior; south: below, inferior),
    giving visibility to southern optics as a way to
    counter the dominant Eurocentric logic which
    presents the north as the universal reference.”

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