Roman Charity

The heatwave in Madrid only encouraged the stylish Spanish women to dress up in even fancier long dresses, unafraid of a little v neck here and there, but careful to wear slips to render the see-through, opaque. Opacity, what I feel every time I set foot in a place I have never been before, waiting for the other shoe to drop, when its secrets will be revealed to me. For days Madrid resisted, and we walked from Retiro to Alcalá in a thirst induced torpor hoping to bask in the splash of the Cibeles or the Galapagos Fountain, built by Ferdinand VII to celebrate the first year of his daughter Infanta Isabela. We would have even loved to shelter above ground by the newly restored “Loba capitolina” a statue of the she-wolf belonging to the Roma Hotel. Whether we looked up, down or around, the relentless heat reduced us to mere infants, in need to drink, eat, and sleep. We resisted, trudging the Prado Museum. And then. Admiring the vast collection of treasures from the best of Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern European art, truly fed up with countless portraits of the pear-chinned Habsburgs, we concluded that the difference between nobility and the populace depicted in the works of Velazquez, Ribera, and Goya was a mere matter of attire and placement. But sacred art…sacred art was the window where all was allowed, especially when it pertained to the body, there is the Virgin pointing to the manhood of the Child Christ to all Humanity, hot Saint Sebastian, admired by women and men alike, and Roman deity, Pero breastfeeding her father Cimon, Jan Janssen’s version at the Museum of the Madrid Academy of Fine Arts, for example, then, Saint Bernard, drinking from the squirting left breast of the Virgin in Alonso Cano’s painting, a work that probably adorned a sacred royal space. Incest and mythology coexisted on the halls of royal palaces. Jutta Gisela Sperling argues in Roman Charity that those images appealed to Early Modern viewers for its eroticizing shock value.  Sperling decries the curators’ reluctance to display even the more masterful renderings of the topic. And even though the paintings were on display at the Prado and the Academy this time, their contextual location dissuaded the viewer from associating Cano’s or Janssen’s work to Josep Rivera’s portrait of Abruzzese Maddalena Ventura, bearded, bold, queering the breast at the request of the Duke of Naples, patron of Rivera. Even though Ventura is anatomically a woman, there is no sign of that in her face and build, looking more like a wrinkled saint or a biblical prophet as painted by Caravaggio. Magdalena’s defiance of 17th century images of womanhood made her a celebrity in Italy. She came from Abruzzo where, according to the inscription on a stone slab in Ribera’s painting, she gave birth to three sons before her beard suddenly grew when she was 37 years old. In the painting she is 52. She was seen as “A great wonder of nature.” More than looking at the figures, contemporary visual culture has trained me to just look at the breast, the isolated organ that is supposed to nourish newborns and adults, it seems, according to art, mythology, religion, and now, probably, PornHub. “Oh, but you have milk”! exclaimed the breastfeeding expert squeezing my left breast hard, until a few shy drops poured downwards at the Vancouver clinic where I took my breasts and my son, looking for support. Violence Lovingspoon was at the time a UN advocate for extreme breastfeeding, around the clock, on demand, co-sleeping. This was the early nineties. I was a newcomer to Canada and in my broken English and in tears I described the feeding ordeal that had caused my lack of sleep and my son’s weight loss. She not only insisted on me breastfeeding him, but admonished me that if I did not co-sleep with my child, he would end up “developmentally delayed.” In tears, I went straight to my child’s pediatrician, who calmly told me he would be perfectly safe sleeping in his crib, decrying the way she had treated me, like an impressionable, ignorant woman. To this day I thank him for his blunt advice, saving my son from malnourishment, and being on my side. I still felt I was failing my son, and my family, in particular my Italian mother-in-law, originally from Abruzzo, like Maddalena Ventura. My mother in law would tilt her head to the right, close her eyes, and run her hands down the sides of her mouth, describing how after each feeding my now husband had milk pouring out of his ears. I felt I was also letting down my own culture, where the figure of Difunta Correa, a late nineteenth century “wonder of nature,” who carried her baby on a perilous journey across the sierras of the Province of San Juan to rescue her soldier husband, captive at the hands of enemy soldiers. Folk Lore says she died of dehydration, and a group of gauchos found her with her baby son sucking her lifeless breast. Breastfeed until lifeless was the message I heard from Canada to Argentina, via Italy. Dr. Violent Lovingspoon knew nothing about that back story, neither did my son’s pediatrician. I am writing now with my entire body, the trickling of milk from my breasts as speech, much like Helen Cixous describes in The Laugh of the Medusa, when she asserts that “There is always within [the female writer] at least a little of that good mother’s milk. She writes in white ink” (Cixous 1528). 

My son is now a thirty-year-old adult with zero signs of “developmental delays,” and a Masters of Sciences. I am back at home, still thirsty, during a typical Alberta heatwave, much milder than Madrid’s. Imitating the glamourous Spanish women I saw on the streets, I wear my long dresses around the house, because shame still prevents me from heading out wearing anything that does not look like athleisure. I am still unafraid of a little v neck here and there, but this time I refuse to wear slips that render the see-through, opaque. Transparency, like a re-enactment of the Roman Charity paintings I saw in Madrid, helped me bring that past –and very private shame at my lack of breastfeeding prowess– into the public realm. As for Violent Lovingspoon, last time I searched her name on Google, she was now dedicating her senior years to –you guessed it—painting. 

Alonso Cano, Saint Bernard and the Virgin, 1645, Oil on Canvas. Prado Museum.

Pick Your Peace

I am not going to lie, the years 2021-2022 have been so far quite a ride at a personal and professional level. This is not a balance, a recap, or even an update, but a reckoning. I am reckoning with possibilities, and learning curves, with growth, and decisions, with distances, differences, and closeness, with the temporary and the transient, the here and there.

Like two sides of the coin, or the face of Janus, looking back and to the future, publishing has revealed itself as a double semi-entity. One face, you could say the front of the book, the façade, revolves around the romanticized notion of the creative process, the author, the work, the cover design, the editing, the translating, and the final product, a beautiful manuscript. That is the aspect the press and marketing departments fawn about. Like magic, the reader does not see the other side, born out of the first massively produced book, Gutenberg’s Bible, that ushered the book industry as THE most capitalist of propositions. Yes, the Holy Book was the first to face distribution challenges, spur sales strategies, and arrive into consumer’s hands thanks to booksellers worldwide. Author rights, comp titles and meta-data had not been yet acknowledged, and the ecosystem of literary festivals with the now ubiquitous agents, rights departments, panelists, and media lists were not even in the thoughts of the most prescient of mystics.

We always speak of the fight or flight response, and as I see my published books out in the world I feel like hugging them close and heading for the hills, which living in Alberta means enjoying the stunning views of the Rockies. I feel the need to protect them, at time wishing they were still in the early stage of their life, in between a galley proof and the ready-for-print copy. But go out into the world they must, and I am solely responsible for that. And it feels absolutely terrifying. Some of the situations I have faced have been peppered with the best–and sometimes the worst–of intentions. You know who you are. All of them have tested my determination to keep going. Yet I am still here.

All this to say, I am OK with being candid –and also kind to myself and others–about my publishing and writing life. I am learning to trust my instincts and train my patience, to advocate for what I need, and be OK with saying and hearing the word NO. I have decided to transform the saying “pick your battles” into “pick your peace” especially in regards to this “new sweater” feeling in this new stage as a publisher, and it has been life-changing.

My press has come a long way, but still needs all the community support and my determination to keep going. Thank you for being there!

The Perfume of Place

A few weeks ago I sat with Peter Midgley to discuss the challenges of running a BIPOC press in Western Canada, and the joys of doing what we really want, publishing hyphenated literature in its myriad forms, from works of literary translation to English works with a certain “perfume of place”…

My First Foray in Academic Publishing

Some times life surprises you with rich encounters, that later develop into fully fledged endeavours such as my meeting with American scholar Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle. She assuaged my crippling self-doubts, and with kindness and gentleness, demonstrated I was up to the task. After completing my MA as a mature student, in a second language, I was drained, and skeptical of my academic abilities. It took some retreating, to gather impulse, and learn to trust my “Academic Instincts.” Thank you, Lisa!

Eloquently Bitching

Edmonton writer Rayanne Haines invited me to discuss my adventures in writing and publishing in Canada. Here is the podcast, take a listen for yourself and I hope you expand the conversation. I would love your feedback.

An Interview on García Márquez: The Myth of the Writer as Genius, and Bilingual Curation as Scholarship

A month or so ago I attended the conference Curating Exhibitions as Public Scholarship, a topic close to my heart qua SpectatorCurator. Organized by UBC Public Humanities, the conference organizers invited scholars from around the world to share their case studies with the general public. One of the presentations, by Dr. Alvaro Santana Acuña (Harvard ’14) on his Gabriel García Márquez exhibition at the Harry Ransom Centre in Austin Texas, caught my curiosity. What follows is the translation of my interview with him for Lattin Magazine. Thanks to Juan Gavasa and his magazine for giving my interview with Alvaro a world-class home.

“To call someone like García Márquez a “genius” is in fact a shortcut concealing his formidable capacity for self-sacrifice and discipline.” Alvaro Santana Acuña

Canadian-Argentinian art historian and writer Luciana Erregue sat down with Professor Alvaro Santana Acuña, curator of the exhibition “Gabriel García Márquez: La creación de un escritor global.”

A virtual colloquium on the bilingual (Spanish-English) exhibition on the fiftieth anniversary of A Hundred Years of Solitude, titled “Gabriel García Márquez: la creación de un escritor global/García Márquez: the Creation of a Global Writer,” caught my attention and motivated me to converse with Dr. Álvaro Santana Acuña (PhD Harvard, 2014), professor of Sociology at Whitman College.

Thanks to a Ransom Center Fellowship Santana had the opportunity to lead the curation of this exhibition which opened in February 2020 in Austin, TX. The pandemic forced its temporary closure although the public can access a sample of the exhibition through the Ransom Center webpage The public can also access a database of more than 27000 images from the García Márquez Archives.

Alvaro, please tell us a bit about your task as a researcher, above all, how did the opportunity to curate the exhibition come about?

ASA: I am a historian and a sociologist , but I owe this investigation on García Márquez to the rain. The idea to write my book Ascent to Glory occurred to me because I spent days soaking wet thanks to a storm that lasted for days, a storm not that different from the one that fell over the village of Macondo in A Hundred Years of Solitude. Ascent to Glory is a biography of the most famous novel of the Colombian writer. The research I undertook led me to the personal archives of García Márquez located inside Ransom Center. In turn, they became interested in my research and invited me to curate the first exhibition based on these original, previously unseen documents belonging to his personal archives.

Could you tell us, roughly, what key curatorial decisions you had to make and who accompanied you in the selection process of the artifacts for the exhibition?

ASA: The García Márquez archives house more than seventy boxes with thousands of photographs, letters, albums with press clippings, objects, and manuscripts of almost all of his books. For instance, there are 18 manuscript versions of his latest novel Memories of My Melancholy Whores. Before such wealth and variety of material, the biggest challenge was what to select. Furthermore, the exhibition is biographical and has to treat equally, without gaps each of the moments in the life and career of the writer. The excellent team from the Ransom Center, led by Cathy Henderson, and cultural manager Jenny Rodríguez Peña were instrumental in the concretion of the project.

How did you decide to structure the exhibition?

ASA: I decided to divide the exhibition along seven sections. The first three are the most biographical in nature, and encompass the childhood and career of García Márquez until his arrival in Mexico City when he was a young thirty-something. The fourth section recreates with never before seen documents the creation of A Hundred Years of Solitude. The following three sections follow a transversal pattern. The fifth one illustrates in detail the writing process of García Márquez, displaying the manuscripts of Cronicle of a Death Foretold, Love in the Time of Colera, and other celebrated works. The sixth section documents García Márquez as political and cultural activist in favour of a united Latin America. And the last section relays his recognition as a global writer, winner of the 1982 Nobel Price in Literature.

How did the bilingual (Spanish/English) aspect influence the exhibition?

ASA: The decision to curate a bilingual exhibition was an added challenge, we had to place the two languages, Spanish and English on equal footing. On the one hand, the most important documents on display were originally in Spanish, on the other, we had to convey all of this information in an accessible way to the non-Spanish speaking public. That is why we put special care on the physical display of the visual documents; it also meant to work generously and meticulously on the descriptive panels and labels, so that the visitor who does not speak Spanish could also enjoy the exhibition the same way as the Spanish speaking public.

What would would be the “take home” idea behind the exhibition?

ASA: The visitors will see with their own eyes how difficult and demanding artistic creation actually is. To call someone like García Márquez “genius” is in fact a shortcut concealing his formidable capacity for self-sacrifice and discipline to create literary works of excellent quality. Talent and a bit of good fortune always help. Without hard work, however, neither talent blooms, nor good fortune accompanies its creator. In his manuscript Of Love and Other Demons we can see how García Márquez surpassed a most beautiful paragraph because it interrupted the flow of the narrative. He felt it was necessary each word, each sentence, each paragraph would produce the effect of hypnotizing the readers and make them turn the page.

As a museum educator in a not-so-distant past life, I am interested in the training process of those museum professionals tasked with building bridges between the exhibition you curated and the public.

ASA: The training of the museum guides or “docents” was one of the loveliest experiences for me. A week before the the opening, I offered guided tours in English and Spanish with different groups of guides. They are a fundamental part of the viewer’s experience, because they communicate stories, ideas, and anecdotes we cannot always sum up in a descriptive label.

Now onto the exhibition itself, I have heard you discussing “gatekeepers” and “gatekeeping” as a component of the exhibition, what did your research yield in that regard, and how did it contribute to the “Latin American Boom” label?

ASA: The gatekeeper is a person guarding access to something unavailable to the rest. This gatekeeper can be the bouncer of an exclusive club or a committee member of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In their role of guardians, gatekeepers decide who is in and who is out, following strict orders. This is exactly what happened to several writers during the years of the “Latin American Boom.” “What have you written? do you have an agent? Who are your literary influences? What does Latin America mean to you? What do you think of the Cuban Revolution? ¿Qué piensas de la Revolución cubana?” with these lines of questions, writers, editors, and critics acted as the gatekeepers of Latin American literature to filter who checked all the requisites to be labeled and promoted as authors of the Boom. García Márquez was one of those such writers, chosen because of their trajectory and potential.

Now onto the current literary landscape, how do you see the topic of “gatekeeping” in the literature of the Americas and Spanish and Portuguese literature translated into other languages?

ASA: Gatekeeping, as a selection process of authors and their texts remains pretty much unchanged since the days of the Boom. What has changed substantially are the selection mechanisms, for example, the influence of social networks. Today there are “influencers” competing for prestige alongside famous literary critics. What is certain is the existence of more diversity in gatekeeping in the literary world, creating a rich and fragmented current literary environment.

How does the exhibition approach the topic of the Boom? I would love it if you told us how did you articulate the relationship between García Márquez with other Latin American writers, in particular –and forgive me for being so partial, with Borges and Cortázar?

ASA: The initial success of García Márquez with A Hundred Years of Solitude is connected to that of the Boom of Latin American literature. Most of the objects of the exhibition about the Boom can be seen in Section Three of the exhibition. Together with documents, photographs and works by José Donoso, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes, there are of course, others belonging to Jorge Luis Borges, and Julio Cortázar. From Borges we have on display the manuscript for his story “Los Rivero,” a story which bears uncanny similarities to that of the Buendía family. On Cortázar’s end we have on exhibition the manuscript of this best known work, Hopscotch, a mere five steps from the manuscript of A Hundred Years of Solitude. Never have the manuscripts of two of the main works of Latin American literature been so close together under one roof. Seeing them so close to one another is in and of itself enough reason to visit this exhibition.

In regards to the future of the exhibition, what are the next steps, and would there be a chance of it visiting Canada?

ASA: If the Covid-19 pandemic allows it, the exhibition will travel to the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City in 2021. There is interest in the exhibition to visit France, Spain, and without a doubt, Colombia, the birth place of García Márquez. I would not be surprised to see the exhibition visit Canada, where García Márquez is a very well known figure and where Magical Realism has spread its roots since early on, through works such as The Invention of the World by Jack Hodgins.

Finally, How can we see it now?

The exhibition opened on February 1st, 2020. As it was beating all the records, with almost 8,000 visitors in 5 weeks, it had to close its doors. Until the circumstances of this pandemic do not improve the public can see a sample of the exhibition online, through the Ransom Center’s webpage, with the chance of accessing more than 27,000 images from the García Márquez archives.

“Llamar a García Márquez ‘genio’ es un atajo que oculta su formidable capacidad de sacrificio y disciplina”

The Day I Became a Publisher

Having coffee with a friend, way back in October, we talked about how in A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway is always discussing what he eats, belying his hunger. Hunger hovers over his memoir of Paris in the Twenties as he constructs his ‘starving artist’ persona. What is also evident for some of us, is his depression. That hunger, the enjoyment of a break from it in the form of a simple potato salad, and the persisting sense of starvation, emptiness, made us think of a collection of writings where food was but an excuse to explore other ‘hungers’. Thus, Beyond the Food Court: an Anthology of Literary Cuisines was born, and with that, the first book by my new imprint laberintopress

I invite you all to take a look at the website, and purchase the book, featuring 14 authors from all over the world, who are practising writers here in Canada. For those of you who read or understand Spanish, here are a panel at the FIL Canada: and an interview for Lattin Magazine:

We also had the privilege of opening and closing LitfestYeg 2020. Stay tuned for more Laberinto Press. This is just the beginning as we explain in this Quill and Quire interview

Zooming While Female

Thank you to Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha for giving this creative non-fiction piece a home in his Blog The Sultan’s Seal. Read on!

Luciana Erregue: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (or The Zoom Meeting)

We congregate like The Muppets at the theatre: a first tier, a second tier, a third tier. Depending on the age of the host, the “chat” feature is either silenced or not. It is the ideal medium for someone accustomed to exercising control in real life. Yet there is always the sliding into dms. The guy who will tell you: “Why so serious? Ahhh, that hand on your face adds another layer of seduction.” It is just like high school, the kids at the back of the classroom up to no good.

The real gems, though, are the what-a-pleasure-to-meet-you-in-Zoom, I-would-like-to-have-a-meeting-with-you-sometime-early-in-the-morning types. You know it is going to be business during a pandemic, when nobody you know is getting up voluntarily at 6.30 to start a meeting at 7.30 because EST… so when you oblige, and you barely have time to shower, dress and grab your coffee, you know you will rip him a new one. Except he does it first, of course.

Before the first sip of coffee comes the sharp pain of the knife on your stomach. “You know, I am a serious author, and I like connecting with serious culture professionals. You look serious, that is why I think it is important that we establish contact.” You tell him about your accomplishments, to which he responds, “I have already asked you two questions, and yes, it does not matter if the people I want to work with do projects without importance, what really matters is that they are trying. By the way, did you know that I won the Continental award for my novel Three Sausages on a Plate? Like you, I love weaving visual arts and literature. Because once I was an artist in NYC, then I came to Canada…”

So you explain the intricacies of the art market here – fifteen years of experience – the reality check that everything begins at graduate school, when you do your MFA, and collect a clique of pals with whom you will collaborate in friendship and rivalry, the small arts centre where you will establish your connections with the curators of the bigger galleries.

You also explain that as a visible minority you are perpetually from the outside, looking in – then he references Marcel Duchamp, who retired early from the art world to play chess. Because he is bored to death, he can only come up with, “Yes, but imagine, I am not going back to school at this point in my career. That is why I decided to focus on writing. I write a lot, but unless it is very high quality I choose not to publish. Do you know Justforpricks Publishing House, the biggest in Europe – well, they have decided to publish my novel. I am such a busy man, that is why we have our meeting so early. Also, the house is nice and quiet. But the real reason I wanted to meet with you is because I also have a publishing house. We have people in South America, and Eastern Canada, but you live in the West, and that is where we would like to expand.” His voice grows even deeper; he might choke like a cat with a hairball, I can only hope. “It is a labour of love, so of course, we all do it for the love of literature.”

And then you remember Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, which you saw at the Rotterdam Museum fifteen years ago as a young mother. In his notes, Duchamp describes his piece as “hilarious.” A bride in the upper panel and her nine bachelors timidly waiting in the wings, like those importune messages sliding into your dm during the Zoom meeting, crossing the grid, transcending the confinement of Duchamp’s “grooms” cloistered between two glass panels below the “bride.”

Also known as The Large Glass, the work consists of two tall glass panels, suspended vertically. The entire composition is shattered, but it rests sandwiched in between two pieces of glass, set in a metal frame with a wooden base. The top rectangle of glass is known as the Bride’s Domain; the bottom piece is the Bachelors’ Apparatus. It consists of many geometric shapes melded together to create large mechanical objects, which seem almost to pop out from the glass and ever-changing background. There are “shots” coming from the “bachelors” – which never do reach the waiting Bride – made by dipping matches in wet paint and firing them from a toy cannon at the Glass.

The Large Glass has been called a love machine, although its upper and lower realms are forever separated from each other by a horizon designated as the “bride’s clothes”. The bride is hanging, perhaps from a rope, in an isolated cage, or crucified. The bachelors remain below, left with the inevitable possibility of consummating the act in solitude.

As he comes up for air, you take a deep breath:

“Well, this is something that goes unsaid, but there is the issue of unpaid labour, and also the emotional labour us women perform especially in this pandemic, sourcing the food, making sure our children’s mental health is ok, managing the household, all this, generally and at least in my case, falls on the woman. My projects evolve rather organically, and stem from friendships first, not the other way around. I thrive in ethical environments. Ethics. I know that you men have the whole world to conquer, but I am not there, for me it is ‘pleasure, not pressure’. Besides, I am nobody’s rib”.

“This sounds great, and yes, please check our website.”

“Sure I will,” you lie, then you lie some more: “It was a pleasure, and all the best with your projects. Thank you, make sure to check out my blog,” you say, not missing a beat.

He shoots back, “Sure I will, and see you at the next Zoom meet!”

When I Wrote a Twitter Response on Spectatorship as Curatorship


They are everywhere now. Satellite museums and universities: Guggehnheim Bilbao, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Disneyland Paris, Disneyland Tokyo, NYU Abu Dhabi, Temple University, Tokyo, Saint Louis University, Madrid. They aspire to assert themselves as leaders in the relatively new global business of improving a country’s image and reputation or otherwise giving it the edge.

I live far away from such big cities, and universities. You could say I am not included amongst the experienced customers these satellites target. I have never visited such destinations. I inhabit a no man’s land in the Canadian prairies and, as an art historian, I work roaming the floors of my local gallery, which shall remain unnamed, for obvious ethical reasons. In my private life I am also your average museum visitor. A Doctor Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde persona split does exist in my digital life, though. I post these images alongside presumably witty captions on my Facebook and Instagram feed. As a dutiful digital citizen, I sporadically write on my blog SpectatorCurator (also my Instagram and Twitter handle). I have branded myself, and I have an edge over the Louvre Abu Djabi or the Guggenheim Bilbao – I exist everywhere and nowhere. We know by now we are virtual brands in open competition with the brands and artists of yore, redefining them, submitting them to our capricious gaze. If the Mona Lisa was an example of the quintessential open text, now the whole museum is the viewer’s canvas. It is both an exciting and an uncomfortable instance of negotiation between the self and former colonial models of appropriation. Because our selfies are an extension of our bodies.

During a shift at the gallery, I open my Twitter feed and encounter Youssef Rakha’s tweet, a series of images of visitors seeing themselves reflected in the glass vitrines protecting the artifacts of the Abu Dhabi Louvre as he writes: “At the Abu Dhabi ‘Louvre’, with people snapping away at the exhibits without bothering to look at them, you get the feeling it is the relics and art works that are viewing museum visitors, not the other way round”. I think of my compatriot Julio Cortázar. In his “Instructions to Wind up a Watch”, Cortázar explains how, when you are gifted a watch, it is you that is gifted to the watch – not the other way around. He knew all along about the agency of objects, perhaps he inspired the writings on art objects and agency by Alfred Gell? Now I hear Julio whispering in my ear, “I told you so.” I promptly erase the idea out of my head, a trace of the North American academic training that focuses almost exclusively on readings of critical theory, explaining how whatever is considered art by the artist must be art because the artist says it is. I wonder whether a work of art can be a prop because viewers take it to be one.

The ghosts of museum visits past assault me. I reckon with my alternate feelings of shame, for having engaged in snapping away at myself – mainly, vainly, as an improved version of the artwork in front of me – in open competition for digital attention. I also experience puzzlement, realizing the existence of a collective phenomenon across museums around the world, regardless of their brand, the art or relics they house, the aim of their curators and artists, or the nationality of the visitors. I realize that the only brand that matters today is that of the individual spectator: the aura of the work of art has shifted from the work itself to the mindless cinematic shot and finally, thanks to the digital realm, to the viewers, spectator-curators of their own selves. In due time, we need to move from the anecdotal to the quantitative. For now, though, I am going to offer a few theory-free vignettes of personal encounters with the novel viewers’ aura, and the process taking place at museums around the world like individual accounts of being exposed to and surviving the new Covid-19, an unknown scourge of the Twenty First Century:


February 28, 2020: Having read Youssef’s Tweet, I begin to pay attention to the use of the work of art as a prop, and the viewer’s aura. Three teens walk inside the exhibition space. As if they own the place, they resolutely seek the best background. They finally decide to arrange their mini photo-shoot in front of Arlene Stamp’s grid-like diptych made with very pedestrian kitchen tiles. The hardware store staple serving as sophisticated modernist tessellation hovers between the wall and the floor, neither a painting nor a sculpture. I must remind them to keep a safe distance from the work, and their backpack away from the “table” titled Tableaux because it is “art”. The girl poses in a determined power stance. I snap, contravening gallery rules. I feel like a National Geographic photographer snapping at the “exotic other”.


February 28, 2020: Morning before commencing shift. I have just arrived and peeled all the winter layers off my body: my parka, beret, gloves. Coronavirus paranoia remains. Off the photo frame, I have my black clutch with enough disinfectant and gum to survive for a month. I head to my sanctuary, the gallery’s bathroom. Then to the lunchroom, where I leave my outdoor shoes in their cubby. I also leave my lunch, which I will take for thirty minutes whenever the lead gallery attendant deems appropriate. Note to self: it is never the first shift, that is always hers. That is why I look resigned in anticipation of six hours on the floor, mostly signalling visitors towards the elevators to the right of the front desk when they reach the end of the exhibition space and, having taken their selfies, wonder where the exit is.


February 25, 2020: Already on the floor. I am seated in the tall bench reserved for gallery attendants and security, anticipating my readings for the upcoming Rembrandt tour. I hear the loud, chunky heels marching resolutely inside. This is none other than my manager. “Luciana, let’s quickly take the picture for the promotion of the special tour of Rembrandt you are giving soon. Because the actual paintings are not here yet, I want you to hold the catalog, make sure the title is fully legible, and then I want you to look through the open book, as if you were reading it, but looking at me with smiling eyes, like this” – she models, eyes pointing way above the ceiling, in case I have failed to understand exactly the way she wants me to pose. “Now let’s choose a proper wall.” I point to the wall that will end up being “the chosen one”, having posed and discarded poses against walls of her choice. “Hmm, let’s try this one, with some images on it, no, no, no, it is better on a blank wall, yes, this one.” “Ok, Luciana, now look at the book, let’s see…” I look at the book so intently I cross my eyes. She snaps away. “Ok, Luciana, this time, you are going to look at me, smile with your eyes, please! Ready!” My boss shows me the result of her work, and business-like, she shakes my hand, “always a pleasure doing business with you”. Our joke of the day. She shows me the two images and agrees to discard the one with my eyes crossed. I thank my lucky stars, and settle on that other one, with my wrinkly eyes in open competition with the wrinkly eyes of Rembrandt’s tronie, Old Man with a Cap.


January 22nd. 2020. It is the official opening. We gallery attendants are stationed on the third floor.  For three hours I must remain by the hot tub. It is an installation by two artists who will remain unnamed. The installation, apparently, is a mockery of self-care culture in a province in crisis due to its decimated oil industry. It is a protest also against said industry and the artificial consumerism it creates all around. I remind myself of Duchamp’s tenet, “it is art because the artist says it is” and I cannot see this hot tub as anything but his “fountain”. At the end of my shift I must add the pool chemicals to keep it fit for use. But this is a long way away. At the time I decide to snap this selfie, the official opening is taking place. The artists arrive wearing swimsuits and bathrobes, they are followed by the audience that gasps, ohhs and ahhs. There are two more spots in the hot tub reserved for the VIP (the curator of the show and a friend). They all hop in the tub, first the artists, who enjoy their time in the spotlight, inhabiting the full auratic effect of their work as it spills over them like a golden shower. After fifteen minutes, the curator of the show cannot stand being ignored any longer and decides to join in, making sure her armpit hair is showing to great effect as she lifts her scrawny arms pointing with her claw-like hands at the screen that documents the artists’ statement. The executive director documents the proceedings for posterity as she schmoozes with the local equivalent of the Medici. At the end of three hours, I’ve forgotten I have a masters in art history. I am now a life-guard on duty, inviting people to get out of the pool so we can pour in the chemicals and close the show.


March 15, 2018. I am visiting Calgary, accompanying my husband who is receiving a lifetime achievement award. He is a noted scientist in his field. In a month he will have a prostatectomy. It is cancer. Now I am at the Glenbow Museum, relishing in becoming Frida for a couple of hours. The museum knows that any exhibition with Frida on its title will bring in solid numbers. I dutifully oblige and take a selfie in front of the main panel, a black and white photo of Frida, competing with her on whose gaze is more enigmatic. The colour image is deliberately transformed thanks to my phone’s filter into a black and white digital original. I crop the most unflattering angles and file the image in my “iconic” folder. I construct my online persona after this image. It is my Twitter and Instagram headshot. Inside the exhibition, however, the sense of disillusionment quickly sets in. Inside glass vitrines, Frida’s old Coty perfume, lipstick, and nail polish vaguely evoke the reds of her self-portraits with the scissors, blood and water. The queen of the oil-painted selfie is nowhere to be found. There is no real aura to steal from. No valid props. Glenbow Museum 1-Visitor 0.


October 2017, Argentina. My family does not want to visit the MALBA Museum, the largest collection of Latin American art by a single collector. I finished my masters of art history a year ago and, having specialized in Latin American art, the pilgrimage to Malba is de rigueur. I roam their modern, sterile glass, concrete and steel envelope, and hone in on Tarsila do Amaral’s Abaporú. Tarsila was a modernist Brazilian painter who enjoyed the expat life in 1920’s Paris alongside her husband, Oswald de Andrade, the father of the Anthropofagia movement. I think of colonial museums and the dialectics of appropriation. Can we eat, cannibalize our colonizers in the Twenty First Century? Or is it just more of the same? How can we get away from the dichotomy, the word colonization at every turn? Here in Canada, “decolonizing” institutions in practice has meant hiring more indigenous people across all disciplines, without accommodating or protecting them from the white backlash. In the gallery environment, I have witnessed how my indigenous colleagues are ignored, even asked why are they there, on exhibition floors, by white patrons, their knowledge dismissed. They have told me they feel out of place. Sometimes I feel out of place as well. To eat – shit – or not to eat. To Be or not to Be, to persist, to occupy space, even if the limbs are too big, as in the case of this hybrid that is do Amaral’s character. Appropriating the melancholy pose of Abaporú, based on Dürer’s character in his print Melancholia, I occupy the space of the Malba Museum with renewed joy, a joyfully thinking woman, breaking the frame, basking in Tarsila’s lemon yellow sun with an orange centre. The all-seeing eye eyeing the camera.


May 2017, Paris. This is the girl of my dreams. I encountered her for the first time inside a picture book my parents gifted me for my sixth birthday, “My Marvellous Museum”. I was nowhere near Paris then. My only experience of looking at paintings was through that book, and a painting of a sailboat amidst a storm in shades of green at my grandparents house in the middle of the Argentinian pampas. But I am now in front of her, at the Louvre, and as I look at Mademoiselle Caroline Riviére’s icy beauty, I go back to that image in the book in my old house, with crumbling walls and sinking wooden floors. I am not looking at her, I am looking inside my memories of her. The Caroline in the Louvre does not hold a candle to the Caroline in my memories. Still, we compete over who has the heaviest eyelids. Louvre Paris 0-Visitor 1.


Moving away from the institutional framework, though, I want to pose one final question about image creation, museum selfies, in this case – along with the distribution of images and their use in social media. Does the process only represent bodies, or does it generate them too? And isn’t the museum, with its own choreographed layout, the ultimate frontier where bodies can be created – and re-created, invented and re-invented against the backdrop of exhibits that were once, or should’ve been, sacred objects?

Images courtesy of Luciana Erregue