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William Cordova’s Narratives of Southern Alchemy

In his first institutional exhibition at Pérez Art Museum, Miami, postcolonialism in South America collides with the legacy of the Confederate South

‘Now’s the time: narratives of southern alchemy’, william cordova’s long-overdue first museum survey, features a panoply of the artist’s work made since the late 1990s. The ‘southern’ of the exhibition title refers both to South America – he was born in Lima, Peru – and to the American South, particularly Miami, where he was raised. Through his use of reclaimed materials, whose genealogies he employs strategically, as well as wordplay in his titles, cordova highlights the marginalized histories of these regions and the liberatory potential of their indigenous, non-written systems of communication.

Laberintos (after Octavio Paz) (2003–09), a labyrinth comprised of 200 upright, taped-together vinyl LPs and record jackets, unfurls on the gallery floor. The records, which cordova repurposed from an undisclosed ivy league institution, match in number the incan artefacts that same institution borrowed from Peru between 1910 and 1914 but refuses to return. Perhaps a metaphor for the maze of bureaucracy that often inhibits repatriation, the work’s title is also a nod to octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), in which the poet argues that the modern world is a maze from which non-Western subjects cannot escape.

william cordova, Badussy (or mach pichu after dark), 2003, digital video still transferred from super 8 film. Courtesy: the artist and 80M2 Livia Benavides, Lima

Three works on paper in graphite, metallic ink and gold leaf – now’s the time (pachacuti), now’s the time (pacha mama) and now’s the time (amuata) (all 2009) – further evince cordova’s interest in music, in this case as a mode of empowerment. Drawings of various transmission devices – a microphone, a satellite, speakers and vinyl records, stacked into a tall column resembling an antenna –  oat on a largely white background. The works share the first part of their titles with a 1945 album by Charlie Parker – an icon of jazz, the genre first developed by African American communities that flourished in the Jim Crow South. The second part are in Quechua, a language spoken by the Andean indigenous populations for whom the oral tradition continues to be a vital mode of knowledge transmission. both jazz and Quechua are languages that cannot be transcribed, but enable margin- alized people in both of cordova’s native ‘Souths’ to transcend the structures that dominate them.

The sculpture untitled (a more radical elsewhere) (2017) could itself be an alternative mode of communication. atop a slim, rectangular block of concrete, a quill is anchored by a steel rod, resembling a communication tower or an antenna – perhaps one attuned to frequencies that only subaltern populations can register. other works display cordova’s skill at transforming the semi-precious into the valuable, the aim of ‘alchemy’ invoked by the exhibition title: untitled (crown) (2012/18), for example – a collection of inexpensive tinted sunglass lenses connected by a steel wire, shaped to fit a head – resembles a tiara on its plinth.

william cordova, silent parade or the Soul Rebels vs. Robert E. Lee, 2014, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Monique Moss, Monique Walton and the Soul Rebels; photograph: Michiko Kurisu

The exhibition includes several video works, which play on small monitors. The poignant silent parade or the Soul Rebels vs. Robert E. Lee (2014) depicts a brass band – the singular, creolized sound of New Orleans – confronting the city’s monument to the eponymous Confederate general. The work foreshadows the current national debate over Confederate monuments and the removal of the Lee statue last year. In its original iteration, the performance was screened throughout New Orleans but, removed from urban space, it loses some of its affective power.

There are no explanatory wall labels for any of the 61 works in the exhibition – a potentially risky curatorial decision. Yet, a didactic would hardly suffice to elucidate such complex history. Instead, cordova’s works – and, especially, their titles – offer provocative glimpses into the postcolonial condition, and encourage us to dig deeper.

william cordova 'now's the time: narratives of southern alchemy' runs at Pérez Art Museum, Miami, until 8 October.

Main image: william cordova, untitled (metaphysics we knew about) (detail), 2015, four Polaroid 600 film prints, 10 × 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Issue 198

First published in Issue 198

October 2018
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