Currently on view at MALBA, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, is a huge collection of works by 20th century Argentine multi-media artist Antonio Berni. The show focuses on two characters invented by Berni that have been canonized into the realm of folk icons — Juanito Laguna, a boy from the slums (villas miserias) of Buenos Aires, and Ramona Montiel, a seamstress who is lured by luxury into the life of a prostitute. Through these archetypal characters, Berni explores and critiques socio-economic conditions in Latin America.

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Including prints, collage, relief, and paintings and sculptures incorporating found objects, the show is massive and overwhelming. I visited on Wednesday, when entrance is free for students and seniors, and discounted for all — the museum was completely packed with families, students, and groups of friends. Berni’s works appeal to all ages and stations of life — they capture the imagination with creative use of materials while offering provocative commentary on relevant social issues.

I was excited to see so many people passionately engaging with the artwork, discussing with their friends, and explaining to their children. What a welcome change from the often oppressively quiet and serious art museums I have visited — the themes of Berni’s works are serious, but they invite commentary and open space for discussion in a way that is playful without losing gravity or departing completely from reality. As Berni himself said about his character Juanito: “es un chico pobre, pero no un pobre chico” (he is a boy who is poor, but not a ‘poor boy’).

Antonio Berni: Juanito y Ramona is on view at MALBA from October 31, 2014 until March 1, 2015.