Miami Biennale
José Gamarra

Art Works
José Gamarra Yemanyá, 1985
Oil on canvas; 59 X 59 inches
From Beyond the Erotic: Invention of Place

José Gamarra En busca de El Dorado, 1982
Oil on canvas; 59 X 59 inches
From Beyond the Erotic: Invention of Place

José Gamarra El Quetzal, 1985
Oil on canvas; 71.25 X 71.25 inches
From Beyond the Erotic: Flows

Return to: Artist Biographies


José Gamarra (born 1934) Tecuarembó, Uruguay. As a child, he loved drawing and painting. Actually, the first exhibition of his paintings was made before he was thirteen years old. In 1959 he obtained a scholarship from the Brazilian government to take engraving lessons in Rio de Janeiro. Subsequently, he moved to Sao Paulo, where he studied at the Museum of Modern Art and participated in the III Biennial of Young Painters held in Paris, where he obtained a scholarship. In 1963, he moved to France together with his wife Dilma. The Gamarras made repeated trips between France and their native country, but they never left Europe. We should note that at that time, a fluent communication and exchange of information existed between France and Latin American countries.

“From Paris, we had a view of all Latin America”, says Gamarra. And Dilma adds: “Artistic life in France was very attractive and, on the other hand, it represented a challenge. For José Gamarra, it was essential to take his own measure against other worldwide painters currently working in Paris – it was a way of estimating his own worth as an artist. (L’Humanité, December 1992). Gamarra’s first two exhibitions in France were held in 1966, at the Galerie Pèron and in 1976, at the Galerie L’œil de Bœf.

At first, in his open-air studio in the middle of the Amazonian jungle, the painter worked in large monochromatic canvases totally made of matter, ornamented with signs and pre-Columbian symbols. Later, when he changed to smooth, flat surfaces, his palette became richer, with varied colors and cameo-like greens, typical of equatorial landscapes.

The most distinctive trait in Gamarra’s works is the precision of his brush stroke. An example of this is his outstanding skill for sumptuously depicting minute details, such as the dented pattern –even the nervures- of a leaf. However, there are no traces of mannerism in his paintings: his works are rendered with a precise and detailed craftsmanship. The artist resorts to oil, mixed with resins, glue and vinyl. His studio is his laboratory, not only because he loves to experiment with new pigment mixtures, but also because of all the items collected and investigations made with regard to the Latin American continent in general. He is like a scientist discovering new species and taxonomies. His research covers zoology and botany, geography and history. His knowledge of the Latin American flora, fauna and history is visible in the striking richness pervading his landscapes and different pictorial subjects. In Gamarra, the landscape evokes a large range of historical periods. The jungle reveals different cultural influences, as well as the clash of civilizations. As if by magic, small characters appear, amid an entanglement of creeping vines, leaves and huge, luxuriant trees. These are the characters/witnesses of past times, but also of a story still signaled by cruelty: Latin America has suffered from many colonizations… The apparition of these small characters gives a magic aspect to his paintings. However, there is no naiveté in them. Gamarra is not an Uruguayan Douanier-Rousseau. On the contrary, his works reflect a strong historical awareness. For Gamarra, the jungle has political connotations. It is “invasive”; it enfolds individuals. Gamarra’s characters are almost miniatures, as if Nature regained its rights and stepped over culture. Each character is charged with a very precise symbolism. Gamarra tries to narrate the story of evolution within a Latin American landscape.

“The structure of [José Gamarra’s] symbolic language is in line with deep-rooted laws: it is the blend of the past with the present; of the organic with the industrial; of the underground with the aerial elements. Thus, we discover the blood-petroleum; the beast-uterus; the angel-helicopter; the ship-gullet; the snake-parachute. All the components of the long, tragic story of the South American continent are present, amid chasing dogs and bombs, deadly as the mineral mines.” (Edouard Glissant, 1985)

José Gamarra is not looking for anachronisms: he confronts several historical periods within the same painting. His jungle works “both as a cavern, and as a screen”, revealing a story in mosaic form. One cannot understand contemporary history without these successive layers of spoils from the past. Gamarra’s work leads us to reflect on our notion of identity. The persistence of the past within the present is the witness of an ever-changing identity. Cultural identity is marked by influences, by crossbreeding, by technical and scientific hybridizing and by occasionally violent intrusions in its own history, in its individual or the country’s subjectivity. Myths and old founding stories, legendary heroes such as the mermaids or Saint George vanquishing the dragon, blend with the artist’s own imagery, such as the anaconda, representing American imperialism. Identity is not a fixed element, but it is subject to constant evolution while maintaining its individuality. In Gamarra, even symbols and myths are subject to a process of perpetual mutation and re-invention.

In Gamarra’s paintings, dualism is always present. Thus, Nature/culture; archaism/modernity and progress, become diffuse and blend to become a whole. In his pictures, modernity may take the aspect of a jeep, of a helicopter, of the military, of the industrial age; however, these cannot erase the Indian with his bow, the canoe, the quetzal bird. Cultural singularities persist. No violence, be it political or military, no genocide, will be capable of obliterating the traces and the remains of a culture. In spite of this, civilization is tainted with cruelty and with the exploitation of resources. Gamarra’s small characters combine a fantastic world with a feeling of oppression…

One may ask if Gamarra’s pictorial subjects are not revealing a sort of idealized primitivism, the figure of the “good savage”, vis-à-vis that of the colonizer; whether they represent an evidence of the lost paradise. However, these characters propose a subtler game. Could not the guerrilla be the priest who has taken arms in order to fight along with the Indians? Have some of the soldiers defected, in order to fight for the oppressed? In spite of these exceptions, history is mainly a story of domination. José Gamarra reveals its contradictions and paradoxes. Two worlds confront one another. On the one hand, there is Nature or the white horse -a symbol of freedom- wishing to stamp its feet and run free and, on the other, the different powers that support the world’s structure: money, earnings, possessions and political power, synonyms of threats and aggressions… Jose Gamarra’s works are a hymn to freedom, a denunciation against all forms of oppression, be it the Spanish conquistadores or the modern multinational companies. Civilization shines through in Nature, with elements and almost miniature individuals that confront one another in the 20th century’s combat for the preservation of our world’s patrimony.

Participates in the following Biennials:

  • Bienal de Córdoba, Argentina, 1962
  • São Paulo Biennial, 1963
  • Venice Biennale representing Uruguay, 1964
  • International Print Biennial, Ljubljana, Yugoslavia
  • Print Biennial, Santiago de Chile
  • Print Biennial in Krakow, 1966
  • Mercosul Biennial, 1977
  • Havana Biennial, 1984
  • American Graphic Arts Biennial, Cali, Colombia 1986

He has received numerous awards, including:

  • Bienal de Córdoba
  • Guest Prize Printmaking in Cuba
  • Amys Prize for Young Painters
  • Painting Prize and Silver Medal, Salon de Montrouge, France, 1981
  • Candido Portinari Painting Award, Havana Biennial, 1984.

Major exhibitions
Has his first solo exhibition at the Ateneo de Montevideo in 1947. Since 1959 has had numerous solo exhibitions in galleries and museums in Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Santiago, Chile, New York, London, Manchester, Vermont (USA), Haarlem (Holland), Amsterdam, Rotterdan, Tourcoing France, Santa Fe de Granada, Spain, Havana, Bogota, Cali, Birmingham, Michigan, Coral Gables (USA) and Panama. His work has been exhibited at International Art Fairs (Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, FIAC Paris, ARCO Madrid, FIA Caracas, ART Paris). His work is in museums, the Rockefeller Foundation, New York; Collection Banque Rothschild, Zurich; Museum of Modern Art, New York; University of Texas Art Museum, Austin; Musee d'Art Moderne, Paris; Museum Hedendaags Kunst Utrecht, Holland; Museo de Artes Visuales, Montevideo; Museos de Arte Moderno in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Fundación Torcuato di Tella and Fundación Pipino y Marques, Buenos Aires; Museo de las Américas, Managua, and in prestigious public and private collections in Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Cuba, Panama, France, England, Holland, Spain, Italy, USA, Mexico, Nicaragua.