From the magical realism of Belkis Granada to the graffiti-inspired gestural work of Alexander Martinez, the painters at Arte Original vary immensely. But what they share is a dedication to their craft and a home in Latin America, and in particular, Venezuela. Since 2018, Arte Original has been working to bring their work to D.C.
Co-founders Su Hyun Kim and David Ryu started Arte Original after Ryu moved to Caracás, Venezuela and noticed the quality of work being done. He called Kim, whose interest in Latin American goes back to reading magical realism novels in high school in Seoul, South Korea, and she quickly joined.
Venezuela today is known for its political and economic woes, but historically, it was known as a cultural hub, says Kim.
“The economic crisis made everything a little more difficult, but still you could see the high quality of art in Venezuela. [Ryu] started collecting the art and saw an opportunity to introduce these artists to the international market.”
They found painters like Belkis Granada and Armando Villalón, who is known locally as the “painter of the mist” for his landscape paintings. All have been working professionally for at least a decade and have had solo or group exhibitions, and some have shown their work internationally. They were artists who came of age when the state still provided state funding for the arts and even financially supported their study abroad, like Villalón who trained in Spain.
Kim, Ryu and the Arte Original team wanted to bring these artists back out of the woodwork. In 2018, Venezuela was in the midst of the same national woes we see today. Falling oil prices between 2014 and 2016 led the petrostate into a political and economic tailspin, and by 2019, the GDP had shrunk two-thirds.
“Even in Caracas,” says Kim, “[the artists] only have water a few hours a day, blackouts are very common [and] them not having Internet is even more common.”
She tells the story of how they bought one of the artists a water tank, which was only $50 USD but well beyond the means of the artist in question. But despite conditions, Kim says the team and the artists remain motivated. Bringing jobs to Latin America was another founding impetus for Arte Original.
The rest of the Arte Original team, from curators to web developers, are based in Venezuela. Kim says, however, they aim to source quality art from any country in Latin America. But because they started in Venezuela, most of the artists are from Venezuela.
Over time, they began to work with more artists like Jorge Contreras, a pop artist who is immediately recognizable for his “Serie Mickey.” The work features Mickey Mouse and Manuela Armand, known for her “Serie Efímeros” abstract works in which she tries to capture the ever-changing nature of light.
“It’s one of those works,” Kim says, “that you look at and go, “’Huh, I wonder what it’s trying to say?’ And then you look at it another day, and another day, [and] you realize, ‘This is amazing.’”
Armand and others like Ivan Romero and Graciela Zuñiga recall Washington Color School artists like Willem de Looper and Sam Gilliam. Helping these artists find a fair price for their work was another founding impetus for Arte Original. Kim, whose background is not in the art world, was surprised to discover how things normally operate.
“It’s a market where actually arbitration is very common, insider trading is allowed and there’s very little transparency in pricing.”
The work is available to view or purchase at the Arte Original website, however Kim says they are planning some local exhibitions as well. Before the pandemic, they had a few planned for spring 2020, but had to cancel.
Arte Original has a late March exhibition planned at La Cosecha in Union Market, which will run from March 20 – April 18. This exhibit will feature the work of four women artists including Granada and Armand. It will also feature Yudy Marquez and Maria Brito, known for their “potato-style” magical realism portraiture and more ornate, Art Nouveau-inspired paintings, respectively.
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