Monday, 9 May 2011

The journey to 'the end of the world'

Argentina is an enormous and diverse country. A country that is very rich and very poor. A country that surprises us, touches us, enthuses us, impresses us, saddens us and scares us.

Argentina is a country that is very proud of its past, with particular reference to the struggles that led to its independence in the beginning of the 19th century. Its military, first presidents and governors (San Martín, Belgrano, Sarmiento, Mitre, Dorrega), as well as the most important dates of that history (25 de Mayo, 9 de Julio, 3 de Febrero), give streets and avenues in cities and towns all over the country their name (a brief history of Argentina here). The national flag is an almost permanent presence. Its politicians are still adored. This is a year of elections at various levels, including presidential. Cristina Kirchner is expected to be re-elected.

A poster of the Kirchner couple between the photos of Perón and Evita in the Avenida de Mayo.

Argentina is also a country determined to deal with its most recent past; a past of violence, torture, disappearances. A country (in this specific case, a city-metropolis, Buenos Aires) that demonstrates for one or other cause on an almost daily basis.

Every Thursday, at exactly 3.30 pm, the association Madres de Plaza de Mayo carry out their weekly protest. The first took place in 1977.

The Qom people had camped in Avenida 9 de Julio claiming their rights on their ancestral lands and denouncing persecutions and abuses. There were meetings with the nation´s leaders, but on May 6 they were put on a bus and sent back. Saying goodbye to their supporters was very emotional.
Arriving at Buenos Aires airport, we find an extensive campaign that aims to raise awareness regarding the protection of cultural heritage and against the illicit traffic of antiquities. And this is repeated in many other airports. A series of posters that calls the attention of local residents and tourists alike in relation to that cause. I´ve already been in a number of countries that suffer from the illicit traffic of antiquities but I had never seen a campaign like this. It´s well done, in terms of visual impact and passing a message. It remains to be seen if it s actually effective.

I visited museums of all types and sizes, older as well as recently inaugurated. In the 19th and 20th century, museums in this country had a fundamental role, together with schools, in the preparation of the argentine citizen, including the thousands of immigrants that arrived here, in what concerns the values of the newly born nation, the respect for the personalities that carried out the war for the independence and the knowledge regarding the national past. This is what one reads in one of the two introductory panels at the National History Museum, the one that aims to share with the visitor the vision behind the (re)interpretation of the collections, something that happened very recently, on the occasion of the bicentenary of the revolution (1810 – 2010). The second panes asks us “What kind of museum do we want?”, explaining that reopening the museum to the public didn´t only mean re-interpreting and enlarging its collections, but also allowing for space for the interests and voices of the visitors. It´s very rare for a museum to position itself in the beginning of a visit and to share this vision with the visitor. So, a certain expectation was born in me, which ended up not being satisfied. This national history museum, as the majority of those I have visited (with the honorable exception of the one in Washington), ends up not telling the story. A series of paintings, original documents and other objects are simply identified, but do not present the history of constructing the nation, that started in the 19th century and continues, as it is natural, up to today.

From a general point of view, interpretation is the weakest point of argentine museums, something curious foreigners suffer more from than the locals. In many cases, the lack of resources is obvious and partly explains this failure. Another weakness, in the specific case of Buenos Aires museums, is the opening hours. The big majority opens at noon.

But there were small surprises and discoveries that will stay in my memory:

Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña, Salta (north-west)

A small treasure, very well done. In this museum we learn the story of the pre-colombine cult of nature and the rituals carries out by the Inca in high points of the Andes, that involved the ‘marriage’ and sacrifice of children to the gods. The collection (objects in miniature that accompanied the children, clothes and shoes) is extremely beautiful and our encounter with ‘el niño’, the mummy of the 7-year-old boy that was found intact on the mountain, particularly touching. In this museus one also learns about the impressive pre-hispanic road system, that so impressed the conquerors, and the joint effort of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador to classify it as UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Museu Provincial de Bellas Artes Rosa Galisteo de Rodriguez, Santa Fe (centre)
I visited the temporary exhibition of painter Lucero Hagelstange Mito: Ángeles en el Paraiso. A style that reminds us of Gauguin, paintings of angels that have the faces of indigenous women. Strong colours in contrast with the grey, but equally expressive, faces of the angels. These ‘creole’ angels reminded me of others I had seen three days before in the church of Uquia, a small place in the north-west. In the church we find paintings of angels painted by the Indians in Cuzco, Peru, in the 17th century. When the Indians asked the Spanish what the angels looked like, the Spanish answered: “They are like us, but they have wings”.

Museo de Arte Popular José Hernández, Buenos Aires
A small museum, with an also small collection (at least, the part that was exhibited), but very interesting and with an obvious lack of resources. Nevertheless, in one of its two temporary exhibitions, I discovered the story of Hermógenes Cayo, and artisan and musician who participated in the 1946 march that took 174 indigenous people from Jujuy, in the north-west, to the capital, asking for their rights on their ancestral lands to be recognized. After they were received by the Government and after negotiations started, one day they were put on a train and sent back. History repeats itself… Hermógenes Cayo was the chronicler of the march.

Museo Etnográfico, Santa Fe (center)

The only museum among those I visited in this ‘hybrid’ country that wished to approach the issue of slaves / immigrants. A small and very interesting exhibition on the African presence in Santa Fe, that questions from the start the notion of the majority of the locals who believe that there had been no black people in Santa Fe. A direct and apparently, to one who´s not a specialist, objective narrative that approaches all the chapters of the lives of those people in the town of Santa Fe and that offers the visitor possible explanations regarding their ‘invisibility’.

Before finishing, a brief note on my visit to Teatro Colón, the theatre that was built to prove that Buenos Aires could compete with Paris (a comparison Argentines keep making when talking about the intense cultural offer of their capital city). This was the theatre of the Buenos Aires elite, that had paid for its construction. Juan Perón opened its doors to the people, not only for watching opera, but also for carrying out union meetings, infuriating its ‘guardians’. Today the theatre is managed by the national government and it is once again a space reserved to the elites. The guide told us that not man people in Buenos Aires watch opera and ballet. She too, although she demonstrated an enormous affection for the building (she always spoke in the first person while telling us its story) doesn´t assist. It also seems that there is not an interest on behalf of the theatre managers to put more people in touch with those arts. The theatre does not have an education service, there are no discounts or other last minute offers and radio tranmissions, that were once made, don´t happen anymore.

Argentina is an enormous and diverse country. And its ‘diversities’ are well separated, just as it happens in many other countries around the world. A journey that started in the national parks of Tierra del Fuego – End of the World and Patagonia, continued in the north-west ‘of the Indians’, went on with a wedding in Santa Fe and ended in Buenos Aires, that seems to bring together all these worlds: from Plaza de Mayo to La Boca, from the rich neighborhoods of Recoleta and Puerto Madero to the Retiro Station and Villa 31 (I didn´t enter the later, but I saw its bright colours – a clear indicator, it seems, of poverty – from the ‘autopista’ that takes us to the airport).

1 comment:

Margaret said...

Extremely interesting to read about a country we don't know very much about in Europe. Looking forward to more insights.