One of the most dynamic artists of his generation, Gabriel Chaile (1985) produces compelling sculptures made of natural materials and found objects that bring new life to South American contemporary art. Concerned with anthropology, post-colonial theory and Conceptual Art, Chaile creates objects that have an impact on space, relations and communities, and brings people together with the sacred rituals of food and sharing. His lyrical works have been exhibited across America and Europe and have gained praise in recent years for their powerful impressions of the artist’s homeland in Northern Argentina.
‘I define myself as a visual anthropologist’, said artist Gabriel Chaile, ‘because I try to understand behaviour through visual elements’. Born in Tucumán in northwest Argentina in 1985, Chaile creates stunning sculptures that combine ancient and modern traditions, incorporating disparate elements such as references to pre-Columbian cultures and 20th century Conceptual Art.
Chaile was born into a family with strong artisanal traditions, which inspired him to transfer the basic, everyday elements of intimate communal life into the creative realm. His first experiments were undertaken at the Fine Art Department at the National University of Tucumán. In 2009, he received a scholarship by Fundación YPF, thanks to which he was able to join the Artists Program launched by University Torcuato Di Tella. Throughout the 2010s he obtained several commissions and artist residences in South America and, in 2015, was mentioned for the Klemm Prize. Using found objects, clay, bricks and organic materials, Chaile quickly gained recognition for his accessible yet sophisticated take on sculpture, which he conceives as a form of social practice.
‘I try to understand things through their shape’, Chaile said of his sculptures. Such continuous research takes multiple shapes through the intersections of anthropology, politics and sociology. Interested in spirituality and rituals, as well as in the pre-Columbian communities and their struggle against colonisers, Chaile artistically reinterprets the multi-layered post-colonial history of Tucumán, combining rigorous artistic concerns with sense of humour.
The importance of familiar connections and social rituals in Chaile’s practice can be immediately perceived in his contribution for the Art Basel Cities Week in Buenos Aires in September 2018, when Chaile presented a clay sculpture that functioned both as a portrait and as a wood-fired oven. Employed to serve empanadas, this work exemplified the importance of communal practices and the healing rituals of food. Fascinated by natural materials such as mud or metal, Chaile aimed to recreate the narratives of his ancestors and his communities, gifting them with a new life.
Such attention to objects and the stories they tell materialises in Chaile’s practice into artworks that recover forgotten relations and forge new contexts. In line with his concern for communities and interactions, he was part of many collective exhibitions in Tucumán, Lima, Montevideo, Paris, Cuenca and Buenos Aires. The artistic relevance of his anthropological approach has been recognised worldwide, and Chaile’s work has been exhibited in several museums and institutions across America and Europe, such as the Museum of Modern Art of Buenos Aires, and Art Basel Cities: Buenos Aires. Such works, as well as the major projects produced by Chaile in recent years, were included in the catalogue published in 2020 by the Museum of Modern Art of Buenos Aires. In the following year he debuted in the UK with the exhibition ‘Me hablan de oscuridad pero yo estoy encandilado (They tell me of darkness but I am dazzled by the light)’ hosted by HENI Art Agency. Lyrical yet unapologetically political, Chaile’s artworks create new networks of histories and symbols, merging ancient narratives with contemporary meanings.
ME HABLAN DE OSCURIDAD PERO YO ESTOY ENCANDILADO
The exhibition ‘Me hablan de oscuridad pero yo estoy encandilado (They tell me of darkness but I am dazzled by the light)’ (2021) marks Gabriel Chaile’s artistic debut in the UK. Combining animal and human forms into spiritual clay totems, the artist reappropriates both the creative materials and the ancestral narratives of his native Northern Argentina.
These sculptures, consisting of dynamic round shapes and rough, tactile textures, were produced over the summer and fall of 2020 in Lisbon, Portugal, during the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak. This was a period of uncertainty and fear, which Chaile exorcised through the shamanic connection of his clay sculptures to bright yellow pigments, linked through thin brass tubes. Containing charcoal in their cone-shaped heads, these works signify the potential of life illuminating the darkness, and the constant expansion of consciousness.
Chaile’s sculptural language employs both ancient and modern forms, combining harmoniously indigenous craft and social advocacy. A self-styled ‘visual anthropologist’, he creates works which provide spaces for neglected identities and forgotten histories, amplifying the voices of marginalised communities. These clay totems represent a post-colonial fight for identity and liberty against oppressive power structures, and yet they remain familiar and accessible. Concerned with the construction of interactions and relationships, ‘Me hablan de oscuridad pero yo estoy encandilado’ is an ode to life, connection and growth.
Gabriel Chaile’s characteristic intersection of artistic lyricism and political engagement fully comes to life in ‘Horno’ (Oven), a series of large clay ovens curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist for the Serpentine Galleries in the spring of 2021. Combining an interest in anthropology, sacred rituals, histories of pre-Columbian communities of South America and current post-colonial political theory, these objects are both sculptural and functional.
Furthering Chaile’s theories of a ‘genealogy of forms’, through which forgotten stories and oppressed identities can re-emerge, these ovens fuse anatomical shapes of humans and animals with ancient engineering techniques. Totemistic yet utilitarian, these sculptures can be activated to bake traditional food, such as empanadas and bread, to be distributed to viewers in a re-enactment of collective experiences and rituals.
The possibility of sharing such practices constitute, for Chaile, a mode of reclaiming the pride in his indigenous heritage, as well as an indictment of Argentinian post-colonial governments, which historically have tried to suppress these communities. Reacting against centuries of white domination, Chaile’s ovens aim to offer a new shape for indigenous cultural identity, one which recuperates and reclaims forgotten symbols of antiquity, interweaving them with new meanings.
ESTA CANCIÓN YA TUVO APLAUSOS
‘Esta canción ya tuvo aplausos’ (This song already had applause) was a 2019 exhibition of Gabriel Chaile at ChertLüdde, a commercial art gallery in Berlin. Consisting of metal and clay sculptural works retelling ancient myths of Argentinian indigenous cultures, this series transforms anthropomorphic forms into large, functional clay ovens.
In Chaile’s artistic approach, rites of communal baking and eating are strongly associated with concepts of mutual consideration and beneficial action, in opposition to the damaging colonial practices enacted by Argentinian governments throughout the centuries. These artworks, Chaile claims, produce a unique genealogy of forms, in which relations between communities and power can be not only acknowledged, but also reclaimed and reworked. Recalling indigenous pre-Columbian vases, they represent the historical actions of survival and resistance of ancient cultures, invoking Chaile’s own roots in a challenge to a prevalent sense of post-colonial shame.
A large anthropomorphic oven sculpture named ‘La Malinche’ functions as a metaphor to address social and historical problems. La Malinche refers to the myth of an indigenous woman who worked as an interpreter for Hernán Cortés, the Spanish settler who destroyed the Aztec Empire. Seen both as a traitor and as a powerful female figure, La Malinche carries multiple and contradictory connotations, complicating the often-ignored South American history of resistance.
In Chaile’s practice, elements and symbols of indigenous culture are allowed to acquire new meanings in the world of contemporary art. The cultural lineage of Argentinian indigenous communities is recomposed and reinvented, gaining new life through Chaile’s interpretations.