Thursday, May 24, 2007

Cueca culture


Back in Chile, I was quite surprised to come across what seemed a revival in popular Chilean culture. In Valparaiso, some students took me too a Guachaca club. Guacha is Chilean slang for an odd sock, referring to a particularly low form of life, abandoned and unwanted. The students proudly ordered a special Guachaca drink called the Tsunami, which was basically a wine spider -- a portion of red wine covered in a mountain of ice cream. Funny how national cultures model themselves often on exactly what strangers might find repulsive, like 'garlic' as the guilty secret of so many European cultures.

The photo above was taken from a special club in Santiago that has cueca evenings. As the national dance of Chile, the cueca is often a subject of embarrassment, signifying kitsch sentimentalism rather than something real and exciting. Well a new generation seem to want to re-appropriate the dance in an urban context and flooded the dance floors of the La Habana Club. The musicians were full of energy -- funny and tuneful. Various cueca legends were called up from the audience to take guest spots.

Watching the dancing -- there was no way an Aussie could stumble into that dance floor -- I noticed how courtly the gestures were. Integral to the dance are the white handkerchiefs that both male and females hold in their hands. There are flourished and dangled enticingly before partners, at times like the way the matador holds his red cloth. The dance is relatively short, but very intense and the bright flashing eyes are constantly engaging each other. Quite unique.

But imagine this in Australia. Could there be a club in the heart of Melbourne where young things secretly gather to enjoy bush dancing and listen to Slim Dusty? Hmmm.

Out of the Woods

DSCF1416.JPGHere are some fresh Austro-Paraguayan faces. There's Florence Wood, Rodrigo Wood, his wife Carmen and son Brian. Rodrigo is a most agreeable Para-Aussie. He invited me to a special annual event hosted by Las Damas de Britanicas. A special curry dinner was cooked for nearly two hundred guests to celebrate those of Anglo-Saxon descent. While there were many English looking faces, certainly their energy on the dance floor seemed more towards the Latin end of the genetic spectrum. By the end of the evening Rodrigo was goading me to join him in some choruses of Waltzing Matilda.

I must say, it felt good to be Australian in this setting. Any sentimentalism about national identity back home (in Australia) seems too easily recruited to political or consumer interests. It's just too easily and ready-made. But on the other side of the world, deep in the heart of South America, Australianness seemed like an exotic flower. Could we even imagine a universal Australianness, appearing in all cultures, emerging with an innocent voice, blinking, happy to see things anew?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Museo del Barro (Museum of Mud) in Asunción, Paraguay

DSCF1244.jpg The Museo del Barro is a private museum originally established to show contemporary ceramic works from Paraguay. There had been a number of innovations with kilns that enabled more sculptoral works to develop, and the museum was seen as an imporant vehicle for this ceramic work to graduate from the street side sales in towns like Aregua, to a gallery context in the city
DSCF1220.jpg The institution was given a new life by a unique collaboration between three directors, Ticio Escobar (shown to the left), Carlos Columbino and Osvaldo Salerno. They brought together a collection that reflects the unique range of artistic life in Paraguay. This starts with the Hispanic Guarani Baroque originating in the Jesuit missions of the 16th-19th century. The marionette-like figures are designed to be dressed with real clothes. There are strong popular traditions, such as the masks donnned during the fiestas, and rediscovered ritual arts from the different Guarani tribes. A rather conservative craft tradition had led to highly intricate forms, such as the Nanduti, or 'spider web' needlework. Alongside this is a contemporary visual art that has responded strongly to the years of repression under the dictatorship of Stroessner.
DSCF1305.jpg The museum installation is quite beautiful, not just because of the well constructed display cases and lighting, but the way different traditional and modern is mixed together. Contemporary popular versions of saints are combined with quite dramatic figures dating back to the 16th century.
DSCF1297.jpgContemporary exhibitions of popular and contemporary art are shown in rooms adjacent to historical displays DSCF1269.jpgSome intricate work in Paraguayan lace, ñandutí..

DSCF1230.jpgSome popular landscapes in watercolour


Guarani carvings.

Quite uncanny words by Osvaldo Solerno.
Cabichuí, a quite remarkable collection of cartoons depicting the War of the Triple Alliance, when Paraguay took on Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

Some contemporary popular ceramics from the town of Tribatí.


A shot from the interior courtyard.

Getting to Asunción is not easy, but it is worth it to visit Museo del Barro and then going on to encounter the living traditions on which it is based. Another example of the amazing rich treasury of southern cultures

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Leon Cadogan Foundation today


DSCF1460.jpg It was my great pleasure today to meet with Rogerio Cadogan, the son of the legendary León Cadogan who fought so hard for the rights of indigenous peoples in Paraguay, especially the Aché and the Mbya. Rogerio took me to a park where about 200 Aché had camped in preparation for a demonstration in front of parliament the next day. Next he took me to a community of Mbya camped near a tip quite close to the town of Asunción -- a place called Cerro Poty.

The León Cadogan Foundation is still working hard publishing various materials related to the preservation of indigenous cultures. They are now housed in the Centro Paraguayo de Estudios Sociales.

Sadly, none of León's work has been translated into English, despite his Australian ancestry. That is a project that certainly deserves attention. I tried to get a copy of his most influential complication, Ayvu Rapyta, the story of the Mbya people, but none of the bookshops I found had copies.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Somewhere in Asunción, Paraguay

Paraguayans seem to enjoy feeling nationalistic. Here's a bit of street theatre happening down the main street in Asunsión on Friday night. Seven characters dressed in period costume from the time of the country's independence, though why they are each wearing bibs with the names of the week, I don't know. On asking various locals about this -- even an expert in street theatre -- no one seemed to have any idea who they were. That seems a typical story of Paraguay.

More strange and interesting by the hour.

Asunción, Paraguay 12 May 2007
Sunday Chance of Rain. Overcast. High: 22° C. Wind light. Chance of precipitation 40%.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Getting to know the Latin neighbours

The article 'Getting to know the Latin neighbours' has been uploaded here.

Toubab tales

Here's a new term for non-indigenous, which I learnt from an article in Le Monde.

It's best explained in the website A Toubab Traveller's Tales:

A Toubab is the generic name for a white person in West and Central Africa ..
it is not a derogatory term of address and is more especially used in The Gambia and Senegal.

Depending on which you wish to believe .. the name Toubab has many suggested derivations, amongst which are: A corruption of the Arab word Tabib meaning doctor .. a verb in the Wolof language meaning 'to convert' (the early doctors and missionaries during colonial times, being whites coming from Europe) or the generally preferred .. that it is derived from the two bob (two shilling) coin of pre-decimalisation UK currency when The Gambia was a British Colony

Tabib (doctor) is similar in meaning to the Bantu umlungu (magician).

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Whiteness just isn't what it used to be

The ANC website has been running an interesting series of articles in a series 'White Identity in a Changing SA'. A core text in this analysis is Whiteness just isn't what is used to be.

The narratives in Steyn's book include:

  • Still colonial after all these years
  • This shouldn't happen to a white
  • Don't think white, it's alright
  • A whiter shade of white
  • Under African skies (or white, not quite)
  • Whiteness just ain't what it used to be

Here's a sample of the ANC discussion:

In the introduction of the book, Steyn notes this tendency - "of considerable resistance to talking about race as a social category" - represented, in part, by questions such as "Aren't we beyond this?"

Let us return to the strand, 'Whites are doing it for themselves', in the present narrative. "Perhaps," continues the insurance broker speculatively, "being white affected my life in a positive way, while being black affected many blacks negatively." The insurance broker concludes with the punch line: "White people tend to care more about their surroundings and keeping it clean than blacks do."

The familiar subtext - of a superior culture - underlying the previous narratives, infuses the 'Whites doing for themselves' strand of the 'Don't think white, It's all right' narrative.

Melissa E. Steyn Whiteness Just Isn't What It Used to Be: White Identity in a Changing South Africa (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001) read