In 2012, the Current in Stowe hosted a group show called "Migration" that included a single, beaded-heart sculpture by Esperanza Cortés. The Colombia-born, New York City-based artist now has a solo show of 28 works at the gallery, curated by executive and exhibitions director Rachel Moore. Titled "Tierra Dentro" ("inside earth") — which is also the name of a national archaeological park in Colombia — the exhibition excavates Cortés' cultural and personal history.
The artifact-like works are scintillating. Sparkling glass beads cover the surfaces of clay sculptures shaped like skulls, organs and reliquaries. Gold chains dangle from a canvas. Strands of alabaster beads extend from the back of a chair like a wedding train. Tiny crystals and faux pearls are worked into gold-sequined embroidery.
Cortés' work is not just visually dazzling. All the Current's exhibitions have a social or environmental justice component and "Tierra Dentro" is no exception. In much of the work, which spans the past 25 years, the artist explores the legacies of colonialism, particularly the European rush to deplete natural resources around the globe. In 16th-century Colombia, the prizes were gold, emeralds and copper.
"I use Colombia as an example, but I'm talking about colonial exploitation everywhere — Africa, Brazil, Latin America — that had to do with access to materials that would make people wealthy," Cortés said during a phone call while caring for her baby granddaughter. (She lives in the East Village and has a studio in Brooklyn.)
"What Was Left" is a tall, heavy-looking ceiling installation consisting of a gold-leafed chandelier draped with velvet tassels, glass beads, and gold-plated charms and chains linked together in long strands that pool on the sculpture's base in elegant coils.
The work portrays "the excessiveness of colonialism," Cortés' label reads. (She wrote the labels, and assistant curator Alexa Sherrill edited them.) For the colonizers, the label continues, owning a chandelier was an "affectation to European aristocracy," while the colonization process was one of "plunder, pillage and violence dressed as civilization."
Cortés, who calls herself mixed race, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old with her mother and two siblings; they followed her father, who had left in 1959-60 to escape what would become the Colombian civil war. She earned a bachelor's degree in studio art at Queens College, City University of New York, and gained what amounted to a second education in art while working as a lecturer at the Museum of Modern Art.
Cortés also learned South American dances such as cumbia, samba and merengue and eventually became an Afro Latin dance instructor.
From her mother, Cortés learned about some colorful ancestors, including a poet laureate of Bogotá, an opera singer, a famous dancer and one of Latin America's first female bullfighters. Also among them was her uncle, an emerald miner who died of black lung disease. Colombia's long history of emerald exploitation — going back to the Spaniards' efforts to supplement their ranks of enslaved Indigenous miners with enslaved Africans — is addressed in Cortés' show.
Like a swath of eyeshadow, a spray of emerald shell chips accents the black-painted clay female head of "Cumbia." The head, resting on its side on an antique wood bench, bears a calm, self-possessed expression that somehow defies the message of exploitation, as does the title. It refers to Colombia's oldest dance, which emerged from the interaction of Indigenous peoples and Africans in about 1648, according to the label.
Much of Cortés' work similarly evokes both beauty and horror. "Emerald Tears" is a collection of 13 forms encrusted with green glass beads and arranged in a vitrine, as if in an archaeology museum. The clay forms range from an artery-wrapped lung to a fetus to a skull — a symbol of ancestry rather than death, Cortés specified. Their shimmer under gallery lighting, a label notes, is "a beautiful effect" that both fetishizes them and highlights the system of violence behind mineral extraction.
Violence is more directly evoked in "Golden Rain," a composition of three black oil-and-encaustic-on-wood panels hung with 20 gold-plated necklaces. Along the panels' edges, the color red seeps out like blood from behind the black.
Cortés' works are explicitly feminine and often feminist. "La Cordobésa," a chair covered with embroidery, honors the artist's matrilineal line of female bullfighters, in particular a cousin who became one of the first women in Latin America to fight bulls on foot instead of horseback.
The piece's hybridity embodies a cross-generational link having to do with female strength and endurance. The chair sets a 20th-century seat and back on 18th-century turned legs. And Cortés cut the colorful embroidery from her dance costumes, which she had to abandon after an injury ended her dance teaching career.
Cortés collaged bits of her daughter's embroidered dresses onto "Cradle," a wood bassinet that she began creating in 2016 when news broke of then-president Donald Trump's policy to separate children from their immigrant parents. "A Charmed Life," a white brocade-upholstered chair with a train of alabaster beads, is a veiled message to women not to marry for money at the cost of personal health and freedom.
Alabaster is "fragile and translucent, a perfect symbol for women," Cortés said. The title "A Charmed Life," she continued, "implies what women often want so badly, a fairy-tale wedding. They often look at things incorrectly — the financial gain, not the person."
Yet, like her other pieces, "A Charmed Life" is visually stunning.
Why make her critiques beautiful?
"People are beautiful," Cortés said simply. "The Americas are a place that was created when people were brought together in brutal ways. It's the beautiful aftermath of a brutal experience."