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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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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 25 years 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.


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.


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.


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.


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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El arte de la rebelión, parte 1 – Oaxaca

El arte de la rebelión, parte 1 – Oaxaca

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

Esténcil retratando la modificación genética del maíz, centro de Oaxaca. Foto tomada por Udi.

Esténcil retratando la modificación genética del maíz, centro de Oaxaca. Foto tomada por Udi.

Ya desde el primer día en que comenzamos a caminar alrededor de la ciudad, notamos que existía algo distintivamente rebelde e innovador en la cultura política del estado y ciudad de Oaxaca. Parecía haber una cierta energía presente, en el aire, en los posters políticos y en las pintadas en las paredes. Pero también, desde la supresión de la rebelión en 2007 (sobre la que Kelly escribió un poco en el post previo) el estado Mexicano ha establecido una constante y amenazante presencia policial: se pueden ver todos los días en las calles de la ciudad policías militares patrullando, con sus oficiales siempre vestidos de uniforme negro, chalecos antibalas y a veces usando máscaras de ski negras (pasamontañas), circulando alrededor de la ciudad en camionetas pick-up con ametralladoras listas.

Oaxaca Rebelde, camisetas, foto tomada por Udi.

Oaxaca Rebelde, camisetas, foto tomada por Udi.

La ciudad alberga una diversidad de experimentos en términos de vivienda, organización y creación, que se están llevando a cabo desde hace al menos 10 años. La identidad y las formas de organizarse, de aprender y de relacionarse con el otro y con la naturaleza indígenas son muy importantes en estos experimentos oaxaqueños para vivir y resistir. Las formas indígenas de conocer y conceptos y prácticas claves, tales como “comunalidad” e “interculturalidad” (sobre los cuales escribimos en otras publicaciones) se han vuelto muy importantes en esta cambiante cultura política, lentamente llegando a las escuelas y a las universidades de la región, empujadas por activistas indígenas e intelectuales.

Durante nuestro tiempo en Oaxaca nos encontramos con diferentes tipos de experimentos y experiencias sociales, políticas, artísticas y ecológicas, llevándose a cabo en diferentes lugares de la ciudad. Tuvimos la suerte de conocer y pasar un tiempo en uno de estos experimentos, que es tanto social como ecológico, artístico y político; que es creativo y crítico. Este “experimento” es la Universidad de la Tierra, o Unitierra, como es llamada generalmente.  Unitierra ha sido, desde sus comienzos en los 90, un referente importante en este proceso de fermentación de nuevas formas de vivir que se ha dado en y alrededor de la ciudad. En nuestros próximos posts escribiremos sobre las experiencias, encuentros y aprendizajes en Unitierra.

Lo que quiero describir aquí (en esta publicación) es el sentido más expresivo que tuvimos de esta cultura de la rebelión, tanto aquí en Oaxaca como en Chiapas, donde también pasamos un tiempo.

Mural de Zapata, Oaxaca,  foto tomada por Udi.

Mural de Zapata, Oaxaca, foto tomada por Udi.

Las paredes de Oaxaca están cubiertas de murales, grafitis, esténcils y pósters políticos. La ciudad también alberga muchos colectivos de artistas y espacios creativos que producen esta colección rica de imágenes. Kelly y yo sentimos como estas imágenes hablan sobre preocupaciones presentes, ideas claves y esperanzas de esta ambiente político: la apropiación de tierras y recursos por parte de corporaciones y la imposición del maíz genéticamente modificado; la continua opresión y violación de derechos por parte del Estado; la indigeneidad; las comunidades intentando vivir de una forma diferente, en equilibrio entre ellas y con la naturaleza.

Gemelas, grafiti, Oaxaca, Foto tomada por Udi.

Gemelas, grafiti, Oaxaca, Foto tomada por Udi.

Una mañana temprano caminamos alrededor del área céntrica y encontramos lo que se

oaxaca - gm corn wall stencilconvirtió en nuestro esténcil favorito, pintado sobre la pared de una pequeña calle, al

lado de un espacio de arte colectivo, a unos pocos minutos de la estación de autobús.

La simple pero a la vez elegante imagen muestra una mujer apuntando con un arma a un grupo de figuras vestidas con trajes de radiación o contaminación, que parecen estar plantando una nueva especie o robando el maíz que la mujer había plantado. Ella está usando un clásico pañuelo indígena en su cabeza, mientras que las otras figuras representan fuerzas externas aliadas a las corporaciones que están presionando al Estado y a los granjeros locales a adoptar maíz genéticamente modificado (hay una publicación del blog que trata específicamente este tema). Por lo tanto, esta imagen, aunque simple, muestra un problema que alcanza a muchos campesinos y comunidades indígenas en diferentes partes del país, y muestra un concepto de resistencia en la cual las relaciones normales de poder se encuentran invertidas.

Póster para un evento de un artista de grafitis, Oaxaca. Foto tomada por Udi

Póster para un evento de un artista de grafitis, Oaxaca. Foto tomada por Udi

























Este arte de los murales políticos comenzó a realizarse casi 100 años atrás en México. Data del período posterior a la revolución Mexicana de 1910 que derrocó al dictador Porfirio Díaz y fue creado e impulsado por campesinos, indígenas y personas que habían perdido sus tierras en manos del Estado. El antropólogo mexicano Guillermo Bonfi Batalla, quien acuñó el término “México profundo” para referirse a la cultura Meso-americana que continúa influenciando la cultura nacional mexicana, ha sido una figura muy influyente en los debates relacionados a las condiciones pasadas y presentes de las poblaciones indígenas que viven en México.

Siqueiros, 1958, Museo de Arte Moderno, Ciudad de México, foto tomada por Udi

Siqueiros, 1958, Museo de Arte Moderno, Ciudad de México, foto tomada por Udi

La noción de “México profundo” contrasta fuertemente con lo que Batalla llama “México imaginario”, o el México que ha tratado de imaginar su camino hacia una existencia dominante y ha fallado, a causa de la continua fuerza de las millones de personas que conforman el México Profundo.

Su nombre ha sido también recurrentemente mencionado en las conversaciones que tuvimos con varias personas en México. Batalla escribió lo siguiente sobre la prevalencia de dichos murales en el período post-revolucionario:

 “Cientos de metros cuadrados de murales adornan todo tipo de edificios públicos en las ciudades de la república. Hay murales en los edificios de gobierno y en las oficinas públicas, en mercados y hospitales, en escuelas y bibliotecas, en fábricas y en lugares de trabajo. En estos murales, la imagen del indio es prácticamente indispensable. Raramente falta alguna alegoría al mundo pre-colonial, que frecuentemente sienta las bases o preside sobre las escenas del mundo de hoy o de mañana.”  (traducción directa, no oficial del libro México profundo en inglés)

 Mural-Diego-Rivera- foto de Mirairi Erdoza - de: http://fr.fotopedia.com/items/anboto-2umoIxo9DBo

Mural-Diego-Rivera- foto de Mirairi Erdoza – de: http://fr.fotopedia.com/items/anboto-2umoIxo9DBo

En la primera mitad del siglo XX, la generación más internacionalmente famosa de artistas mexicanos (Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Gabriel Orozco y Siqueiros) estaban también profundamente inmersos en la política de aquellos tiempos y en el período post-revolucionario centrado en la construcción de una identidad nacional. Los últimos tres estaban incluso involucrados en proyectos de murales a gran escala financiados por el Estado mexicano como parte de sus aspiraciones nacionalistas. Como afirma Batalla, esta búsqueda de identidad generalmente volvía hacia las raíces indígenas, utilizando aspectos de éstas que podían ser fácilmente apreciados:

 “la bucólica vida del campesino, artesanías populares y folklore. En la música, la danza, la literatura, y las artes plásticas, la temática del indio proveía los elementos básicos para dar forma a una vasta corriente nacionalista bajo el patronazgo del gobierno.” (Traducción directa, no oficial del libro México profundo en inglés)


Para Batalla, los museos también jugaban un rol clave en este proceso de exaltación de las raíces indígenas mexicanas, algo que se puede ver claramente en una de las atracciones más famosas de México: el Museo Nacional de Antropología en el Parque Chapultpec, en una zona adinerada de la ciudad. Pasamos muchas horas en el museo pero tan sólo logramos ver una pequeña fracción de él, abrumados por la enorme cantidad, diversidad y calidad de los objetos expuestos.

 Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Ciudad de México, foto tomada por Udi

Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Ciudad de México, foto tomada por Udi

El museo está dividido en las diferentes regiones geográficas mexicanas, cada una con sus grupos étnicos. Cada sección tiene dos pisos: el piso de abajo siempre expone los tesoros de “las civilizaciones pasadas”, mientras que el de arriba muestra la vida actual de estos grupos étnicos. Justo fuimos un domingo, día en que los museos son gratuitos para los mexicanos, por lo tanto, la gran cantidad de personas, en particular padres con sus hijos, hacía al lugar aún más abrumador. Muchos de los niños parecían estar haciendo algún tipo de tarea, yendo y viniendo de una habitación a otra, escribiendo en anotadores. Por el contrario, los cuartos del piso de arriba, los que muestran la vida cotidiana de los grupos étnicos hoy en día, estaban silenciosos y las exposiciones eran todo menos vivas o animadas. Este contraste entre el pasado exaltado como parte de la formación de la historia mexicana nacional y la falta de atención a las condiciones presentes de los pueblos indígenas es uno de los temas principales en el trabajo de Batalla:


“La presencia indígena, como se muestra en los murales, museos, esculturas y sitios arqueológicos, todos ellos abiertos al público, es tratada básicamente como un mundo muerto. Es un mundo único, extraordinario en muchos de sus logros, pero sigue siendo un mundo muerto. El discurso oficial, traducido en el lenguaje de las artes plásticas o de la museografía, exalta a ese mundo muerto como la semilla que dio origen al México de hoy. Es el pasado glorioso del que debemos sentirnos orgullosos, que nos asegura un gran destino histórico como nación, a pesar de que la lógica de esa afirmación no esté del todo clara. El indio vivo y todo lo que sea indio, es relegado al segundo piso, cuando no es ignorado o negado. Al igual que en el Museo Nacional de Antropología, el indio contemporáneo ocupa un espacio segregado, desconectado del pasado glorioso, así como del presente, que no le pertenece: un espacio prescindible. A través de una hábil alquimia ideológica, ese pasado se convirtió en nuestro pasado, una simple referencia a lo que existía como una especie de premonición de lo que México es hoy y lo será en el futuro. No tiene ninguna conexión real con nuestra realidad actual y nuestro futuro colectivo.” (Traducción directa, no oficial del libro México profundo en inglés)


Los objetos artísticos y las expresiones visuales que hemos visto en México en el inagotable Museo de Antropología, en los templos, el trabajo de los artistas del siglo XX como Kahlo, Rivero y Sequeiros, los murales y el arte callejero en Oaxaca y Chiapas, me hicieron reflexionar más sobre estas conexiones entre el arte, la política, y las construcciones de identidades. Nuestra breve pero profunda inmersión en el arte de la costa noroeste de Canadá nos enseñó mucho sobre los lenguajes y la gramática que hablan a través de las formas, la profunda relación con el lugar, las historias talladas convertidas en seres vivos sagrados para estas comunidades y la importancia en su rol para preservar prácticas culturales e identidades (ver la publicación sobre el Freda Diesing School).  ¿Cómo se relaciona lo que experimentamos sobre el arte mexicano con lo que experimentamos en Canadá? ¿Cuál es el lugar del que emerge este arte? ¿De qué lenguajes, formas e historias proviene? ¿Cómo preserva las prácticas culturales e imagina nuevos futuros e identidades?

Pintura votiva de la colección Frida Kalho, casa de Frida Kahlo, Ciudad de México, Foto tomada por Udi

Pintura votiva de la colección Frida Kalho, casa de Frida Kahlo, Ciudad de México, Foto tomada por Udi

Kahlo, Rivera, Siqueiros y muchos otros artistas de su generación estaban involucrados en el período de la post-revolución mexicana, de la elaboración de una nueva identidad nacional, como explicó Batalla. Como artistas estaban creando un nuevo imaginario para el país recurriendo a diversas tradiciones pictóricas locales y de vanguardia, como el surrealismo y la pintura votiva en el caso de Kahlo, o la pintura mural y el realismo social de Rivera. Estos fueron los artistas que también estaban profundamente involucrados en las luchas políticas e ideológicas de su época. Tanto Kahlo como Rivera estaban preocupados por las cuestiones de identidad nacional pero eran a la vez comunistas comprometidos.

Foto tomada por Udi del espacio (y la pared) entre el Templo Mayor y la Catedral, Ciudad de México

Foto tomada por Udi del espacio (y la pared) entre el Templo Mayor y la Catedral, Ciudad de México

Con estos pensamientos en mente, las imágenes que vimos en las paredes de Oaxaca y en los colectivos de arte de la ciudad comenzaron a tener más sentido. Estas imágenes también estaban conectadas al lugar, a historias y a prácticas culturales: la cultura de protesta, una iconografía de la rebelión y la lucha contra el Estado, el apoyo a la cultura indígena. Estos fueron intentos de elaboración de un nuevo imaginario de la solidaridad y de la lucha contra las diversas formas de opresión utilizando el lenguaje de los esténcils, los grafitis, los carteles políticos, etc. El maravilloso libro Teaching Rebellion (Enseñando la Rebelión), que es una recopilación de testimonios personales de aquellos presentes en la rebelión de los maestros en Oaxaca, dice también algo sobre esta expresión visual de la cultura política. En la introducción del editor describe cómo los artistas de grafitis jugaron un papel crucial desafiando los medios de comunicación dominados por el gobierno, apropiándose de otros espacios de comunicación: las paredes de la ciudad:

“Estos artistas utilizaron su creatividad e imaginación para representar visualmente los marginados, explotados y oprimidos, así como para promover una cultura anti-capitalista  en Oaxaca. El movimiento demostró su capacidad no sólo para organizar actos políticos, sino para crear manifestaciones artísticas y culturales, para recuperar una historia de Oaxaca que no estuviera  mediada por el brillo del turismo.” (Traducción directa, no oficial)

Esténcil: multinacionales, Oaxaca, foto tomada por Udi

Esténcil: multinacionales, Oaxaca, foto tomada por Udi

“El gran triunfo”, grafii, Oaxaca – foto tomada por Udi

En algunas de estas obras, el indio, que como nos cuenta Batalla había servido únicamente para representar un fósil de la gloria pasada y, como tal, un ingrediente inocuo contribuyendo a la identidad nacional, aparece como sujeto vivo, como alguien contestando o resistiendo la situación actual. Tal es la fuerza de la resistencia de la mujer indígena del México profundo que apunta con un arma a quienes quieren imponer el maíz genéticamente modificado, quienes quieren imponer una cosmovisión ajena.

Mujer indígena con escopeta, esténcil, Oaxaca, foto tomada por Udi

Mujer indígena con escopeta, esténcil, Oaxaca, foto tomada por Udi

Estos artistas callejeros mostraban también algo que luego llegamos a conocer más profundamente durante nuestra estadía en Oaxaca: la importancia de la autonomía frente a diversas instituciones estatales o empresariales de las que nos hemos hecho dependientes  entregándoles la organización, producción y control de nuestra educación, salud, alimentación,  comunicación e incluso saneamiento (más sobre esto en breve). En este caso, las paredes de la ciudad son un medio de recuperar los espacios para la comunicación y la expresión visual.

Colectivo de grabadores, Oaxaca, foto tomada por  Udi

Colectivo de grabadores, Oaxaca, foto tomada por Udi

Póster de la solidaridad zapatista en el estudio de un artista de grafitis, Oaxaca - foto tomada por Udi

Póster de la solidaridad zapatista en el estudio de un artista de grafitis, Oaxaca – foto tomada por Udi

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Learning from Museums

Learning from Museums

Posted by on dic 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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