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South American Art & It’s Cultural Identity

What role does cultural identity play in the creation of art? Our sixth region focuses on the New World of the Western Hemisphere - South America.

10 Ways Cultural Identity Has Influenced South American Art

Learn about the 10 Ways Cultural Identity Has Influenced South American Art, and the artistic movements and artists of this region.

South America possesses a rich cultural heritage due to the miscegenation of the races interbred throughout its history. The Spanish conquest is the beginning of the interaction and interpenetration of blood and cultures. As the conquerors mixed with the natives, the aboriginal culture permeated the deep substratum of these people. In short, their way of being was permeated into all aspects of South American culture, from crafts to work to psychology.

The conquerors imposed their economic, political and ideological structure: the Catholic religion as the backbone. Likewise, the Castilian and Portuguese languages’ implantation, valid as a cultural vehicle par excellence, was generalized.

African traditions can be seen in the syncretism of African gods with those of traditional Catholic saints. Including a prominent place in the work of art and the blending of African musical rhythms and European harmonic structure.

On the subject of Saints; and namesakes, did you know that Saint Adrian (and his wife Natalia of Nicomedia), was a Herculian Guard of the Roman Emperor Galerius Maximian in the early fourth century. Saint Adrian was the Patron Saint of plague, epilepsy, arms dealers, butchers, guards, and soldiers!

The eighth century brought us another namesake, St. Adrian of Canterbury. A North African scholar in Anglo-Saxon England and the abbot of Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s in Canterbury.

There are numerous countries in this part of the world that have common historical roots and share common problems. However, each one presents its own unique characteristics: unity, diversity and individuality in this interconnected geography.

"I have said School of the South; because, in reality, our north is the South. There should be no north, for us, but in opposition to our South. That is why we now turn the map upside down, and then we have a fair idea of our position, and not as they want in the rest of the world. The tip of America, from now on, prolonging itself, insistently points to the South, our north."

Joaquín Torres García

Cultural Identity expressed via Characteristics of South America’s Art

South Americans do not focus on the similarities they have historically shared with mainstream European models when defining their cultural identity. The countries in question, seek a culture that includes all these influences, which makes them and Latin American Artists unique.

1. Cultural Identity Expressed through Spiritual Art

South American culture’s language is syncretic, cultivated by numerous cultures’ traditions, but it is essentially European in origin, assimilated and transformed. Like a clenched fist, the cultural idiosyncrasies of South American people really exist.

In addition, they correspond to the origin of Hispanic art in the Americas and the early formation of this continent’s nations.

It is a valuable testimony to the religious enthusiasm of painters and artisans who communicated an imaginary filled with hope and reconciliation.
These works were the fruit of a South America when colonization had the challenge of evangelizing populations that already had their own beliefs.

2. Cultural Identity Expressed through Photography

Photographers captured on film, indigenous peoples, and distinct social types, such as Argentina’s gauchos.

Guy Veloso and José Bassit photograph the Brazilian religiosity. Mario Testino is a noted Peruvian fashion photographer, and Ecuadoran Hugo Cifuentes has garnered attention too.

3. Cultural Identity Expressed through Dance

  • Venezuela’s Tamunangue – Developed by the union of four cultures: indigenous, Spanish, African, and Chibcha, according to some practitioners.

  • The Chilean Cueca – A dance where the dancers (man and woman), carry a handkerchief in their right hand.

  • The Tango – Originating in Argentina / Uruguay, is a dance performed by couples, combining elements of Afro-Rioplatense, Gaucho, South American, and European dances.

  • The Bolivian Carnavalito – An ensemble dance choreographed to the rhythm of the music, this is a dance performed by several couples in groups.

  • The Colombian Cumbia – A musical rhythm and traditional folkloric dance of Colombia. It has contents from three cultural backgrounds, mainly indigenous and black African and, to a lesser extent, Spanish.

4. Cultural Identity Expressed through Music

In music, South American rhythms have had great acceptance worldwide. The Argentine Tango; the Uruguayan Murga; the Colombian Vallenato; the Colombian and Peruvian Cumbia; the music of the Andean highlands; the rhythms of drums and the Venezuelan Pajarillo and Joropo; the Chilean Cueca; the Brazilian Bossa Nova; the Calypso and the Soca of the Antilles, are some of the rhythms that this region has contributed to the world.

Social conflicts at the end of the 1950s, started what would later become known as “the new Latin American song” in South American music.
It presented a common characteristic and message, enabling it to reach a broad and diverse audience.

Originating from two musical lines -folkloric and urban popular music- the musicians and poets had the same ideals. Due to the South American historical state of affairs, socioeconomic and cultural emancipation was pursued.

The relevant names of the new Latin American song are, in Chile: Violeta, Isabel and Ángel Parra, together with the late Víctor Jara; in Brazil: Gilberto Gil, Geraldo Vaudré, Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque; in Argentina: Mercedes Sosa; in Uruguay: Daniel Viglietti; in Venezuela: Gloria Marín; in Peru: Tania Libertad, among others.

5. Abidance to Famous South American Art Styles and Techniques

  • Constructivism – Joaquín Torres García and Manuel Rendón have been credited with bringing the Constructivist Movement from Europe, to South America.

  • Anthropophagism – Associated with the 1960s Brazilian art movement Tropicália, anthropophagia means cannibalism. Although deeply rooted in Brazilian indeguos themes, it refers to art that takes influence from both Europe and the United States. Representative artists: Tarsila do Amaral, Anita Malfatti.

  • Op Art/Cinetism – Is a style of visual art that makes use of optical illusions. Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesus Rafael Soto, Alejandro Otero from Venezuela, Cristian Mac Entyre, Karina Peisajovich, Christian Wloch Julio Le Parc and Fabián Burgos from Argentina, Matilde Pérez from Chile, Omar Rayo from Colombia.

  • Costumbrism – In Spanish America, the costumbrism which emerged from the educated Creole classes, is associated with the creation of a collective identity. This movement precedes attitudes often linked to nationalism and regionalism.

  • Neo-Concrete – A Brazilian art movement that split from the Concrete Art movement that swept South America and the world over. It came out of Rio de Janeiro’s Grupo Frente. They rejected the purely rationalist approach to Concrete Art and embraced a more phenomenological and less scientific art. Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Pape were among the prominent leaders of this movement.

  • Madí – An abstract art movement founded in 1946 in La Plata, Buenos Aire. Founded by the Uruguayan artists Carmelo Arden Quin (plastic artist and writer), Rhod Rothfuss (plastic artist) and Gyula Kosice, a Hungarian-Argentine poet and painter.

    This is an interesting movement that should be adopted by all branches of art. It takes “creation” and “invention” to an extreme level, to free artistic creation from the “external” limitations of the art itself. The artistic group were devoted to pure geometric abstraction.

  • Geometric Abstraction – Is based on the use of simple geometric shapes combined in subjective compositions on unreal spaces. Some references are Egar Negret and Eduardo Villamizar from Venezuela, and Manuel Rendón from Ecuador.

  • Surrealism – An exhibition by Peruvian poets César Moro and Emilio Adolfo Westphalen was held in Lima, Peru, in 1935, and is regarded as the first of its kind in South America. 

"The foundation for the invention of art is space: the work has to be a living entity, and in order to perceive it, one has to move around".

Carlos Cruz-Diez

6. Creation of South American Art through Stone Carvings & Sculptures

  • Lola Mora (Argentina) was commissioned to create the sculptures which would decorarigoure courtyard of Casa de la Independencia in San Miguel de Tucumán.
  • Eloy Palacios (Venezuela): In the early years, the creation of religious images made of wood carvings continued to be traditional in Venezuela. Later, Greco-Roman antiquity models were imitated, representing human figures with weights similar to those used in classical statues.
  • Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt (Colombia): One of the most prolific and appreciated Colombian artists, nationally and internationally. His bronzes are characterized for being gigantic, melodramatic and spectacular; they are located throughout the Colombian geography.
  • Fernando Botero (Colombia): A painter, sculptor and draftsman. With unmistakable signs of identity, such as his voluptuous and disproportionate human bodies.
  • Pérez Celis (Argentina): His work was expressed through painting, sculpture, muralism and engraving. He developed an abstract style, resorting to the fusion of aesthetic lines of the Andean Amerindian cultures with the international plastic avant-garde.
  • Carlo Regazzoni (Argentina): His work features railroad tracks and discarded wagons, making him an alternative artist who uses remnants from railways.

7. South American Art Represented through Architecture

Recent years have seen the emergence of new values characterized by the technical rigor of works crafted from local materials. The desire to free themselves from the dynamics of consumerism, false stereotypes about national identity, as well as the dialogue with the urban context.

Furthermore, they reject the generalized unculture of speculative dynamics, which dominates much of the constructive production of the continent.

The integrative synthesis between the avant-garde of the plastic arts and architecture was the objective proposed by Carlos Raúl Villanueva at the headquarters of the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) in Caracas (1952-1955).

Brazilian public works had a major focus on finding a national expression through the maturity architecture. University courses in architecture were considered to be important, due to their connection with intellectual, technical, and scientific advancement.

In addition to carrying out social works, the new governments’ progressive orientation was marked by monumental urban icons in Chile and Peru.

Unlike the cosmopolitan language of the First World, this architecture reaffirmed the geographical and cultural identities of the local communities.

The development of a language with an autochthonous vocation in Argentina led to the creation of the ‘white houses’ movement. This was led by Claudio Caveri, who promoted the Tierra Cooperative in the province of Buenos Aires.

Eladio Dieste, a Uruguayan engineer, combined tradition and contemporaneity in his designs. The light-layer bricks of the churches of Cristo Obrero and Nuestra Seora de Lourdes in Atlantis, earned him a reputation for exceptional elegance.

8. Cultural Identity Expressed via Literature

Its roots are in the European language and literary traditions, as well as in the physical landscape and cultures of South America. Back in the 17th century, European colonists documented their experiences in the New World.

As the South American colonies declared independence from Europe during the early 19th century, many writers were inspired to write works that reflected their lives and concerns.

Early South American novelists and poets tended to favour the Romantic tradition that developed in Europe during the nineteenth century. As a result, more realism and greater attention to the daily lives of ordinary people developed, as well as an intense concern for social and political reform.

As the name implies, magical realism introduces supernatural elements into a previously more realistic narrative. Many South American authors adopted this style during the second half of the twentieth century. Gabriel Garca Márquez, a Colombian writer, is one of the authors most noted for this style of literature.

Since the 40s and the boom period of the 60s, South American literature has been increasingly present all over the world.

9. Cultural Identity Represented by Cinema

In the 1960s a cinema phenomenon was born the new Latin American cinema. This phenomenon is mainly influenced by Italian neorealism and other social cinema movements. Its function was to go against the American models and in favour of the conflicting reality. It was the hope and the new possibility of re-establishing continent-wide cinematography, a new cinema.

Some of the most influential film directors in South America emerged during the late 1960s. Including Brazilian Flaubert Rocha and Argentinean Fernando Solanas, and Chileans Raúl Ruiz, Miguel Littín and Lautaro Murúa.

As compared to the “national” cinema of the 1930s-1960s, the New Latin American Cinema was strongly influenced by the “auteur cinema”. This was distant from the commercial mechanisms of the “show business” system.

Brazil and Mexico lead film production, with many films from Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Some great referents of today’s cinema are: Lucrecia Martel, Juan José Campanella (Argentina), Alejandro Jodorowsky (Chile), Fernando Meirelles (Brazil), Natalia Smirnoff (Argentina), Lucia Puenzo (Argentina), and Ana Carolina Texeira (Brazil).

10. South America’s Culture Showcased by Theatre

Pre-Hispanic rituals were how the indigenous people came into contact with the divine. The Spanish used theatrical works to Christianize and incorporate Native American peoples into Spanish society in the 17th century. The theatre was an effective tool for teaching a population accustomed to spectacle, so vice-regal theatre became a political element in Hispanic America. Theatre provided a way for aboriginal peoples to participate in theatre as a new form of entertainment. While theatrical works promoted a new sacred order, their priority was to support the new, secular, political order.

In the 20th century, social projects’ dramaturgical structures tended more towards constructing a more native South American base called “Nuestra America”. Argentina, Uruguay and Chile develop prototypes of independent theatre from the Teatro del Pueblo.

Some sectors of South American theatre sought more homogeneous definitions that corresponded to European models, while others focused on indigenous doctrines. The line of search for expression rooted in the history of South America is affirmed.

"The fascination for theatre entered my soul thanks to three events that deeply marked my childhood soul: I participated in the funeral of a fireman, I saw an epileptic seizure, and I heard the Chinese prince sing".

Alejandro Jodorowsky

Importance of South American Art and Artists

Through the use of visual imagery and narratives, arts and literature contribute significantly to South Americas integration and presence in the international market.

In South American societies, historically and politically, symbolic heritage is an important component of their social profile, as well as their individual members’ identities.

Mestizo culture aids South Americans in establishing their identity, consolidate their memory and contribute their sensitive intelligence. Including, who they are, where they belong, and how to cope with globalization.

Creating Art for the Mind and Soul

Art plays a mediating role and is a driving force in communication. The artist’s creations transmit emotions and messages and inspire us to ponder our existence, social problems, or general life.

Because art reflects human culture, it serves to preserve the cultural heritage of people and transmit it from generation to generation. Furthermore, art is also subjective, communicating in a universal language that are understood and appreciated by all people. Education today is still based on artistic works of the past because these – in their different manifestations – have never lost their importance for society.

The extensive work of artists in South America is well worth exploring. Everyone interested in expanding their artistic vocabulary should soak up the influences of this region of the world.

We invite you to explore into the colourful and exotic South American Art.

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