At Americas Society, Artists Look at the Myth That Started Natural Resource Extraction in Latin America

In Colombian artist Carlos Motta’s 2013 video, Nefandus Trilogy, an Indigenous man and a Spanish man travel down Colombia’s Don Diego River telling stories of the violent sodomizing of natives by the Spanish during the conquest in Latin America. “The landscape does not confess what it has witnessed; the images are out of time and veil the actions that have taken place there,” the narrator explains.

This question of colonial violence against the land and the passage of time is at the center of Nefandus Trilogy and Part II of “El Dorado: Myths of Gold,” the exhibition in which it is currently being shown. On view until May 18, the exhibition at Americas Society in New York features more than 100 objects and artworks from 60 artists linked by El Dorado, the mythical city of gold believed to be in the deep jungles of Colombia.

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“From at least the sixteenth century onward, the myth of El Dorado was a central force in establishing the Americas as a ’utopian’ place, a venue of desire and a land ripe for conquest and plunder,” Edward Sullivan, cocurator of the exhibition and a ​professor of art history at New York University, told ARTnews.

The works in the exhibition collectively show the consequences of this deep-seated myth, which penetrated the minds of colonizers and spurred the extraction, excavation, and brutal transformation of the Americas.

Nancy La Rosa and Juan Salas Carreño, Mirages (Espejismos) (Mirages), 2015.
Courtesy of the artist and Americas Society

(Part I of the exhibition, which closed in December, displayed 16th-century maps that attempted to place El Dorado, alongside contemporary maps by artists who engaged with topics of extraction and colonization.)

The origin of the El Dorado myth is believed to rest with Spanish pillagers who came into contact with the Tayrona people in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region in Colombia. The Tayrona people appeared to be covered in gold, that was in fact material gilded with slivers of gold around the edges. Unable to make this distinction, the Spanish were captivated by the adornment and became convinced that the mountain bled gold.

The promise of precious metals was the key driver of Spanish colonization in the 15th and 16th centuries, during which the Spanish mined vast quantities of primarily silver from Latin America. This extraction of raw natural resources in the region has arguably never ended, from oil in Venezuela to nickel in Guatemala, to lithium and rare earth metals in Chile and Argentina.

The exhibition tackles the legacy of this history of extraction head on. The walls of the Upper East Side gallery are covered with a swarm of life-size flies made of silver by Bolivian artist Andrés Bedoya. Titled Moscas (Flies), the work renders the metaphorical plague that is the extraction of silver in Bolivia into a literal one.

Active since 1545, the Cerro Rico mines at Potosí, Bolivia, were the testing ground for large-scale extraction projects by foreign governments and entities. Over the centuries of its existence, the mines are surmised to have taken the lives of eight million men, mostly Indigenous and African, and drawn a total of an estimated 60,000 tons of silver worth perhaps $2 billion. In his seminal book Open Veins of Latin America, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano posits, “the metals taken from the new colonial dominions not only stimulated Europe’s economic development; one may say they made it possible.”

Even if El Dorado was merely a myth, it still had the effect of making Europe immensely wealthy with precious metals. The Americas, on the other hand, were left with complications around territory, nature, bodies, consumerism, religion, labor, and immigration. The artists in the exhibition take up these themes, according to Tie Jojima, associate curator and manager of exhibitions at Americas Society.

“There could not be a more poignant time for an exhibition that makes the case—with images by artists from ancient times to today—for the need to preserve our natural resources instead of shamelessly and violently separating them from the rightful place in the planet where they belong,” Sullivan told ARTnews.

Two artists who explicitly draw the connection between past and present, preservation of the land and resource extraction are Peruvian artist Nancy La Rosa and Venezuelan artist Esperanza Mayobre.

La Rosa, along with Peruvian artist Juan Salas Carreño, created “Mirages (Espejismos),” a 2015 series of silkscreen works of restaurants, casinos, gas stations, stores, and hotels in Huepetuhe, a mining town in the Madre de Dios region in the Peruvian Amazon. Four of those works were included in Part I of the exhibition to represent gold extraction and the influence the industry has had on the lives of local peoples. One silkscreen depicts a hotel called Paititi, another mythical city of gold, this one supposedly in Peru.

“We must think about this myth as not something that is located in the past, but how these stories are connected to our own reality,” La Rosa told ARTnews. “We can ask the question a different way: Which are the El Dorado myths right now?” La Rosa added that she connects the El Dorado myth to her own work and the extraction that continues deep in the Peruvian Amazon.

Esperanza Mayobre, Serie A.M.O., 2020.
Courtesy of the artist

In Part II, Mayobre uses sculptures to explore similar issues in Venezuela at the recently established Orinico gold mining zone. Mayobre’s contribution comprises two separate gold-painted grids encased in frames that use intricate Indigenous weaving to honor native people affected by the mines. Sitting above one of the frames is a brick covered in gold leaf; if solid gold, it would be worth $65,000. The works bring materiality to something that can feel abstract, connecting gold’s material value with the brutal conditions of its extraction. As in Peru, it has been costly for Venezuela.

“Although well intentioned to resolve our problems [of creating another economy besides oil], in the case of Venezuela, it hasn’t helped,” Mayobre told ARTnews. “It has created deforestation and contamination for the indigenous community. There is narc and drug money, militarist abuse, and displacement of indigenous communities.”

Centuries after the start of colonial extraction, the plunder of raw materials and natural resources in Latin America continues. Latin America is still dominated by both the El Dorado legend and in turn, by international companies that are complicit in the colonial extraction implied by its telling.

“In the 21st century we are witnessing a renewed fanaticism for extracting the wealth of the earth for humankind’s advantage,” cocurator Sullivan said. “Substances such as lithium, petroleum, and water, among many others, represent the ‘new gold’ in so far as these resources are being wantonly extricated and processed to the detriment of the natural environment.”

The exhibition’s focus on Latin American extractivism, and its effect on Indigenous communities, continues to be distressingly relevant today. In February 2022, a Guatemalan Indigenous Mayan community testified in an international human rights court against Swiss-based Solway Investment Group, which runs a nickel mine near a sacred lake. This past August, Indigenous communities from Ecuador successfully blocked the Loma Larga gold mine project, owned by Toronto-based Dundee Precious Metals, in a major court decision. And, in October, Indigenous groups of the Third Indigenous Raid for Peace, protested against lithium extraction in Argentina.

As the Americas Society’s exhibition shows, El Dorado may have been a critical founding myth in Latin America, but it is neither the beginning nor the end of the region’s history.

“In parallel, the exhibition and the art on it is also an opportunity to ’denaturalize’ what gold means to us today,” Aimé Iglesias Lukin, the Americas Society director and chief curator of art, told ARTnews. “Besides its usefulness as a practical and durable metal, everything else we associate with it is culturally constructed through the centuries. It is as real as the metal itself, and has real consequences on people and the land, but that reality has a history that must be explored.”

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