Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 31, 2019
Macarena Gómez-Barris Beyond the Pink Tide: Art and Political Undercurrents in the Americas American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018. 160 pp. Paper $18.95 (9780520296671)

In the conclusion to Beyond the Pink Tide: Art and Political Undercurrents in the Americas, Macarena Gómez-Barris exhorts the reader to “look beyond electoral politics [of the nation-state] to strengthen already existing networks of possibility” (109). In this brief yet provocative study, she provides the reader with a model of analysis that shores up South-South linkages, privileges queer and indigenous perspectives, and denaturalizes national boundaries. Gómez-Barris champions the interdisciplinary field of “Transnational Americas Studies” rather than the post–Cold War area studies approach. In doing so, she allows the natural alliances and shared histories of the Americas to come to the fore. Transnational Americas Studies also decenter the United States in hemispheric narratives, all the while acknowledging its continued entanglement with Latin American politics.

The “Pink Tide” of the title serves both as a metaphor and a foil for Gómez-Barris’s writing. The phrase, portending a softer political shift than the “red tide” of communism, refers to the wave of progressive governments elected across Latin America in the early twenty-first century, beginning with Bolivia’s Evo Morales in 2005. At the tide’s peak, left-wing politicians controlled majorities in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, as well as Mexico City. A combination of economic contraction, corruption and political scandals, and the global resurgence of Far Right nationalism led to the movement’s downfall. Gómez-Barris, living in Quito, Ecuador, in 2015, witnessed how progressive leaders who had once “mobilized the language and symbols of decolonization” instead turned to the “same authoritarian methods as their predecessors” (xii). Recent nationalist political victories in Chile and Brazil have led commentators to proclaim the death of the Pink Tide altogether. While acknowledging a disillusionment with the Pink Tide, Gómez-Barris turns to what she terms the “submerged perspectives” that live in the “undercurrents of the dominant politics of the nation-state” (xii). Not dependent on electoral politics or the consolidation of power, she argues, these movements have the potential to harness the affective dimension of politics and bring “lasting social transformation” (xiii).

Beyond the Pink Tide follows an interdisciplinary approach, one that considers “art” in its broadest sense. Gómez-Barris draws on literary examples, documentary film, street performance, gallery-based installation, and popular music to present a wide-ranging survey of work that both is intersectional and resists neat categorization. It is refreshing to see different media given equal weight, even when a popular song will presumably reach a far larger audience than a work of conceptual art. Gómez-Barris also presents linkages between formerly disparate groups—Chileans and Palestinians, in one vivid example—that perform the “transmigrational histories” often overlooked in histories of national cultural production (37). The thread holding this diverse work together, however, is that art can be politically operational, representing the aforementioned undercurrents and forging new alliances.

In keeping with the goals of Transnational Americas Studies, Gómez-Barris organizes her chapters into thematic rather than regionally bounded categories. Each adds a new layer of identity politics and intersectional perspectives until, at the end, the reader has a sense of just how interwoven these discourses are. After an introduction that lays out the theoretical and interdisciplinary apparatus for her work, chapter 1 analyzes the lyrics of Chilean mestiza singer and rapper Ana Tijoux. Tijoux’s socially conscious song “Shock” references the history of the neoliberal “shock doctrine” and its violent implementation in Latin America. While Tijoux encodes specifics of Chile’s history in her lyrics (referencing the brutality of the US-backed Pinochet regime, for example), Gómez-Barris demonstrates how the singer’s own diasporic identity and the New York origins of rap as resistance embed this work in larger transmigrational flows. Chapter 2, provocatively titled “How Cuir is Queer Recognition?,” takes up the poetry and performance of trans artist Pedro Lemebel, who was active in Chile under Pinochet. Cuir-ing  queer theory, she argues, brings about an understanding of the complexity of regional difference. Rather than equate queer histories throughout the hemisphere, Gómez-Barris reminds us that Latin American struggles for recognition are anchored in specific histories of state violence and its afterlife. Chapter 3 shifts focus toward the US-Mexico border. Drawing on Sayak Valencia’s articulation of “gore capitalism” (itself a reading of Achille Mbembe’s “necropolitics”), Gómez-Barris reframes recent work by the indigenous collective Postcommodity, Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, and Guatemalan performance artist Regina José Galindo as making visible the inherent violence of border capital. Finally, chapter 4 looks toward indigenous perspectives of Patagonia to decenter the nation-state. In a reading of Patricio Guzmán’s 2014 film The Pearl Button, Gómez-Barris shows how the “exclusive focus on the violent legacies of the Cold War obscures the deeper genocidal histories of colonial occupation” (104). A truly decolonial perspective, she argues, enables us to rethink our relationship to geography entirely, troubling traditional disciplinary approaches.

If there is one shortcoming to this study, it would be that Gómez-Barris’s optimism might be premature. The question of how art can effect social change is extremely difficult to unpack, and more information about context and reception for the case studies would, I think, present a more complete picture of how the work operates in the world. In the first chapter’s analysis of the Chilean rapper Tijoux, for example, the reader unfamiliar with the genre could benefit from a better sense of the music’s reach and impact. Gómez-Barris mentions that the song “Shock” became an “anthem of political accountability and social transformation” (25), but in what sense, and for whom? Similarly, the discussion of Teresa Margolles in chapter 3 hints at the larger controversy surrounding the artist’s use of cadavers and bodily fluids but does not get into how that amplified (or complicated) the work’s political reach. My pessimism, admittedly, comes from my own positioning in the United States in 2019, in which calls to think beyond the boundaries of the nation-state risk us losing sight of the human rights violations along our southern border and might be seen as wishful thinking in the face of pervasive nationalist rhetoric from the Far Right. It is also my perspective as an art historian that prompts me to look for certain information about a given artwork, such as reception. But, as Gómez-Barris convincingly argues, such disciplinary frameworks can prove a hindrance to the kind of dialogues she seeks to convene.

Beyond the Pink Tide serves as an invitation, a call for readers to seek out the “submerged perspectives” for ourselves and move past the ebb and flow of electoral politics. Such an approach necessitates a decoupling of “politics” from political art, forcing a reassessment of both terms. Future scholarship cannot have a singular focus on gender politics, indigenous activism, or national histories, Gómez-Barris argues, but must understand these as mutually constitutive and interlinked. If the collapse of the “Pink Tide” stemmed from a compartmentalization of national identities and an inability to recognize global solidarities, then the way forward will require deep, structural change, the kinds of shifts that take generations to realize.

Ila Sheren
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis