ARTS & CULTURE
By Pamir Kiciman
CHAPEL HILL — After a much-needed cooling rain last Saturday, a new art exhibition titled “La Eterna Injusticia,” had its opening reception at BASEMENT.
“The show presents visually stimulating and dynamic explorations of mediums utilized to challenge and reimagine my homeland,” said Martín Wannam regarding his first exhibition in the area.
He’s an assistant professor in Studio Art at UNC-Chapel Hill who has exhibited nationally and internationally.
The homeland mentioned is Guatemala, “the place of many trees,” derived from a Nahuatl word, a group of languages from the region. It’s more widely known as, “the land of eternal spring,” referring to its temperate climate and tropical rainforests.
“We live in a constant mode of resistance in a system that benefits the privileged, so I took what folks call the land of eternal spring and named my show land of eternal injustices to bring attention to the current state [of affairs],” Wannam explained.
How does one make art as a form of resistance? One sure method is iconoclasm, in which cherished institutions, values and beliefs are actively rejected and criticized.
The word literally means, “image breaking.” In Wannam’s work, it becomes apparent in a number of ways, the central one being the use of brown silhouettes to stand in for patriotic monuments that represent troubling histories.
“The brown silhouettes in each multimedia photograph take the place of well-known monuments in Guatemala with violent, oppressive histories,” according to Wannam.
It’s a visually arresting approach: a monochrome defacing of these structures that catches the eye amongst other colorful ingredients of his multimedia compositions.
Wannam is BASEMENT’s inaugural Radicle Resident. Established in 2019, BASEMENT is an artist-run project space. Adding to its roster of programs, Radicle is a month-long artist residency followed by a one-month exhibition and public engagement event.
Details about BASEMENT and the kind of art it presents are available from The Local Reporter’s coverage last summer.
Other than deconstructing public monuments with brown, the images include stickers, emblems, colorful frames, lettering and cut-out figures repeating across each one. There are flames, Jesus fishes, Snoopy, Bugs Bunny and other cartoon characters, jungle cats, bulls, scorpions, and more pop culture artifacts that are exports of Americana.
These maximalist touches typically include bold colors, layered patterning and ample accessories. It’s an aesthetic of excess as a reaction to minimalism.
The cartoonish effect this creates is a new viewpoint through which to reinterpret the power represented by the monuments.
In Wannam’s words it is, “a brown ‘cuir’ lens and maximalism aesthetics as a way of freedom dreaming.”
“Cuir” is difficult to define in English in all of its dimensions. Most basically, it’s a modification of queer in Spanish.
This is how Wannam takes an anticolonial stance and provides a glimpse into Latinx queer futurism.
Latinx or Latine are gender-neutral versions of Latino (masculine) and Latina (feminine).
Because Wannam’s art practice is interdisciplinary, the show includes small sculptures and a looping film of performance art. “I usually use mediums to help me express ideas, thoughts, or research,” he pointed out.
The sculptures are tropical fruits fashioned from cement and colored wax.
“I cast multiple fruits either with concrete or colored wax as a love letter to Guatemala, using two materials that have been part of my visual culture,” he said.
“I’m currently interested in wildness as a way to also be cuir, how we are nature and that nature or the ‘wild’ has been pushed away and labeled as chaos.”
The filmed performance takes place on a wooden pedestal created by Wannam and placed on a busy street in Guatemala City. The idea is that the performers are live monuments.
At the artist talk on Saturday, Wannam described it as, “a way to think about how I can collectively with other folks in my community create power in a public display.”
It’s part and parcel of the resistance in Wannam’s work to reclaim space and power, bring visibility in broad daylight and celebrate queerness. It also bridges viewers on the street with those in the gallery and allows him to cover more ideas and facilitate dialogue.
Wannam shared that the colorful addons in his images come from transportation culture in Guatemala where vehicles taken out of circulation in the U.S. end up in Central America and put back into use as an inexpensive mode of travel and also altered.
Known as “chicken buses,” because riders also transport live animals in them, they are usually old American school buses that are airbrushed in vibrant colors and individually decorated.
“The buses are repaired and adorned with stickers and graphics that reflect the driver’s personality and route,” he said. “Playing with the buses’ colors and decorations is a vital process that I appropriate during production, as I get inspiration on changing powerful familiar monuments to queer brown monuments.”
There’s a lot going on in “La Eterna Injusticia” that isn’t immediately obvious. Here’s a tiny and inadequate history lesson to explain.
Adding to its already horrendously bloody past, both ancient and modern, Guatemala was ruled by a succession of dictators backed by the multinational United Fruit Company (UFCO) and United States government starting in the early 20th century (Wikipedia).
Known today as Chiquita, based in Dania Beach, Florida, UFCO’s methods displaced farmers and turned their farmlands into plantations. This private enterprise enforced brutal labor practices, received massive concessions and even lobbied the U.S. to overthrow Guatemalan president Árbenz, leading to decades of U.S.-backed regimes who committed widespread torture and genocide.
While Wannam’s work focuses on the intersection of brownness and queer utopia, he doesn’t necessarily have answers, except to say, “Cuir Latinx folks need to start thinking that we are the future.”
This doesn’t mean he hasn’t faced and grappled with the issues faced by the queer community of color in Guatemala.
“Brown is such a beautiful color that, for most of my life, I did not embrace,” he confessed.
“By removing the figure of the monument and just leaving the brown was a decision to conceptually heal the ‘Brown commons,’ as academic José Estaban Muñoz talks about.”
In his posthumously published, “The Sense of Brown,” Muñoz frames Brown commons as, “people, places, feelings, sounds, animals, minerals, flora, and other objects.”
The academic goes on to write: “How these things are brown, or what makes them brown, is partially the way in which they suffer and strive together but also the commonality of their ability to flourish under duress and pressure.”
For more context, read the full excerpt on Literary Hub from the link above.
“La Eterna Injusticia” is open to viewers for the rest of September, 2-5 p.m. on the following dates: September 16 and 17; 23 and 24; and 30, its closing date.
While BASEMENT normally doesn’t reveal its location unless you’re on its mailing list, the address is listed on the show’s page found here.
To learn more about Wannam, visit his website.
Pamir Kiciman is a creative who has been a photographer and actor since the age of five. The longtime writer is now returning to the theater and acting. He has spent most of his nearly three years in the Triangle writing arts and culture features. To learn more, visit https://my.visualcv.com/pamirkiciman or contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.