The Bowdoin College Museum of Art has acquired a painting by Indigenous Bolivian artist Alejandro Mario Yllanes, the first work by the enigmatic artist to enter the collection of a museum in the United States.
For decades, Yllanes was largely omitted from the dominant narrative of Latin American modern art history. A self-taught painter, engraver, and muralist who had his first exhibition at 19 years old in 1930, Yllanes’s art career was brief, with his last show at Mexico City’s Palace of Arts in the mid-1940s while he was working as a cultural attaché for the Bolivian Embassy. His trajectory was brought to an abrupt halt two years after he emigrated to New York in 1946, when he disappeared after receiving — yet never claiming — a Guggenheim fellowship believed to be worth approximately $2,500. Post-1948, his whereabouts remain uncertain, but researchers believe that he eventually made his way to Mexico, where he ultimately died in the early 1960s.
Bowdoin College’s acquisition of Yllanes’s painting “Estaño Maldito (Cursed Tin)” (1937) marks an important milestone for the artist, who has gone largely overlooked despite the acclaim he experienced during his short-lived art career. Before arriving in the US, the artist had exhibitions across South America and was the recipient of distinguished awards including Mexico’s Gold Medal. The child of an Aymara mother and mixed-race father, Yllanes was also a proponent of indigenismo — an early 20th-century Pan-American art movement that reframed national identities to condemn imperialism and center Indigenous heritage.
Yllanes’s works often exposed the harsh mistreatment to which Bolivia’s Indigenous communities were regularly subjected. “Estaño Maldito (Cursed Tin)” is a prime example of this mission, as it focuses on the exploitative work conditions in Bolivia’s tin industry experienced by Indigenous miners and the artist himself during his childhood. The painting was created after Bolivia’s loss to Paraguay in the three-year Chaco War for possession of the Chaco Boreal region — an arid territory believed to be rich in petroleum.
“The emaciated and contorted bodies, the darkness of the image that captures the dim light in the mines, the straining muscles — this is not an image that glorifies this type of labor, but really shows the bodily harm and what it does to the laborers in this particular time,” Michele Greet, a professor of modern Latin American art history specializing in Andean Indigenism, explained in a November lecture for London Art Week, pointing out how the work directly stems from Yllanes’s experiences in the country’s tin mines.
Bowdoin College also obtained one of Yllanes’s trademark wood engravings, “Elegia” (1944), slated to be featured in the ongoing exhibition Currents: Art Since 1875 on view in the institution’s Boyd Gallery until March 2, 2025.
Although Yllanes has been recognized posthumously with two 1992 exhibitions in the US — one at the Ben Shahn Galleries at New Jersey’s William Paterson College and another retrospective at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson — Bowdoin College’s acquisition signals the rediscovery of a long-forgotten Modernist. In 2016, the Martin du Louvre Gallery, Paris, published a catalogue raisonné focused on Yllanes’s life.