Curator of new Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition explains why art of the global Spanish empire means so much to him
BY: Adam Harris Levine
I am the assistant curator of European Art here at the AGO and the lead curator of this exhibition. I’ve studied the art of Spain especially for many years. My own interest in Spain and Europe comes from my heritage: I am Puerto Rican and Puerto Rico’s history and culture have been shaped in such massive ways by Spanish colonization over time. This history is fascinating to me and informs who I am and how I move through the world. I am so interested in how it also impacts others from Latin America and the Philippines.
Even more broadly, I think the history of European imperialism informs how we live in Canada today. One of the amazing aspects of building this exhibition was working with a community advisory group made up of culture workers in the Greater Toronto Area with close ties to the countries represented in Faith and Fortune. We had rich, thoughtful discussions with Torontonians from Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, the Philippines, and beyond, talking about key issues like natural resources, language, religion, and race. These conversations shaped and informed the texts we placed on the walls, the contents of the exhibition’s audio guide, and how we positioned our objects.
There are so many objects in the exhibition that I can’t wait for visitors to see. There is a portrait of María Catalina de Urrutia, painted by José Campeche in 1788. Campeche was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1751, the son of a Spanish mother and African father. His father, Tomás, had bought his own freedom from slavery working as an artisan. In José Campeche’s lifetime, he quickly became the premier painter of portraits and religious scenes, not only in Puerto Rico but across the Caribbean. Hanging next to María (daughter of the mayor of Havana who married the governor of Puerto Rico) is the AGO’s own Campeche painting, a luminous depiction of Saint Dominic, painted around the same time.
Another marvel is a set of four tiny carved and painted wooden figurines. Entitled the Fates of Man, they depict the physical body decaying after death, the soul in hell, the soul in purgatory, and the soul in heaven. The works are attributed to Manuel Chili, an indigenous artist in Quito, Ecuador. Colonial Quito was a centre for sculptors, painters, and other artisans, and Chili was a very well respected artist there. Even though these figures are only 30 centimeters high, they are potent spiritual tools, offering extremely vivid images of Catholic ideas of life after death.
Aside from two loans from our neighbour, the Royal Ontario Museum, the entire exhibition comes from the Hispanic Society Museum and Library. Founded in 1904, the New York Museum, based in Washington Heights, is uniquely dedicated to the art of Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and the Philippines and I can’t wait to welcome visitors to the exhibition. Faith & Fortune: Arts Across the Global Spanish Empire is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario from June 8 to Oct. 10. Admission is always free for visitors age 25 and under. For more information or to book tickets, visit ago.ca
José Campeche y Jordán. Doña María Catalina de Urrutia, 1788. Oil on wood panel, 39 x 28 cm. Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Museum Department Purchase, 2013.
Manuel Chili, known as Caspicara (attributed), (1723-1796). The Fates of Man: Soul in Purgatory, ca. 1775. Polychrome wood, glass, and metal, with base 22.9 x 30.6 x 27.9 cm. Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Museum Department Purchase, 2016.