Shedding Light on Andean Art

On Mar. 21, at Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, Victoria Sancho Lobis asked her audience, “How do you create a story?”

As the Prince Trust Associate Curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, Lobis is a curator and experienced art historian. Her career enables her to share stories with people across the world—recently, she has taken the lead in “promoting engagement with Latin American art” at the Art Institute of Chicago.

At the talk, she discussed her newest exhibit, "A Voyage to South America: Andean Art in the Spanish Empire," which displays works from the viceroyalty of Peru. It includes 14 paintings, a rotating selection of 30 works of art on paper, such as watercolor drawings, and a variety of subjects, scales, and materials. Lobis told the audience that she wished to “create a viewing experience” that communicates a meaningful historical message.

The task of a curator is deviously challenging. In Lobis’ words, a curator researches objects, selects which ones to present, and provides interpretation for them, but extensive research must be done and a myriad of difficult decisions must be made throughout this process. For instance, Lobis told the audience that “the material itself presents challenges in its interpretation and display.” It can be nearly impossible to determine the year a piece was created, its artist’s name and background, its context, and its appropriate label.

Furthermore, the field of art history, despite its recent growth, has failed to fully explore Latin American art. There are few terms to differentiate between various historical periods during which Latin American art evolved and transformed. European art enjoys the luxury of labels like 'Renaissance' or 'Baroque,' but no such titles exist for works created in South and Central America.

Of course, the topics presented in Latin American works of art can be problematic as well. As Lobis reminded the audience, the Inquisition was an oppressive colonial force that “policed religious observation” through forced conversion, among other means. The works of Spanish artists in Latin America often depict racist representations of indigenous people or present misleading representations of Latin American life.

Designing an art exhibit comes with another obstacle, Lobis said, which is “trying to represent in one place the artistic traditions of many places and many times.” This goal, known as attaining an “encyclopedic collection,” is rarely achieved. In the context of Latin American art, it is also fraught with imperialist notions because it displays works of art that are acquired through war.

Rather than attempting to create an encyclopedic collection, Lobis concentrates on “reintroducing Chicago audiences to material with which they’ve been unfamiliar.” In other words, she seeks to provide education instead of explanation.

She certainly seemed to have achieved this effect with her audience at Claremont McKenna.

“As someone who considers themselves perhaps ignorant of the meaning and context behind art, it was great to hear the perspective of someone who selects art pieces and to understand the thought that goes into it," Shivani Pandya CM '16 said. "It was interesting to learn about the purposefulness behind everything, from text on a placard to organization of the pieces.”

Kathryn Ridenour CM ’16 similarly said, “I hadn’t planned on coming to this talk, but I’m really glad I did because this isn’t something I would have ever learned about otherwise. I’m from Chicago, and I went to this exhibit, but at that time I wasn’t aware of any of this. I loved learning about what went into the exhibit—to see the thought and the history that was put into it and to learn about how colonialism influences how an oil painting is made,” she said.

At the end of her lecture Lobis declared, “We [curators] believe that objects can tell the history of the world.”