Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tranqui Buenos Aires

For decades, the US presence in Latin America has been a controversial one, as Latin Americans - sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly - have often blamed the “Colossus of the North” for their problems. Famously, the phrase “Yankee go home” was a warning that US citizens, or at least their government, were unwelcome south of the border. Even when they went to Mexico and beyond, they often preferred to keep a low profile.

While Anti-Americanism has not gone away - though it was probably never so widespread as the cliché suggested - it ran deep among some sectors in Argentina, Chile, and elsewhere. Ever since the 1980s, when the South American dictatorships gave way to stable democracies and the region’s tourism industry began to flourish, it’s been barely a blip on the screen.

Still, there’s a stereotype about Americans abroad and Nick Mahshie, a 25-year-old performance artist from Miami, is taking it on directly in his Buenos Aires persona of Tranqui Yanqui (photograph by Sam Campbell). While studying painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, Mahshie (who is of Palestinian and Polish descent via a Cuban stopover on the part of his paternal grandmother) spent a year abroad in Italy before deciding to settle in Buenos Aires, “partly because of the Italian experience, partly because of wanting to learn Spanish, partly because…you go somewhere to see things differently.”

Mahshie’s brother, a freelance journalist, “had media contacts here, and helped me get some of my bearings,” but, after a brief stay in the city of La Plata, he grew frustrated with passivity of painting and began to develop the flamboyant figure of Tranqui Yanqui (meaning “calm" or "cool”) to confront the stereotypes of Americans abroad. “I’ve always been interested in stereotypes, and how I’m perceived when I go abroad,” he told me in a visit to my Palermo apartment. “My idea was, I’m going to reclaim the title of yanqui [as Argentines spell the word] in a way…the actual character is a means for me to talk about stereotypes and engage people…In a sense, I consider what I do a kind of a mix between fashion, social intervention, performance art, and painting - a multi-faceted project.”

The Floridian influence is palpable in the colors of Tranqui’s trademark top hat, clothing, and accessories of “Deco-style Miami pastels, based in the Miami pop culture that I’ve grown up with. It’s really a mix of the Miami aesthetic with the porteño, including references to cultural and political icons” such as Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty, and the Gaucho Gil that adorn his designs. He carries a sketchbook to record, spontaneously, whatever attracts his interest.

Obviously, Tranqui Yanqui is not reluctant to call attention to himself - at street fairs around the city, his top hat, portable cardboard closet and hand-painted miniature paper clothing have drawn attention from bewildered locals and even scrutiny from the police, who once nearly arrested him as an illegal vendor: “Every weekend I would travel to a different neighborhood and display my closet in character to engage the people. I was kicked out a few times by police even though I told them “’I’m not selling, I’m just showing my art…’” In the working-class Once district, he says, “I sort of fit in as a sitcom character. “

His art has evolved over the past two years, but the materials - a comment on the perishability of fashion - have not. At first, Mahshie found himself in competition with the city’s cartoneros - informal recyclers who collect cardboard and other reusables - for his project: “In some cases I had to talk with the cartoneros and say, well, I saw it first. It was a role reversal, me being a Yankee picking up the garbage.”

In the meantime, Tranqui has moved onto bigger stages, such as the Abasto neighborhood’s Uniclub and Palermo’s Niceto Club, where life-size versions of his disposable clothing have been a big hit at intermission runway shows (photograph by Eugenia Keis). So much so that a Córdoba club even paid his way there for an event and “The last couple shows, I even had somebody buy me the cardboard - fresh new cardboard.” At these venues, with a more art-friendly young crowd, it’s a bit less edgy than taking it to the streets.

While paying the rent by teaching English with private students and at an institute, Mahshie is now making a little money as Tranqui. “A production company contracted me to design clothes and outfits for a music video - clothes and instruments.” Moreover, he adds, “I’ve been selling necklaces, recently commissioned to do a couple paintings, may do a gallery show - putting the iconic imagery on canvas - and perhaps even doing real clothes.”

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been bumps in the road, where even a relict anti-Americanism has surfaced. After the Buenos Aires daily La Nación posted a video clip on its website, “There were commenters who wrote ‘get out of my country yanqui, others called me a moron.’ But I’ve interacted with Argentines on a face-to-face level. Kids have always been the most receptive.”

Meanwhile, when not working or performing, Tranqui has another, very American, hobby as the starting shortstop for the Buenos Aires Shankees, who play in the Liga Metropolitana de Béisbol. That started oddly as Paul Perry, who manages the team, saw his website and invited him to a game as the team mascot. When, after the game, Perry was discussing roster changes because several players were leaving the country, he volunteered to play and “Paul just laughed.” Since then, though, he’s become a regular performer with the Shankees - but minus his pastel wardrobe.

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