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The weight of gold

Artist and curator Luis Jacob weighs in on the symbolic value of gold via Faith and Fortune’s dynamic audio guide.

Silver Mining at Potosi. The Hispanic Society of America

Unknown. Silver Mining at Potosi. The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. K3. Photo © The Hispanic Society of America, New York.

The landmark AGO exhibition Faith and Fortune: Art Across the Global Spanish Empire consists of 200 works of art from Latin America, the Philippines and Spain made between 1492 and 1898. As an added navigation tool to help visitors explore this dynamic collection, a 16-part audio guide was created by AGO staff and various community members. Each part focusses on a particular artwork or aspect of the exhibition, further illuminating its meaning and historical significance. 

Luis Jacob, a Toronto-based artist, writer, curator and educator of Peruvian descent, makes an appearance on the audio guide, providing insight about the complex significance of gold – in the Spanish Empire and the modern day commodities market. We recently connected with Jacob to learn more about the value of gold, and ask about the ways his practice explores varying – and at times conflicting – representations of Toronto.   

 AGOinsider: Can you share some of your general thoughts about Faith and Fortune? What about the exhibition made you want to contribute to the audio guide?

Jacob: The Faith and Fortune exhibition is framed with a critical lens, questioning things such as resource extraction and the racializing categories that were essential to the construction of the Spanish Empire. This critical lens sets the exhibition apart from others of its kind. This is what encouraged me to contribute to the audio guide. 

AGOinsider: During your Gold Bullion audio segment, you state “Gold is power imagining itself on a detox diet.” Can you elaborate on the meaning of this statement in relation to colonial empires? 

Jacob: Including the gold bullion alongside the anonymous drawing titled The Silver Mines at Potosi (c. 1585) is an instance of this critical lens. The wall label for the drawing describes the Potosi Mountain of Bolivia as both Bank of the World as well as the Mountain that Eats Men. The enormous wealth that resource extraction brought to the colonizing country of Spain came at the expense of untold suffering on the part of the Indigenous and African enslaved people forced to work in these mines. The splendour of the gold bullion – pure gold that signals no trace of the suffering required for its extraction – is evidence of colonial power trying to wash its hands and detoxify itself of its own violence.

AGOinsider: You also mention that Toronto is the financial heart of the global mining industry. So much of your work – like The BILTS, in the AGO Collection – deals with the tension and complexity that exists between different representations and experiences of Toronto. Can you elaborate on why this angle continues to inspire you artistically?

Jacob: Toronto is a funny place. It likes to represent itself as a friendly, multicultural place. But it does not like to acknowledge the role it plays in financing the global mining industry. For instance, 43 per cent of the world's mining companies are listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange and the TSX Venture Exchange. In 2015 alone, more than half of all the financing of the world’s mining companies was done on these two exchanges. I am fascinated by the discrepancy between what is included and excluded in this city's self-representation. As an artist, these tensions become rich material to elaborate, whether in earlier work such as The BILTS (1997), now on view at the AGO – or, more recently, my project The View From Here (2019) presented at the Toronto Biennial of Art.

AGOinsider: Do you have any upcoming artworks or projects that you are excited about? 

Jacob: Last spring, I presented a two-part exhibition, titled Borderline Cases, at Patel Brown Gallery and Pumice Raft. This was an ambitious show that brought together old and new work, with an emphasis on drawing practice. As we navigate tensions and complexity, the question becomes: Where do we draw the line?  I wrote extensively about 'borderline cases', which is an idea that harkens back to a lecture given by Marshall McLuhan in 1967 – he called Canada “a borderline case”.  The first episode of this piece of writing will appear in the next issue of Afterall Journal, published by Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. With Pumice Raft, I am excitedly working on a two-volume artist-book that will feature the entirety of this work of writing.

See Faith and Fortune: Art Across the Global Spanish Empire before it closes October 10th. And check out the exhibition’s audio guide for further insight on key artworks and historical context.

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