Whale Songs in NY: El Techo de la Ballena at MoMA / María Gabriela Fernández B.

Bones, flesh, viscera, waste. Words of struggle, of life and death. Ideals of agitation. Guerrilla art. The convulsion of the sixties in Venezuela, situated on a global stage leaning left after the recent flames of the Cuban Revolution, was the detonator for transformative movements promoted by intellectuals and artists who took up the direct struggle in Venezuela against formalism and figuration, in aesthetic terms; and against the social conventions that for many people ruled the upper spheres of Venezuelan society.

Carlos Contramaestre, Juan Calzadilla, Caupolicán Ovalles, Rodolfo Izaguirre, Carlos González, Edmundo Aray, Adriano González León, Salvador Garmendia, and Francisco Pérez Perdomo made up, along with at least 60 other visual artists and writers, the avant-garde group El Techo de la Ballena [The Roof of the Whale], which emerged from the dispersal of the group Sardio, and from where they promoted a rupture toward informality and rebellion in art with manifestos and insurgent exhibitions.

A warehouse near the corner of El Conde, in downtown Caracas, a garage on Avenida Abraham Lincoln (today Sabana Grande), and other small galleries with no ties to the art market, housed some of the most irreverent creations of Venezuela’s 20th century. Some of these works, destined to disappear in many cases because of their ephemeral nature (such as the exhibit Homage to Necrophilia), have survived along with a few other vestiges. Challenging documentary registers of a time that took a chance on the creative possibilities of chaos.

An exhibition of what might be the most complete documentary archive of creations linked to this group is on display through February 28th. The exhibition, entitled “The Roof of the Whale”: El Techo de la Ballena and the Venezuelan Avant-Garde, 1961–1969, is at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York where the largest collection of the whale’s rebellion is housed, made up of 266 objects.

Traces of the Collection

Unconcerned with commercial interests and, even more so, anxious for their work to be disseminated for free outside formal salons, some of the members of El Techo de la Ballena paid little attention to keeping track of the fate of their creations, which were soon spread out among their workshops, books, magazines, posters and pamphlets or barely captured in photographs. That’s how the poet and visual artist Juan Calzadilla remembers it, declaring that “El Techo appeared as a marginal movement, without a legal figure, with the participation of an audience that was also linked to resistance groups, and who believed in a free, spontaneous, fresh literature. With no economic interests or concern for authors’ rights.”

While museums (like the National Gallery of Art in Caracas) were concerned with acquiring some of the works by representatives of El Techo de la Ballena, without grouping them together, the collectors Valentina and Ignacio Oberto built an archive where they gathered elements (such as photographs, post cards or bibliographical material) that reflected the movement’s activities and spirit.

Part of that private collection was loaned for a show celebrated at the National Gallery of Art at the end of 2002, according to the curator Féliz Suazo, but it was later donated in its entirety to MoMA in 2012, according to the museum’s registry.

Pillage or Dissemination

The Venezuelan Luis Pérez-Oramas, curator of Latin American art at the MoMA, points out that since 1929 this museum has housed “the largest collection of modern Latin American art in the world,” and he catalogs the donation as a “generous gesture” on the part of the collectors “who know that in this way they can guarantee its preservation and the international projection of this historical group of artists and poets.”

In contrast, during the presentation in July of 2015 of the book Nueva Antología del Techo de la Ballena, edited by Edmundo Aray, the professor of the Techo de la Ballena Free Seminar in Venezuela, Juan Carlos Omaña, qualified MoMa’s action as an example of “cultural pillage” and he warned about the museum’s ties to “the Rockefeller family, that is, the CIA.”

In 2015 in Venezuela, some of the literary expressions of the group were digitalized and republished, for which the Ministry of Culture and the publishing house El Perro y la Rana received “donations of more than 20 original works,” according to the information provided last year by the ex-Minister of Culture Reinaldo Iturriza.

However, Suazo warns that no State collection of El Techo de la Ballena exists in the country (and would be quite difficult to organize) to match the magnitude of the one owned by MoMA. Regardless, he insists the contemporary idea of patrimony “suggests we can’t talk about a robbery when it comes to something that will be fully exhibited so that everyone can enjoy it. The aspiration today is for patrimonies to be made available not just for the citizens of one country but for all human beings.”

The photographer and member of El Techo de la Ballena Daniel González assures that he’d be in agreement with an action by the State to “recuperate” the patrimony of El Techo de la Ballena, but he laments that “culture hasn’t sparked that interest, nor any of the necessary funds.”

The surviving members of El Techo de la Ballena weren’t invited by the MoMA to collaborate with the assembly, which is why Calzadilla mentions that “it will be the interpretation established by the museum,” about whose research methods he has no doubts.

Perán Erminy celebrates the dissemination of the works, and declares: “If the MoMA or anyone else is interested in spreading the contributions of this movement, as it should be, that will be something positive.”

The writer and member of El Techo de la Ballena Rodolfo Izaguirre also calls attention to the interpretations that could be made of this movement in Venezuela, and he laments that “some people are trying to raise the old virulence of El Techo transformed into tame admiration for the current regime.”

Consulted about how curious it is for the work of a rebellious group to end up being exhibited in one of the world’s most important museums, Suazo concludes: “It’s truly a paradox, but it’s the paradox of all avant-gardes. Irony is part of the legacy of El Techo de la Ballena.”

{ María Gabriela Fernández B., El Universal, 17 January 2016 }

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