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Student-curated Andean Modernities exhibit brings Latin American representation to BCMA

January 27, 2023

Eliza Rhee
ART FROM THE ANDES: Art featured in the BCMA exhibition Andean Modernities. The exhibit, which opened on January 19, was curated by Professor Carolyn Wolfenzon Niego and her students.

In 2019, when Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Carolyn Wolfenzon Niego set out to curate an exhibit at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) on Mexico, Chile and Peru, she found works from the latter two countries lacking in the museum’s collection.

Inspired to help fill this representational gap, Wolfenzon Niego and her students designed an exhibit entirely filled with works from Latin American artists. The exhibit will run from January 19 through March 5 in the BCMA’s Becker Gallery.

“I want more representation for these countries because it is important to show other cultures at the BCMA,” Wolfenzon Niego said. “With work about Latin America, I haven’t seen much.… Now there’s an entire room of these countries’ [art].”

The students curated the exhibit by conducting one-on-one Zoom meetings with the artists, selecting works from a variety of artist portfolios, voting on the pieces to be included, writing the exhibit’s wall labels and designing the physical layout of the gallery.

Vanny Nelson ’23 reflected that the experience helped her to better understand curatorial work.

“This really showed me how much work goes into putting together an exhibit,” she said. “It’s not just ‘Oh, I want these pieces,’ you also have to make a story and make it all cohesive, and even think about the size of the works. A lot is going on behind the scenes.”

BCMA Curator Cassandra Mesick Braun worked with the class on the curation and collaborated with local printers and framers to finalize the exhibit over winter break. Braun attempted to keep the final gallery layout as similar to the students’ ideas as possible.

The included works helped students tie class discussion and readings to the lived realities of indigenous experience, Wolfenzon Niego noted. Featured artist Mayu Mohanna’s photographs, for example, highlight the lasting connections between colonial Catholic practices and indigenous religion, which continues to be a major facet of cultural life in the Andes.

“Without the pictures, it is difficult to help students understand another world’s vision and perspective,” Wolfenson Niego said. “You can better understand these things with illustrations than the books alone can explain.”

Multiple works of video, photo and sculpture are included in the exhibit from the Ecuadorian artist Adrián Balseca. Balseca’s included pieces come from his collection, “The Skin of Labor,” and draw on his scholarship and archival work on the environmental harms of rubber and oil extraction from the Amazon region. A number of students in the class were Environmental Studies-Spanish coordinate majors and especially appreciated meeting with Balseca.

“His work really makes great connections between this historical moment that the students were learning about and really prompted them to think about the human costs of environmental degradation,” Braun said. “Somewhere around 90 percent of the indigenous population also died as a result of those extraction practices.… His art is deeply rooted in his scholarship in the region.”

Nelson noted that the curation process involved a significant amount of curation and even some disagreement. Students voted on potential bodies of work and layouts in small groups before making final decisions as a whole. Each student also had the opportunity to research an individual work and author its wall label.

“Because we all wrote labels for different artworks, you got to hear different people’s takes. Everyone had a different perspective,” Nelson said.

The Becker Gallery often includes student and professor-curated shows such as this exhibit. In 2023, Braun expects an environmental studies course to curate an exhibit along with other courses that are to be selected in an upcoming application process.

Students from Wolfenzon Niego’s course will be giving a tour of the Andean Modernities exhibit on February 23 at 4:30 p.m., and Balseca will be speaking over Zoom about his featured pieces in a BCMA event on March 2.


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