Marcela Cantuária’s Vibrant Homage to Climate Justice Warriors

MIAMI — At first, the three large-scale oil paintings by Marcela Cantuária radiate that Instagram-ready energy common to so much contemporary art. Inside Pérez Art Museum Miami’s double-height gallery, the Brazilian artist’s first show in the United States, I heard a lot of wows from viewers attracted to her monumental, vibrant panels accompanied by paintings of butterflies and mythical Tarot creatures hovering across the gallery’s gray walls. But despite this exhibition’s magical bent, The South American Dream is also about struggles for social and environmental justice in a more down-to-earth world. 

“No los dejemos dormir (Let’s Not Let Them Sleep)” (2023), a huge textile map of South America, hangs in a corner with the message in Spanish: “Si no nos dejan soñar, no los dejaremos dormir” (“If they don’t allow us to dream, we won’t let them sleep.”) Concealed beneath the painting’s chromatic surfaces is an homage to fighters, including those who died in Latin American countries in the second half of the 20th century fighting against ultra-right dictatorships backed by the United States, such as the Fulgencio Batista regime in Cuba and the military dictatorship in Brazil, and those who continue fighting for environmental and social causes today. 

Installation view of The South American Dream, featuring works by Marcela Cantuária (photograph by Oriol Tarridas, courtesy Pérez Art Museum Miami)

Can viewers see that? Or does it get lost in the psychedelic colors and dreamy iconography of the installation? “Don’t touch it!” a mother says and runs to grab her child’s hand as it reaches out to the light purple neon halo illuminating “A temperança” (The Temperance, 2022–23). This painting, named after the Major Arcana Tarot card that signifies clear vision, features a three-headed figure: a self-portrait, as well as the faces of Brazilian environmentalists Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva, murdered for her work against evictions of rural farmers and illegal deforestation, and Dorothy Stang, murdered for her activism against landowners and loggers who threatened local agricultural workers. In the center of the torso, the face of Asháninka Peruvian activist Ruth Buendía, killed for defending environmental and indigenous rights, looks back at us. Some snap a picture near the painting after quickly scanning the room, then leave, possibly missing the argument of this layered vision of spiritual clarity: that dreams of change also involve protests, personal sacrifice, and solidarity between communities. 

If one looks more closely, this emphasis on death and brutality lurks even below Cantuária’s more kaleidoscopic work. The largest painting in the exhibtion, “O sonho sul Americano” (The South American Dream, 2022–23), is a canvas divided into three sections by blue-painted arches. The leftmost panel features death entering the space astride a horse. Upon the saddle are the faces of more activists who died defending their territory: Brazilian environmental protestor Maria José Rodrigues, Wayúu social leader Aura Esther Garcia Peñalver, Mapuche activist Elías Garay, and Stang, who was an American-Brazilian nun. (Cantuária has compiled a glossary of all these slain activists on her website) The second section of the painting presents Incan resistance figure Túpac Amaru II, a powerful figurehead of liberation in the South American Andes region, within a wheel of fortune, which represents luck, karma, destiny, and resistance. The wheel pours a liquid from which souls emerge, suggesting their rebirth to inspire new generations or haunt those who turn their backs on injustice. Finally,  the third references the “Seven of Pentacles” Tarot card, which highlights a commitment to perseverance, and centers Cantuárias figure engaged in the hard labor of cropping the land.

In past works, Cantuária has highlighted the loss of revolutionaries who died protesting ultra-right military dictatorships more directly. For example, her series Pretérito (The Future of the Past, 2018) grapples with the poorly healed wounds from 20th-century dictatorships and the blood spilled as a result.

In this show, however, the darker narratives of death and struggle are obscured by the eye-catching phantasmagoria of the installation. This might dampen the artist’s socio-political critique, which I find most effective about her practice.

“I understand that the South American dream goes against neoliberalism thoughts,” she said during her artist talk at PAMM with curator Jennifer Inacio, almost as if she felt she needed to justify an exhibition that tackles political conflict with socialist heroes in right-wing leaning Miami, Florida. Guerrilla feminist activists and all sorts of queer, anti-capitalist dreamers can be found in Cantuariás’s larger body of work. This exhibition leaves something to be desired by focusing more on the magic we must project to conjure a better world, and less on the struggle it takes to get here. 

Marcela Cantuária: The South American Dream, organized by associate curator Jennifer Inacio, continues at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (103 Biscayne Blvd, Miami) through July 28. 

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