Collector Ella Cisneros Champions Latin America’s Top Talent

Eric Newill

Ella Cisneros. Photo by Heidi Goldstein.

At age 79, Peruvian artist Teresa Burga—a giant of the South American avant-garde—was finally given a chance to produce an installation she had first conceived 44 years earlier: Estructuras de Aire, a black-draped room shooting two columns of air, which would stop abruptly when viewers crossed the space.

At age 31, Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno—an emerging talent at the beginning of his career—fashioned When Spheres Meet Spheres From Miami to Cuba, a series of floating orbs inspired by the sea and the rival countries’ proximity.

What unites this disparate pair of projects is the visionary Grants & Commissions program of the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO), the Miami-based organization created by arts patron and philanthropist Ella Cisneros. Since 2004—Saraceno was an inaugural honoree—CIFO has shone an annual spotlight on a range of Latin American artists, from emerging talents in need of attention to iconic creators whose careers often benefit from a shot of aesthetic adrenaline.

“Every year we have diversity from all the Latin American countries,” Cisneros says. “This time we are seeing a lot of Colombians, but the makeup is always unforeseen because of the process.”

To select the final 10 recipients—six emerging artists, three in mid-career, and one whose output represents significant achievement—approximately 50 international curators from CIFO’s advisory board nominate an artist, who then prepares a project proposal. Based on these, the board narrows the candidates to 15, with an executive committee choosing the 10 winners. The CIFO Art Center then mounts a show of the final works; this year’s edition, tiled “Liquid Sensibilities,” opened September 1.

“The show always reflects the general issues of our times, as well as the specific concerns of Latin America,” says CIFO Director and Chief Curator Eugenio Valdés Figueroa, who finds a common thread between the works to link them thematically. He sees the current pieces speaking to a sense of “fluidity” in contemporary society, from the literal—the hermaphroditic freshwater flatworms that have inspired Brazilian artist Felipe Meres—to the metaphorical, as in Fabián Peña’s reclamation of socialist textbooks to comment on the current flow between his native Cuba and the United States.

And though fellow emerging artists include another from Cuba (Fidel Garcia), two from Peru (Elena Damiani and Sandra Nakamura), and one from Mexico (Óscar Farfán), the mid-career artists are all Colombian—Jorge Julián Aristizábal, Carlos Castro and the duo Leidy Chávez and Fernando Pareja. This year’s Achievement Award winner also hails from that country: the pioneer performance artist María Evélia Marmolejo, a star of the ’80s who went into self-imposed exile for almost 30 years. Her piece is poised to be a highlight of the show.

This preponderance of artists from Bogotá and Medellin has inspired a discussion on October 5 titled “Why Colombia?”, focusing on the country’s diverse arts scene. “We are seeing a lot of conceptual art being produced by Colombians,” says Cisneros. “Before it was more classical, but now the different materials and media are very avant-garde and contemporary.”

This year’s Grants & Commissions program also gained a new partner in ArtCenter/South Florida, which gave month-long residencies to all the emerging artists at its downtown and Lincoln Road spaces. “The market pushes so much for commercial content,” says Valdés Figueroa, “but these residencies represent another direction, an opportunity to stop and dedicate oneself to research, to what matters in terms of ideas and strong educational value.”

Cisneros says she launched the program to “see these talented people at the forefront of everything. Many of our winners have gone on to become important artists. We’ve been a force for 15 years, and have created a lot of value for the artists by working for them.”