Teresa Burga (1935–2021)
February 17, 2021
Peruvian artist Teresa Burga, known for her involvement in the ’60s neo-avant-garde Grupo Arte Nuevo, died of Covid-19 on February 11 in Peru at eighty-five. Burga’s work in painting, sculpture, cybernetics, and installation applied conceptual strategies to questions of gender and labor, exploring the implications of systematization on modern life.
Born in Iquitos, Peru, in 1935, Burga studied painting at the Pontifical Catholic University in Lima, graduating in 1965. The following year, she, Jaime Dávila, Gloria Gómez-Sánchez, Luis Arias Vera, and a few others founded Grupo Arte Nuevo, a collective that brought new artistic movements—such as Op, Pop, Minimalism, and happenings—to the Peruvian scene. During this period, Burga produced sculptural works she called “Prismas” (prisms) by designing three-dimensional plywood shapes covered in colorful, geometric forms and outsourcing their production. In 1968, the same year General Juan Velasco Alvarado overthrew the democratically elected President Fernando Belaúnde, Burga departed for the United States on a Fulbright scholarship to attend the School of the Art Chicago, from which she graduated with an MFA two years later. At SAIC, Burga became fascinated by information systems, algorithms, and new computing technologies, which led her to create Work That Disappears When the Spectator Tries to Approach It, 1970, a wall of light bulbs that gradually go dark as the viewer nears the piece.
Upon her return to Peru in 1971, Burga found herself in a political environment hostile to her avant-gardism, as the new regime turned to traditionally representational Peruvian art to reinforce its nationalism. She found employment in the county’s General Customs Office, where she worked to increase the efficiency of the department’s digital information database. Burga’s 1972 work Autorretrato. Estructura. Informe, 9.6.72 (Self Portrait. Structure. Report. 9.6.72) saw the artist visualize herself by presenting her official documentation as an artwork: medical records, identification, photographs, and other paperwork. Similarly, her Perfil de la mujer peruana (Profile of the Peruvian Woman), created with psychologist Marie-France Cathelat in 1980 and ’81 as the military regime collapsed, collected data about the physical characteristics, affective states, economic status, and other qualities of the country’s female population by conducting an in-depth survey with 290 Peruvian women. The information was then interpreted and presented by collaborators as a variety of visual diagrams; the results were later published as a book.
Burga gained widespread renown in 2010, when Lima’s Instituto Cultural Peruano Norteamericano mounted the first large-scale exhibition of her work. A year later, she was included in the 12th Istanbul Biennial, and in 2015, Okwui Enwezor curated her into the 56th Venice Biennale. Recent notable group shows include “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985” (2017), which originated at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and “Memories of Underdevelopment: Art and the Decolonial Turn in Latin America” (2018) at the Museo Jumex, Mexico City. Burga has also been the subject of solo exhibitions at the SculptureCenter, New York (2017); the Migros Museum, Zurich and the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent, Belgium (2018); and the Kestner Gesellschaft, Hannover, Germany (2019).