For the typical First World traveler, visiting a slum or a township can be a discomforting experience on a lot of levels. These underdeveloped, sprawling shanty towns skirt the edges of countless cities throughout Central and South America, Africa, India and, quite frankly, most of the rest of the world. Nothing like them really exists in the United States.
The first and most visceral realization is that, prior to this experience, you had no concept of poverty. Driving through an endless horizon of roughly hewn homes of corrugated aluminum and plywood, affixed with repurposed doors and makeshift windows, occasionally finished with daubs of bright paint, the streets overflowing with people of every age — this changes your perspective immediately and irreversibly.
Aside from the main arteries, there are few streets. Instead, there are narrow, labyrinthine passageways that function like veins, connecting the seemingly infinite number of homes built into and over each other.
Among the many epiphanic moments you are likely to have, there is one I find particularly difficult to acknowledge — and more so to discuss. In their own way, slums are places of breathtaking beauty.
There is an air of exotic industriousness amid the hardships. These urban slums were built by a coalition of people who the world left behind, who determined to carve out their own place in it and built it from the wreckage of the society that shunned them.
To look at a one-room house built from discarded construction materials and plastic sheeting — which has virtually no electricity, plumbing or ventilation and might house an entire, multigenerational family — and feel the impulse to photograph it is shamefully insensitive. But it is also an undeniable sensation.
The simple evidence that slums attract a fairly high rate of international tourism seems proof enough of this outsider intrigue. Google “Mumbai slum,” “Brazil slum” or “Soweto.” The second search suggestion will be “tour.”
“Pink Ranchos and Other Ephemeral Zip Codes,” at the Art Museum of the Americas through May 19, invites audiences to experience Columbian American artist Carolina Mayorga’s interpretations and musings on the slums and their occupants. In the work on view, inspired primarily by her native Columbia, she attempts in interesting ways to look this economic underworld in the face.
Mayorga has also culled the museum’s permanent collection to put this series in dialogue with Central and South American artists of the past century.
Unfortunately, though the blueprint of Mayorga’s idea is here, a lot gets lost. Perhaps most glaringly, there are no labels beyond the introductory wall label, which insufficiently addresses the context and concept of the exhibition for an uninitiated audience.
This is not the sort of exhibition that has clear or self-evident motives. The work is oblique, almost post-modern in its presentation, yet it is supposed to speak to sensitive, significant familial and social issues of South American slum populations.
Then there is the unresolved, unrelated and seemingly irrelevant issue of “pink.” As best I can tell, Mayorga has had a career-long obsession with the color pink — flamingo-lawn-ornaments pink, specifically.
There is barely any attempt to square this stylistic interest in pink with the broader theme of Columbian slums — and neither Mayorga nor the museum seem concerned with this. The exhibition’s single label says: “By applying the pigment to women and children (characters typically associated with home) … she has created a pleasing environment to contrast the experiences of those living in exile, displacement, dislocation, relocation, and eviction.”
Perhaps the color pink, this seems to suggest, can sweeten the medicine of widespread global economic disenfranchisement.
A series of pleasant-looking miniature cardboard shanties (ranchos or cambuches in Spanish) make up the first gallery. Lit with pink lights and painted coarsely in pink, they are quite accurately rendered dollhouse models of slum shacks. Inside some of the dollhouses, small screens play videos of a child’s paper doll suffering repeated abuse by the disembodied hands and (pink) high-heeled feet of a woman (presumably the artist).
In the next gallery, the doll-and-high-heels videos are projected on two walls, playing on repeat. There is a piano with strings exposed in the middle of the room that visitors are apparently allowed to play. This room is also lit in pink.
The third and final gallery instructs visitors how to make origami houses out of pink paper, which they can then crumple up and throw about the gallery.
In one of the most perfect locations on the National Mall, the Art Museum of the Americas is a unique, intriguing museum in a breathtaking building and estate. Its permanent collection of 20th-century Central and South American art is an important and wonderful contribution to the Washington arts scene. I wish that more of it was displayed. I also wish that this hidden jewel would put more effort into realizing its potential.