Latin American Art History

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Discover the art of Latin America, a region with diverse cultural groups. Explore the styles and common themes found in four distinct periods known as the pre-colonial period, colonial periods, national period, and modern period. Updated: 12/22/2021

Art History of Latin America

When we talk about culture, a few things come immediately to mind: food, language, and art. Art is one of the definitive elements of culture and, as such, has played a major role in world history. If we want to understand Italy, we can look at Italian art. If we want to understand Canada, we can look at Canadian art. But what if we want to understand a broader region, like Latin America? Latin America is a loose term that generally refers to the Spanish or Portuguese nations of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Although this wide area is filled with dozens of distinct and unique peoples, there are some unifying trends that not only appear throughout several cultures, but also in their arts as well.

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  • 0:04 Art History of Latin America
  • 0:53 Pre-Colonial Art
  • 2:21 The Colonial Periods
  • 3:30 The National Period
  • 4:41 Modern Latin America
  • 6:04 Lesson Summary
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Pre-Colonial Art

Latin America is a huge region, and one that's not always clearly definable. So, if we're going to look at the entire region as a whole, we need ways to unify it. One obvious way is through shared historical experiences. So, let's start by looking at Latin America before the arrival of Europeans, back before this region was either Latin or American.

Prior to 1492, the Americas were filled with hundreds of ethno-linguistic groups. This staggering amount of diversity was largely thanks to the geographic and ecological diversity of the continents, but there were some common cultural patterns that emerged across regions. Caribbean societies often existed through warfare and by managing the complex trade routes connecting the islands to mainland Mexico and North America. Their arts were often functional and indicative of status, reflecting their exposure to many different cultures around the Gulf of Mexico. In the continent, Mesoamerican societies were often agricultural, creating large-scale architecture and monolithic carvings from stone. From Mesoamerica into South America, dozens of nomadic cultures thrived throughout the jungles, creating portable or low-impact arts that often had social and religious function. Along the Andes of South America, sedentary civilizations worked stone and metal, as well as developed highly complex weaving cultures with a major focus on textile arts.

The Colonial Periods

The pre-colonial cultures of Latin America were infinitely complex and diverse. However, in the 15th century, Spanish conquerors started to colonize the region, and were soon followed by the Portuguese, French, and English empires. The process of colonization was traumatic for most indigenous cultures of Latin America, characterized by massive losses of life to disease and abuse, the forced abdication of cultural practices, and obligatory assimilation of European customs.

In terms of art, there are two major traits we see in this era. First is the recording of indigenous arts by Catholic monks, under the assumption that these practices would soon be lost forever. In Mexico in particular, friars used Aztec and Mayan artists to record indigenous histories and cultural practices. Secondly, European art was introduced and used to supposedly reaffirm European superiority. We see this most in the genre of casta paintings, or portraits of stereotyped members of colonial society defined by ratios of African, Amerindian, and European ancestry.

The National Period

While the colonial period began in the 15th century, the world was changing by the 19th century. The colonists had begun developing new identities, separate from their imperial homelands. As Latin American colonial societies started seeing themselves as unique, their arts changed to reflect emerging national identities. This practice really took off after those colonists declared and achieved their independence.

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