Edmonton writer Rayanne Haines invited me to discuss my adventures in writing and publishing in Canada. Here is the podcast, take a listen for yourself and I hope you expand the conversation. I would love your feedback.
A month or so ago I attended the conference Curating Exhibitions as Public Scholarship, a topic close to my heart qua SpectatorCurator. Organized by UBC Public Humanities, the conference organizers invited scholars from around the world to share their case studies with the general public. One of the presentations, by Dr. Alvaro Santana Acuña (Harvard ’14) on his Gabriel García Márquez exhibition at the Harry Ransom Centre in Austin Texas, caught my curiosity. What follows is the translation of my interview with him for Lattin Magazine. Thanks to Juan Gavasa and his magazine for giving my interview with Alvaro a world-class home.
“To call someone like García Márquez a “genius” is in fact a shortcut concealing his formidable capacity for self-sacrifice and discipline.” Alvaro Santana Acuña
Canadian-Argentinian art historian and writer Luciana Erregue sat down with Professor Alvaro Santana Acuña, curator of the exhibition “Gabriel García Márquez: La creación de un escritor global.”
A virtual colloquium on the bilingual (Spanish-English) exhibition on the fiftieth anniversary of A Hundred Years of Solitude, titled “Gabriel García Márquez: la creación de un escritor global/García Márquez: the Creation of a Global Writer,” caught my attention and motivated me to converse with Dr. Álvaro Santana Acuña (PhD Harvard, 2014), professor of Sociology at Whitman College.
Thanks to a Ransom Center Fellowship Santana had the opportunity to lead the curation of this exhibition which opened in February 2020 in Austin, TX. The pandemic forced its temporary closure although the public can access a sample of the exhibition through the Ransom Center webpage https://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/. The public can also access a database of more than 27000 images from the García Márquez Archives.
Alvaro, please tell us a bit about your task as a researcher, above all, how did the opportunity to curate the exhibition come about?
ASA: I am a historian and a sociologist , but I owe this investigation on García Márquez to the rain. The idea to write my book Ascent to Glory occurred to me because I spent days soaking wet thanks to a storm that lasted for days, a storm not that different from the one that fell over the village of Macondo in A Hundred Years of Solitude. Ascent to Glory is a biography of the most famous novel of the Colombian writer. The research I undertook led me to the personal archives of García Márquez located inside Ransom Center. In turn, they became interested in my research and invited me to curate the first exhibition based on these original, previously unseen documents belonging to his personal archives.
Could you tell us, roughly, what key curatorial decisions you had to make and who accompanied you in the selection process of the artifacts for the exhibition?
ASA: The García Márquez archives house more than seventy boxes with thousands of photographs, letters, albums with press clippings, objects, and manuscripts of almost all of his books. For instance, there are 18 manuscript versions of his latest novel Memories of My Melancholy Whores. Before such wealth and variety of material, the biggest challenge was what to select. Furthermore, the exhibition is biographical and has to treat equally, without gaps each of the moments in the life and career of the writer. The excellent team from the Ransom Center, led by Cathy Henderson, and cultural manager Jenny Rodríguez Peña were instrumental in the concretion of the project.
How did you decide to structure the exhibition?
ASA: I decided to divide the exhibition along seven sections. The first three are the most biographical in nature, and encompass the childhood and career of García Márquez until his arrival in Mexico City when he was a young thirty-something. The fourth section recreates with never before seen documents the creation of A Hundred Years of Solitude. The following three sections follow a transversal pattern. The fifth one illustrates in detail the writing process of García Márquez, displaying the manuscripts of Cronicle of a Death Foretold, Love in the Time of Colera, and other celebrated works. The sixth section documents García Márquez as political and cultural activist in favour of a united Latin America. And the last section relays his recognition as a global writer, winner of the 1982 Nobel Price in Literature.
How did the bilingual (Spanish/English) aspect influence the exhibition?
ASA: The decision to curate a bilingual exhibition was an added challenge, we had to place the two languages, Spanish and English on equal footing. On the one hand, the most important documents on display were originally in Spanish, on the other, we had to convey all of this information in an accessible way to the non-Spanish speaking public. That is why we put special care on the physical display of the visual documents; it also meant to work generously and meticulously on the descriptive panels and labels, so that the visitor who does not speak Spanish could also enjoy the exhibition the same way as the Spanish speaking public.
What would would be the “take home” idea behind the exhibition?
ASA: The visitors will see with their own eyes how difficult and demanding artistic creation actually is. To call someone like García Márquez “genius” is in fact a shortcut concealing his formidable capacity for self-sacrifice and discipline to create literary works of excellent quality. Talent and a bit of good fortune always help. Without hard work, however, neither talent blooms, nor good fortune accompanies its creator. In his manuscript Of Love and Other Demons we can see how García Márquez surpassed a most beautiful paragraph because it interrupted the flow of the narrative. He felt it was necessary each word, each sentence, each paragraph would produce the effect of hypnotizing the readers and make them turn the page.
As a museum educator in a not-so-distant past life, I am interested in the training process of those museum professionals tasked with building bridges between the exhibition you curated and the public.
ASA: The training of the museum guides or “docents” was one of the loveliest experiences for me. A week before the the opening, I offered guided tours in English and Spanish with different groups of guides. They are a fundamental part of the viewer’s experience, because they communicate stories, ideas, and anecdotes we cannot always sum up in a descriptive label.
Now onto the exhibition itself, I have heard you discussing “gatekeepers” and “gatekeeping” as a component of the exhibition, what did your research yield in that regard, and how did it contribute to the “Latin American Boom” label?
ASA: The gatekeeper is a person guarding access to something unavailable to the rest. This gatekeeper can be the bouncer of an exclusive club or a committee member of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In their role of guardians, gatekeepers decide who is in and who is out, following strict orders. This is exactly what happened to several writers during the years of the “Latin American Boom.” “What have you written? do you have an agent? Who are your literary influences? What does Latin America mean to you? What do you think of the Cuban Revolution? ¿Qué piensas de la Revolución cubana?” with these lines of questions, writers, editors, and critics acted as the gatekeepers of Latin American literature to filter who checked all the requisites to be labeled and promoted as authors of the Boom. García Márquez was one of those such writers, chosen because of their trajectory and potential.
Now onto the current literary landscape, how do you see the topic of “gatekeeping” in the literature of the Americas and Spanish and Portuguese literature translated into other languages?
ASA: Gatekeeping, as a selection process of authors and their texts remains pretty much unchanged since the days of the Boom. What has changed substantially are the selection mechanisms, for example, the influence of social networks. Today there are “influencers” competing for prestige alongside famous literary critics. What is certain is the existence of more diversity in gatekeeping in the literary world, creating a rich and fragmented current literary environment.
How does the exhibition approach the topic of the Boom? I would love it if you told us how did you articulate the relationship between García Márquez with other Latin American writers, in particular –and forgive me for being so partial, with Borges and Cortázar?
ASA: The initial success of García Márquez with A Hundred Years of Solitude is connected to that of the Boom of Latin American literature. Most of the objects of the exhibition about the Boom can be seen in Section Three of the exhibition. Together with documents, photographs and works by José Donoso, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes, there are of course, others belonging to Jorge Luis Borges, and Julio Cortázar. From Borges we have on display the manuscript for his story “Los Rivero,” a story which bears uncanny similarities to that of the Buendía family. On Cortázar’s end we have on exhibition the manuscript of this best known work, Hopscotch, a mere five steps from the manuscript of A Hundred Years of Solitude. Never have the manuscripts of two of the main works of Latin American literature been so close together under one roof. Seeing them so close to one another is in and of itself enough reason to visit this exhibition.
In regards to the future of the exhibition, what are the next steps, and would there be a chance of it visiting Canada?
ASA: If the Covid-19 pandemic allows it, the exhibition will travel to the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City in 2021. There is interest in the exhibition to visit France, Spain, and without a doubt, Colombia, the birth place of García Márquez. I would not be surprised to see the exhibition visit Canada, where García Márquez is a very well known figure and where Magical Realism has spread its roots since early on, through works such as The Invention of the World by Jack Hodgins.
Finally, How can we see it now?
The exhibition opened on February 1st, 2020. As it was beating all the records, with almost 8,000 visitors in 5 weeks, it had to close its doors. Until the circumstances of this pandemic do not improve the public can see a sample of the exhibition online, through the Ransom Center’s webpage, with the chance of accessing more than 27,000 images from the García Márquez archives.
Having coffee with a friend, way back in October, we talked about how in A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway is always discussing what he eats, belying his hunger. Hunger hovers over his memoir of Paris in the Twenties as he constructs his ‘starving artist’ persona. What is also evident for some of us, is his depression. That hunger, the enjoyment of a break from it in the form of a simple potato salad, and the persisting sense of starvation, emptiness, made us think of a collection of writings where food was but an excuse to explore other ‘hungers’. Thus, Beyond the Food Court: an Anthology of Literary Cuisines was born, and with that, the first book by my new imprint laberintopress
I invite you all to take a look at the website, and purchase the book, featuring 14 authors from all over the world, who are practising writers here in Canada. For those of you who read or understand Spanish, here are a panel at the FIL Canada: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6Ior_glif4&t=227s and an interview for Lattin Magazine: https://lattin.ca/2020/10/22/la-editora-argentina-luciana-erregue-crea-laberinto-press-para-promover-la-literatura-canadiense/
We also had the privilege of opening and closing LitfestYeg 2020. Stay tuned for more Laberinto Press. This is just the beginning as we explain in this Quill and Quire interview https://quillandquire.com/omni/luciana-erregue-on-the-mission-of-labertino-press-to-publish-authors-whose-first-language-isnt-english/
Thank you to Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha for giving this creative non-fiction piece a home in his Blog The Sultan’s Seal. Read on!
We congregate like The Muppets at the theatre: a first tier, a second tier, a third tier. Depending on the age of the host, the “chat” feature is either silenced or not. It is the ideal medium for someone accustomed to exercising control in real life. Yet there is always the sliding into dms. The guy who will tell you: “Why so serious? Ahhh, that hand on your face adds another layer of seduction.” It is just like high school, the kids at the back of the classroom up to no good.
The real gems, though, are the what-a-pleasure-to-meet-you-in-Zoom, I-would-like-to-have-a-meeting-with-you-sometime-early-in-the-morning types. You know it is going to be business during a pandemic, when nobody you know is getting up voluntarily at 6.30 to start a meeting at 7.30 because EST… so when you oblige, and you barely have time to shower, dress and grab your coffee, you know you will rip him a new one. Except he does it first, of course.
Before the first sip of coffee comes the sharp pain of the knife on your stomach. “You know, I am a serious author, and I like connecting with serious culture professionals. You look serious, that is why I think it is important that we establish contact.” You tell him about your accomplishments, to which he responds, “I have already asked you two questions, and yes, it does not matter if the people I want to work with do projects without importance, what really matters is that they are trying. By the way, did you know that I won the Continental award for my novel Three Sausages on a Plate? Like you, I love weaving visual arts and literature. Because once I was an artist in NYC, then I came to Canada…”
So you explain the intricacies of the art market here – fifteen years of experience – the reality check that everything begins at graduate school, when you do your MFA, and collect a clique of pals with whom you will collaborate in friendship and rivalry, the small arts centre where you will establish your connections with the curators of the bigger galleries.
You also explain that as a visible minority you are perpetually from the outside, looking in – then he references Marcel Duchamp, who retired early from the art world to play chess. Because he is bored to death, he can only come up with, “Yes, but imagine, I am not going back to school at this point in my career. That is why I decided to focus on writing. I write a lot, but unless it is very high quality I choose not to publish. Do you know Justforpricks Publishing House, the biggest in Europe – well, they have decided to publish my novel. I am such a busy man, that is why we have our meeting so early. Also, the house is nice and quiet. But the real reason I wanted to meet with you is because I also have a publishing house. We have people in South America, and Eastern Canada, but you live in the West, and that is where we would like to expand.” His voice grows even deeper; he might choke like a cat with a hairball, I can only hope. “It is a labour of love, so of course, we all do it for the love of literature.”
And then you remember Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, which you saw at the Rotterdam Museum fifteen years ago as a young mother. In his notes, Duchamp describes his piece as “hilarious.” A bride in the upper panel and her nine bachelors timidly waiting in the wings, like those importune messages sliding into your dm during the Zoom meeting, crossing the grid, transcending the confinement of Duchamp’s “grooms” cloistered between two glass panels below the “bride.”
Also known as The Large Glass, the work consists of two tall glass panels, suspended vertically. The entire composition is shattered, but it rests sandwiched in between two pieces of glass, set in a metal frame with a wooden base. The top rectangle of glass is known as the Bride’s Domain; the bottom piece is the Bachelors’ Apparatus. It consists of many geometric shapes melded together to create large mechanical objects, which seem almost to pop out from the glass and ever-changing background. There are “shots” coming from the “bachelors” – which never do reach the waiting Bride – made by dipping matches in wet paint and firing them from a toy cannon at the Glass.
The Large Glass has been called a love machine, although its upper and lower realms are forever separated from each other by a horizon designated as the “bride’s clothes”. The bride is hanging, perhaps from a rope, in an isolated cage, or crucified. The bachelors remain below, left with the inevitable possibility of consummating the act in solitude.
As he comes up for air, you take a deep breath:
“Well, this is something that goes unsaid, but there is the issue of unpaid labour, and also the emotional labour us women perform especially in this pandemic, sourcing the food, making sure our children’s mental health is ok, managing the household, all this, generally and at least in my case, falls on the woman. My projects evolve rather organically, and stem from friendships first, not the other way around. I thrive in ethical environments. Ethics. I know that you men have the whole world to conquer, but I am not there, for me it is ‘pleasure, not pressure’. Besides, I am nobody’s rib”.
“This sounds great, and yes, please check our website.”
“Sure I will,” you lie, then you lie some more: “It was a pleasure, and all the best with your projects. Thank you, make sure to check out my blog,” you say, not missing a beat.
He shoots back, “Sure I will, and see you at the next Zoom meet!”
They are everywhere now. Satellite museums and universities: Guggehnheim Bilbao, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Disneyland Paris, Disneyland Tokyo, NYU Abu Dhabi, Temple University, Tokyo, Saint Louis University, Madrid. They aspire to assert themselves as leaders in the relatively new global business of improving a country’s image and reputation or otherwise giving it the edge.
I live far away from such big cities, and universities. You could say I am not included amongst the experienced customers these satellites target. I have never visited such destinations. I inhabit a no man’s land in the Canadian prairies and, as an art historian, I work roaming the floors of my local gallery, which shall remain unnamed, for obvious ethical reasons. In my private life I am also your average museum visitor. A Doctor Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde persona split does exist in my digital life, though. I post these images alongside presumably witty captions on my Facebook and Instagram feed. As a dutiful digital citizen, I sporadically write on my blog SpectatorCurator (also my Instagram and Twitter handle). I have branded myself, and I have an edge over the Louvre Abu Djabi or the Guggenheim Bilbao – I exist everywhere and nowhere. We know by now we are virtual brands in open competition with the brands and artists of yore, redefining them, submitting them to our capricious gaze. If the Mona Lisa was an example of the quintessential open text, now the whole museum is the viewer’s canvas. It is both an exciting and an uncomfortable instance of negotiation between the self and former colonial models of appropriation. Because our selfies are an extension of our bodies.
During a shift at the gallery, I open my Twitter feed and encounter Youssef Rakha’s tweet, a series of images of visitors seeing themselves reflected in the glass vitrines protecting the artifacts of the Abu Dhabi Louvre as he writes: “At the Abu Dhabi ‘Louvre’, with people snapping away at the exhibits without bothering to look at them, you get the feeling it is the relics and art works that are viewing museum visitors, not the other way round”. I think of my compatriot Julio Cortázar. In his “Instructions to Wind up a Watch”, Cortázar explains how, when you are gifted a watch, it is you that is gifted to the watch – not the other way around. He knew all along about the agency of objects, perhaps he inspired the writings on art objects and agency by Alfred Gell? Now I hear Julio whispering in my ear, “I told you so.” I promptly erase the idea out of my head, a trace of the North American academic training that focuses almost exclusively on readings of critical theory, explaining how whatever is considered art by the artist must be art because the artist says it is. I wonder whether a work of art can be a prop because viewers take it to be one.
The ghosts of museum visits past assault me. I reckon with my alternate feelings of shame, for having engaged in snapping away at myself – mainly, vainly, as an improved version of the artwork in front of me – in open competition for digital attention. I also experience puzzlement, realizing the existence of a collective phenomenon across museums around the world, regardless of their brand, the art or relics they house, the aim of their curators and artists, or the nationality of the visitors. I realize that the only brand that matters today is that of the individual spectator: the aura of the work of art has shifted from the work itself to the mindless cinematic shot and finally, thanks to the digital realm, to the viewers, spectator-curators of their own selves. In due time, we need to move from the anecdotal to the quantitative. For now, though, I am going to offer a few theory-free vignettes of personal encounters with the novel viewers’ aura, and the process taking place at museums around the world like individual accounts of being exposed to and surviving the new Covid-19, an unknown scourge of the Twenty First Century:
February 28, 2020: Having read Youssef’s Tweet, I begin to pay attention to the use of the work of art as a prop, and the viewer’s aura. Three teens walk inside the exhibition space. As if they own the place, they resolutely seek the best background. They finally decide to arrange their mini photo-shoot in front of Arlene Stamp’s grid-like diptych made with very pedestrian kitchen tiles. The hardware store staple serving as sophisticated modernist tessellation hovers between the wall and the floor, neither a painting nor a sculpture. I must remind them to keep a safe distance from the work, and their backpack away from the “table” titled Tableaux because it is “art”. The girl poses in a determined power stance. I snap, contravening gallery rules. I feel like a National Geographic photographer snapping at the “exotic other”.
February 28, 2020: Morning before commencing shift. I have just arrived and peeled all the winter layers off my body: my parka, beret, gloves. Coronavirus paranoia remains. Off the photo frame, I have my black clutch with enough disinfectant and gum to survive for a month. I head to my sanctuary, the gallery’s bathroom. Then to the lunchroom, where I leave my outdoor shoes in their cubby. I also leave my lunch, which I will take for thirty minutes whenever the lead gallery attendant deems appropriate. Note to self: it is never the first shift, that is always hers. That is why I look resigned in anticipation of six hours on the floor, mostly signalling visitors towards the elevators to the right of the front desk when they reach the end of the exhibition space and, having taken their selfies, wonder where the exit is.
February 25, 2020: Already on the floor. I am seated in the tall bench reserved for gallery attendants and security, anticipating my readings for the upcoming Rembrandt tour. I hear the loud, chunky heels marching resolutely inside. This is none other than my manager. “Luciana, let’s quickly take the picture for the promotion of the special tour of Rembrandt you are giving soon. Because the actual paintings are not here yet, I want you to hold the catalog, make sure the title is fully legible, and then I want you to look through the open book, as if you were reading it, but looking at me with smiling eyes, like this” – she models, eyes pointing way above the ceiling, in case I have failed to understand exactly the way she wants me to pose. “Now let’s choose a proper wall.” I point to the wall that will end up being “the chosen one”, having posed and discarded poses against walls of her choice. “Hmm, let’s try this one, with some images on it, no, no, no, it is better on a blank wall, yes, this one.” “Ok, Luciana, now look at the book, let’s see…” I look at the book so intently I cross my eyes. She snaps away. “Ok, Luciana, this time, you are going to look at me, smile with your eyes, please! Ready!” My boss shows me the result of her work, and business-like, she shakes my hand, “always a pleasure doing business with you”. Our joke of the day. She shows me the two images and agrees to discard the one with my eyes crossed. I thank my lucky stars, and settle on that other one, with my wrinkly eyes in open competition with the wrinkly eyes of Rembrandt’s tronie, Old Man with a Cap.
January 22nd. 2020. It is the official opening. We gallery attendants are stationed on the third floor. For three hours I must remain by the hot tub. It is an installation by two artists who will remain unnamed. The installation, apparently, is a mockery of self-care culture in a province in crisis due to its decimated oil industry. It is a protest also against said industry and the artificial consumerism it creates all around. I remind myself of Duchamp’s tenet, “it is art because the artist says it is” and I cannot see this hot tub as anything but his “fountain”. At the end of my shift I must add the pool chemicals to keep it fit for use. But this is a long way away. At the time I decide to snap this selfie, the official opening is taking place. The artists arrive wearing swimsuits and bathrobes, they are followed by the audience that gasps, ohhs and ahhs. There are two more spots in the hot tub reserved for the VIP (the curator of the show and a friend). They all hop in the tub, first the artists, who enjoy their time in the spotlight, inhabiting the full auratic effect of their work as it spills over them like a golden shower. After fifteen minutes, the curator of the show cannot stand being ignored any longer and decides to join in, making sure her armpit hair is showing to great effect as she lifts her scrawny arms pointing with her claw-like hands at the screen that documents the artists’ statement. The executive director documents the proceedings for posterity as she schmoozes with the local equivalent of the Medici. At the end of three hours, I’ve forgotten I have a masters in art history. I am now a life-guard on duty, inviting people to get out of the pool so we can pour in the chemicals and close the show.
March 15, 2018. I am visiting Calgary, accompanying my husband who is receiving a lifetime achievement award. He is a noted scientist in his field. In a month he will have a prostatectomy. It is cancer. Now I am at the Glenbow Museum, relishing in becoming Frida for a couple of hours. The museum knows that any exhibition with Frida on its title will bring in solid numbers. I dutifully oblige and take a selfie in front of the main panel, a black and white photo of Frida, competing with her on whose gaze is more enigmatic. The colour image is deliberately transformed thanks to my phone’s filter into a black and white digital original. I crop the most unflattering angles and file the image in my “iconic” folder. I construct my online persona after this image. It is my Twitter and Instagram headshot. Inside the exhibition, however, the sense of disillusionment quickly sets in. Inside glass vitrines, Frida’s old Coty perfume, lipstick, and nail polish vaguely evoke the reds of her self-portraits with the scissors, blood and water. The queen of the oil-painted selfie is nowhere to be found. There is no real aura to steal from. No valid props. Glenbow Museum 1-Visitor 0.
October 2017, Argentina. My family does not want to visit the MALBA Museum, the largest collection of Latin American art by a single collector. I finished my masters of art history a year ago and, having specialized in Latin American art, the pilgrimage to Malba is de rigueur. I roam their modern, sterile glass, concrete and steel envelope, and hone in on Tarsila do Amaral’s Abaporú. Tarsila was a modernist Brazilian painter who enjoyed the expat life in 1920’s Paris alongside her husband, Oswald de Andrade, the father of the Anthropofagia movement. I think of colonial museums and the dialectics of appropriation. Can we eat, cannibalize our colonizers in the Twenty First Century? Or is it just more of the same? How can we get away from the dichotomy, the word colonization at every turn? Here in Canada, “decolonizing” institutions in practice has meant hiring more indigenous people across all disciplines, without accommodating or protecting them from the white backlash. In the gallery environment, I have witnessed how my indigenous colleagues are ignored, even asked why are they there, on exhibition floors, by white patrons, their knowledge dismissed. They have told me they feel out of place. Sometimes I feel out of place as well. To eat – shit – or not to eat. To Be or not to Be, to persist, to occupy space, even if the limbs are too big, as in the case of this hybrid that is do Amaral’s character. Appropriating the melancholy pose of Abaporú, based on Dürer’s character in his print Melancholia, I occupy the space of the Malba Museum with renewed joy, a joyfully thinking woman, breaking the frame, basking in Tarsila’s lemon yellow sun with an orange centre. The all-seeing eye eyeing the camera.
May 2017, Paris. This is the girl of my dreams. I encountered her for the first time inside a picture book my parents gifted me for my sixth birthday, “My Marvellous Museum”. I was nowhere near Paris then. My only experience of looking at paintings was through that book, and a painting of a sailboat amidst a storm in shades of green at my grandparents house in the middle of the Argentinian pampas. But I am now in front of her, at the Louvre, and as I look at Mademoiselle Caroline Riviére’s icy beauty, I go back to that image in the book in my old house, with crumbling walls and sinking wooden floors. I am not looking at her, I am looking inside my memories of her. The Caroline in the Louvre does not hold a candle to the Caroline in my memories. Still, we compete over who has the heaviest eyelids. Louvre Paris 0-Visitor 1.
Moving away from the institutional framework, though, I want to pose one final question about image creation, museum selfies, in this case – along with the distribution of images and their use in social media. Does the process only represent bodies, or does it generate them too? And isn’t the museum, with its own choreographed layout, the ultimate frontier where bodies can be created – and re-created, invented and re-invented against the backdrop of exhibits that were once, or should’ve been, sacred objects?
Images courtesy of Luciana Erregue
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 19, 2019
Artist in Residence Recap: Luciana Erregue-Sacchi
The EAC met with Luciana Erregue-Saachi to talk about her residency at Action for Healthy Communities and her final project, Knowledge Translation: A Memoir in 14 Tour Stops. Join Luciana for a reading from Knowledge Translation on September 26, 2019 from 12-1pm at the Action for Healthy Communities office (#100, 10578 113 Street). RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by September 22.
“I do not know much. But there are certain advantages in not knowing. Like virgin territory, the mind is free of preconceptions. Everything I do not know forms the greater part of me: This is my largesse. And with this I understand everything. The things I do not know constitute my truth.” (Clarice Lispector, Brazilian author 1920-1977 – opening quote for Knowledge Translation, a Memoir in 14 Tour Stops)
There isn’t much dividing the immigrant and artist experiences. Both demand courage, both require willingness to step forward into the unknown to create new realities, both entail the learning of new languages and vocabularies. This relationship is explored in Knowledge Translation: A Memoir in 14 Tour Stops, by Luciana Erregue-Sacchi as she distills the personal experiences of both author and subject into prose and poetry. The book is the result of Luciana’s six-month residency with Action for Healthy Communities (A4HC).
A4HC is a local newcomer-serving agency that offers services ranging from settlement and employment support, youth groups, literacy classes, and spaces for community gatherings. As Luciana began the residency, her first with an NGO, she had constructed a roadmap for her six months. She expected to contribute to, and compliment the agency’s programs while adding to their activities in a meaningful way. However, her interactions with the A4HC staff and clientele led her in exciting and eye-opening new directions.
( Sweet Grass Spanish Immersion Program school visit, and ESL outreach through art. Photos supplied by the artist)
Her first task was to learn a new vocabulary of agency lingo and new ways of thinking about her role. “I had to sit and listen – and be comfortable in not knowing – in silence,” recalls Luciana. “It was hard because I had high expectations of delivering things the way I thought I had to. This experience was like learning to dance together. First, I was dancing alone. And they danced alone. Then we all danced together somehow. There is a choreography to interacting, especially if you are an artist interacting with people who are not. Are they going to understand what you do? Will they value what you do if it’s not a concrete service/product.”
To enrich the choreography, Luciana drew on her experience as a Gallery Interpreter, convening with ESL program participants at the Art Gallery of Alberta. They explored the exhibitions and engaged in conversations about what they’d experienced.
“I came up with lists of words that I use in my work at the AGA that expand vocabulary in describing things and situations,” says Luciana. She anticipated they would talk about tangible elements of the work, like colour and form, but one artwork shifted the conversation into an exchange of cultural memories.
“The moment of truth came when discussing Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup print,” she says. “We were not talking about colour, shape, texture in that image. We ended up talking about [soup], our own cultures and American culture. The participants got to compare and contrast not the image, but the culture behind the image. That was super important; that people new to English discovered they could change discourse [in a new language]. That was a powerful moment for me.”
(Luciana and A4HC clients at the AGA. Photo supplied by the artist)
Unanticipated moments like this, and others that occurred while teaching writing strategies to ESL adults and youth, stuck with Luciana and contributed to her final project Knowledge Translation: A Memoir in 14 Tour Stops. Separated into two sections, Knowledge Translation offers a selection of personal memoir pieces, and poems inspired by interviews with A4HC staff.
Luciana was keen to create a body of work that captured the multidimensional newcomer experience. The first section of the volume contains collective poems constructed from A4HC reports and interviews with staff. Responses to questions like – what brought you here; how did you immigrate; how old were you; what did you do in your country of birth – were constructed into compact poems.
Office terminology overheard while at A4HC inspired the second section – leverage, capacity building, silos, impact, evaluation, information exchange, etc. Fourteen of the terms inspired memoir pieces or “tour stops” with each stop focusing on a different word.
“Everybody has their own stories about those words,” says Luciana. “I would try and juggle my mind for how that word resonated with me and my lived experience as a newcomer who lives in Canada, or as an immigrant woman who has been working and studying and raising a family in Canada. And because I am a tour guide at the AGA, I decided that each of those words could be tour stops. Basically, I organized the volume as a tour of my memory as an immigrant woman living in Canada.”
(Poetry reading organized for the A4HC residency. Photo supplied by the artist)
Luciana hopes Knowledge Translation speaks to all Edmontonians regardless of culture and background. “I want to emphasize how very important it is for artists and BIPOC writers to have opportunities like this; to see ourselves fully contributing to Canada’s culture. And the culture of the city. The experience of immigrants is not that far off from the experience of locals. I wanted to bring the communities together. As I was reminiscing, I was hoping people would be able to identify.”
Personally, Luciana hopes to maintain the momentum she has gained during the residency. “Not only have I completed this volume but I am motivated to continue not just writing, but perhaps becoming a publisher one day. Because of this tenure, I am seeing myself as a writer on a more full-time basis than before.”
She also has one big takeaway for other writers-in-residence, especially those in non-traditional venues. “Take your time to figure out the rhythms of the organization and the sensitivities – the organization is a living, breathing organism; it’s individuals and it’s the sum of their parts. Do something first, and then invite people to do things together. And do not give up if things do not go according to plan because there is always a better plan without you ever realizing.”
Black milk of morning we drink you at dusk time
We drink you at night
we drink and we drink.
William Kentridge’s piece “Sweetly Play the Dance” conjures up the ‘spectres of history.’ We enter the darkened space from where the sound of a marching band emerges brilliant, strident, accented by drumbeats like thunderstorms. Eight apparently consecutive –yet fully separate scenes of a spectral, carnivalesque march develop against a mainly black and white background, as if someone had the power to erase and re-draw history again and again. People from Johannesburg have told me the background reminds them of the area near the mines. We scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie.
At first it is hard to distinguish whether the parading figures, mostly Black people, are flat figures or three-dimensional. They move joyfully, yet mechanically, as if directed by someone. The drawn head of Janus presides over a dance macabre with three skeletons shaking in unison as they shower. Janus is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, and endings, usually depicted as having two faces. He looks simultaneously to the future and to the past. He commands us to play for the dance.
He calls play that death thing more sweetly Death is a gang-boss. Send her Back, Send her back! The masses at the Trump rally yell when he calls out Ilhan Omar. The parade continues. A white man with a side hair part and a forties style of suit, agitatedly speaks from a lectern, two vintage-looking radio microphones from each side, amplifying his speech. A Black man next to him gesticulates, as if translating to the masses a steady diet of hyperbole. In this manic parody, we are active participants of the last gasps of Colonialism, which, as Homi Bhabha puts it, “Takes power in the name of history, and repeatedly exercises its authority through the figures of farce.”
I dance to the music of Kentridge’s piece.
The cognitive dissonance between what we see and what we hear becomes palpable through our bodies. I am now in my hometown, during carnival. My frilled, red dress with white polka dots goes over my head; next, a balaclava-like contraption with two sprouting antennae. Yes, I am an ant. My mom walks me two blocks and drops me off by “The enchanted fruit basket and the caterpillar” float. There, the organizers prop my friend Erika and I on top of the giant wire basket, in between papier-mache pineapples and peaches. We begin slowly traversing Mitre Boulevard, the street decorated with bunting in green, red, yellow, and blue. We are told to wave alongside our queen. Looking down, our heads covered in party foam, become incidentally decorated with paper streamers and confetti. Running past the float are the ‘comparsas‘ dance squads dressed with sequins, feathers, some men, some women, some men dressed as women. Everybody is in a trance, lost in their own pleasure-seeking world. Everybody laughs and sweats to the drums and the choreography they dictate, a very different rhythm from the drums at military parades during the school year from a few months before.
With the arrival of the military in 1976, there are prohibitions of every kind, the doors of our schools remain closed until dismissal – there are curfews, raids, and kidnappings. But by February 1977 there is carnival in spite of the fact that just like totalitarian regimes from the 1930’s, satire is prohibited, actors and books are blacklisted. I remain perched on the fruit basket after four hours of chaos. I see two masked men, one dressed as a doctor, the other as a patient on a stretcher, running on the street, covered in ketchup sauce. From somewhere the ‘doctor’ pulls chain link sausages and animal tripe like the ones my father cooks on the barbecue every Sunday. People laugh until their bellies go limp, as I look up at the top of the pineapple, and the queen of my float, still waving her Snow White smile.
Some of us walk around the exhibition space, some of us stand, some of us alternate between the two. I focus on a figure carrying a palm leaf, an invitation to go back to celebrate the Easter parade in my town. “Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people,” declares Michael Bakhtin.
Janus meanwhile is hard at work, mingling my past and my present self.
Black milk of morning we drink you at dusk time/We drink you at night/we drink and we drink. We AGA interpreters wear earplugs every time we are in the exhibition space. We spend three hours every day there. As a consequence, I do not “see” the installation anymore. I become desensitized to the screaming man and his sidekick. I become desensitized to the people parading in stretchers, the people carrying cardboard representations of household objects. As if I was watching on TV the incessant procession and displacement of refugees all over the world, I become desensitized to the figures moving solely on foot throughout the dislocated screens. If anything, now I mostly concentrate on the technical details, the sequencing of each film projected on the panels, the correspondences between the sound, and the images, the choreography. Meanwhile Kentridge’s hand is hard at work still erasing, drawing, drawing us in, drawing us out. Displacement, dislocation, desensitization resonates in my life experience, and the lives of some of my fellow workers..
As I randomly scroll through my Twitter feed, Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise appears on the screen. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear/ I rise. In another incarnation, the head of Janus will only face forward.
What does the Edmonton River Valley, the Peruvian desert and the soil of Argentina have in common? you will find out by reading up a conversation between two Latin Americans in Edmonton. We do not know their names, we just know that there is more than one response to the dilemma of what to do when we talk about genocides. Thank you to Your Impossible Voice, for publishing my first prose piece ever. http://www.yourimpossiblevoice.com/work-always-comes-to-you/?fbclid=IwAR1NhErJMjLSBsGGUsOE3y4lL07zVYqyvJnUlVitsxjByoiBJYblM66Xl4Q
WORK ALWAYS COMES TO YOU
She, an Argentinian art historian, meets a Peruvian anthropologist at a Canadian cocktail party. Looking over the Edmonton skyline from the third-floor apartment he tells her—I almost went to Argentina on an excavation project; in the end I desisted. I could not imagine unearthing forty-year-old unmarked graves and all that horror, because I would not be able to see them as other than people … I preferred instead to remain in Peru, where I worked on exhuming two-thousand-year-old remains of decapitated, bound human beings, women, men, children, pristinely preserved due to soil, atmospheric conditions in the Andes. And you know? Their heads were nowhere to be found … they still haunt me.
She nods in empathy as he tells her that was traumatic enough. Do not worry, she thinks. She has not told him yet about the Argentinian guerrilla who had disappeared as she exited a church in Miraflores, Lima, Peru, on June 12, 1980. You do not even need to go to Argentina to work on the unmarked graves of the disappeared, you see? Because work always comes to you. On August 13, 1980, Spanish newspaper El Paísreported the kidnapping of Inés Raverta nearby the Miraflores Park at the hands of Argentinian officers, assisted by their Peruvian counterparts. According to El País, she died as a consequence of torture, conducted north of Lima at the summer residency of the Peruvian Army in Playa Hondable. All that the art historian recalls, as she nods.
She also thinks that other anthropologists have not chosen which graves to unearth, because they know that work always comes to you and beggars cannot be choosers. Of course it would never cross her mind to tell him that.
Those other anthropologists have not directly told her, though. She is just imagining parallel conversations with them as they glance through the balcony of her colleague’s sprawling apartment, towards Edmonton’s River Valley, on the North Saskatchewan River, still running to the rhythm of buried remains encased in a muddy cocoon, gliding, unseen for centuries, like the remains of the Papaschase from Rossdale Flats. In August and September 2016, their remains were uncovered in two separate locations while engineers worked during expansion of the area of the new Walterdale Bridge by the old Rossdale Power Plant. According to the chief of the Papaschase First Nation, Calvin Bruneau, the reburial ceremony at the old Fort Edmonton traditional burial grounds was important in order to show respect to their ancestors buried at the site. ”[It’s] very special in that we’re taking care of these people that were, they weren’t buried properly.”
The art historian also thinks of other anthropologists, unlike the one at the party, who must content themselves with remembering the smell of burning flesh, ashes levitating over their cities, rather than cradling their dead like a mother. Because you see, she wants to tell the Peruvian anthropologist—those suspended non-bodies will never be ancient fossils needing to be unearthed.
So she contents herself with dreaming up infinite New Year’s Day party conversations between people like her and other anthropologists at her colleague’s sprawling apartment, avoiding at all times discussing her need to cradle her Argentinian dead like a mother. And she knows for sure that Inés Raverta follows her alongside other Argentinian disappeared, like a great cloud of witnesses.
What does the world’s oldest colour have to do with the Women’s march that took place over the weekend? I find the origin of colours and colour naming fascinating. Who was the first person to utter the word colour, even…The West understands colour as a way of categorizing, distinguishing, separating, building on an apparently rational taxonomy –all taxonomies are apparently rational–whole scaffolds to support inequalities, legitimizing racial categorizations that later get reinforced by law. The Pantone colour of the year charts the direction in fashion and decorating trends, towards the future, as I prefer to look backwards, and wonder in poetic form why it might have been that certain colours continue to generate debates and conversations. The book that started my interest in colour was Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Colo(u)r where she delves into our world’s experience of the different hues throughout history. So I have penned three poetic mini-essays on the topic.
The World’s Oldest Colour
Scientists have just discovered the world’s oldest colour in West Africa– bright pink. The colour of pussy. Pre-historic pussies. Pussies buried deep in the Sahara as I excavate memories from pussy hats past from Womens’ Marches, Schiapparelli pink dresses from Vogue magazines, and my first coat, a crocheted bright pink knee length confection. My mom –what a visionary! Furnishing her seven year old daughter with a matching pussy pink crocheted beret. But Let’s look at the facts –she used to say. Pigments found in 1.1bn-year-old rocks beneath the Sahara desert shed light on ‘major puzzle’ about early life. The pigments were discovered after researchers crushed 1.1bn-year-old rocks: What we’ve found is the oldest biological colour –said the senior lead researcher, Associate Prof Jochen Brocks from the Australian National University. But of course–I thought to myself, pussies are older than time, pussies give life, pussies have survived famines, plagues, as Professor Brocks says —Remaining bright pink even after being crushed. Even more so, I might add. —That’s in principle what we’ve discovered, he continues…Only 10 times older than the typical T Rex. Imagine, particles in pussy pink OLDEST than the typical T-Rex. Would creationists agree? —The bright pink pigments are molecular fossils of chlorophyll produced by tiny cyanobacteria. These so called –by me, first pussy pink pioneers, just like its descendants —had been–according to Professor Brocks– at the bottom of the food chain–Go on, Professor…
1922 fall season color card of America (A meditation on color naming)
We know it is autumn, when
The fashionable set of 1922 Selects vibrant jewel tone fabrics Attached to names, now lost on us, Like “Persian Rose,”
“Pontiff,” “Bittersweet,” and “Muffin,”
And just like that, colourists abandon artifacts unworthy of modernity,
The colour Beige,
French faded cousin of
Reborn as “Greige,”
Yes, a single drop of black blood, soaking beige satin flapper dresses,
Sipping cocktails at the Waldorf, Passing?
And how about Maroon,
Chestnuts bursting in the fire, feral Spanish cimarrones,
From Suriname and West Indies, orphaned, nameless,
Yet the Sun also rises, Always ancient, auburn, Altered by alchemy Into bile,
1920’s “yellow belly” America,
Colorists codifying, assembling
Lines after lines of shiny,
Swell new names on a season color card Swatches for modern times, Reinventing
Colour in America.
To write this poem I resorted to the Little Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, and the Getty’s colour chart collection from a sample sheet produced by the Textile Colour Card Association of America, which sought to standardize dyeing and manufacturing of colour fabrics for industrial purposes. https://archive.org/details/1922fallseasonco00text
In front of the Glyde Mural Alberta History
—You have everything here—
I walk into the library
with a controlled stride
feigning the eye is an innocent organ.
Splicing then splitting,
my gaze is prism and prison,
bending towards the Rutherford South fresco,
rotting at the core Glyde’s images
have been waiting for this since ’51,
Y no puedo
–You have everything here—
I have space, the barrier between flatness and real volume
a corset for my heart I have,
stands business like
between my gaze and your
where images and pigments pulsate across opposing gazes,
real prisons for the eyes…
one more day at the office
Y No Puedo
–You have everything here—
the failure to see brush strokes, pigments, images
in plain daylight…
I cannot bridge the distance
determining perspective and perspective
the chasm becomes a dusky knoll
flanked by Alberta History and Sky Talk.
we pretend to name our ghosts,
closing the door behind three Spanish words
Y no puedo
For the straightforward pathway has been lost.
The LRT pushes through E-Town,
at the speed of Treaty Six
tearing through the laws
of Turtle Island
where a train
steamrolls through a village
with just 82 members left—
are they the Papaschaase “Stragglers” from Rossdale Flats?
And now there is just the track again
walk through golden tepees,
protected by swan feathers
as red dresses,
available pigments, images, words,
splitting the blue river
in banks swelling
with bloodied bolders
crawling all the way
to Churchill Station
and now there is just the track again
Y no puedo…
The luminous crosses blinding us,
cradle Vital Grandin
as other “fathers” keep an eye on their prostrated flock,
while a nun holds a baby,
“saved” because when he grows up
he will have a coat hook
with a number tag
instead of a name we cannot see.
This is what I see
and now there is just the track again
y yo no puedo
only available pigments, images, words
you and I have
but as we rise, the slope grows less unkind.
Like Michelangelo’s Putti,
the braided hair girl
lets us in on her secret.
The Foothills Ojibway
hid their children so they could survive.
Leaping out of the feathered drum prison
of pigments, images, words
Sylvie Nadeau painted just for her,
she joins the woman
in Janvier’s Sky Talk…
y No Puedo
Gritamos mudas a coro
la mujer en Sky Talk, la niña de las trenzas, tú y yo
Somos Mater Dolorosas
En Guernica de Picasso
voiceless words, el canon, the canon…
y no puedo
but as we rise, the slope grows less unkind…
Esa noche en casa
I read the story of Rosa Violet Pitawanakwat-Burke,
a 76-year-old Odawa from Wikwemikong Unceded Territory,
in the Northeastern shore of Manatoulin Island
in Northern Ontario.
At Residential School she dared
speak her language with her classmates
while pretending “to be doing some chores,”
her mom said, “You keep going.
Just don’t speak in front of them so you don’t get the strap”
Her native Odawa language, an Ojibwe dialect
spoken by about a thousand people
filled a music album
where she recorded
the songs that embroidered
the long hours of
walking and farm working
with her mom.
Quiero cantar contigo
y no puedo
me enseñas tu lengua?
Mothers and daughters engaged in Sky Talk,
hablando al cielo
available pigments, images, words,
fathers kneeling, finally.
We are listening in silence, fearless,
With a love, that moves the sun and the other stars.