Indigenous representation in public art – murals and mosaics

Fin del Mundo Museum Mural - Ushuaia

Fin del Mundo Museum Mural – Ushuaia

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Indigenous representation in public art – murals and mosaics

The artistic approach towards the indigenous people is not limited to their representation in monuments or their presence in various churches in both Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia. They are also depicted in murals and mosaics in various cities of the south. In some areas non-white, non-European extraction faces are painted on many walls but they don’t, in themselves, really tell a story. Here I want to concentrate on two locations where a story is being told, one a series of painted murals and the other a mosaic telling the story of Patagonia.

Murals outside ‘Fin del Mundo’ Museum, Ushuaia, Argentina

The ‘Fin del Mundo’ – ‘End of the World’ Museum – is in what used to be the Banco de la Nacion building on the road that runs along by the sea shore in the most southerly town in the world, Ushuaia in Argentina. I was surprised by how little information was provided in the museum of the story of the indigenous tribes in this area, primarily the Selk’nam and the Yámana. (For a better presentation of the story of the indigenous peoples in Patagonia the small municipal museums in Puerto Natales, Chile, and Bariloche, Argentina are infinitely superior.)

Outside, in a small garden where some old pieces of carts and an old cannon are on display, a series of murals were painted in 2013 that aim to tell the story of the area from the arrival of the first Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century up to the building of the large prison in the early 20th century (which I won’t be looking at here but which is at the top of this post.)

What I intend to do here is to look at those murals (5 out of 6) which directly reference the people who had lived in the region for many generations but whose lives were eventually turned up side down by the arrival of the Europeans.

There was no explanation of each picture so I have had to make a number of assumptions.

The First sighting of a Spanish Galleon

Fin del Mundo Museum Mural - Ushuaia

Fin del Mundo Museum Mural – Ushuaia

This image ‘shows’ a native village going about their daily life, making a canoe, collecting wood and general everyday tasks. This gets interrupted by one of the men sighting a Spanish full masted galleon and giving the warning to the rest. As is normal they have no clothes (apart from a simple loin cloth).

On the shore is a beached whale which a couple of men are in the process of cutting up. I’m not sure how accurate this might be. The Yánama would have taken advantage of an accidental beaching of whales – or the mass suicide – as they had no tradition of actually hunting them. I would have thought that impossible from the small canoes they used – and which can be seen being built in the mural.

The abduction of Yanama women by the Spanish

Fin del Mundo Museum Mural - Ushuaia

Fin del Mundo Museum Mural – Ushuaia

This is a strange picture with an unlikely juxtaposition of images. The main story is about the recent aftermath of a battle between the Patagonians and the Spanish who have arrived mainly – according to this picture – to kidnap the women to use them for their sexual pleasure. On the right hand side lies a dead Patagonian and on the left a dead Spanish soldier – the victims of the struggle.

In the background there are more Spaniards arriving from the galleon and in the top right hand corner there are a couple of canoes with a single individual in each.

Strangely on the mid right hand side a couple of men are beating some seals to death. Although it surely happened you wouldn’t have had a community of either of the Ushuaia tribes right next to a seal colony – the seals are today, and probably have been for time immemorial, out on the rocky, uninhabited and uninhabitable islands of what is now called the Beagle Channel.

The difference of the dress of the two opposing forces is made even clearer here as the Spaniards are wearing armour and have swords and guns as opposed to the simple spears of the Patagonians.

HMS Ocean

Fin del Mundo Museum Mural - Ushuaia

Fin del Mundo Museum Mural – Ushuaia

The next in the series moves a couple of centuries into the future and here we see an interaction between a couple of canoes full of Patagonians and a rowing boat full with Englishmen from the Royal Navy ship HMS Ocean. I can’t work out what the history is here. I’ve checked and can find no record of any Royal Navy Ship with the name Ocean being involved in any way whatsoever with the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego.

The image seems to represent the survivors of a shipwreck being attacked – or at least harassed – by a group of Fueguinos. Whatever the case the local people are seen as being hostile to the Europeans who have survived a disaster but instead of being helped they are being placed in an even more dangerous and life-threatening situation. Without historical context this gives the impression that the local people were naturally aggressive and unreasonable in their relations with ‘innocent’ sailors – as if the British Royal Navy was a charitable organisation rather than an instrument for the expansion of the British Empire.

Survivors of a shipwreck

Fin del Mundo Museum Mural - Ushuaia

Fin del Mundo Museum Mural – Ushuaia

This has an even stranger combination of images and here I don’t know why the single indigenous person has been brought into the picture. The image depicts a ship wreck somewhere in the area. There’s no real landmarks to say where it is definitely but although ships might have gone down in the Beagle Channel I would have thought that the problems and dangers would have been greater further out towards the Atlantic.

However, due to the strong winds (referenced by the scarf and hair of the red haired woman in the top right) a ship has been run aground. It has been damaged but not in such a manner that the people cannot get off on to dry land. There are a number of confusing images here which seems to juxtapose a series of events that would have happened over a period of time but which are shown taking place concurrently.

Two men are seemingly trying to anchor the ship to the land, a task I would have thought would challenge even the most adept super hero. At the same time another male is stacking savaged valuables from the vessel on dry land. In the background is another ship which confuses me. There is smoke rising up from the bow area as if it were on fire. From that ship a boat is coming to shore where the main group is already. Are they coming as rescuers or are they also shipwrecked?

Whatever the confusion that is created in the picture or in my mind when thinking about it what I want to direct attention to here is the image of the single (yet again) naked Patagonian who is crouched down and is warming his hands over a small fire. This fire is also being used to dry clothing and a pair of shoes. Beside and behind him are two whites, a male and a female, the woman looking as if she has just seen a ghost and the man looking as if he has just fallen asleep.

I honestly don’t understand why the Patagonian male is there. I don’t understand anything in the picture but his presence even more. Why was he on the ship? Why is he still naked at a time that the indigenous people were being forced to abandon their own traditional form of dress for that used by the European invaders?

My point here is that we have, yet again, a reinforcement of the difference between the European settlers and the people who were there before they decided to arrive and take all the land.

The European Patagonian idyll

Fin del Mundo Museum Mural - Ushuaia

Fin del Mundo Museum Mural – Ushuaia

The final picture in this series I want to present is one that doesn’t have any indigenous presence at all but , in context, says a lot about how the settlers saw, and still see, themselves. This is a domestic image inside one of the so-called ‘settler/pioneer’ homes. It comes straight out of ‘The Waltons’ or ‘Little House on the Prairie’.

It’s an image of total harmony. The family is happy, comfortable and living a good life at the level of the expectations and capabilities of the time. The mother is brushing her daughter’s hair – the girl studying at the kitchen table, her books in front of her. The dutiful son is bringing in an armful of firewood he has just collected – he is wearing outdoor clothes. The father, with whom the son has been collecting wood, carries a large log over his left shoulder and in his right hand he carries an axe. In the background the grandmother is knitting.

There’s a large, blazing stove on the left and on the right an equally modern, cast iron cooking range. A large ham hangs from the wall, together with pots and pans from the ‘old country’. A cat and dog, not working animals but pets, sit and sleep on the floor next to a toy cart. They are all well dressed and shod. They are warm, healthy and content. Through the window can be seen a steamship and there’s a snow capped mountain in the distance. The scene is placed in the region of Ushuaia but here, in this comfortable scene, there is no room for the indigenous people.

This is what they didn’t achieve. This is why they have been marginalised, worked to death, killed for their resistance and the reason why they had to make way for ‘progress’.

The traditional way of life has been destroyed to make place for bourgeois mundanity. The traditions and way of life of the indigenous people have now become a quaint thing of the past. They have lost their land, their dignity, their culture, their future.

They have had to make way for the European future.

This series was produced by a group of local artists in 2013 and I’m surprised that they still seem to be perpetuating the stereotypes into the 21st century.

Or is it me that just doesn’t get?

Mosaic at school on Avenida Cristobal Colon, Punta Arenas, Chile

Mosaic - School - Av Crisotbal Colon - Punta Arenas

Mosaic – School – Av Crisotbal Colon – Punta Arenas

Although you come across quite a lot of murals – rather than graffiti – in the towns throughout both Argentinian and Chilean Tierra del Fuego I only came across one public mosaic and that was on the wall of a school which was by the waterside in the Chilean town of Punta Arenas.

This mosaic is an amalgam of many of the objects, animals, mythology and history of the southern part of the South American continent. When it comes to the indigenous people there are only a couple of times where they appear but, yet again, it’s in the same manner as we have seen elsewhere.

Has anyone ever asked the remaining members of these persecuted groups what they think of this manner of representing or depicting their culture? Do they care? Or have they been so defeated and marginalised that have accepted the inevitable?

Anyway, to the mosaic.

Mosaic - Punta Arenas

Mosaic – Punta Arenas

It will come as no surprise that ‘naked with a bow and arrow’ is also on this mosaic. There’s one figure standing and one figure kneeling, both just about to let loose their arrows.

Mosaic - School - Av Crisotbal Colon - Punta Arenas

Mosaic – School – Av Crisotbal Colon – Punta Arenas

The other indigenous representation is in the two figures from the Selk’nam culture. This was all part of the initiation ceremony (called the Hain) for young men before they were accepted into the group as adults and was used as a method to bind the group to itself, creating a home for the initiate in which he would always be welcome. Naked (this time as it was part of an introduction into the group) the initiates would paint their bodies in a set and traditional pattern and would wear a mask. It was only when they removed their masks that they became adults.

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Indigenous representation in public art – the monuments and photographs

To the Indigenous People - Ushuaia

To the Indigenous People – Ushuaia

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Indigenous representation in public art – the monuments and photographs

Monuments to the Indigenous peoples

So if the church hasn’t got it right have the civil authorities? I only have a few examples to go on so far but the answer would probably be ‘not really’.

Monument to Indio Tehuelche – Puerto Madryn – Argentina

Indio Tehuelche - Puerto Madryn

Indio Tehuelche – Puerto Madryn

The name of this monument in itself says a lot. When Columbus reached the Caribbean he thought he had arrived in India – after all that was the plan of the journey in the first place. He wasn’t looking for a continent that he didn’t know was there he was looking for a quicker route to one he did know existed. That’s why, to this day, that part of the world is still referred to as the West Indies.

But the Tehuelche who lived in, what is now called, the Puerto Madryn area were not ‘Indians’, and the use of the word in the naming of the monument still looks at the world from the Eurocentric approach that was common up to the end of the 20th century – and still not uncommon even today.

But the same stereotype in the depiction of the indigenous people exists further north in Argentina as it did in the south. At least in the area around Puerto Madryn the temperatures get up to a level where the not wearing of clothes makes sense. The day before I left Puerto Madryn the temperatures were in the mid 30s Celsius. On the other hand there was never a full day when I was in Patagonia I did not feel that I needed to have something to protect me from the wind with its cold bite. Being naked in Ushuaia would not have been a life choice – even though the original people from that area would have been much tougher than any foreign tourist – myself included.

Indio Tehuelche - Puerto Madryn

Indio Tehuelche – Puerto Madryn

I’m not saying that such an image never represented a Teluelche hunter but it’s the fact that on so many occasions the indigenous people are depicted as being naked which was equated with ‘savagery’ by the Spanish Conquistadors very soon after their arrival in the continent and would also have been the view of the Welsh Protestants who were the first foreigners to colonise his part of Argentina. It’s the ideological position that is being presented which I challenge.

It’s very difficult to know exactly how the Teluelche dressed in their everyday life. A series of photos taken post 1865 when the Welsh colonisers arrived show a variety of dress, some of it sophisticated in design and decoration. Which shouldn’t be a surprise. Such has been found among such hunter/ gatherer groups elsewhere. Much of the clothing was based upon guanaco furs.

The problem is that very soon after the arrival of the Europeans they wanted to mould the local people in their own image. Forcing them to pose in dress which was good for the camera – and would help the photographer to sell the pictures – but not necessarily a good historical record. There was also pressure upon them to change to the woven blanket – in this way a money based market was forced upon the Teluelche which didn’t have such a system of exchange before the late 19th century.

So the male statue representing the Teluelche is naked, all but for a loin cloth, and carries the ubiquitous bow. Around his waist is tied a bolas (boleadoras) – the rope with weights at either end which was used to bring down a hunted prey. (There’s some debate whether the Teluelche used the bolas before the arrival of the Europeans or whether they adapted the practice once it was known to them.) However imperfect and suspect the photographic record might be I have not come across a single picture of a male Teluelche as depicted on the monument. So why choose it?

He has his right hand raised to his brow to shade his eyes from the sun as he looks out to sea. Now why he’s doing this is beyond me. He has hunting weapons which are used against land animals. To the best of my knowledge the Teluelche didn’t live off the sea so why is he looking out in that direction? Awaiting the Gods from the east as thought the Aztecs? Looking out for the Spanish invaders who had caused so much damage on a previous visit. It just doesn’t make sense. So another ‘black’ mark against the Puerto Madryn municipality.

They don’t get many brownie points when it comes to location. The statue stands on a promontory on the very edge of town and would not be seen by many visitors. On the other hand the monument to the arrival of the Welsh sits right in the centre of town, right on the sea front. So marginalisation continues.

Further to this there are two plaques on the plinth of the statue. One commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Welsh in 1965 the other (which didn’t make much sense to me) commemorates the efforts of those who worked for the unification of the ‘aboriginal’ and Welsh culture at the time of that centenary ‘celebration’ – this is dated 2004.

No mention of the Teluelche even on a monument that is supposed to ‘remember’ them.

Yet no street is named after them or not even a symbolic reference to the fact that the land on which Puerto Madryn now stands once belonged to no-one, but was for the use of those who passed through chasing the seasons and the wild animals.

Contrast with the monument to the Welsh arrival in 1865

Welsh Monument - Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Welsh Monument – Puerto Madryn, Argentina

As stated above this is in the centre of town, seen and passed by all who visit the city. It’s a monument which tells a story rather than merely being an image which has to be left to interpretation.

The bas relief on the southern side describes the coming ashore of the first Welsh colonisers in 1865, obviously bringing with them the most important export from Europe, the Bible.

It’s the bas relief on the north side I want to look at here.

It might be worth just giving a translation of the explanation of the images in the monument prepared and presented by the Puerto Madryn Municipality on the occasion of the unveiling of the monument in 2015 – the 150 anniversary of the arrival of the Welsh colonisers.

In describing the bronze bas relief on the northern facade of the monument it states:

‘Here we can see the Teluelche, sons of the land, receiving the colonisers, extending their hand in a gesture of welcome to the recently arrived, symbolising the meeting of cultures.’

Welsh Monument - Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Welsh Monument – Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Now I’m not questioning that this was the manner in which the Teluelche greeted the strangers from across the sea. Lots of cultures make it a point of honour to treat strangers with respect and kindness – unfortunately for the indigenous peoples of the Americas this was not part of the culture of those who arrived from the 16th century onwards.

I’m not also in a position to challenge what I was told by the curator of the small museum in the, now disused, railway station in Puerto Madryn that the Welsh colonisers argued, and were prepared to even take up arms to protect the interests of the Teluelche when they were threatened at one time by some of the more aggressive land grabbers from Britain with the assistance of the Argentinian state. What I want to ask is where are the ‘estancias’ – the large estates that make up the land grab of Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia – which are in under the control of the ‘sons of the land’?

Why is the city named after some tiny village in North Wales and not after the name the area would have been referred to by the people who had been passing through this region for generations before the Welsh ran away from Britain?

To remind readers of the situation as described by Chinua Achebe in relation to Africa – ‘when they came we had the land and they had the Bible, now we have the Bible and they have the land’. Is that any different with the Teluelche?

There’s also a bit of an oddity attached to the Welsh monument which has a tangential relationship to the Teluelche. On the hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Welsh Protestants the Catholics in the area decided to thank them for bringing Christianity to ‘this land’. As can be seen in those images from the section on the church it was that Christianity that was important in destroying what might have remained of the indigenous religions and belief systems. And strange that the Catholics thank their most ancient of enemies in the Christian church – the Protestants.

Such believes, rituals and traditions are now seen as something quaint from a disappearing people but of having little relevance to contemporary life.

Monument to the Indigenous People – Ushuaia – Argentina

To the Indigenous People - Ushuaia

To the Indigenous People – Ushuaia

This is a small statue in the place that calls itself the ‘most southerly town in the world’. The smallness, in itself, might be making a comment. The Patagonians, when they first encountered Europeans in the 19th century were described as ‘giants’ and a number of excavations were made of grave sites looking for the large bones and a ‘scientific’ explanation of why they were so tall. This statue, of a male Selk’nam hunter kneeling, is probably half non-giant, life size.

Selk'nam group in traditional dress

Selk’nam group in traditional dress

I’m saying it’s a representation of a Selk’man as pictures I’ve seen of the tribe show the conical, fur cap as being part of the everyday dress of adult males. As with previous images he is not really wearing an animal skin coat but merely having it draped over his shoulders (in a totally impractical manner) which means that both his thighs, and the side of his upper torso, is exposed. In his hand he holds a bow – which seems to be accurate here as they were known to be good hunters with the bow and arrow.

One of the problems that modern sculptors might be having in making a realistic representation of the Fuengüino people before their culture was overwhelmed by the stronger and more aggressive European culture is the use of that European culture to represent Fuengüino people.

European photographers who went to Tierra del Fuego wanted to give the impression they had ‘discovered’ a new race of people, these mysterious ‘giant Patagonians’. For that reason (and as we all know the camera never tells the truth) they would have local people pose in a manner that was stereotypical for ‘natives’. In a sense this was a return to the idea that pervaded the very few early years of the Spanish presence in South America in that they had found the natives living in perfect harmony with his environment, a paradise or heaven on earth.

This idea went well together with the idea of nakedness and so what were presented as candid pictures of everyday life are actually, in the main posed, in a manner that suited the photographer’s idea of the story he wanted to tell. The long exposure time of photography of the time also meant that the subjects would have to ‘freeze’ for the camera.

Seeing these collected together in a book of the whole ideology behind the collection of these images at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century also shows the attitude of the Europeans to the local people. The power balance is shown in the often frightened, if not down right terrified, looks on the faces of the subjects – especially the children.

There are also examples where the photographer actually recorded his abuse of those who were weaker than himself. The two pictures taken by Martin Gusinde Hentschel – a Polish born missionary – show the extent to which the subjects had to suffer to get ‘the perfect image’.

Child abuse to satisfy European perversions

Child abuse to satisfy European perversions

Child abuse to satisfy European perversions

Child abuse to satisfy European perversions

It also seems to have been the fashion to have pictures of males just about to let loose an arrow in the countryside. The stories about the North American West and the ‘cowboys and indians’ had whetted the European thirst for peoples who lived by the use of old technology, whether it be to hunt or fight. However, those type of images in Tierra del Fuego were often of men who had adopted western culture and dress and were merely posing as natives, their ‘traditional’ dress over store bought trousers.

The monument is in the centre of town but slightly off the beaten track, in a small square just behind the tourist information office.

The accompanying plaque also tells a story.

To the Indigenous People - Ushuaia

To the Indigenous People – Ushuaia

This translates as:

‘The Community of Ushuaia to the Indigenous People who created the origin of the city which today achieves its first hundredth anniversary. The Centenary Commission. 1884 – 12th October – 1984.’

Remember that 12th October used to be known as Columbus Day.

Pioneers and First Settlers Monument – Ushuaia – Argentina

I’ve not been very positive towards the monuments I’ve written about so far and I’m afraid nothing is really going to change with another, more recent and much larger monument that is also located in the centre of Ushuaia.

Pioneers and First-Settlers Monument - Ushuaia

Pioneers and First-Settlers Monument – Ushuaia

This is in the form of a huge, concrete bird, an albatross, which has its wings unfolded so that it creates a semi circular protective space underneath. This is the only element that I think is original and creates a pleasing space. Unfortunately instead of just stopping here the sculptor decided to add to the perfection of the original shape.

But that’s not the worst thing about this monument. Taking into account the modest nature (to say the least) about Ushuaia’s recognition of the indigenous people one would have thought by the late 1990’s, when I believe this monument was unveiled, there would have been a review of the scant regard that Ushuaia had really paid to the people on whose land the city was built that a new monument would redress this balance.

But unfortunately this is just the opposite. This large, much more sophisticated, much more prominent and much more expensive monument is actually to commemorate the first (white) settlers of indigenous land and the so-called (white) ‘pioneers’ who followed in the late years of the 19th century.

Not only does the city celebrate the invaders, the colonisers, the robbers and thieves of land that already had an owner it treats the indigenous people as extras in their own dispossession and then insults them by declaring that their presence in the images by the sculptor was to show how ‘the lighten [sic] fires symbolize the union among natives and First Settlers throughout history.’

Inside this space we find a group of four people, three men and one woman, reclining against the wings and sitting around a large fire which separates the lone male from the other three. This fire has huge flames that rise up from the logs in the shape of the petals of an iris.

Some of them are dressed, some are not. Guess which (a ‘first settler’ or a ‘native’) is dressed. Wrong! It’s not the ‘first settlers’ but the two ‘natives’. First settlers come out of the womb already dressed and never take their clothes off – especially the religious ones.

Pioneers and First-settlers Monument - Ushuaia

Pioneers and First-settlers Monument – Ushuaia

So yet again there’s this distinction between the primitive and the sophisticated.

But it gets worse when we look at the decoration on the external part of the sculpture. As the indigenous people are mere bit players in this scenario, apart from their nakedness in front of the fire, they only appear once more, this time to accentuate their backwardness.

On the left hand side at the back we see examples of the masks used in their rituals (primitive), the simple huts in which they lived (primitive) and their use of canoes as a form of transport and for fishing (primitive).

Pioneers and First-settlers Monument - Ushuaia

Pioneers and First-settlers Monument – Ushuaia

Right next to these images, as we move right, are examples of what the ‘first settlers and pioneers’ brought with them. There’s a steam ship, a steam train (although no reference to the fact that the ancestors of these same ‘pioneers’ have allowed the once extensive railway network in the country to decay and rot into insignificance) and part of a large two storey building (the prison that was built in the early days of the city’s history – isn’t it interesting that a symbol of ‘progress’ is a prison building?) together with a European marching forward in a positive manner.

Pioneers and First-settlers Monument - Ushuaia

Pioneers and First-settlers Monument – Ushuaia

Next we have two males using a two handed saw to cut a log – representing the logging industry that was set up very soon as the town grew. This industry would have forced the Selk’nam and Yánama to fill in for shortages of labour.

This is followed by a carpenter in the process of constructing one of the typical houses that were everywhere in Ushuaia until the latest round of destruction which has replaced those typical buildings by featureless and souless modern concrete constructions – so even the ‘first settler’ and ‘pioneer’ culture gets trashed by the juggernaut of capitalist development.

Next is an image of a mother raising her baby high above her head as she plays with the child (natives’, presumably, didn’t play with their children) right next to an image of the Salesian Cathedral to be found on the main street of Ushuaia.

Finally we have the image of a man digging a hole in preparation for the planting of the small tree a child is holding.

So all the industriousness of the Europeans have created the city of Ushuaia. Of what the indigenous people had created over the generations there remains nothing, as their creations, their homes, their means of transport came from nature and returned to nature. Their culture is now only fit to be represented in museums, used as decoration on hostel walls or as artefacts to be sold in souvenir shops.

Pioneers and First Settlers Monument - Ushuaia

Pioneers and First Settlers Monument – Ushuaia

Just in front of the ‘camp fire’ is a roundel with a compass in the middle and radiating out to the edge of the circle on the lines is a list of those nationalities who had contributed to the construction of the city and its economy. Listed are: Poles, Croats, Israelis, Chileans, Greeks, Lebanese, French, Germans, English, Solvenes, Spanish, Yugoslavs, Argentinians, Italians – and as a sop to the past Selk’nam and Yámana.

Strangely the descendants of the ‘first settlers’ were asked how they wanted the monument to be called and even had the letters they sent in response to that request reproduced and put on display. When did they ever ask the indigenous people – or the few surviving descendants – how they wanted to be remembered?

There’s even a list of the first 50 settler families in the area, a plaque paying ‘homage’ to them having been placed on the wall to the back of the monument.

Ushuaia calls itself the ‘capital of the Malvinas’ and declares that ‘the Malvinas are and will be Argentina’s’ but it doesn’t pay any respect to any claims that the indigenous people might have on the site of the city.

The indigenous people in the photographic record

As it is almost certain that any images of the pre-colonial people who have been or are to be turned into a work of art come from the photographic record made by European photographers at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries it might be worth while discussing how using such material colours (and quite possibly) distorts the true representation of life before the invasion.

As stated before photographers were out to get ‘the’ image that would make their reputation and, hopefully (for them) their fortune – no different from the paparazzi now. This meant that as has always been the case they would have to produce images that the market wanted. By the end of the 19th century there were few civilisations that had not been documented in some way and however badly and inaccurately they may have been represented were ‘known’ in Europe. The encounter with Patagonians must have been a godsend for publicists.

But Europe had developed an idea, which had originated first with the invasion of the Americas in the 16th century and later with Africa and Australia, that all these primitive peoples behaved in a similar manner. They all walked around naked, they had no culture as was understood in Europe and had little technology in a world where the industrial revolution that had begun in the 18th century was still producing marvel after marvel.

To have presented the Patagonians as being any different would not have been accepted by societies which had preconceived (and it has to be said deep rooted racist) ideas of what other people were. If they are not us then they are different and if different they must be inferior.

The church also had a role in this, by the end of the 19th century the Protestant as well as the Catholic brand of Christianity.

Their mission (and the reason they sent out missionaries) was to ‘bring the word of God’ to those who were following a misguided road. Why God had to be brought to people who had been created by that very same God is a mystery to me. But then reason and rational thinking has never been behind religious proselytisation.

The church also had to show progress in their mission and the most obvious way that could be done was by changing how the native people’s looked – basically by getting them to adopt a western style of dress. To show that radical change in an easy way it was beneficial to their idea to show that the natives were so unsophisticated that they didn’t have any clothes at all and this is one of the expectations that pushed the production of naked images of men, women and children.

There could also be argued that there was a prurient reason for such images – European society had become so anal at the end of the 19th century that naked images of whites were rare (although available) and would never be displayed in public but such images of naked, dark skinned, foreign and distant peoples was totally acceptable.

Then there was always the question of power. Once the colonisers arrived they started to come in a flood. If the first few had been welcomed (as is shown in the Puerto Madryn Welsh monument) then there would have come a time when the numbers started to be unacceptable – especially as they were arriving with the understanding that the land was empty and there for the taking. This had happened in North America and Australia, why should Patagonia be any different?

That would necessarily have led to conflict, fights and injuries and deaths. But the battle would have been far from equal and massacres were far from being unknown. One that became famous due to the fact that it was documented by a series of photographs was that by a gold-prospecting Rumanian by the name of Popper.

As has always been the case one of the justifications for taking the land from another ‘tribe’ is to brand that tribe as being savage, uncultured and needing to be educated of the true light. If they refuse then eradication is the only option.

With this background, by the 1910s and 1920s the Patagonian people, of whatever tribe, were defeated, dejected and miserable. Their hunter gatherer way of life had been destroyed by the seizure and privatisation of the land, their culture and religion had been branded as heathen and had been forced to adopt the Christian faith, they had been forced to wear ragged ‘European’ clothing in place of their warm and comfortable guanaco furs, they had been forced into a situation somewhere between slavery and feudalism and having to adapt to a money economy. The overwhelming number of images I have seen taken in that 50 or so year period show a humiliated, defeated and thoroughly miserable race of people with little hope for the future and a past that had been destroyed forever.

A number of pictures show how the Salesians, the so-called saviours of the indigenous people, were far from reluctant to make use of this new and virtually free workforce with members of the various tribes being forced to work in small factories and workshops in the Salesian missions.

The situation there appears to be as abysmal as those experienced by British workers in one of the most dire periods of conditions of the working class in mid-19th century Manchester. Unlike the British working class who were eventually able to organise themselves and fight for their rights the Patagonian people just disappeared.

Note how in all these pictures a priest or a nun stands guard, as overseer, as boss, as ocontroller. I don’t use the word ‘evil’ on many occasions (it’s too value laden) but until I can think of a more appropriate word I’ll stress how this evil presence, the Devil’s representatives on earth, are a symbol of the pain and suffering of these defeated people. I don’t like using the word ‘defeated’ but I can’t find any evidence that the Fuenguinos were ever able to recover from this treatment.

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

One thing that did stand out in the pictures I have seen that were taken at the time of the transfer of power from the Selk’nam and Yámana to the white colonisers is those taken by the Salesian priest Alberto María De Agostini Antoniotti. His pictures are the only ones where the subjects seem to be happy in having their picture taken and not being coerced into being photographic models. Not being a fan of priests of whatever species he obviously had a different relationship to the local people (in the 1920s) than did the majority of the parasitic creatures which had been forcing subjects to sit for pictures which they either resented having to do or were photographed without any choice – and never would any of these people have seen their own images.

Smiling Girl - De Agostini

Smiling Girl – De Agostini

Statue of De Agostini and Pa-Chiek Kon Ona in Puerto Natales, Chile

Right next to the waterfront in the Chilean town of Puerto Natales is a statue commemorating the Salesian priest Alberto De Agostini and he is depicted shaking hands with one of the elders of one of the Patagonian tribes, Pa-Chiek Kon Ona with a symbol of a bow and arrow carved below his name.

Alberto de Agostin - Puerto Natales

Alberto de Agostin – Puerto Natales

This is a simple, almost cartoon like, sculpture of two people meeting and its simplicity makes it quite charming in a way. Again, whether this is a true representation of what actually happened is debatable but it is the first sculpture I’ve seen where the idea of an encounter rather than an invasion is being depicted.

Monument to General Julio A Roca – Rio Gallegos – Argentina

Roca Statue Rio Gallegos

Roca Statue Rio Gallegos

This idea of the marginalisation of the indigenous people in public monuments doesn’t just relate to events at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. This idea that they were a group of savages that had to be either converted to Christianity or destroyed was there from the time of the ‘liberation’ wars against the Spanish.

In the coastal city of Rio Gallegos in Argentina is a statue to one of the generals of the liberation war, Julio Roca. This ‘celebrates’ a meeting between him and a Chilean counter-part, Fernando Errazuriz in 1831.

(Ironically this posits the idea of the eternal friendship between the two countries. However when that friendship was put to the test in 1982, at the time of the war over the Malvinas, the Chileans – under Pinochet – showed themselves quite capable of stabbing a neighbouring country in the back by supporting the British in place of the Argentinians, even allowing the British armed forces to operate on Chilean territory as well as providing vital intelligence of Argentinian troop movements.)

But when it comes to the approach to the people who were here before the Spanish we have to look at the lower of the two panels that accompany Roca’s statue.

Here we have Roca and his aides, on horseback on the right. Roca has his right arm outstretched and his forefinger is pointing threateningly at a small group of indigenous people who are on the extreme left of the panels. Most of them are standing up and huddled together – aiming to get some comfort from the proximity with their kind. One of their member is crouched down, his head bowed and his arms covering his eyes. As is normal in virtually all depictions of the indigenous people they are half naked. The reason for this scene? The priest who stands between the two groups.

He has his right arm raised and in his hand is a crucifix which is radiating the light of the Lord. Even though the settler descendants of the Spanish were fighting against the dominance of the Spanish state in the affairs of the Latin American continent they were in no way fighting against the hold the Catholic church had on all the peoples of those lands.

The indigenous people are afraid of the power of this religion and the one crouched down is displaying his shame at not accepting the true religion.

And Roca is saying, with the threat of arms, that if the heathens do not accept the true religion the full force of the army will be used to force them to do so. ‘Submit or die’ is what he is indicating with that simple gesture of the outstretched finger.

So it ever was.

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National Malvinas Monument – Ushuaia

Ushuaia - the capital of the Malvinas

Ushuaia – the capital of the Malvinas

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National Malvinas Monument – Ushuaia

The Monument to the Fallen in the Malvinas War in Ushuaia is the biggest I’ve seen so far and gleaning information from its constituent parts it has evolved over time and now comprises of 4 major and distinctive elements. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the monument in the most southerly town is the biggest as Ushuaia considers itself ‘the capital of the Malvinas’.

The orientation of the park is in the direction of the Beagle Channel and the outlet that will lead to the Atlantic and, eventually, the Malvinas.

Malvinas Island Park

The Original Monument?

The Original Monument?

If I read things correctly the first stage in the development of the memorial was the establishment of a green area on the edge of the town centre, next to the water and the port of Ushuaia. The most simple, and almost hand made, sign in the area states:

Here has been constructed a park in homage to those who fell fighting for the just cause of national sovereignty for the Malvinas Islands and the South Atlantic Region.

The Malvinas Veterans Centre, the Municipality and the Community of Ushuaia.

2nd April 1988

(The 2nd April is the date of the beginning of the war.)

The park is a large, oval construction between the dual carriageway that serves traffic along the coast road.

The Principal Sculptural Monument

The Sculptural Monument

The Sculptural Monument

The principal artistic monument is a large, concrete rectangle that sits on a low plinth. This rectangle has a rough design of the two principal islands that make up the Malvinas group cut out of the concrete so – depending on the angle you look at it – you see either the mountains in the distance or the buildings along the river front.

One side is unadorned and just painted green. On the other side is fixed a metal sculpture. As with previous attempts to interpret Argentinian Malvinas memorials I can’t work out what it is trying to say.

This sculpture is a mix of bas relief and almost whole body fixtures. All the figures are male and naked.

In the bottom right hand corner are two figures, One is kneeling, with his hands on the floor, and facing the viewer. To his left is another figure, showing a left profile and has the left knee on the ground and the other leg bent at 90º. Resting on this right knee is what I think is a flaming torch which he has gripped in his right hand in the middle. This seems to be some sort of offering to the other person of the pair but he doesn’t seem too interested as his head is only barely turned a few degrees towards the presenter of the homage. This could be a representation of an eternal flame.

Moving left there’s a group of naked prone figures – presumably dead – in bas relief. We don’t see all of the body and one of the figures is decapitated and many of the limbs are truncated.

Further left still we see the head, back and buttocks of another male. He is facing the wall so there’s no features. The right arm is raised and it looks like the palm of his hand is pressed against his forehead.

Moving further left is another figure, this time in profile – the right side showing. He is crouched down, only his toes touching the ground and he’s sitting on his ankles. His right arm is extended between his knees and his head is bowed. There is a feeling of despair from this figure. Even though the positioning of this figure would allow for some detail to be in the face here there is none. What we see is almost skeletal, with huge eye sockets. I’m not sure if he is wearing something on his head or whether it is the representation of short, wiry hair.

Finally, in the very bottom left, is a small plaque with the name of the foundry and the date of 1992. The name of the sculptor, Vilma Nattero de Martinella, is under the two kneeling figures on the bottom right. I’ve tried to find out more about her but have hit a brick wall. I thought that knowing a little bit about her background might have helped in translating her images but I had no luck.

All these elements are below the design of the islands.

In the space between the top of the islands and the top edge of the rectangle are four pairs of fighting figures in bas relief. There’s no detail in any of the faces and they all have various truncated limbs.

The only other figure on this face is that of a male nude, facing the viewer. He has his right arm raised and his right fist is clenched in a salute. His left arm is across his chest and he is holding something in his left hand but I don’t know what. His legs below the knees disappears into the concrete.

The plinth upon which this sculpture sits is angled out by about 45º and on this, in large bronze letters, are the words ‘El pueblo de Ushuaia a quienes ….. con su sangre regaron las raices de nuestra soberania sobre Malvinas …. Volveremos!!! (The people of Ushuaia to those who …. with their blood irrigate the roots of our sovereignty over the Malvinas …. We will return!!!)

These words sit above eight plaques which contain the names of the 649 Argentinian soldiers, sailors and airmen who lost their lives in the 1982 conflict.

In the centre of these eight plaques is the Argentinian National Coat of Arms.

Monument to the Heroes of the Belgrano

The Belgrano Monument

The Belgrano Monument

This is the most recent addition to the elements of the Memorial Park and has only been there for a few years. It sits to the left of the sculpture and just in front of the eternal flame.

This is in the design of a truncated pyramid and commemorates the 323 sailors who died when the light cruiser Belgrano was sunk by the British Navy’s nuclear-powered submarine Conqueror.

If there were chances of a negotiated resolution of the dispute over the Malvinas in the month after the Argentinian forces arrived on the Malvinas any avoidance of a conflict became impossible after the 2nd May 1982 with the sinking of this ship and the huge loss of life.

It’s a simple but effective monument, made so by the design of a symbol which encompasses many elements from the Argentinian side of the conflict.

Carved into the marble are the words ‘Honor a los 323 heroes del crucero ARA General Belgrano, 2 de Mayo 1982.’ (This translates as ‘Honour to the 323 Heroes of the Navy of the Republic of Argentina on the cruiser General Belgrano, 2nd May 1982.’)

Above these words is a brass plaque which refers to the ‘Friends of the Cruiser General Belgrano Association’. I assume they were the ones who raised the money for the memorial. (This is another reason why I think that the Malvinas memorials, in the main, throughout the country are not State sponsored.)

Above that plaque there’s an interesting design. Whether it is used elsewhere or not I wouldn’t know. It is likely that it was designed for this particular monument.

There’s a semi-circle made up of a sky blue line, a white line in the middle and then another sky blue line. This represents the colours of the Argentinian national flag. This ‘flag’ wraps around the bottom part of the Islas Malvinas. Across the centre of the circle described by the blue and white semi-circle is a bas relief of the starboard side of the cruiser Belgrano. Finally, as a background to the warship there’s the blazing Sun of May, the symbol that sits in the centre of the official Argentinian flag.

The Eternal Flame

The Eternal Flame

The Eternal Flame

The next element must have been State sponsored – it’s too big and needs constant maintenance of the eternal flame to be a local affair. It was inaugurated on the 30th anniversary (of the disgusting and unnecessary war) in 2012.

It consists of a sunken pit which is lined by artificial grass (I don’t think the real thing thrives in the windy and salty environment of Tierra del Fuego). In the middle of this area there’s a square composed of white marble tiles. On these, from top to bottom, is inscribed in black lettering (obviously in Spanish) 2nd April 1982 – 2nd April 2012. Between these dates is the word ‘Malvinas’. Underneath the word Malvinas is a sketch of the islands themselves. Finally, using the Roman numerals XXX, we read 30th Anniversary.

On the same white marble square, at the back, is an eternal flame, in a circular metal container (painted white) on a combination of circular and square pedestals.

The whole area of the eternal flame is ‘protected’ by chains suspended from black metal pillars with golden ferrules.

Separated from the eternal flame pit by a walkway is a concave memorial wall on which is inscribed, in white letters, the same names of the 649 Argentinian dead as appear on the older monument described above.

Over these lists of names are the words ‘Para que todos los heroes custodian por siempre nuestra soberania’ – meaning ‘In order that all of our heroes take care of our sovereignty forever’.

The individuals who are attributed to the design and construction of this part of the monumental park are: Micaela C Barroca, Alberto R Santos and Cristian N Valencio.

On the left hand side of the eternal flame is a totally inappropriate – both in terms of design and content – ‘message’ from the Catholic Church. In a reddish brown arch, which really clashes with the black marble of the eternal flame and memorial wall, is a cheap printed image of a version of a floating in the air Virgin Mary (Our Lady of the Malvinas) over the cemetery for the Argentinian dead that is presently in the British occupied islands. This makes reference to the fact that her image has been vandalised in the Argentine cemetery in the Darwin (no seemingly Spanish name for this place).

To the left of that Catholic aspect (the first religious presence I’ve seen at any of the Malvinas monuments so far) is a long, low wall which contains the obligatory plaques of those who, over the years, want to declare their support for whatever cause the monument might be supporting.

There’s a couple from the Kirchners (the Peronistas) when they held the post of President, making a claim to their populist stance. Although one of them has slipped a little – the plaque I mean. I don’t know why these monuments aren’t better maintained. They seem to be established and then, more or less, ignored, until it will be politically expedient to clean them up again.

An open air photo exhibition

The Photographic Gallery

The Photographic Gallery

The fourth major element of the monumental park is a permanent photographic exhibition which is presented on 14, two-sided stands which are in an arc, on the pavement, on the eastern side of the park.

I have no problem with the concept of such a photographic record of the events of 1982 but the problem here is its execution. If you are going to tell a story in photographs from the time then a) you should tell a coherent story and keep images in a chronological order and b) you should make sure that the stands and the images contained in them can withstand the extremes of weather that are normal in this part of the world and don’t degrade.

The pictures weren’t particularly good examples of those produced at the time, on either side, but even reading the captions (which are in Spanish, English and Brazilian Portuguese) I wasn’t able to really follow any story. The fact that water had leaked under the perspex and were degrading the images from within and that the sun had also bleached many of them from without doesn’t help. So instead of presenting a short photographic telling of the events the viewer is left bemused, confused and annoyed – or at least this viewer was.

I’m not concerned about there being a propaganda aspect to the images – it’s what I would expect in Britain in any telling of the war – but there were images included which didn’t make sense. Why, for example, have a picture of British sailors brushing off the salt on the wings of a Sea Harrier? What is this telling us?

At the time of the war in 1982 the Argentines were in negotiations with the British about supplying the Argentine Air Force with Harrier jump jets. If Galtieri wasn’t such a prick there could have been a situation where British made Harriers would have been facing each other on both sides. That’s a story to tell, and should have been told in the Rio Gallegos Malvinas War Museum (but wasn’t), not trying to give the background to those who weren’t even alive at the time just some random pictures to look at.

The gallery contains all the photos on those stands, including (for some bizarre reason) a couple of duplicates, and in the order they appear on the street from left to right, so you can make up your own mind about how the story is being told. There are 28 photos in total.

A song and a pledge

There’s an arch over the western end of the park and flanking this arch are two boards, one with the (partial) lyrics of a song by an Argentinian popular singer song-writer, the other by Pablo B Rodriquez (about whom I can find no information).

The Pledge

Volver a Malvinas

Sin odios ni recores, con coraje, en alto la bandera de la Patria llegaremos con firmeza a nuestra islas que usaparon un día los piratas.

Nuestra enseña está latiendo al viento allí donde ayer la metralla, segando la vida a tantos jóvenes que el camino de regreso nos señala.

Nuestros muertos queridos, a Malvinas desde sus tumbas mantienen custodiada …. por ellos voveremos, por su ejemplo, por el sacrificio de su sangre derramada.

El cielo que tambien es Argentino ya la izó la bandera azul y blanco.

Pablo B Rodriquez

My translation:

Return to Malvinas

Without hatred or resentment, with courage, with the flag of the Fatherland flying high we will arrive steadfast on our islands that one day the pirates stole from us.

Our school is beating in the wind where yesterday the shrapnel, which took the lives of so many young people will show us the way back.

Our beloved dead, from their graves keep guard on the Malvinas … for them we will return, by their example, for the sacrifice of their shed blood.

The sky is also Argentine and hoists the blue and white flag.

Pablo B Rodriquez

The song

La isla de la buena memoria

The island of good memories


Madre, me voy a la isla,

no se contra quién pelear;

tal vez luche o me resista,

o tal vez me muera allá.


Mother, I’m going to the island, I don’t know who I will fight;

I might fight or resist, or I might die there.


Qué haré con el uniforme

cuando empiece a pelear,

con el casco y con las botas,

ni siquiera sé marchar.


What to do with the uniform when you start to fight,

With the helmet and boots, I can not even go


Desde que llegué a la isla

no tengo con quién hablar.

Somos miles los unidos

por la misma soledad.


Since I arrived on the island I don’t have anyone to speak to.

We are thousands united in the same solitude


Ya se escuchan los disparos

entre muerte y libertad,

cae mi cuerpo agujereado,

ya no podré cantar más.


Already can be heard the shots between death and liberty,

my pierced body falls, now I can’t sing any more.


Creo que hace mucho frío por allá;

hay más miedos como el mío en la ciudad.


I think it’s very cold there;

There are more fears like mine in the city.


No hay mal que no tenga nombre,

no hay un Dios a quien orar,

no hay hermanos ni soldados,

ya no hay jueces ni jurados,


There’s no evil that doesn’t have a name, there’s no God to pray to,

there aren’t brothers nor soldiers, now there are no judges and juries,


sólo hay una guerra más …

y cada vez hay menos paz.


There’s only another war …. and each time less peace


Alejandro Lerner – singer, song-writer

The song can be listened to here. I must admit it didn’t do a lot for me.


It’s the big square at the far end (Block 1300) of Avenida Maipu, just opposite the huge Casino.


S 54.81021

W 68.31581

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