José Roca’s private art collection is eclectic. It reflects an expertise in Latin American contemporary art compiled over decades, with each object telling a story. Roca exudes an intellectual air in tight-fitting dark jeans, and the black roundneck pullover echoes his dark curls. He eyes glow with confidence as he articulates calmly his passion, flowing fluidly from Colombian to Latin American art, citing the names of artists from deep in his subconscious.

In his early 30s, Roca became the artistic director of the Banco de la República art collection. Joining the prestigious entity in 1994, he stayed for 14 years. The bank’s art collection used to be part of the largest library in Colombia, the Luis Ángel Arango. Roca envisioned that art in Colombia would only get the developmental attention that it needed if the collection had a distinct entity. “When you’re within the structure of a library, everyone’s attention is on the books. Art gets subsumed into other priorities.”

José Roca and the Tate Modern by Simone Graziano

José Roca holds the responsibility of finding Latin American art that fits in alongside the other works at the Tate Modern in London.

 

Roca’s perseverance resulted in the creation of a nexus of exhibition space for the bank’s art collection, consolidating the Calle 11 as a cultural area for Bogotá, establishing art as an important cultural expression and planting the seed that formalizes public art management in Colombia. Roca was key in enhancing public awareness of Latin American contemporary art through a multitude of exhibitions, including shows on the Mexican Fundación/Colección Jumex (one of the most important contemporary art collections in Latin America) and the Cuban American Félix González Torres. They were not necessarily popular with the Bank’s management committee: “They didn’t like what I was doing; they tolerated it at best.”

How would you advance your career after having the job as one of the most important art administrator in your country? “There is an existential question. Is there life after Banco de la República? They paid huge salaries compared to other cultural institutions at the time, so you can fall into a comfort zone. It’s either I create a life outside the bank from then on, or never.”

Roca went on to take a sabbatical between 2001 and 2002 at the Whitney, studying with authorities of the field, including art historian Hal Foster and postcolonialist Homi Bhabha. Returning to the Central Bank in 2002, he continued to work with world class art institutions such as MoMA in New York and the 52nd Venice Biennial in his spare time. By the turn of the century, Roca was already recognized as the ‘Latin American art expert.’ Overseas curators like Mari Carmen Ramírez and Lisette Lagnado started throwing projects at him, getting him involved with the momentous San Juan Triennial Poly/Graphic in Puerto Rico in 2004 (formerly the first and oldest meeting ground for the Latin American graphic arts) and the 27th São Paulo Biennial in 2006. His international exhibition experience allowed him to break through the clique of an older generation of established curators such as Eduardo Serrano and become an independent curator in 2008.

Roca did not stop there. He was appointed by Tate Modern in London to be the third Estrellita B. Brodsky Latin American Art curator for 2012 to 2015. The adjunct curator’s role is to source Latin American Art that would sit comfortably in Tate Modern, a contemporary art mecca dominated by works mainly from the USA and Europe.

“My work at the Tate is a productive paradox. It’s a paradox because I am a Latin American art curator for an institution that doesn’t have a Latin American Art collection per se. Every work that I bring to Tate enters a dialogue with the collection, and then with the larger narrative of contemporary art. [A piece of art] is good because it would dialogue well with Joseph Boeuys or Richard Hamilton. So it’s productive because Latin American art in Tate will not be ghettoised. On the contrary, the contribution of Latin American art to art movements like conceptual art and minimalism would then be acknowledged.”

Are Latin American artists aware of the contemporary art development outside of the continent? Roca replied with another question, “Why isn’t popcorn considered as an ethnic food? Why would you assume that the ‘centre’, i.e. American and European art, is not aware of what’s going on in Latin America? The centre always sees itself as the centre and the rest as the periphery. But is changing.” Tate is not acquiring Latin American art that is “exotic and magical realist,” as canonised by MoMA in the 1940s. In fact, with increasing international awareness and with help from experts like Roca, Latin American art is now known to encompass artists from Doris Salcedo, the Colombian whose work was the Tate turbine hall commission in 2007 and 2008, to the Belgian Francis Alÿs who lives in Mexico.

“Salcedo’s work would be part of the contemporary art and not the Latin American art auction at Christie’s. No one wants to be the last one to realize the latest trend. Many of them are trying to catch up, or to be at the forefront.” Prominent art institutions are leading the frantic movement of Latin American art acquisition. Pompidou has created a Latin American acquisition committee. MoMa has a Latin American art curator. Zurich has one of Europe’s most important Latin-American art collections: The Daros Latinamerica Collection. Influential collectors like Estrellita Brodsky are promoting Latin American art widely in the USA. This is the moment for Latin American art.

Colombia has also caught on to the global trend of the art scene. “Everybody has been coming to Colombia to check out the scene because there is a buzz that Colombia is very good. Since no one came before because of perceived insecurity, artists have been developing a very strong body of work without the pressure of a monetary market.”

Art is gathering strength in Colombia. There used to be limited formal education on artistic theories, administration and management. Roca’s early training was as an architect at the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá. “Up until 5 years ago, most artists had a side job because they couldn’t survive selling their works.” But the scene is changing. “There are more art historians, curators, critics (mostly online), galleries, and independent spaces. People don’t crack jokes when they see a video because they understand that video is also an artistic language. Now collectors would buy a video work, a photograph, a drawing or the script of a performance art, and also commission artists to make art.”

So how can Colombia hinge on the trend of increasing interests in art both domestically and internationally? “We need more opportunities for artists to express themselves. They should be able to make a living through their art.” This is where FLORA comes in. In his latest project, Roca turns a two story house in the San Felipe barrio of Bogotá into an art space hybrid. Roca’s curated exhibitions will be found on the first floor, the heart of the house. The second floor extension will have studios for two selected artists each year. FLORA draws inspiration from Roca’s passion for artworks that are nature- inspired. Projects will pay tribute to the botanic theme, and a permanent piece of garden art will be designed by Miguel Ángel Rojas.

FLORA’s annual residency programme in Tolima will offer an artist the opportunity to get inspiration along the Magdalena River, in colonial towns with heavy historical traces like Honda, Ambalema and Mariquita (where La Real Expedición Botánica began in 1783, the scientific pursuit of nature that resulted in the registration of 70,000 plant and 7,000 animals species). “The artist will return to Bogotá at the end of the summer to show their work in the making to the public and to receive comments. The feedback process is part of the formation of the art.”

With FLORA, the role of Roca has evolved. He is more than a didactic curator that educates the public gaze. He is creating a space where two-way dialogue occurs, innovating and contributing to the development of art in Colombia more than he’s ever done before.

Read more of Jessica Wong writings: www.onechineseincolombia.com