The Court to Café exhibition in Passport to Paris got many of us at the Denver Art Museum thinking about how art was produced in France over the centuries. In modern Paris, the café became the go-to gathering place for artists to collaborate, exhibit, and just hang out. These communal gathering spaces that involved a stimulating beverage—coffee—were incredibly important for fostering creativity in Paris and the rest of the early modern world. Who would have thought what an impact coffee would have had on modern art and culture in Europe, as well as the Americas?
Today, Latin American countries produce the majority of the world’s coffee. Despite the widespread coffee farms, all of the Americas’ coffee plants can be traced back to a single specimen owned by the French “Sun King,” Louis the XIV. It was transported to his colony San Domingue (Haiti), and smuggled into the Spanish American territories where they flourished in mountainous, tropical regions. From this French import, Latin American culture was forever changed.
As in Europe, and the Middle East before that, coffeehouses became a staple in Latin America and were the gathering areas of the creative. Drinking coffee in cafes and cocinas inspired the culinary arts, creative writing, visual arts, and fostered community cohesion. Unlike Europe, however, places like Colombia, Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, and southern Mexico (among other regions) were the source of coffee production, and shaped life, culture, and the arts in deeper ways than elsewhere. Drinkers recognized the soil, air, and sun of each region in their taza de café and recognized it as belonging to their land. Coffee became symbols of each region or nation, like Colombia’s famous Juan Valdéz or the iconic café cubano. Coffee even became a metaphor for life-giving energy inspiring famous, sometimes controversial, music throughout Latin America.
We all recognize the pull coffee has on culture today. We will explore more of Latin American café culture in our next CelebrARTE on January 19. With my inevitable morning cup, I will now remember the tiny plant that traveled from the French court, to spread along the lush mountainsides of Latin America, to the local café where I like to sip and chat, and the flourish of art that it left in its wake.