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Museo da Maré

Museo da Maré

Posted by on Jun 5, 2013 in all posts, Brazil | 0 comments

As I have written about elsewhere (post on museums), museums have been an important site of learning for us on this journey. In these places different indigenous communities were reclaiming and representing their history and narratives through the form and institution of the museum. At the same time these various communities, including the people responsible for the Biblioteca da Floresta in Acre, where enlivening the museum by making it a place of learning and experience where the stories of those represented are felt in continuity with the present of these communities.

So I was particularly excited to go an visit a pioneering museum in Rio’s largest favela, or shanty town community, the Complexo da Maré. This large conglomeration of 16 different communities has a population of around 140,000 and a history that dates back to the 1940s. But the oldest favelas in the city emerged several decades earlier, see below.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

Before going to the Museo da Maré, Kelly, Marina, Patrick (my Brazilian cousin and sometime co-traveller) went to visit an exhibition in one of the city’s more traditional and oldest museums, the Museo da Repúplica, housed in the former presidential palace in Catete. This exhibition helped us understand more the historical origins of favela communities and the name favela itself. The exhibition was on the legendary spiritual and revolutionary leader, Antônio Conselheiro, now a national folk hero, who led a community of tens of thousands in the impoverished and draught-stricken northeast of the country at the end of the nineteenth century. I will not expand on this important episode of Brazilian history, the Canudos War, which pitted a flourishing religious cooperative community made up of the rural landless and a number of former slaves (slavery officially only ending in Brazil in 1888, one of the last countries in the Americas) against the newly proclaimed Republic. The War of Canudos was the military campaign which lasted between 1896-1897 and mobilised around five thousand government soldiers who ultimately prevailed over the Conselheristas (followers of Antônio Conselheiro) killing between ten and twenty thousand of them.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da República, photo by Udi

Favela is the name of a spiky shrub or small tree that grows in the Sertão or semi-arid lands of the Northeast Brazil in the region where Canudos is found, it is also the name of a hill there. When the battle was won the conscripted soldiers returned to Rio, then the capital, and waited for their promised reward of housing from the government, camping on the Morro da Providência by the port region of the city. The government never fulfilled its promise and the soldiers and their families set up home here, renaming their place Morro da Favela a kind of ironic reminder to the government of the place they had fought in. With this the first favela was born.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da República, Photo by Flávio Barros, 1897

So at the origins of favela we have a series of ingredients; the end of slavery and the entry of former slaves (without compensation, resources or adequate training) into the economy, the violent destruction of a self-sustaining and organising community that challenged the newly formed Republican state, the failed promise of housing in the city for returning soldiers and an influx of people from the impoverished countryside to the city.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da República, photo by Kelly

From one museums and origin story to another. Arriving in the Museo da Maré we are greeted by Luis one of its founders who generously and enthusiastically shows us around. The museum is situated in a large warehouse a couple of blocks down from the Avenida Brasil, the large highway that bisects Maré. The museum, the first of its kind, has been many years in the making, since 1989, initiating its life in the research of the TV Maré, a community station who was compiling oral histories for a programme about the history of Maré. Noting that the community was being transformed by government action and that many elderly residents were passing away and their stories forgotten the programme makers started compiling more systematically the oral histories, photographs and historical documents from residents. In 1997 some of these local researchers founded CEASM, Centro de Estudos e Ações Solidárias da Maré, the Center for Study and Solidarity Action of Maré, a local grass roots community development organisation, more formally institutionalising this memory archive. CEASM then founded the Museo da Maré in 2006 with support of the then ministry of culture’s progressive programme of supporting local cultural initiatives or Pontos de Cultura.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

In the Museum gathered stories, photos and documents of the residents from Maré have a ‘permanent’ display in the warehouse. I say ‘permanent’ both because the museum was undergoing a transformation when we visited and the layout was going to be updated, but also as Luis told us, because what is important here are the stories about this community and the memories people have rather than any of the objects themselves.

As the website description and aim of the museum states, and as Luis also narrated to us:

The intention of the Museo da Maré is to break with the tradition that the experiences to be remembered and historical places to be memorialised are those elected by the official, “winning”, version of history and because of that a version that limits the representations of history and memory of large portions of the population. Therefore, the Museo da Maré, as a pioneering initiative in the city, proposes to extend the concept of museum, so this is not restricted to the more intellectual social groups and the cultural spaces still inaccessible to the general population. The favela is a place of memory and therefore nothing is more meaningful than doing a museographic reading from such perception. [my translation from the website].

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

The objects in the museum tell the story of the history of Maré through old photos, documents and a re-constructed wooden house on stilts which we walk through and see the various objects people would have made use of in the 1960s. Walking through the different sections of the museum we are taken through different significant historical moments of the community; the time of water when the houses were built on wooded stilts over the regularly flooded margins of the Guanabara Bay; the building and day to day life of family homes; the religious life of the community; the games children play(ed); and the contemporary problems of drug gangs and violence.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

The museum has been visited by many on outside Maré and the possibility of encounter that this space offers has been significant. With that said, as Luis put it and the Museo website reaffirms the key audience for the museum are residents themselves with numerous events, workshops, talks, guided visits and so on organised by the museum for the community.

The projects developed by the program [at the museum] are designed to encourage the creation of channels that strengthen community bonds among residents, driven mainly by historical and cultural identity. [my translation from museum website].

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

We are taken into the wooden house on stilts that dominates the museum by our guides Luis and Lourenço and a flood of memories and emotions is unleashed with stories about living in this spaces, having to wade through water to get to work, of kids happily playing outside on the mud, of the religious life of the community, a syncretism of Christianity, Camdomble, Ubanda. A curious metal object sitting on the old gas stove also elicited memories. This was a metal comb that was heated on the stove, which most Afro-descendent women used in this period to straighten out their hair. The comb embodies and reminds us of dominant cultural norms and values of beauty and race at a time before Black Pride had emerged in Brazil.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, metal combe, photo by Kelly

These values and norms, and further forms of prejudice and discrimination continue to affect Afro-descendants in Brazil today. Further prejudice and discrimination is associated with the favela itself (see the next post on this) and those who live there. A space often referred to through all that it lacks (education, sanitation, work, culture) or through what it has in excess (violence, drugs), what gets left out are the living trajectories of these communities, their capacity to be creative in adverse urban environments and build communities with their own forms of organisation, social and cultural life. A place like Museo da Maré is a celebration of these qualities and one which countless other communities across Brazil have now replicated.
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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

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The forest at the gate of Brazil

The forest at the gate of Brazil

Posted by on May 19, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, on the road | 0 comments

Entering Brazil through the state of Acre in northwest Amazonia gives a different perspective on the country. In one way it shows how, like the US, Canada and Australia, this country is also a country of settlers and frontiers-people imposing an economy, government, and set of cultures on a place that had already been inhabited for thousands of years. Coming from this direction into the country, away from the larger metropoles of Rio and São Paulo also reminds me of how much environmental devastation the settler nations have imposed on this vast and beautiful territory through destructive and unsustainable models of development. Though forest regions preserved as national parks or more recently extractive reserves are plentiful in this state of Acre, on the road from the Peruvian border all we see are endless fields of cattle farms with the occasional solitary giant tree standing like an archeological memory. This stretch of our journey also reminded me of the deadly struggles over the forest and people’s livelihood being waged both here, in this corner of Brazil, as well as in so many parts of the world.

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On the road to Rio Branco from the Peruvian border, photo by Udi

Acre is the home state of rubber tapper, union leader and environmental activist Chico Mendes who was murdered in 1988 by a landowner from this region. Chico Mendes was opposed to the large agribusiness encroachment into the forest and the decimation of both indigenous lands and cultures as well as the lands and livelihood of those, like rubber tappers, who had been using the resources of the forest in a more sustainable way for many generations. Mendes was very much ahead of his time, envisioning a different economic model for this region by a sustainable management of the forest through extractive reserves in such a way that hundreds of its products could be used and commercialised without destroying the forest or the ways of life of its people.

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Chico Mendes panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

Commemorating the 25th anniversary since his death, economic and environmental policy in the state of Acre seems to have now caught up with this way of thinking and the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve covers 970.570 of hectares of land in the state providing a sustainable livelihood for its forest population. Around twenty other reserves have also been across the country where logging, and large agribusiness are forbidden.

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Biodiversity management within the state of Acre – panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

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Conservation panel, representing the Amazonian region, at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

Though large landed agribusiness interests are still a powerful force in the state and in the country, and dozens continue to be killed by landowners each year, significant moves for the protection of the forest have been made in Acre, which boasts amongst the most preserved forest regions in the country. You only need to look at aerial views on google maps to see how just across the border in the state of Rondônia the unabated growth of agribusiness, especially through the cultivation of soy for cattle feed and the raising of cattle, has clawed away at the remaining forest. Yet, the powerful landed lobby in congress continues to stifle efforts to pass strong enough legislation for a comprehensive protection of the forest. At the same time a culture of violence and impunity in the frontiers areas surrounding the forest means that the murders of activists and the expulsion of people from their land continues.

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Agrobusiness panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

We had tried to connect up with local groups active with indigenous communities developing interesting projects in the field of education in this region but unfortunately this was a case where fragmented email and phone communication did not open doors for us. As such we were sorry to have spent only a very short time in what is a very exciting and innovative region developing important initiatives in this field. We are hopeful to return at some point in the future.

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The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://blog.brasilturista.com.br/o-acre-existe/

One place we were lucky to have gained access to at all was the Biblioteca da Floresta, the Forest Library. I say lucky because the one day we had to wander about the state capital of Rio Branco before our flight onwards to Rio de Janeiro, the museum was closed. Dropped off in front of the quiet and tastefully designed modern building by the generous owner of the hotel we were staying at, we were feeling disheartened that the one thing we could have seen here was closed. We made our way to the shut building and looked through the glass. A security guard behind the desk inside came out to meet us. Without hoping for much I explained our situation and much to our surprise the guard proceeded to not only invite us in, turn on the lights and say we were free to look around anywhere, but to give us a wonderful tour of the place.

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Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html

Our guard turned to be quite an angel. He is a former teacher, who had worked in prisons and had also known Chico Mendes personally, he shared with us a number of interesting stories from Acre state. He was very proud of this Library and the people associated with it, such as Marina da Silva another important environmental activist, Acre native and political figure who was for a time Environmental Minister under Brazil’s Labour government but who resigned for the lack of support for her ministry.

Marina da Silva also ran for president in the last election under the Green Party and came third. We will definitely be following her progress, the last initiative she has been involved with is launching another platform Rede Sustentabilidade, Sustainability Network, an open movement that is reaching out across sectors of Brazilian society but which also intends to contest the next election while moving away from the organisational format of a traditional political party.

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Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html

The Forest Library is a beautiful and well-resourced library, museum, gallery, study and auditorium space open to the public and built by the local government. We were told by our guide the Library was going to be named after Marina but that there was some glitch on naming public buildings after people who are still living.

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Studying Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html

The Library is well worth the visit if you are in this part of the world, as is the city of Rio Branco. Opened in 2007 the library stretches over three floors with several exhibition spaces. The Library’s goal is to promote sustainability and teach about the region, the forest and the knowledge held about it by local populations. An important focus of the library, and seen in the highly informative museum, is to teach about the history of this region.

The history starts with the rubber boom of the 1800s and the forced labour of indigenous peoples and African slaves to the collapse of the rubber industry in Brazil. This is followed by the rise of different forms of indentured labour in the large farms of this region. The museum provides a map of the various attempts at colonising the forest and extracting wealth from the land through often cruel means. The exhibition also shows various moments and movements of resistance including the union struggle which was led by Chico Mendes. Upstairs the exhibition is about the various indigenous peoples in Acre, telling some of their stories and histories.

Our guard-guide explained to us how this space is used by local high school and university students who make use of the books, computers and study spaces. The Library also runs various events where people directly go and learn over a few days with different populations in the forest, indigenous communities, rubber tappers and others living off the forest.


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The book shelves with seeds and leaves, Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly and the indigenous panels

An interesting temporary exhibition we saw here also showed how the regional government and local businesses were promoting sustainable products from Acre’s forest to an international markets. Showing products such as Brazil nuts, latex, different fruits and oils which could be farmed without damaging the forest and a number of which have been used for their medicinal properties.

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Part of a temporary exhibition on local products Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

We left the museum after thanking our guide profusely. Before leaving Rio Branco we walked through the local market. In one of the stalls selling local plant medicines we saw hundreds of species of plants, fruits, seeds, roots being used untold purposes. How strange that an economic system that champions one or two species, say soy or cattle, can prevail and cause such destruction over such an intricately woven and diverse ecosystem.

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A local medicinal plant shop, photo by Udi

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A local medicinal plant shop, photo by Kelly

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the art of rebellion, part 1 – Oaxaca

the art of rebellion, part 1 – Oaxaca

Posted by on Dec 13, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

gm corn wall stencil, downtown Oaxaca, photo by Udi

From our very first day walking around we noticed there was something distinctly rebellious and innovative in the political culture in the state and city of Oaxaca. There seemed to be an energy present – in the air… on the political posters and painted on the walls… Also, since quashing the rebellion in 2007, which Kelly wrote a bit about in the previous post, the Mexican state has a constant and menacing military police presence patrolling the city, its officers always in black uniform and bullet-proof jackets and sometimes also in black ski masks, circulating through the city streets in pick-up trucks with mounted machine-guns.

Oaxaca Rebelde, t-shirts, photo by Udi

The city is home to a diverse plurality of experiments in living, organizing and creating that have been going on for at least for the last decade. Indigenous identity, forms of organizing, learning and relating to each other and nature are important in these Oaxacan experiments in living and resisting. Indigenous ways of knowing and key concepts and practices such as ‘comunalidad’ and ‘interculturalidad’ (which we write about elsewhere) have become important in this changing political culture, slowly finding their way into schools and universities across the region, pushed for by indigenous activists and intellectuals.

During our time in Oaxaca we encountered different kinds of social, political, artistic and ecological experimentations taking place across the city. We were very lucky to spend time with one experiment that is equally social, ecological, artistic and political in its creative and critical ways of being.  This ‘experiment’ is the Universidad de la Tierra, or Unitierra as it is more commonly called.  Unitierra has been, since its beginning in the 1990s, an important hub in this fermentation of new forms of living in and around the city.  We will be posting about our various experiences, encounters and learning(s) as related to Unitierra.

What I wanted to describe here is the most expressive sense we had of this culture of rebellion, both here in Oaxaca as well as in Chiapas where we also spent some time.

zapata mural, oaxaca, photo by Udi

The walls of Oaxaca are covered in murals, graffiti, stencil and political posters. The city is also home to a number of artists’ collectives and creative spaces that produce this rich collection of images. Kelly and I both felt how these images speak about present concerns, key ideas and hopes of this surrounding political environment: the corporate take-over of land and resources and the imposition of genetically modified corn; continuing state oppression and abuse of people’s rights; indigeneity; communities attempting to live differently in balance with each other and with nature.

Twins graffiti, Oaxaca, Photo by Udi

Early one morning we walked around the downtown area and found what became our favorite stenciled piece painted on the wall in a small street, next to a collective art space, a few minutes from the bus station. The simple but elegant image shows a woman pointing a shotgun at a group of figures dressed in radiation or contamination suits who appear to be either planting a new species or stealing her planted corn. The woman is wearing a local indigenous headscarf and shirt whilst the other figures represent external ‘alien’ forces allied to corporations who are pressuring the state and local farmers to adopt genetically modified corn (see a separate post on this). This work (the first image at the top of the page) though simple in appearance shows an important topic touching on many campesino (peasant) and indigenous communities across the country and provides an imagery of resistance that inverts the normal power relations.

Graffiti Artist’s Poster for event, Oaxaca, photo by Udi

This art of political murals stretches back almost one hundred years in Mexico. Dating from the period after the Mexican revolution of 1910, which overthrew the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and was started and propelled by peasants, indigenous and generally people displaced the land. Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, who coined the term Mexico profundo to refer to the Meso-American culture that continues to deeply influence Mexican national culture, has been a hugely influential figure around debates concerning the past and recent conditions of the country’s indigenous populations.

siqueiros ‘the revolution gives back culture’ 1958, Modern Art Museum, Mexico City, photo by Udi

The notion of Mexico profundo (or ‘deep’ Mexico) is in sharp contrast to the distinction Batalla makes with the ‘imaginary’ Mexico, or the Mexico that has tried to imagine its way into a domineering existence and has largely failed because of the continuing strength of the millions of people who comprise deep (profundo) Mexico.

His name has also been recurring in the conversations we have had with a number of people in Mexico. Batalla, wrote the following about the prevalence of such murals in the post-revolution period:

Hundreds of square metres of murals adorn every type of public building in many cities of the republic. Murals are in seats of government and public offices, in markets and hospitals, in schools and libraries, in factories and workplaces. In these murals, the image of the Indian is practically indispensable. Rarely is there missing some allegory about the precolonial world that frequently lays the foundation for or presides over the scenes of the world today or tomorrow.

Mural-Diego-Rivera- photo by Mirairi Erdoza – from http://fr.fotopedia.com/items/anboto-2umoIxo9DBo

In the first half of the twentieth century the most internationally famous generation of Mexican artists (Frida Kahlo, Diego Riveira, Gabriel Orozco and Siqueiros) were also deeply immersed in the politics of the time and in the post-revolution period of constructing a national identity. The latter three were themselves involved in largescale mural projects which was supported by the Mexican state in its nationalist aspirations. As Batalla argues, this search for identity often went back to Mexico’s indigenous roots using aspects from it that were easily appreciated:

the bucolic life of the campesino, popular handicrafts and folklore. In music, dance, literature, and the plastic arts, the theme of the Indian provided the basic elements for shaping a vast nationalistic current under government patronage.

For Batalla museums also played a key role in this process of ‘exalting the Indian roots of Mexico’ something clearly seen in one of the Mexico City’s most famous attraction, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology) in Chapultpec Park, a wealthier part of the city. We spent many hours in the museum but managed to see only a small fraction of it, exhausted by the overwhelming number, diversity and amazing quality of the objects displayed.

Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City, photo by Udi

The museum is divided into Mexico’s various geographic regions each with a number of ethnic groups. Each section has two floors the lower ground showing the treasures of the ‘past civilizations’ whereas the top floors demonstrate the present life of these ethnic groups. We happened to go on a Sunday, I think, a day when museums are free for Mexicans and the sheer numbers of people, especially parents and their children was simultaneously overwhelming and heartening. Many children also seemed to be doing some kind of homework, going from room to room with notebooks and writing things down. The rooms upstairs, on the ‘living’ second floor, in contrast, were deadly quiet and the exhibits of the living cultures were anything but enlivened. This contrast of the exalted past as a part in shaping Mexican national identity and the lack of attention to the present conditions of indigenous people is a key theme in Batalla’s work:

The Indian presence as depicted in murals, museums, sculptures, and archaeological sites, all open to the public, is treated essentially as a dead world. It is a unique world, extraordinary in many of its achievements, but still a dead world. Official discourse, translated in the language of the plastic arts or of museography, exalts that dead world as the seed of origin that gave rise to today’s Mexico. It is the glorious past of which we should feel proud, which assures us of a lofty historical destiny as a nation, even though the logic of that assertion is not entirely clear. The living Indian and all that is Indian are relegated to the second floor, when they are not ignored or denied. As in the National Museum of Anthropology, the contemporary Indian occupies a segregated space, disconnected from the glorious past as well as from the present, which does not belong to him: an expendable space. Through an adroit ideological alchemy, that past became our past, a simple reference to what existed as a kind of premonition of what Mexico is today and will be in the future. It has no real connection with our contemporary reality and our collective future.

The art objects and visual expressions we have seen in Mexico from the inexhaustible museum of anthropology, the temples, the work of twentieth century artists like Kahlo, Riveiro and Siqueiros, the murals and street art in Oaxaca and Chiapas, have made me reflect more on these connections between art, politics and the construction of identity. Our brief but deep immersion into the art of the Northwest Coast of Canada taught us much about the languages and grammar speaking through these forms, the deep relationship to place, stories carved into living beings sacred to these communities and the importance in their role to preserve cultural practices and identities (see posts on Freda Diesing School). How did this experience of art here in Mexico relate to that in Canada? What is the place that this art emerges from, what language and forms and stories does it draw from? How does it preserve cultural practices and imagine new futures and identities?

Votiv Painting from Freda Kalho’s collection, Freda Kahlo house, Mexico City, Photo by Udi

Kahlo, Riveira, Siqueiros and many other artists of this generation were involved in a broader post-Mexican revolution period of crafting a new national identity, as Batalla explained. As artists they were creating a new imaginary for the country by drawing on various local and avant-garde pictorial traditions, such as votiv paintings and surrealism in the case of Kahlo or mural painting and social realism for Riveira. These were artists who were also deeply engaged in the broader political and ideological struggles of their day, both Kahlo and Riveira as well as concerned with questions of national identity were also committed communists.

Photo taken by Udi of the space between the Templo Mayor and the Mexico City Cathedral

With these thoughts in mind the images we saw on the walls of Oaxaca and in the city’s art collectives started to make more sense. These images were also connected to place, stories and cultural practice: protest culture, an iconography of rebellion and struggle against the state, the support of indigenous culture. These were attempts at crafting a new imaginary of solidarity and struggle against various forms of oppression using the language of stencils, graffiti, political posters and so on. The wonderful book Teaching Rebellion, which is a compilation of personal testimonies of those present in the teachers’ rebellion in Oaxaca also has something to say about this visual expression of this political culture. In the editors’ introduction they describe how graffiti artists played a crucial role in challenging the government dominated media by appropriating other spaces of communication across the walls of the city:

These artists used their creativity and imagination to visually represent the marginalized, exploited and oppressed, as well as to promote anti-capitalist counter culture in Oaxaca.

The movement showed its capacity not only to organize political acts, but to create artistic and culture events to recover a history of Oaxaca unmediated by the sheen of tourism.

multinacionales stencil, oaxaca, photo by Udi

The walls of the street and the artists’ collectives then provided other images and imaginaries.

‘the greatest triumph’ graffiti, oaxaca – photo by Udi

In some of this art the Indian which in Batalla’s argument had only served to represent a fossil of past glory and as such an innocuous ingredient contributing to national identity surfaces as a living subject, as someone talking back or resisting the current situation. Such is strength of resistance in the indigenous woman from Mexico profundo pointing a gun at the genetically modified corn pushers furthering their imposition of an alien cosomivision.

Indigenous woman with gun stencil, Oaxaca, photo by Udi

These street artists then exemplified something we came to learn more deeply during our time in Oaxaca, the importance of autonomy in the face of various state or corporate institutions that we have grown dependent and as such subservient to regarding our education, health, food, communication and even sanitation (more on this soon). In their case the walls of the city were a means of taking back the spaces for communication and visual expression.

Printers Collective, Oaxaca, photo by Udi

solidaridad zapatista poster in graffiti artist’s studio, oaxaca – photo by Udi

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Learning from Museums

Learning from Museums

Posted by on Dec 2, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Vancouver | 0 comments

 

‘First Nations of British Columbia’ map from Museum of Anthropology, photo by Kelly

We were nearly an hour late for our appointment with Bill McLennan, head of Northwest coast art at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, yet he still gave us a warm welcome, and a generous and intimate tour of the museum. Bill has for many years been researching the art of this region and getting to know the communities who make it. When we were at the Freda Diesing School, multiple copies of Bill’s book The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations could be seen across the desks and were constantly used by students. This book was affectionately, and mischievously, called ‘the bible’ of the course by Dempsey. The black and white photographs of the bentwood boxes whose designs the students meticulously copied in their drawing exercises also came from Bill and his work. Bill stumbled upon this technique of photographing these old pieces with infrared film so as to bring out more the faded designs. Bill also sits on the advisory board of the School and is a regular lecturer there.

Museum of Anthropology, main hall, photo by Kelly

The Museum of Anthropology sits at the far end of the leafy campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The modern concrete building perched on a hill overlooks the Bay that edges the city. Through the museum window we see the cold waters of the Bay glistening in the light of the setting sun – the contours of hills and small islands engulfed by evergreen trees that thrive down to the water’s edge. This was like no other anthropology museum I ever saw. You walk through the entrance into a large hall with a number of different totem poles from this region, both old and some contemporary. Bill guided us through the museum which was about to shut, taking us through the main hall, the contemporary exhibits, the new wing which displays the art of this region in an innovative way and other various rooms.

Restoration and infrared photography, photo by Kelly

In the new wing, in a section entitled ‘multiverse’, objects are displayed in glass cabinets as well as drawing on an interactive online set of catalogues. The notion of ‘multiverse’ As the panel introducing this wing explains provides an explicit valuing of different worldviews, cultural practices and ways of knowing without valuing one over another. The panel also explains the role that First Nations groups have had in helping to curate and tell the stories of the objects displayed. We were thrilled to see this perspective of a ‘multiversity’ so explicitly stated and practiced in the museum. This resonates with the idea of the ‘multiversity’ found in higher education which similarly acknowledges that there are diverse knowledges, ways of learning, teaching, engaging, relating and living. The Multiversity movement internationally rejects that there is and can be a single definition of a ‘Uni’ -versity that, in the movement’s perspective has been colonised by ‘Western’ notions of Higher Education. The multiple ways of valuing in the ‘multi-verse’ section of the museum reflects how Bill and the museum have put into practice this pluralistic valuing of cultural objects as objects to learn from in museums and as artefacts part of living cultures.

Museum practice has come a long way from earlier museum attitudes whereby indigenous artefacts were often seen as ‘deadened’ fossilised cultures, as remnants from a previous age. As Bill explained, here the attitude of the museum is instead one in which it sees its role as that of a caretaker of objects that are part of living cultures. The Anthropology Museum has long running relationships with many of the communities from across Canada where these objects come from. There is an acknowledgement that although they are stored and displayed here for the general public, many of these objects still belong to these communities and that they are entitled to use them when required, such as for certain ceremonies.

Bill Reed Rotunda, photo by Kely

I ask Bill how the curators at the museum, those responsible for the preservation of these objects across time, responded to these changes in practice. Bill replied that they have come around over time. The approach taken is then a pragmatic one acknowledging that the museum is split between two not altogether unreconcilable positions; first, that of a publicly and government funded institution with a role of displaying these objects so that people can learn more about them and the cultures that made them. Secondly; museums also have the role of being the guardians of these objects for the communities that have made them and opening the doors of the museum so that these cultures can tell their stories too.

As we have seen, some Nations such as the Haida and the Nisga’a already have their own museum or heritage centre, whilst others do not have the facility or prefer to house their artefacts in museums and make use of them when needed. The Anthropology Museum also has a number of outreach and participatory projects with First Nations communities such as community arts projects or housing visiting artists who make their art in the museum. Bill told us how sometimes carvers would carve a pole or sculpture in the main hall for the public to see them at work and people describe this as their most memorable experience of the museum.

Museums have come to play an important role in our ‘enlivened learning’ journey, providing us with a multi-sensory learning environment through which we have walked and traced our own paths of discovery. The stories woven together in these places have been significant additions to the other places of learning we have written about such as historical or sacred sites or landscapes. Museums have also provided a historical grounding or context to the various conversations we had and stories we heard across Canada. Adding to the written sources we have consulted, and our own experiences across places, museums have provided further threads through which the mesh of our learning has taken place.

From Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, to Writing-on-Stone, from the Nisga’a museum to the Blackfoot exhibition at the Glenbow museum, these are all examples of museums and displays designed, curated and run by First Nations peoples to tell their stories to their own communities and to others. We learnt much from these exhibitions, from the objects displayed, to the labels and narratives surrounding them, to the total experience they were trying to create. We have over our blog postings used a number of photos from these exhibits to try to convey a sense of the stories and histories being told.

In our travels we also went to several national museums, the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, the Royal Museum of British Columbia in Victoria, the Northern British Columbia Museum in Prince Rupert and the Fort Museum in Fort MacLoud. In many of these cases we also saw how national museums are trying to deal with and navigate the turbulent history of colonialism in Canada and the complex relationship between settler society and First Nations groups. Here we could see an attempt to represent the dark past of Canadian history, the oppressive Indian Laws, the broken and unjust treaties, the missionary conversions, the spread of disease, residential schools, the destruction of cultures and ways of life. We also saw attempts in these museums to show the cultural resurgence occurring since the 1960s, the contemporary artistic, educational, political and spiritual life of these communities. Many of these exhibitions were also curated in partnership with First Nations peoples.

Museums are an important source of authoritative knowledge in our society and increasingly for First Nations too. They are spaces of learning where this occurs in a multi-sensory way, not only through text, but also through objects, and increasingly through audio-visual and various digital media (see for instance my most recent film for the Pitt Rivers museum, Artisans of Memory). Museums are spaces where stories can be brought alive, that is why they are so popular especially with schools and parents. Behind these multi-sensory environments there are multiple designs, narratives and stories of how the world makes sense as well as through sets of implicit values.

Taking a slight detour and speaking about the use of museum in another context. We had wanted to go up to the Tar Sands region in northern Alberta to see for ourselves this place that is often talked about by First Nations peoples with much concern for the destruction it is causing to the water systems (not only immediately within this region but to much wider areas to connected watersheds across Canada and beyond) and the adverse health effects on neighbouring communities. We wanted to see this region as its development is proving to be the engine of the growth of Canadian economy and also because of its role as an increasingly important source of oil for the US and China. The region is then highly strategic for the oil economy but also of insurmountable significance in the costs to the environment and the process of climate change. I bring this up here because the corporations developing the Tar Sands also have their own museum in Fort McMurray designed to show the public their activities funded by private companies and the Alberta government. We wanted to see what this museum, the Oil Sands Information Center looked like and to experience its narratives and sets of values, but the journey north proved too far for our limited time.

Museums are then important sites of storytelling and conveying certain views of the world. They are also powerful institutions, closely tied with the world of academia and the sciences, which have come to have an authoritative aura for providing a legitimate description of the world. It is heartening to see that some of these institutions are now working much more closely with First Nations to not only include but voice their own view of the world, narratives of their histories, their ways of living, their spirituality and values. It is also significant how First Nations are appropriating and engaging with the institution of the museum, just as they are also doing with the institution of the university, as sites for the communication of their worlds and values, both for themselves and for others.

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The Fame and Value of Northwest coast Art

The Fame and Value of Northwest coast Art

Posted by on Nov 20, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art, Vancouver | 0 comments

 

When I made the documentary ‘Everything was Carved’ with some members of the Haida Nation during their visit to the Pitt Rivers museum, I came to learn and appreciate the complex relationship between museums and what in this field are called ‘source communities’. Whilst the Haida expressed their wish to have their objects back (although the attribution of who made what and what belongs to whom is not always straightforward), they were also aware that museums had helped to increase the fame of their Nation. Haida objects, like those of other Nations in the Pacific Northwest, have come to be collected by countless museums and private collections across the world since the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. This has meant that the art of this region, albeit having different styles to the more trained eye, is quickly recognisable and known the world over. Northwest coast art has become a highly prized collectible for museums and the international art market.

A visit to downtown Vancouver by the water front is a good demonstration of the value the art of the Northwest coast has acquired. This upscale neighbourhood is lined with galleries and boutiques attracting tourists and art buyers. As Rocque conveyed to us, the art of the Northwest coast is the most valuable in the indigenous fine art world with the market worth an estimated one billion dollars a year. This high demand for the art of this region has meant that opportunities and financial rewards have been achieved by some talented artists. We saw a number of pieces from such artists at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery where we were shown around by a gallery worker whose love for the art of this region was evident as he showed us some of his favourite pieces. Here we saw intricately beautiful sculptures and masks made by instructors and former students from the Freda Diesing School, alongside the work of other famous Northwest coast artists. Some of these pieces were selling for thousands of dollars and the works of desirable artists did not stay long in the Gallery before being bought up.

‘Four Winds’ by Ken McNeil, photo by Udi

Carmen Rhoofs, former student from Freda Diesing School, photo by Udi

The Spirit Wrestler Gallery has a close connection to the School, with the director of the Gallery lecturing there once a year and the students having their degree show at the Gallery. As the gallery worker explained to us, the degree show is a big deal for students and their families who come all the way down to Vancouver from northern B.C. After graduating, a number of students carry on trying to make it as artists. Some obtain commissions or win competitions and manage to make a living. Others have gone back to their communities and become art teachers or taken on other professions. Some former students have stayed on in Terrace and stared, according to Dempsey, a Northwest coast art scene in town.

If they do manage to break into the fine art market how these artists will negotiate the two worlds of art they live in, that of art as a part of a living culture and that of art as a set of objects for contemplation and highly valued commodities, remains to be seen. The instructors at the School, Dempsey, Ken, Stan and Ken seem to have found some kind of balance on this matter and their concern for their art and their communities is clearly seen in their work as teachers.

 

Institutions like the Museum of Anthropology  in Vancouver have also managed to find some accommodation between the world of objects as part of a museum and the world of objects as part of a living culture.

 

What is interesting in both of these cases is to see how the same object, whether a mask, sculpture or totem pole, can have such different meanings and values and serve different functions depending on the set of institutions and cultural practices that surround it.

 

An endnote that would take a great deal of work and further research to understand and give full justice to, but which is important to say anyway. The world of First Nations art, of billion dollar art markets, of beautifully made objects of interactive museums lives within a broader context of the continuing problems faced by First Nations communities in terms of poverty, the break up of families and communities, violence and drugs, unemployment and health issues. As was pointed out to us by different people, the gallery zone in downtown Vancouver is next to what is supposed to be the poorest neighbourhood in the whole of Canada and one where many First Nations peoples live – which lies just a few blocks to the east.

 

 

 

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