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The heart of Latin art

It's not just folk, it's fusion. Exhibitions nationwide spotlight a bold and visionary tradition.

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Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 through Oct. 15) has helped promote interest. But as numerous culture watchers observe, the story is much deeper than that. As Mr. Townsend points out, the market began to take off in the 1980s, when prices for many big names, such as Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and fellow Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, began to soar.

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Now, social and economic pressures are pushing the US and Latin American countries ever closer, says Lyman Allyn guest curator Gail Gelburd. "The shifting demographics of today are making it more important than ever that we find ways to understand other cultures, and art is a vital tool for that," she adds.

As cultures grow increasingly global, artists are reaching across boundaries to frame the global human experience for all nations. Witness Colombian Fernando Botero's response to news of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. "This generation will understand the Abu Ghraib reference," says Berkeley curator Lucinda Barnes, "but this art transcends this moment and place to become timeless works for all people…."

This wealth of imagery paints a vivid picture of where Latin American art has come and where it is headed. The survey of Latin masters at the Bowers includes Cubism, portraiture, landscapes, muralism, Surrealism, and Abstraction with such artists as Frida Kahlo, Wilfredo Lam, Roberto Matta, Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jesús Soto, and Rufino Tamayo.

"Latin America is the only continent in the world where you have a fusion of cultures in the most radical manner," says curator at-large Gregorio Luke, who lectures about Latin American art around the world. In contrast to the US, where the historic response to indigenous peoples has been one of suppression, Latin countries have fused the many foreign influences, such as those of African slaves and European conquerors, with their native populations, and this is reflected directly in their art.

Many of the works – from the satirical works of Botero to the religious iconography of Wilfredo Lam – tackle political and religious issues. The Mexican muralists such as Rivera celebrated the so-called primitive, points out Mr. Luke, to the point where Latin American art was often derided as folk art.

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