A Curator Makes Room for Big Ideas and Big Art
MEXICO CITY — Art Basel had practical purposes in mind when it introduced the Meridians section to its sprawling Miami Beach marketplace in 2019. The oversize exhibition space was meant to make room for large-scale objects and performance pieces that galleries could not fit in their standard fair booths.
But the sideshow display of giant, colorful canvases, 3-D installations and multichannel videos ended up transforming the whole fair-going experience, adding a curated art option — something more like a museum show — to the seemingly endless grid of retail spaces that make up the event. At the booths, visitors shopped. At Meridians, they watched, walked through and interacted with the art. It made Art Basel Miami Beach more engaging.
Part of the credit goes to the work; it was well received, as they say in the art world. But another part goes to the curator, Magalí Arriola, who pulled together a lineup of artists, present and past, stretching up and down the Americas, including Fred Wilson, a New Yorker; the Cuban-born Ana Mendieta; and Luciana Lamothe, from Argentina.
Ms. Arriola is well positioned to know art along this particular meridian. She is the director of Museo Tamayo in Mexico City, long a connection point between art and artists in the Americas. Her résumé as a curator includes shows in San Francisco; Bogotá, Colombia; and Buenos Aires.
“And I’m actually half-French, half-Mexican,” she said during a recent interview on the front steps of Museo Tamayo, which was closed for renovations. “I work mostly in the U.S. and Latin America, but I also have made connections to Europe.”
In Mexico City, she was part of an ambitious group of artists and curators who began their careers in the mid-1990s. They collectively pushed the gallery scene to expand exponentially, morphing from a scattering of informal exhibition spaces to an established capital of contemporary art, with institutions like Museo Jumex and Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil showcasing international talents.
In fact, she worked at both of those places, and as an independent curator, before taking the top job at Tamayo in 2019. She is known locally as the person who knows everyone.
“I started at Carrillo Gil, and back then it was supposed to be more for younger artists — and I was young at that time — so I was working with my own generation of people,” she said. Her peers include central figures of the era, such as the artists Francis Alÿs and Yoshua Okón and the gallerists José Kuri and Mónica Manzutto.
Since then, she has maintained a forward-looking focus, helping emerging talents find platforms for their work. The first major curatorial effort at her current job, titled “Otrxs Mundx,” featured 40 artists, many of whom had never shown previously in a museum setting.
“What I think is very important now is that, at Museo Tamayo, she has been very close to young artists. She is always working with new generations,” said Ana María Sánchez Sordo, another prominent curator in Mexico City and currently the manager of Galerie Nordenhake, which will have a booth at Art Basel Miami Beach this year.
The 2021 edition of Meridians will showcase a number of up-and-coming names, though Ms. Arriola said coordinating was different from curating typical museum shows, which are usually based on a theme or intended to serve as a retrospective of an artist’s career. Instead, the display is a roundup of big pieces that commercial galleries are looking to show off.
“It really takes shape out of what the galleries send,” she said. “In some cases, of course, I have conversations that can orient things, but the result is mandated by whatever is put forward.”
The projects that were proposed this year were distinct from 2019, mostly because of the pandemic, Ms. Arriola said, and there were fewer of them. Many artists were forced by the global lockdown to work from their homes instead of larger studios and simply did not have the space to produce substantial objects.
She was also challenged to include galleries from Central and South America, where recovery from the pandemic has been slower than in the United States. “I did the same reaching out to Latin American galleries,” she said, “but people are still catching up from two years ago.”
Only one of those galleries will be present at Art Basel Miami Beach: A Gentil Carioca, in Rio de Janeiro, will bring a two-dimensional piece by the Brazilian artist Maxwell Alexandre, depicting “Black bodies on brown paper, exploring the color brown’s sociopolitical connotation as a word to veil blackness,” according to the gallery’s description.
Because, by default, this year’s show is heavy on galleries from the United States, it will reflect topics that dominated the social discourse in the country over the past 20 months, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement.
“What you will find the most are all these different proposals that are dealing with race issues and class issues and power issues, which of course, are all somehow interlinked,” Ms. Arriola said.
Among the works that fit in that broad category are Todd Gray’s 14-part, 30-foot-long “Sumptuous Memories of Plundering Kings,” which examines the enduring fallout of colonialism and slavery (presented by New York’s David Lewis gallery). Also, there is a new painting, 20 feet long and 7 feet tall, by Conrad Egyir, a Detroit-based artist whose work mixes iconography from his native Ghana with references to present-day American culture (presented by the Jessica Silverman gallery of San Francisco).
There is also one performance piece in the show: “Contract and Release” by Brendan Fernandes, a series of six small sculptures inspired by a chair that Isamu Noguchi designed as a set piece for a 1944 ballet performance of “Appalachian Spring” by the Martha Graham Dance Company. The prop was static, but Mr. Fernandes’ versions rock precariously and dancers will try to balance themselves upon them, investigating notions of freedom of movement and imposed restrictions. (The piece will be presented by Chicago’s moniquemeloche gallery.)
“Contract and Release” will be activated over about 538 square feet — more space than some entire art fair booths are allotted — and so it is exactly the type of work Meridians makes possible at Art Basel Miami Beach.
“It’s a really great opportunity to show something which could only otherwise be seen in a museum,” said the gallery’s owner, Monique Meloche.