Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Argentina's Malvinas Museum

Late last week, I returned to the ex-Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), where just the week before I had seen my nephew and others finish up work on a mural with a human rights theme. The ex-ESMA, of course, is now the admirable Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos, dedicated to the memory of those who disappeared under Argentina’s most vicious dictatorship ever.
I had toured the ESMA before and, while I found it absorbing and instructive, it’s a harrowing experience that I don’t care to repeat. I did, however, want to visit the Museo Malvinas e Islas del Atlántico Sur (pictured above), a new construction on the ESMA grounds that expresses Argentina’s obsession with the Falkland Islands. I lived in the Islands for a year in 1986-7 while researching my doctoral dissertation in Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, and have returned there several times since.

I expected little from this museum and, in that sense, it did not disappoint me. In summary, it’s an anachronistic exercise in self-righteous anti-colonialism that tells us more about the people who created it than it does about the Islands themselves. The creators, clearly, were more interested in historical grudges toward what they perceive as perfidious Albion, the illegitimate occupier of a British Overseas Territory, than in understanding the Islands and their residents on their own terms.
Occupying three stories of a luminous new construction, the museum begins with a selective ground-floor timeline that paints a 19th-century gaucho as a revolutionary nationalist against the British. It also romanticizes a clueless collection of armed Peronist kids who commandeered a plane from the mainland to the Islands in 1966 (see below) – without realizing there was no airport. To the surprise (and subsequent amusement) of locals, the pilot crash-landed on the soggy Stanley hippodrome and, after an overnight standoff with the local defense force, the hijackers surrendered and were returned to Argentina (removing the plane was a more complex task, but the incident could easily serve as the basis for an Ealing comedy).
Ironically, on the grounds of a facility otherwise dedicated to exposing human rights violations, the museum gives Argentina’s military dictatorship a pass except for displaying the deceptive propaganda (illustrated below) that convinced many Argentines they were winning even as their final ignominious surrender approached. It euphemistically refers to the military’s desembarco (landing) - as opposed to invasion - and completely ignores the impact on the Islanders themselves. In just a few hours, a town with just a handful of police became a police state under Colonel Patricio Dowling, a sadistic Irish-Argentine with a special antipathy toward the British.
Likewise, the museum says nothing about the fisheries conservation zone that has brought the Islands their current prosperity; in the tidy, graffiti-free capital of Stanley, residents don’t bother to lock their doors and even leave their car keys in the ignition. It completely ignores last year’s referendum in which Islanders expressed their satisfaction with their current status as an overseas territory.
The museum has one redeeming exhibit, a video salon featuring a 30-minute film by Argentine documentarian Raymundo Gleyzer, who traveled to Stanley from Montevideo on the supply ship RMS Darwin in 1966. Gleyzer takes for granted that the Islands are Argentine, but his footage of the Islanders at work and play (as seen in the video above) is outstanding, though the sound quality is poor (the museum apparently couldn’t be bothered with closed captioning, much less English subtitles).

I also found it interesting to see individuals I got to know 20 years later, during my own time there. Some people, most notably kids, are shy around Gleyzer’s camera, in what at the time was a literally insular community. In his direct contact with the Islanders, Gleyzer – who himself disappeared under Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship - demonstrates an ethnographic professionalism that’s lacking elsewhere in the museum. Because his work is available online, the Museo Malvinas is, in the end, a costly but unworthy addition to the ex-ESMA.

There is another, more recent Argentine documentary that incorporates some of Gleyzer’s footage, plus additional archival footage and outsider interviews that parrot the official government position. There is a token Islander in Las Islas del Viento (trailer above), but Alec Betts left the Islands for Argentina after the 1982 war, partly at least for personal reasons that he does not discuss. As in Gleyzer’s film, there are no subtitles and, in fact, there is no English-language text anywhere in the museum. That’s arguably appropriate, in an institution whose main goal is preaching to the choir.
In fact, the museum's only other English-language item, behind glass, is the translation of a book (pictured above) by naval historian Laurio Destefani. When I met Destefani in his Buenos Aires office in the mid-1980s - I had intended to ask him about some Spanish colonial documents - he greeted me with the statement that "For us, the Malvinas are a pact sealed in blood." That didn't leave much room for dialogue, and neither does this museum.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Patagonian Beasts in Bas-Relief

Some two decades ago, Argentina toyed with the idea of moving its capital from Buenos Aires to the city of Viedma, in its northern Patagonian province of Río Negro. In the end, Porteño politicians preferred the occasional Patagonia vacation to permanent residence there, but Buenos Aires still offers reminders of the far south – one of my own favorites in the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales. Pictured below, the natural sciences museum occupies a huge building in the little touristed barrio of Caballito, which is readily reachable by Subte, the capital’s underground rail system.
Its entrance flanked by sculptures of owls, the museum’s collections are outstanding – perhaps not quite so diverse as the landmark Museo de La Plata about an hour outside Buenos Aires - but I especially like the building itself (dating from 1925). It’s most noteworthy for the bas-reliefs that decorate the exterior walls; depicted by a variety of artists, most of the animals are native to Patagonia itself (though some range more widely).
The most distinctive, undoubtedly, is the Glyptodon (pictured above) sculpted by Juan Carlos Oliva Navarro (1898-1951). Patagonia-bound travelers are not going to see this extinct giant armadillo, the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, but a fossil Charles Darwin found was the ancestor of a species that spread from throughout the Western Hemisphere. Its smaller descendants are a common sight throughout the region.
Traveling across the Patagonian steppe, travelers are likelier to see troops of grazing guanacos (pictured above), wild relatives of the domestic llama and alpaca that graze the highlands of Argentina and other Andean countries. Occasionally raised in captivity, guanacos sometimes even appear on restaurant menus, but they are common throughout the Argentine Pampas and even seen in Uruguay. Those depicted here are the work of (Luis Carlos Rovatti, 1895-1986).
Many people associate flamingos with the tropics, but they are abundant in shallow lakes and marshes in the Andean highlands and in the high latitudes in parts of Patagonia. This bas-relief is the work of Alfredo Bigatti, (1888-1964). Condors (as depicted by Donato Antonio Proletto, 1896-1962) are also found in the Andes and on the Patagonia steppe, where they often scavenge the remains of sheep. Pumas (the work of Emilio Sarniguet, 1887-1943, but not shown here) prey on guanacos and sheep, and have even attacked humans (rarely) in Patagonia. They are not a common sight, though – in repeated trips over 30 years, I have only seen one.

Argentina has a lengthy Atlantic coastline, but the only work that acknowledges it here is the representation of southern sea lions – the bulls notable for their impressive manes – by Oliva Navarro (see link above). They are frequently seen in coastal locations, even in Buenos Aires province and Uruguay, but keep your distance – they are large and powerful, surprisingly quick on land, and can be aggressive.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Art Against Repression: Re-creating the Ex-ESMA

Mural under construction at the former ESMA
In the week-plus that I’ve been in Buenos Aires, I’ve been largely laid up with a sore leg and some flu-like symptoms but, last Sunday, my nephew Manuel Massolo dropped by and drove me to the former Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), the notorious torture center of Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship that cost his mother her life. Manuel was barely a month old then, but he’s now a well-adjusted adult, with a fine sense of humor; on this visit, his goal was to help complete a memorial mural (pictured above) at the site.
Manuel Massolo works on the mural.
I had previously toured the current Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos (Memory and Human Rights Space) – not an experience for the faint-hearted – but the new mural (on which Manuel, above, was working) will be part of the reception area for the DNA information facility organized by the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team) to identify the remains of the dictatorship’s victims and their living descendants (some of whom were “adopted” by the families of the killers).
Claudia Bernardi helps direct the muralists.
I was invited to participate in painting the mural, which a mostly volunteer group finished late that afternoon, but declined because my artistic skill is inversely proportional to my respect for what they were doing; I can also offer the excuse that my leg prevented me from standing up for any length of time. I was pleased to see Claudia Bernardi (pictured above, center), a Buenos Aires native and frequent dinner guest at our house who teaches at the California College of Arts. She contributes to community art projects in many places that have suffered from state terrorism and human rights violations, including El Salvador; on this occasion, she was helping coordinate what was a collaborative project, and her suggestions to the crew kept things moving.
Martín Sanllorenti is the brother of Manuel's late mother.
I also spoke with Martín Sanllorenti, Manuel’s mother’s brother (pictured above), whom I had not seen for many years (he remembered me before I did him). When the group broke for lunch, I took a cab home, but Manuel informs me that they did indeed finish the project - which treats the topic as something of a jigsaw puzzle - that afternoon. Now, for the time being, he can go back to his own work – while his day job is occupational therapy, he also paints works such as the canvas below, based on the floor plan of the Congreso apartment that he (and other family members, including myself and my wife) have occupied at various times in Buenos Aires. That painting hangs on the wall of our Palermo living room.
Manuel's painting hangs in our Buenos Aires living room.

He’s recently sold a couple similar works to a friend of ours in San Francisco. I’ve never asked him about but it seems, at least superficially, that Manuel takes some inspiration from Argentine artist Guillermo Kuitca.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Self-Medicating with Malbec

A few days before flying to Buenos Aires, I suffered what, according to the Gospel of Spinal Tap, might be considered a “bizarre gardening accident.” In the morning, while squatting to fill the compost bin, I felt a brief twinge in my right quadriceps and, though I brushed it off at the time, by mid-afternoon it had become sore and, when I finally looked, it had swollen to the point where it appeared inflated.

Alarmed, I phoned the Kaiser advice nurse and arranged an appointment with my GP for the following morning. He speculated a torn muscle or tendon, but said he had never seen anything quite like it and referred to the orthopedics department, where x-rays and even an MRI didn’t tell us much more – the orthopedist told me she hadn’t seen anything exactly like it either, but suggested that it should heal with time and cleared me to travel.

In the weeks since I arrived in Argentina, I’ve gotten out and about far less than I would like – while the swelling and pain decrease at night, both continue to return the following day, though I think the swelling has diminished gradually every day. I have bruises from the ankle to the groin.
Nevertheless, I did manage to get out of the neighborhood on Wednesday evening for the annual Vinos de Lujo tasting at the Alvear Palace Hotel. After a quick stop at a Recoleta cueva, where I changed dollars for pesos at a 13:1 rate, I made a slightly longer stop at Casa Salt Shaker and then hit the hotel for what I can only describe as a wine-tasting free-for-all.

In reality, Vinos de Lujo is not a sip-and-spit operation with sophisticated sommeliers, but rather an overwhelming assemblage of at least 50 wineries, mostly Argentine but a few Chilean, offering unlimited samples for the price of 500 pesos (US$59 at the official rate, but only US$38 on the informal exchange market). I, however, scored a discount ticket for 350 pesos (U$27 at the informal rate) through the non-profit autism research organization Panaacea.
Vinos de Lujo drew a few fashionable people but most of us were, despite the elite venue, informally dressed. It was so crowded, though, that moving from one stand to another presented problems, and it was hard to get close to some wineries. Arriving early, I took the approach of trying the whites first, then gradually moving to the reds, but at times it was elbow-to-elbow. Given my sore leg, simply standing up for the three hours I was there was an effort, but I can’t deny that it’s good value. I took a taxi home.

Surprising, Vinos de Lujo has no dedicated website, though there’s a fairly good general description (in Spanish) at Espacio Vino. That description, though, focuses primarily on the major wineries, not the smaller boutique operations that were abundant at the event. Still, there were representatives from all of Argentina’s major wine regions, including the Andean Northwest (Cafayate and vicinity), Cuyo (primarily Mendoza) and northern Patagonia (primarily Neuquén’s Chañar district). The handful of snacks consisted of rather small samples of cold cuts, cheeses and chocolates.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

LAX-LIM-EZE: Twenty Hours in the Air(Ports)

After spending 20 hours in airports and on airplanes, I finally arrived at a cool, soggy Buenos Aires Monday evening. It was mostly uneventful – even given that I traveled with a badly bruised and swollen leg from a freak injury, I slept well on my LAN flight from Los Angeles via Lima. LAN’s coach seats still offer enough room to recline and stretch unless you’re an NBA frontliner (who wouldn’t be traveling this far south at this time of the year because the professional basketball season is starting).
That said, I was a bit disappointed in the food this time (though I never expect much from airplane food nor eat much on-board, LAN’s selection is usually better than most airlines). I was pleasantly surprised, though, with their in-flight entertainment selection, which included unconventional independent films like the Paraguayan Siete Cajas (Seven Boxes, see trailer above), set in Asunción’s Mercado Cuatro (also featured in a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown seriesto which I made a small contribution).

Siete Cajas is not for the squeamish, and that’s not because of sanitation problems at the market – rather, it’s social realism bordering on naturalism, though not without some dark humor (none of the protagonists really seems to know what’s going on). Suffice it to say that it’s also a thriller and, at times, it feels like one long (if highly inventive) chase scene.

Barely two decades ago, Lima’s Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez was a dingy affair that resembled nothing so much as a grimy Greyhound station. Changing planes there, which I sometimes had to do en route to Buenos Aires or Santiago, was something to avoid if at all possible.

Over the last decade, though, it’s been utterly transformed into an efficient award-winning facility where I look forward to having enough layover time for a Peruvian pisco sour. It’s comfortable, with lounges and shops (including one specializing in pisco), and plenty of seating room. My flights from there have always been on time.

That said, it does have some shortcomings. It’s the only airport I know where, while changing planes, you have to pass through security again even though you never leave the international departure terminal. Since my last visit, they’ve also started requiring passengers to removes belts, shoes and jackets, which they were never fussy about before. Also, for those on a layover, the WiFi is almost non-existent – in my part of the busy terminal, I could not even detect a signal, let alone log in.
On the plane south to Buenos Aires, I sat next to a young Peruvian woman making her first visit to the Argentine capital, and she seemed a bit bewildered by the Argentine customs form that ask you specifically what cell phone(s) you are carrying (see image above). This has always struck me as bizarre although, in a country that does not permit commercial importation of iPhones because Apple declined to assemble them in Tierra del Fuego, it’s also unsurprising. That’s silly, of course, but plenty of things in Argentina are silly (many top government officials do carry iPhones purchased abroad).

For my part, I listed my iPhone 5 and not my other three phones (an older iPhone, an Argentine Samsung, and a Chilean Samsung, all of which I may have occasional to use). Still, I told her not to be concerned and, as it happened, Argentine customs didn’t even bother to collect my form, let alone inspect my belongings (including a MacBook and an iPad) except for cursory x-rays. I can’t say they will never do so, but on my many trips through Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini (colloquially known as “Ezeiza,” they’ve never bothered to challenge me.
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