This a close up photo of a Native mask from Mexico is made from jadeite. The red detailing comes from an element called cinnabar.
Unknown Olmec Artist, Mexico, Mask (detail), 900-300 BCE, jadeite, cinnabar. The John R. Van Derlip Fund, 2002.127

Mia’s Latin American art collection comes into the light

By Tim Gihring //

When Valéria Piccoli became Mia’s first curator of Latin American art, late last year, she had few expectations of the collection she was taking over. Begun in the 1940s, it had accreted haphazardly, shaped by trends—like the midcentury enthusiasm for pre-Columbian art—and pieces inherited by donors. In recent times, almost none of it has been on display. “I had no preconceived notions of what I would find,” she says. “It’s been a journey of discovery. Every piece I saw in storage was a surprise to me.”

Arthur Luiz Piza, Brazilian, 1928–2017, The Green Cosmos, 1969, color etching, engraving, and embossing. The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund, P.69.212

Piccoli has since discovered some gems, many of them at Mia more or less “by accident,” she says. She was astonished to find, for example, a set of prints by Arthur Luiz Piza, donated to the museum in the late 1960s. “He happens to be one of the most important Brazilian printmakers of all time,” she says, “but I’m certain that no one from Minnesota went out looking for this work.” A panoramic photograph of Machu Picchu in the 1930s—attributed for years to an unknown artist—is actually the work of Martín Chambi, a groundbreaking Indigenous photographer from Peru. “A real surprise to see,” Piccoli says.

Piccoli has now assembled, in gallery 255,  a selection of art from the collection, an introduction of sorts. “I wanted to bring this to the audience of Mia to say, ‘Here’s what we have at this point, here are some important pieces that the museum has already collected,” Piccoli says. “And from this, we’re going to build something more broad and representative of Latin American culture.”

The group of more than 50 pieces includes ancient ceramic vessels, gold and silver objects, and of course the work by Chambi and Piza. There are prints, drawings, and paintings by some familiar figures of 20th-century Mexican modernism: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros. There are also the first two acquisitions made by Piccoli: a 1972 painting by the Afro-Brazilian artist Rubem Valentim, who blended Western-style geometric abstraction with symbols of the Yoruba religion brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans; and a 1957 painting by Elsa Gramcko, who integrated organic forms into the predominant abstract mode of the time. “She was proposing another kind of language for abstraction, which became a journey to a very unique career,” Piccoli says.

Moving forward, she hopes to continue collecting abstract work from the 1950s and ’60s, which is not well represented at Mia, and bring in some colonial-era art, which is virtually absent. Both areas of collecting remain relatively accessible to public institutions like Mia, while others (modernism, contemporary) are increasingly a stretch. They would also help Piccoli weave a narrative thread through the collection, which currently has “a little bit of everything, but no story,” as she puts it.

For much of this past year, Piccoli has been involved with the exhibition “ReVisión: Art in the Americas,” which ran this summer at Mia and largely featured the Latin American art collection of the Denver Art Museum. The show’s premise was erasing the barriers—art historical and philosophical—between the period before European contact and the period that followed. If much of the current understanding of South and Central America is based on this bifurcation, especially in the United States, the show offered a corrective, revealing the many unbroken if swerving threads connecting the region’s ancient and contemporary cultures. It’s the same approach Piccoli says she took in her previous role as chief curator of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, in Brazil, reorganizing its collection “based on a dialogue between past and present.” It’s what she hopes to do at Mia, too.

“This is really fundamental to all museum work,” she says, “creating situations where history can resonate in the contemporary. Otherwise, history seems like something completely detached from your life. This is a way of looking at history with a fresh perspective.”

“Latin American Art at Mia” is on view at Mia in gallery 255 from September 16, 2023, to April 28, 2024.