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 https://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/. 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”