The authority of native knowledge

Appearing in the New York Museum of Modern Art, in their Latin American collection, Mario Carreño embodies the vanguard spirit with his “Allegory of a Cuban Landscape”. Painted in 1943, the vibrant landscape you see celebrates the tropics of the Cuban vernacular, taking inspiration from both surrealism and cubism. These movements aim to reject the traditional methods of perspective that copy the natural dimensions of the world and encourages the artist to let go of rational thought. His style is reflective of his experience in the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts, which he found too restrictive of his expressive emotion.

Contextually, Carreño is a Cuban-born Chilean artist. His life saw him travel throughout the Americas, from Cuba to Mexico and Chile. To this day he remains widely commended for his work, known as a leading Latin American 20th-century artist. Despite minimal formal training, his paintings presently sell upwards of $250,000. Most significantly, he received the Guggenheim International Award in 1956. With all these accolades, his platform for celebrating natural figures and landscapes of Latin America is undeniably influential.

Ancesteral traditions live on through nature’s preserverance

Whilst there is not a lot of literature surrounding the artistic analysis of his artworks, I offer an interpretation that explores the significance of indigenous knowledge within this painting, and his wider gallery of work.

The warm colours and soft brush strokes in his Allegory of a Cuban Landscape (pictured) are layered in such a rich way that honours the Antillean light which shines down onto the Caribbean coast. Whilst Cuba remains as beautiful as he depicts, it suffered under the domination of colonisation; much like most of the Americas, upon European contact, most indigenous populations were devastated by disease and slavery. With Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1492, Cuba was colonised by both England and Spain. Before these invasions three indigenous tribes inhabited the island: the Taínos, Ciboneys, and Gauanajatabeyes.

Why is this important for Carreño’s painting, you might ask? Further than a historical anecdote, this is significant as one can interpret his painting as paying homage to the indigenous knowledge that colonialism once oppressed. The use of such bold colours grants an immediacy and authority to the image before us, drawing in the viewers’ attention through the chartreuse green and burgundy blend. This attention is directed to the figure, who stands stoically with arms outstretched, making feminine divinity a focal point.

The fluidity of style between deity and the natural landscape in Carreño’s painting honours native indigenous belief for the Taíno population; nature as kin. Ancestral memories are associated with landscape, and traditions live on through the natural world’s perseverance. Carreño captures the authority of native knowledge, through his surrealist depiction of the Antillean coast. Granting a bold authority to the landscape, personifying it, whilst embodying the native beliefs.

The Taíno people’s knowledge did not die with them, and we can still appreciate its importance. In the painting, Carreño’s surrealist abstraction of the natural forms speaks to this, letting the subconscious and supernatural take over. The deity morphs into the natural landscape, and through this portrayal of nature and divinity as visually inseparable we are reminded of the duty we have towards our environment.

Carreño’s painting motivates change from pragmatic policy to real responsibility 

Whilst we might not live in the Cuban haven of Havana, with sun streaming down onto us, it doesn’t mean that we should dismiss this indigenous knowledge of the importance of preserving natural landscapes. We should endorse an intrinsic respect for our environment, just as the Taínos did. Perhaps half a century later, Carreño’s painting has found a new meaning, motivating change from pragmatic policy to real responsibility.

Notably, such ancestral indigenous knowledge is not limited to Cuba and the Antilles. Latin American regions such as the Amazon, Andean, and Mesoamerican native populations also instil this belief. As a whole, Latin America is uniquely positioned, perhaps with an epistemic privilege, to integrate indigenous knowledge of nature with sustainable policymaking. This speaks to distant ancestors of Taíno people living on in Puerto Rico, with traceable genetic origins in pre-colonial Cuba. Their legacy is spread across the Americas and has a powerful potential, igniting respect and reverence for our environment.

Image Credit: ‘Allegory of a Cuban Landscape’ Carreño (1943)

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