A couple of weeks ago, a small but evocative display of 30 abstract sculptures, paintings and engravings by artist Manuel Felguérez opened in the stunning boomerang-shaped museum designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki for Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts. The exhibition of recent works by Felguérez, one of the most prominent members of the generation that helped pave a new way in Mexican art beyond the aesthetic ideas of Diego Rivera and the Mexican muralists, was quite an event. And indeed it was intended to mark a special occasion: the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Mexico and China.
Despite the quality of the exhibition and the presence of the sculptor and painter himself, in reality this is not a common event. Not only is a Latin American art exhibition in China a rare occurrence but, sadly, this cultural exchange mirrors how little importance nations in the region give to a country that has already become their first or second trade partner.
Over the past couple of years only a few major exhibitions have been organized by Latin American countries in China: Colombia brought a large sample of Pre-Hispanic gold objects to the Shanghai Museum and Peru exhibited a range of objects made by Pre-Incan civilizations at the National Museum in Beijing last year. Very little modern art has been displayed, with the possible exceptions of Felguérez and the kinetic works of Venezuela's Carlos Cruz Díez in Ningbo.
But it's not just art. The presence of prominent Latin American intellectuals has generally been scarce. Last year's only high profile visit was that of Mexican writer Sergio Pitol, probably the Latin American intellectual with the closest ties to China, after having lived here for almost a year just before the Cultural Revolution. Argentine poet Juan Gelman and Peruvian novelist—and Nobel laureate—Mario Vargas Llosa have both visited China, albeit on invitations from Spain's Instituto Cervantes. The only important author to visit during this first half of 2012 has been Peruvian writer Fernando Iwasaki, who spoke in the Chinese capital last week.
There is not much difference in other fields like music or the performing arts. Only one musician, Argentine pianist Marcela Roggeri, has played so far at Beijing's state-of-the-art National Performing Arts Center (the famous “egg” next to Tiananmen Square). None have done so at Zaha Hadid's magnificent Guangzhou Opera or Shanghai's Grand Theatre. Film cycles, cheap to organize and easy to rotate, are quite possibly the only frequent cultural presence Latin America has in China. And even then, they rarely veer further away than Beijing or Shanghai.
However, there has been one bright exception. For six months in 2009, Expo Shanghai saw a great number of exhibitions, concerts and conferences. Mexico brought one of Frida Kahlo's self-portraits, complete with monkey, to its kite pavilion. Music was the absolute star, with concerts from well established artists like Carlinhos Brown, Juan Luis Guerra, Rodolfo Mederos or Chango Spasiuk and trendy contemporary groups like Nortec Collective, Bomba Estéreo and Bajofondo Tango Club.
But what happened after the six-month Expo closed its doors? Are we to wait for a new mega event for the next opportunity to showcase our culture in China? Or for the next Olympics? Latin American countries have unfortunately been slow to understand that the bigger the familiarity between us, the larger that trade and human exchanges will be. Seeing the curiosity of Chinese visitors contemplating Pre-Hispanic objects or their enthusiastic embrace of salsa and tango should serve as indicators of what a strong “brand” Latinos have in China. But the truth is that Latin America has not yet given China the importance it deserves in other fields beyond trade.
Andrés Bermúdez Liévano is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He lives in Beijing, China, and is the editor-in-chief of China Files, the only Latin American editorial agency writing in-depth reports and articles from and about China for media in the region.