The exhibition “William Cordova now’s the time: narratives of southern alchemy” is the first museum survey of works by William Cordova (b. 1969, Lima, Peru; lives in Miami, Lima, and New York), an artist who is inspired by cultural transmission, alchemy, and transcendence. Cordova’s production transmits the realities of marginalized histories in order to challenge forms of cultural oppression and transcend them. His practice developed in direct response to how disenfranchised communities tend to be represented in negative ways in mainstream culture. His alchemy involves turning stereotypical derogatory representations into positive ones. He creates cultural transformations and generates new images to provide alternative representations informed by different topics, themes, and abstraction, instead of focusing on images of suffering. Engaging in actions that go beyond traditional studio work, Cordova is also known as a curator, teacher, and mentor to younger generations at a local, national, and international level. His work is multidisciplinary, as he produces drawings, sculptures, installations, and collaborative projects. Synthesizing symbols, artifacts, and languages interrelated to his own ancestral lineage and contemporary reality, Cordova makes connections with the politics of hip-hop, architecture and African, Andean, and Asian diasporas in the United States. Cordova considers his process as analytical, embracing the historical quotidian intersections shared by Western and Non-Western cultures, and collapsing linear notions of time and space. Cordova incorporates ephemeral and precarious materials to create elegant works that defy traditional Western notions of identity and offer a critical, flexible space to reflect on the cultural transformations of our time.
Illustrating Cordova’s cosmology and philosophical process, this show presents the basic ideas and recurrent motifs that have inspired the artist for several decades. Each artwork on view embodies his interest in tracing his multifaceted culture and mapping his moment. Including a range of older and newer pieces, “William Cordova now’s the time” presents more than 30 works showcasing his artistic range. Some of the earliest works in this exhibition are a series of postcards made between 1996 and 2000, overlapping with the time when Cordova was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. In this body of work, one can appreciate Cordova’s interest in geometric forms and his early fascination with abstraction in a small format. Using reclaimed paper, paint, tape, and ink, Cordova made collaged postcards referencing geometry, rhythm, and cosmograms — flat, geometric drawings depicting cosmology. “Till the morning after,” 1999, is a postcard split in two horizontally; on the top section, there is a white triangle with a square inside traced in black ink. Each corner of the triangle has a numeral notation and an object traced in black ink: the top corner has the number 132 and a chandelier, the bottom left corner has the number 89 and a chair, and the third corner has the number 273 and what appears to be a pot. This triangle and its everyday objects and numbers can be interpreted as Cordova’s attempt to create his own cosmogram. The bottom half of the postcard has a red background and features the invented word “Huebon” — in Peru, huevon is a slang term used as a synonym of “stupid.” The viewer who understands the artist’s gesture is left wondering who is stupid: the artist or the spectator.
Another work in the exhibition, “now’s the time (pachacuti),” 2009, in which Cordova collaged paper, gold, hair, and dust, depicts his interest in cultural transmission, in relation to ideas of transformation and transcendence. The work is characterized by an elegant white background in which one can recognize the artist’s subtle treatment of layering materials onto the surface. Upon closer inspection, one can recognize a tower of stacked vinyl records, speakers, a satellite, and other objects that relate to music surrounded by shimmering votive candles. Elements such as the speakers and vinyl records point to Cordova’s relationship to street culture and his experiences growing up in Miami. The use of gold, a motif seen recurrently in Cordova’s works, could be understood in relationship to pre-Columbian Incan gold sculptures, as well as his interest in alchemy. All of these elements embody different histories to signify the artist’s dedication to ideas of cultural transformation through oral histories and music. Approaching music similar to the way a traditional alchemist approaches gold, Cordova treats the motif of music as an important catalyst that expands the potential of culture. Here, the title of the work could be interpreted as a direct reference to Parker’s jazz hit, especially when considering the history of jazz music in the United States — a genre developed by black musicians in New Orleans in the 19th century within a racist and repressive society, which some people found morally questionable. The work’s subtitle relates to Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth ruler of the Kingdom of Cusco (1438-1471-’72) who transformed the Inca Empire, expanding its rule from the valley of Cusco nearly to the western part of South America. In Quechua, the term pachakutiq means “he who overturns space and time.” By collapsing all of these different histories and times, Cordova expresses his own allegiances to movements and people that have used culture as a means to transcend, heal, and empower their own realities.
Other works presented in the “William Cordova now’s the time” show the impact of poetry, music, and the Latin American film movement Third Cinema on Cordova’s practice. A work in the PAMM collection, “Untitled (The Echo in Nicolas Guillen Landrian’s Bolex),” 2008-’09, fig. 5) is an impressive installation of 100 drawings made with reclaimed paper, pages torn from books, reclaimed cardboard, and loose sheets from spiral notebooks. Similar to his postcards, each drawing is a delicate rendering that is highly detailed. In this work, Cordova used a combination of techniques and materials, including gold leaf, stenciling, watercolor, graphite drawing, erasure, and collage, and make references to different histories related to political movements of resistance and subversive subcultures. One can recognize several allusions to different themes including graffiti, hip-hop, experimental film, and poetry. The title of the work references Nicolas Guillen Landrian, an accomplished Cuban Third Cinema filmmaker who was persecuted by the Cuban government in the 1970s and 1980s for his radical documentaries. Landrian’s works are critical of capitalism, exploration, and neocolonialism, often depicting the poor and the disenfranchised communities of Latin America. Inspired by Landrian’s contributions, Cordova pays homage to the filmmaker but also draws a parallel between the conditions of oppression that gave birth to Third Cinema in Latin America and the mechanisms of oppression experienced in the United States. By creating multiple drawings, Cordova makes a connection between his production and the video camera’s ability to create a scene with multiple shots and perspectives. “Untitled (The Echo in Nicolas Guillen Landrian’s Bolex)” embodies one way in which Cordova has been working toward illuminating the significance the Cuban filmmaker had on future generations. Cordova has also presented film screenings and lectures about Landrian and this subject.
“Now’s the time: narratives of southern alchemy” illuminates Cordova’s commitment to bridging forth histories that have not been part of the mainstream, but speak to current social dynamics specific to people whose traditions fall outside the conventional understanding of American culture. Inspired by the spirit of transformation embedded in alchemy, Cordova focuses on narratives related to marginalized, erased or forgotten groups to bind our human experiences. His works encourage a polylingual and multiethnic southern approach through a non-linear understanding of history as a way to encourage a new transcendental space of empowerment. Cordova also exemplifies the complexities of creative impulses in South Florida and how artists in Miami work in relation to a wider understanding of culture. “Now’s the time: narratives of southern alchemy” presents his story as a cultural practitioner who weaves together different narratives to create a new language and bolster another worldview.