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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A Guatemalan art gallery reaches out to the world

By Ray Mark Rinaldi

Ask Stefan Benchoam about the mission of his gallery, Proyectos Ultravioleta, and he starts on a long story of Guatemalan politics, full of dates and details, and more than a little despair.

Barely stopping for a breath, he starts with the end of the Spanish colonial period and the beginning of independence, through the exploitation of both land and people by the United Fruit Co., a U.S. corporation that once controlled vast sections of the country’s soil, and how threats against it served as an excuse for a CIA-backed coup in 1954.

He soars through the violent dictatorships and civil war that followed before a U.N.-brokered peace process in 1996. The tale ends in 2023, with Guatemala’s recent presidential election, which was marked with political maneuvering, and death threats, meant to undermine the winning candidate.

It is important to know all of that, Benchoam said, to understand his position on the role of artists today: to be moderators of public dialogue when communication between different social factions feels impossible, to be advocates for equity and stability, and to be the conscience of a country.

“It’s like, how do you resew the fabric of a country that’s been through such hardship if it’s not in the public space, and if it is not through art and artistic practices?” he said.

Proyectos Ultravioleta, in Guatemala City, has positioned itself as a forum where that exchange can take place. Its goal, Benchoam said, is to help sustain the voices and careers of artists in a country where “there are more fingers in my right hand than collectors” willing to pay reasonable prices for fine art.

To that end, it has developed a business model of selling art on the road. The gallery, which returns to Frieze London this year, is one of the few commercial dealers in Guatemala — and looking wider, in Central America overall — that has a consistent presence at international fairs held outside the country.

“Why do we go to art fairs?” Benchoam said. “Not because we want to, necessarily, but because in our industry, that’s the point where most people converge.”

The strategy has been successful almost from the start. In 2016, the first year Proyectos Ultravioleta took a chance by renting a spot at Frieze London, it won the fair’s juried Stand Prize, awarded to the best booth by an emerging gallery. It won again in 2019.

That recognition has led to considerable attention and sales to customers beyond the usual fairgoers, including to museums such as Tate Modern in London. The gallery has expanded its reach and is now a regular at major events such as Art Basel Miami Beach; Artissima in Turin, Italy; and Arco in Madrid. Foreign sales, Benchoam said, account for about 90% of its business.

Being the only Guatemalan gallery at fairs has been an advantage. People are curious and want to hear Proyectos Ultravioleta’s story. “We’re always, in a way, kind of the underdog,” he said.

As its presence in other countries has grown, the gallery’s own outlook has become more global, too. It still focuses on exporting Guatemalan artists, but has expanded its roster to include artists from other places.

The gallery works with artists at different career levels, although many are established in Guatemala and recognized for producing difficult work.

Among them is Regina José Galindo, known for performance pieces, such as “La Sombra (The Shadow),” which addressed the cycle of military violence. Galindo arranged for a German Leopard tank from World War II to chase her around a dirt field until she passed out. The work was documented via video and still photography.

Another example is Jorge de León, who does paintings and drawings but built a reputation with offbeat performance pieces, such as “Swoosh,” for which he had a tattoo of the Nike logo tattooed on his foot, just where it would be if he were wearing the company’s sneaker.

Such works are extreme, but they do get a dialogue going about corruption and foreign influences, as do the objects and installations created by other artists who are crucial to the gallery and entrenched in the country’s political conversation. They include Edgar Calel, Hellen Ascoli, Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa and Benchoam, who also makes highly charged objects.

Ramírez-Figuero, a painter and performance artist whose work is frequently autobiographical, has been with Proyectos Ultravioleta since its early days, when, he said, it was more like a bunch of artists throwing parties and selling their wares any way they could than the formal commercial gallery it has become.

His family left Guatemala in the 1990s, when he was a child, during the civil war. He returned in 2008 with dreams of building a career as a professional artist. The market was almost nonexistent at the time, especially for work about the plight of refugees, and he assumed he would have to leave again.

But his connection with Proyectos Ultravioleta has linked him to a variety of collectors. As the gallery evolved, so did his professional standing. He now has work in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York and recently had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Medellín, Colombia.

He credits much of his success to his affiliation with Proyectos Ultravioleta and those early sales he made. “Before that I never really thought about making a push to move to a more central place in the art world because it didn’t seem possible economically,” he said.

“It allowed me to live in Guatemala, be a full-time artist and really dedicate myself to what I do,” he said.

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