An essential stopover for scholars of Latin American art

Part of the founding vice-chancellor’s vision lives on at the University of Essex

September 3, 2015
University of Essex, fathers and children viewing artwork
Source: University Of Essex
Arte popular: works in the collection are used for learning as well as exhibition

One of Europe’s leading collections of Latin American art is shortly to be made far more accessible to students and the general public.

When the University of Essex was established in 1963, vice-chancellor Albert Sloman was determined that it should break the mould. One aspect of this was a commitment to the largely neglected field of Latin American studies and the creation of a Latin American Centre (now the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies). Art history, along with government, sociology and literature, became one of the first departments in the School of Comparative Studies and, as such, was expected to develop teaching and research on Latin American themes.

Encouraged to innovate, Dawn Ades, now a professor emerita, rapidly established herself as a leading expert on the art of Latin America and, in 1989, curated a landmark exhibition, Art in Latin America: The Modern Era 1820-1980, at London’s Hayward Gallery. Four years later, a student called Charles Cosac donated Memória, a painting by Brazilian artist Siron Franco, to the university. This commemorates an environmental disaster that took place in Goiânia in 1987, when a company illegally disposed of radioactive material.

When the university decided to use this work as the basis for a larger collection of Latin American art, an Argentinian student was shocked to discover that it was proposing to launch with only a single Brazilian picture and so secured further donations from artists and collectors. Within six weeks, 48 works had been assembled as the core of what is now ESCALA, the Essex Collection of Art from Latin America. (The acronym conveniently means “scale”, “step” and “stopover” in both Spanish and Portuguese.)

The only specialist public collection in the UK, ESCALA currently consists of about 740 artworks – dating from 1600 to the present day, although about 95 per cent were produced after 1950 – and 4,000 archival items. (Essential back-up is provided by the Albert Sloman Library, whose 8,000 books on the art of Latin America make it the leading national collection.)


There are obviously reasons why Britain is a less sensitive place to study Latin America and its art than the former colonial powers of Spain and Portugal or the US. Close links with Essex’s Human Rights Centre and the university’s long radical tradition of solidarity with the region and rejection of American intervention have meant that many artworks in ESCALA address issues of land and indigenous rights, syncretic religion and mixing of populations.

It makes no distinction between high and low or popular and fine art, and so can be seen, according to director Joanne Harwood, as “more representative, broader and deeper” than the material held by the Tate.

For the catalogue to an anniversary exhibition, Connecting through Collecting: 20 Years of Art from Latin America at the University of Essex, academics and students from a range of disciplines got a chance to select and write about a favourite work.

These included a class photograph annotated with the fate of the students during Argentina’s “dirty war”; a cheeky sculpted Latin American version of Mickey Mouse; a video referencing government violence in Guatemala; and a painting of worshippers of Iemanjá, the Afro-Brazilian goddess of rivers and the sea.   

About 30 works from ESCALA will shortly be on permanent display around the campus, in the new reception area, the old and new library and around the park. From October, the rest will come out of the basement and acquire what the director calls “a visible storage space” (open to the public at least one day a week), which is also ideal for “object-based learning”.

Two or three new works are acquired each year, often on the basis of recommendations from MA students and sometimes researchers, which are submitted to a panel for approval. Others come from artists brought to Essex for a residency and exhibition. Meanwhile, students of art curation are involved in an annual exhibition that takes place in the campus gallery and since those running ESCALA are in touch with many artists, they can often connect them with students and staff.

For the future, Dr Harwood is keen that ESCALA remain what she describes as “a lab-style collection”, where every work can “earn its place” and “tell a story” relevant to teaching and (often interdisciplinary) research.

In numbers

740 pieces of artwork in the ESCALA collection

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