Ninety-Two Days by Evelyn Waugh (1934)

It is by crawling on the face of it that one learns a country; by the problems of transport that its geography becomes a reality and its inhabitants real people…[by describing them one offers one’s reader] a share in the experience of travel, for these checks and hesitations constitute the genuine flavour.
(Ninety-Two Days, page 170)

Waugh had a reason for going to Ethiopia, the subject of his previous travel book, Remote People – to cover the coronation of Haile Selassie. The journey described in this book, by contrast, had a much more ramshackle provenance. He chose to go to British Guiana, the colony tucked up on the north coast of South America, north of Brazil, more or less because few other people did. Unlike India or Kenya or Egypt he could find no books on the place and nobody else who’d been there.

By sea to South America

So off he went on a cheap steamer down the English Channel, across the rambunctuous Atlantic, to the fragrant West Indies and so on to dock at Georgetown, capital of British Guiana. Here he is looked after by the Governor and introduced to Mr Bain, the Commissioner for the district, who supervises the purchase of a large number of supplies for his trip and accompanies him by train along the coast to New Amsterdam at the mouth of the River Berbice.

But what exactly is the purpose of his trip? Waugh doesn’t know, even after he’s got back to Blighty, which partly explains why the book opens not with him aboard ship or setting off into the jungle, but domiciled in a nice English house in the country, preparing his desk with nice clean foolscap paper and a pen and ink and then himself wondering… what was that all about?

Quick summary

Well, the basic outline is easily conveyed. From New Amsterdam, Waugh headed by boat up the Berbice River, pausing at various settlements, then leaving the river to trek on foot or horseback through the jungle, crossing the border into Brazil and northern Amazonia, before hiking north along the Ireng River, stopping at isolated ranches and remote settlements, then taking to boat again on the River Essequibo, skirting various waterfalls, including the famous Kaieteur Falls, then a short train east across country to the Demarara River, and so by boat back to Georgetown where the river debouches into the Atlantic.

To Kurupukari

First stop was Kurupukari, 100 miles south. Half the journey is by paddle steamer along the Berbice River (p.33). Then they land and go by horse along a cattle track, These are tracks the vaqueiros use to drive cattle from the savannahs of the interior down to market at the coast. The journey takes six days travelling at 15 miles a day, through rain forest he describes with awe, huge columned trees rearing a hundred feet overhead (p.40).

After talking about it every day of their 6-day hike, Waugh is surprised to find it consists of… a flagpole lying in the grass (it isn’t finished yet and they don’t have a flag) and one bungalow built in a clearing. Not even a jetty, not even native mud huts (p.44). This extreme sparseness of population characterises the entire trip.

Kurupukari is on the Essequibo river and they are awaiting a boat laden with supplies to meet them. Waugh describes the staple foods of the interior which are farine, a tasteless and rather disgusting vegetable product made from the cassava root, and tasso, made from salted wind-dried strips of dead cow.

On this first part of the trip he is accompanied by the talkative Mr Bain and a plan of sorts had evolved, that Waugh proceed in stages along the cattle track, visiting various small settlements along the way, until reaching the larger settlement of Bon Success, from which he could head west to Boa Vista, ‘next to Manaos the most important town in the Amazonas’. Mr Bain paints a picture of a city of inexpressible grandeur, complete with boulevards and opera houses. Sounds great. Waugh adopts the plan. The reader knows with certainty that he is going to be bitterly disappointed.

To Kurupukari and beyond

Bain remains at the primitive government station at Kurupukari. Once the boat with its supplies arrive, they’re unloaded then distributed among several horses, then early the next morning Waugh and his group of 4 servants/natives (Yetto, Price, Sinclair, Jagger) cross the river and set off on horseback. The dominant figure of this section is the egregious Yetto, a black man of surpassing ugliness, but a solid support who he becomes deeply attached to.

There follow 6 days riding along a traditional cattle track, occasionally meeting one or two vaqueiros driving a handful of cattle, sometimes coming across the corpses of cattle, which don’t endure the journey to the coast very well, dying of insect-borne diseases or sometimes attack by large animals. He learns more about his travelling companions.

Jagger is an enigma, a civilised man from a notable family on the coast, he was educated in Scotland. According to Yetto he was ruined in lawsuits with his family and has degenerated into one of the ‘race of tramps who wander the cattle country, there and in Brazil, living indefinitely off the open hospitality of the cattle ranches’ (p.53). He attaches himself to Waugh’s party for a while, then is too ill to keep up the pace and stays behind at one of their temporary camps, never to be heard of again.

He meets half a dozen vaqueiros driving 50 cattle. Next day they meet three Englishmen travelling in the other direction, towards the coast.

On the third day they cross a dry creek and come into a little savannah (i.e. open area of sand and scrubby thorn bushes) named Suranna. There is a native settlement. Waugh explains something about size and scale. A dozen or so mud and thatched huts constitutes a ‘large’ settlement. More than 20 mud huts is exceptional. The largest he ever saw apparently contained 22, though he arrived too late at night to see this vast metropolis. Next day they arrive at Annai which consists of precisely one house (p.58).

In other words the entire region, both the settlements in the savannahs, the so-called ranches, the white ‘settlements’ – all are characterised by emptiness and very sparse population.

After a long hot ride across the parched savannah, he arrives at Christie’s ranch (p.62). Christie is an old black guy who has religious visions and agreeably lunatic ideas. He’s been preaching to the local Indians for thirty years and hasn’t made a single conversion.

Next stop is a ranch owned by Georgetown Chinese named Mr Wong and run by Daguar (p.67). The ranch consists of three wattle and mud huts in a wired enclosure. Primitive, isn’t it? The ranch is on the River Ireng and Waugh is surprised to find this forms an international border. Across the muddy river is Brazil. He describe the pestilential effects of the cabouri fly, whose bite you don’t feel till it’s gorged itself and dropped off, and ticks which burrow into the skin, and bêtes rouges, little red creatures which burrow under your skin and cause unbearable itching.

(Later he tells us the rivers contain stingrays, electric eels and carnivorous fish, p.77. Why were these areas never settled or developed? There’s your answer.)

Next morning’s ride brings him to a village marked on the maps as Pirara but which in fact simply doesn’t exist. The name has been transferred to a ranch five miles away, owned by an American named Hart. This actually amounts to more than one building, with facilities such as a shower room, with very decent meals cooked by the wife, a Creole nanny for the children and – mirabile dictu – a truck, which had been manhandled this far up the trail, didn’t have much petrol and no regular roads to travel.

Waugh explains that South American countries are notorious for going to war over remote bits of territory. Britain nearly went to war with Brazil and Venezuela about different bits of remote savannah. He learns maps are largely invented, and based on rumoured natural features (such as rivers) which often don’t exist. He gives a mocking account of a boundary commission which is meant to be working with Brazilian officials on defining the border (p.71).

Next day’s journey brings them to the ranch of Bon Success owned by Mr Teddy Melville, one of Mrs Hart’s brothers. They drive there in the famous motor van. It is very bumpy (p.73). They have breakfast with Teddy and his charming wife, before driving beside the River Takuru to the missionary settlement of St Ignatius, where Waugh is hosted by the lovely Father Mather. Waugh pays off Price (who’s going on to the station at Bon Success, Yetto and Sinclair (who turn and head back down the trail). Part one of the journey is over.

Again, Waugh remarks on its bareness and lack of people. All over Africa he saw missions, schools and churches packed out with native pupils, congregations, teachers and pupils. Here, almost nobody. A tin and thatch church, and a primitive schoolhouse which holds, at most, a dozen Indian children. The mission building has a second story (first one he’s seen) and, amazingly, a reading lamp. Great relief (p.75).

Most of the scattered ranchers and all the Brazilians across the river are Catholics. Father Mather ministers to them all. There is one shop, the only one for 200 miles in any direction, kept by an affable Portuguese named Mr Figuiredo, who dresses comfortably in pyjamas, treats them to a feast, and charges exorbitant prices for everything (p.79). He is taken to visit local Indians including a charming tattooed witch.

After a delightful restful week, on 1 February he sets off with a guide, David, and his Brazilian brother-in-law Francesco, to cross the river and so the invisible border into Brazil and ride the 3 days to Boa Vista (p.81). They stop for the nights at primitive mud and thatch huts, with a few other travellers kipping in a shack full of hammocks, served weak revolting tasso stew by sleepy womenfolk.

Next day is the longest, hardest, hottest of them all. Waugh is struck by the way the locals carry no water at all, presumably because the land is criss-crossed with streams. Except they’re all dried up and the sun is fierce. Twelve hours without a drink and he hallucinates walking into his club and ordering glass after glass of iced orange juice. At dusk they reach an actual stream and drink mug after mug of freezing water.

Next day they enter the inhabited Rio Branco district and come upon a well organised sugar mill, where they are welcomed and well fed. Teams of workers and passers-though eat in series at a long bench. Next day they reach the Rio Branco opposite which stands the legendary Boa Vista he’s heard so much about.

(It might be worth noting that Boa Vista is simply the Portuguese for ‘Good View’, bom and boa being equivalent to the French bon and bonne i.e. ‘good’, depending on whether the noun is male or female. Rio means river and branco means white. So they arrive at Good View on the White River. Pretty basic, isn’t it?)

Boa Vista

Of course Boa Vista turns out to be nothing like the gaudy fantasies he’s concocted on the tiring journey there. It is a shabby collection of ramshackle buildings laid out on an ambitious grid pattern with a broad muddy high street and cross streets which peter out into bare savannah a few hundred yards in either direction. Population maybe a thousand skinny, scrawny, malnourished, sulky, listless people.

The inhabitants of the entire Brazilian region of the Amazonas were, apparently, descended from convicts sent there as punishment. Waugh found a low, sullen, suspicious atmosphere everywhere. There was an atmosphere of homicide, everyone has guns, there have been well publicised murders. He finds it: ‘a squalid camp of ramshackle cut-throats’ (p.92).

And the population insisting on eating the same monotonous, revolting farine and tasso as everywhere else, despite the achievement of the local nuns in having a very diverse vegetable garden.

Waugh stays at the Benedictine Mission, led by Father Alcuin, and is predictably complimentary about the monks and nuns’ level of quiet, constructive civilisation.

Three things

1. Waugh is easily Bored

According to these books, Waugh had a great capacity for getting very, very bored. He describes sauntering round town to the 4 or 5 people he knows and watching them work, staring at the sky. Attending church is by far the most colourful and interesting thing to do, not only for him but for many of the inhabitants, what with its colour, decorations, smells of incense and singing, no matter how ragged. He gets so bored he reads an edition of Bossuet’s sermons and lives of the saints in French (p.98).

At which point I remembered the almost identical descriptions of his crushing boredom which appear in Remote People. There he gives a comic description of being stuck between trains in the dusty town of Dirre-Dowa, resorting to reading a volume of Alexander Pope’s poems and then, even more desperate, a French dictionary. In his later travelogue, Waugh in Abyssinia, Waugh gets so bored in Addis Ababa waiting for war to actually break out that he buys a baboon!

The point is, Waugh is obviously quickly and easily bored. It would help if he had any hobbies but the issue of boredom highlights two others.

2. Music

He has no ear for music. None at all. He doesn’t enjoy hearing music and, at one point, when he is in a particularly good mood riding among beautiful scenery, he says he’d like to sing, but doesn’t know how. Having no sensitivity at all for music means living in a greatly reduced world of experience.

3. Waugh is no naturalist

Waugh is walking, riding or taking boats through exotic and varied country (savannah and rainforest) and yet his observations of the natural world are rudimentary. He notes the way rainforest consists of enormous tree trunks like columns with all the interesting stuff way at the top. He notes the 3 or 4 super-irritating bugs (the carouba fly et al). He gives detailed notes on all the horses he rents, hires, buys, and that he and his various colleagues ride at various times.

Apart from that – nada. Nothing about the birds or rodents. Occasional general references to blossom but no detail about the flowers, flowering bushes and so on. Maybe the savannah is parched and sandy as he describes, but still.

Pondering these absences makes you realise what is present in his writing. Thinking about what isn’t in the travelogues, made me reflect on what is. Which is people. He’s interested in people, characters, what they look like, how they behave, and really interested in how they talk.

Every single person he meets on a trip like this is foreign, non-English. True, many of them speak a form of English, but generally mangled and contorted, creoles or stumbling phrases. Or they don’t speak English at all and he has to struggle by with his schoolboy French. And then he observes other people who don’t speak each others’ languages struggling to communicate by talking pidgen Portuguese or German to each other (p.96).

What emerges from this little ponder is that Waugh is interested in – and devotes his energies to – people and how they speak. Thus he gives a peremptory description of Boa Vista, but his account only comes to life when he is describing people. People such as Mr Figuiredo who keeps the only decent store for hundreds of miles around, the mysterious German, Herr Steingler (p.95), Father Alcuin who is convinced England is run by freemasons (p.97), the little Brazilian Boundary Commissioner (p.99), Martinez the low-spirited manager of the town’s main story (p.100), Eusebio, a plum native of the Macushi tribe who is striking for not having one belonging in the world (p.117), Mr Hart the kindly middle-aged American with a lovely wife and a Creole nanny who looked like Josephine Baker (p.119).

It is a significant moment right at the end of the book when, assessing what he had learned or seen and done on the trip, he says he has added the religious visionary Mr Christie ‘to my treasury of eccentrics’ (p.168). And:

In Georgetown I met an agreeable character named ‘Professor’ Piles who lived by selling stuffed alligators. (p.168)

Evelyn Waugh’s ‘treasury of eccentrics’. Quite.

And where his ears really prick up is with gossip and the way people are inter-connected. There isn’t that much to say about a man who lives by himself or who you encounter on his own. But a man and his wife are immediately more interesting to gossip and speculate about, and a man and wife and various children, hopefully by different wives, gives you a lovely, juicy subject to explore. Thus, in this account, Waugh comes to life when he discovers that so and so is married to Mr Hart’s sister. Or that Teddy Melville is a legendary man of the area with countless children and grand-children. People are his thing: stories, gossip, the quirks of how they behave and talk. This is what makes his famous diaries so wonderful, a lifetime of observing people and giving little anecdotes.

The turning point

After a week he is desperate to get away from Boa Vista and reckons on taking boat with the Brazilian Boundary Commissioner who is steaming down the River Branco and so will be able to take him to the legendary metropolis of Manaos. Except that, after days of waiting, the Boundary Commissioner refuses to take him (p.99). By now Waugh is quite concerned about catching malaria – everyone he meets has malaria and suffers malarial fever for half the week, starting with his host Father Alcuin who is wretchedly ill during his entire stay.

So  he decides to stop trying to penetrate further south into Brazil, but to turn about and retrace his steps back across the river and into British Guiana. Back to St Ignatius Mission, Bon Success, Pirara and Daguar’s ranch BUT, at that point, instead of completely retracing his route i.e. a long trek through the rainforest back to Takama, turning north-north-west and taking a new route, through forest hugging the border with Brazil and then beside the River Potaro with its many waterfalls, to where it joins the mighty Essequibo river, fifty miles or so along this, and then by train east to join the smaller Demarara River which runs down to the sea at Georgetown.

Highlights of the return journey

After crossing back into Guiana, Waugh gets wildly lost and rides his horse north instead of east, stumbling by chance over the shack of an old Indian who very kindly leads him back to the proper trail and so on to St Ignatius’ Mission. Here he stays with kindly Father Mather for ten days, as he assembles the goods which will be needed for the new route home.

Calling the travel bluff, myths of travel (pages 114 to 116)

Here he includes an amusing digression in which he sets out to debunk some of the myths which surround solitary travelling, such as:

You feel free

On the contrary every single item you want to take becomes an encumbrance which slows you down and there are very often only two possible directions along long lonely trails, forward or back. He often feels trapped by limitations of time, energy, money and distance.

You are untrammeled by convention

On the contrary, Waugh feels he knows a wide range of eccentrics, bohemians who dress and behave in all kinds of florid ways back in England. It’s true that you meet a wide range of people on a trip like this, and some of them are very scruffy, and the native Indians may be almost naked, and so on. But you aren’t. Conventions must be maintained, especially in the Tropics where, if you begin to slip, it’s easy to go completely to pieces.

You have a hearty appetite and sleep the sleep of the blessed

Rubbish. The food is inedible, everywhere they go the monotonous inevitability of farine and tasso nearly drives him mad. Often he can barely eat what villagers offer and prefers to go hungry.

And the ‘beds’ are generally hammocks or, if you’re lucky, lumpy tin beds, or a thin sheet on stony savannah. Either way, the Tropics, specially the rainforest, are filled with noise, the endless racket of hooting wild animals. And then there are the mosquitoes, flies and ticks which mean a moment’s lack of attention can lead to any numbers of bites and then the whole night spent itching and tossing and turning. And then, when you’re at the end of your tether, it starts to rain and you get soaked to the skin (p.141).

River baths

If there was one thing he definitely enjoyed and was unique to the trip, it was bathing in cool river waters, ducking under waterfalls, lying in pools near waterfalls. Nothing in England could match the sheer physical bliss of this experience, particularly after a long day’s horse ride or trek.

Karasabai

The primitive little village of Karasabai which prompts an extended meditation on the character of the Amazonian Indians. He ropes in recent books about the existence of primitive matriarchal societies, and throws in some general cultural speculation about the noble savage, the myths of the garden of Eden and so on. Very run-of-the-mill. What came over for me was the Amazon Indian’s listlessness. Their flat, unemotional, morose affect.

He has an interesting passage explaining that the Indians have no hierarchy at all, no words for sir or servant, no words conveying superior or inferior status. They do things when  they want to, and stop when they don’t and nobody can make force them.

The Indian villagers stare at him but never move, never say anything, never display any real curiosity. He unpacks various marvels from his bag and then goes for a wash and when he comes back the things and the Indians are in the same position.

He compares this with the blacks he met in Africa who all showed far more energy and creativity and inventiveness and would have pinched everything in his bag if he turned his back. The Indian women wear shabby little linen dresses and try to hide in them. He contrasts them with what he calls ‘the swagger and provocation of a Negress’ (p.124). When they take a shallow boat down the river, the two blacks with him enjoy strenuously rowing and showing off their strength. The little Indian family with them have a vague got at it, dangle paddles in the water, uninterested, then give up and huddle together.

The Indians are divided into ‘peoples’ and refuse point blank to cross from the territory of their people into another people’s, or to have anything to do with other peoples. Peoples Waugh meets include the Macushi, Kopinang Indians, the Patamonas. (Wikipedia suggests the correct term is ‘indigenous tribes’ and lists nine residing in Guyana: the Wai Wai, Macushi, Patamona, Lokono, Kalina, Wapishana, Pemon, Akawaio and Warao.)

You could choose to interpret the Indians’ listlessness and incuriosity to a special spiritual understanding of the world, lack of interest in material goods or the white man’s worldview. Waugh doesn’t comment much till the very end when he is driven to deep dislike of the selfish Indian family who share the paddled boat down the river. They can’t be bothered to walk a few hundred yards to see the Kaieteur Falls, one of the wonders of the world, and Waugh bluntly ascribes it to ‘mere stupidity and lack of imagination’ (p.158).

Tipuru

At the village of Tipuru they catch up with the Catholic priest Father Keary who is going his rounds of the villages. After his initial surprise at meeting a posh young English Catholic rider, Keary agrees they can travel on together. This makes everything much easier for Waugh, for Keary understands the people, the language, has his own resources and, of course, can speak English so Waugh will have someone to talk to.

So they set off accompanied by a new servant, Antonio, his wive and four native bearers. A sequence of villages, Shimai with five houses, one hut by itself inhabited by an old black woman, an unnamed village of three huts, Karto with three huts, Kurikabaru a metropolis of thirteen huts on a bleak hilltop, and so on. Sparse and empty country. Isolated Indians who are, however, wonderfully hospitable, laying out supplies of cassiri drink, peppers, cassava bread and sometimes milk. (To this day Guyana remains ‘one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries.’)

Mikrapuru

And so via a series of tiny settlements over the watershed which divides Amazonia from the Caribbean rivers and so down out of the rainforest to Mikrapuru, 15 or so miles from the river Essequibo and home to the civilised and hospitable Mr Winter. Waugh had met Winter at a social do back in Georgetown on the coast.

Winter has set up a camp here and employs native Indians to wash for alluvial diamonds in the river Potaro. Waugh describes the ingenious series of filters fed by dammed creek water into which Indians employed for the purpose pour, throughout the day, gravel and mud, in the hope the filters will reveal either river gold or diamonds. Winter had kept his camp for three years. It is very isolated, the few white neighbours who once lived within reasonable reach have all left, and the Indians work for him for a while, to earn simple gewgaws and then, with their own mysterious timing, melt back into the forest. Waugh contrasts the Indians’ wispiness, their ghostliness and general lack of interest, with the bullish enthusiasm of the blacks he sees. Winter’s foreman is black. Coming from the coast they have a better sense of work and discipline.

Journey to the river

After ten days or so, Waugh has exhausted his own provisions and Winter was low on them to start with, so it’s time to leave. He will ride with Winter’s foreman down to the River Potaro to board the first of three boats which will take him the stages between the impassible waterfalls which punctuate the river (being the big one, Kaieteur Falls, then Waratuk Falls and Amatuk Falls).

Haunting description of Holmia which had once been an extensive European plantation, built for the balatá trade (balatá is ‘a hard rubber-like material made by drying the milky juice produced principally by the bully tree). Holmia fell into poverty and ruin, has been abandoned for decades and now largely reclaimed by the jungle.

He describes the 700-foot fall of the waterfall at Kaieteur (p.155). Wikipedia tells me it is ‘the world’s largest single drop waterfall by the volume of water flowing over it’. It is ‘about four and a half times the height of Niagara Falls…and about twice the height of Victoria Falls.’ As you might expect, it prompts Waugh to a burst of lyricism:

I lay on the overhanging ledge watching the light slowly fail, the colour deepen and disappear. The surrounding green was of density and intenseness that can neither be described nor reproduced; a quicksand of colour, of shivering surface and unplumbed depth, which absorbed the vision, sucking it down and submerging it. (p.156)

After they’ve scrambled down the side of Kaieteur Falls, it’s a morning’s boat ride to Waratuk, where they unload the goods and Waugh watches the two blacks lower the boat through gaps in the huge boulders which make up the rapids with astonishing skill, and then 3 hours or so on to Amatuk, where the river is impassible and the boat has to be secured, ready for Winter’s foreman to recover it in 4 or 5 days time after he’s completed the journey to Georgetown to buy stores.

There is something approaching a guesthouse at Amatuk, opened by a Mrs McTurk for tourists who never came, and Waugh pays the old black housekeeper a dollar to sleep in something like a real bed and sit in an armchair and read a book. He is nearly back in civilisation.

There follows a complicated sequence of lorry journeys, two more boat journeys from landing point to landing point, and then the journey east along what I now learn was an abandoned railway from the Essequibo to the Demarara river.

This is a peg for the general point makes which is that the area he was visiting was past its boom years. Twenty years earlier there had been boom times for plantations of ballata, and gold and diamond sieving. But the ballata trees were all used, the gold and diamonds never appeared in sufficient quantities, now Waugh’s journey is through a degraded and stagnating landscape, or a beautiful jungle landscape punctuated with wrecks and ruins. The government is building a proud new road to open up the interior but Waugh gives an impressive list of reasons why this is too little, too late (p.163). If the road fails, then maybe the colony will revert to being just a coastal strip and a couple of coastal towns and the interior will revert to its primitive integrity.

And so by slow boat down the ever-widening Essequibo to Rockstone. This is another settlement which has collapsed, with most of the buildings lying empty and rotten (p.166). It’s the terminus of the railway which runs 50 miles east to Wismar on the Demarara River but it no longer functions as a railway. People walk along it and there is an old tractor which pulls an empty carriage, if anyone can be found to drive it.

He uses all his persuasiveness, and five dollars, to persuade of the boat that brought him and the ‘stationmaster’ to beat the tractor into life and, at midnight, he and other passengers are roused from sleeping on the platform, mount into the open carriage and it shunts off slowly and perilously along the rail line. After a few hours it starts to hiss down and everyone is soaked.

At dawn he arrives at the railway’s terminus at Wismar on the Demarara River where the boat is, mirabile dictu, waiting, and he boards it for a pleasant sail down the river and back to civilisation (of a sort) in Georgetown. Where he looks up friends, buys a ticket and waits to catch the next boat back to England.

The Dickens connection

While staying with Father Mather at the Mission he discovers a passion for reading and discovers that good father has a library of all Charles Dickens’s novels. These make good big chunky reading and Waugh borrows some volumes for the journey to the coast. This, obviously, is the germ of the fate of Tony Last at the grim climax of A Handful of Dust.


Credit

Ninety-Two Days by Evelyn Waugh was published by Duckworth in 1934. All references are to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition.

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Anna Maria Maiolino: Making Love Revolutionary @ Whitechapel Gallery

Sometimes with an artist you just get a feel – you know their work feels right – even when there’s stuff you don’t like you somehow feel that, deep down, you’re on the same wavelength.

I loved this exhibition, the first major exhibition in the UK to present a survey of Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino, who was born in 1942 and so is nearly 80 years old. Here’s the Whitechapel’s promo video:

Born in Calabria Italy during the war, young Anna Maria emigrated with her family to Venezuela in 1954 and then onto Brazil in 1960 and it was here that she completed the art studies she had begun in Caracas.  In 1963 she married the artist Rubens Gerchman and the following year the military seized power in Brazil, imposing a repressive, fiercely conservative regime which lasted twenty years.

The Whitechapel’s main gallery space is spread across two floors, and they made the decision to put Maiolino’s big and impactful, more recent works on the ground floor and the older, earlier stuff up on the first floor: but I’m going to reverse the order.

Upstairs – politics, woodcuts and paper

She and Gerchman were, of course, part of the artistic resistance to the regime. The earliest works are woodcuts deliberately made in a popular accessible style and drawing on the wood engraving tradition of north-east Brazil. I liked the good humour in these immediately.

ANNA by Anna Maria Maiolino (1967) Photo by Vicente de Mello

They describe universal experiences – birth, eating, talking – in this simple, woodcut style but still imbued with a combination of teasing humour but also something quite profound.

In 1968 the couple moved to New York and Maiolino, though much of her time was spent bringing up their two children, found time to make a whole series of deliberately primitive drawings, verging on cartoons, which I really liked.

Untitled from the series Between Pauses by Anna Maria Maiolino (1968-9) Courtesy collection of Lisa and Tom Blumenthal

There is a big section about her experiments with paper in the 1970s, experimenting with its use as a sculptural material in all kinds of ways, cutting, folding, tearing and burning paper to animate both sides. She created series with multiple levels of paper, the top level with holes or shapes or patterns cut out.

There are a number of these paper cutout maps, sometimes with scorched edges. One of the best was a big big black sheet of cartridge paper in which she had cut out the silhouette of Brazil to reveal another sheet of black cartridge paper a few inches further down.

Black Soul of Latin America (1973-96) from the series Mental Maps by Anna Maria Maiolino

Photos

Then there’s a room devoted to her photos. Without exception they are black and white art photos and they are all brilliant – funny deadpan, surreal. There are ones of her in simple art poses, pretending to cut off her nose with scissors, a classic image of her, her mother and her daughter facing the camera and linked by a loop of string from their mouths.

By a thread from the series Photopoemaction (1976) by Anna Maria Maiolino, photo by Regina Vater

There is a brilliant series of photos with eggs – a rough male hand holding a white egg, an egg in a scrunched up newspaper, an egg nestled between someone’s thighs, a number of eggs carefully placed across a mattress, and a brilliant triptych of white eggs placed on a cobbled pavement and someone walking carefully between them bare-legged.

Between Lives from the series Photopoemaction (1981/2010) by Anna Maria Maiolino, photo by Henri Virgil Stahl

Frankly, they could have had a room or two of just her photos and I’d have paid to see them.

Downstairs – clay, sculpture, prints

Downstairs is the main gallery space, the one you walk into when you first enter, one big space in which the curators have very tastefully and effectively arranged series of more recent works made by Maiolino in clay, sculpture, drawing and indicios.

Clay

The most striking genre or type of work are the big coils of clay sausages. Remember making long sausages or snakes out of plasticine as a kid? Maiolino used her hands to turn nearly one ton of red clay into a huge heap of intertwining sausage shapes specially for this exhibition. The idea is that the loops will dry out, turn to dust and eventually return to the earth, in line with a long-standing interest she has in eating and excreting.

Anna Maria Maiolino with her unfired clay sculptures Anna Maria Maiolino: Making Love Revolutionary at Whitechapel Gallery. Press Association

Sculpture

Rolling on from the clay sausage snakes, is a series of fired clay works which stick clay shapes – such as a load of bonbon shapes or curves or sections of tube – onto square clay bases and then hanging these on the wall. It was about this point when I realised that I just like her stuff. Whether it’s woodcuts or experiments with paper or wonderful photos or fun with clay – something deep down connects with everything she’s done. It all seems just fine.

From the series Codicils by Anna Maria Maiolino. Photo by the author

Another series is of very distinctive cubs of clay which have been eaten away. The visitor assistant explained that slabs of clay are placed within cube-shaped metal containers and then Maiolino uses water to eat away at them, lets them dry, then removes the metal frames to reveal strange underwater grotto shapes.

Installation view of Anna Maria Maiolino: Making Love Revolutionary at Whitechapel Gallery. Photo by the author

Drawings

Upstairs we saw how Maiolino produced numerous drawings start with her stint in New York in the late 1960s, then evolving to all kinds of experiments with cutting, folding, piercing and tying together paper.

Continuing her experiments with paper, downstairs there are quite a few abstract works made by simple actions and chance. She drops the ink onto a blank sheet and then moves the sheet around to make the ink roll and curve, forming all kinds of shapes.

Untitled from the series Phylogenetics (2015) Anna by Maria Maiolino, photo by Everton Ballardin

Many of these are standalone works, which are all appealing in their way, but the most impressive thing is where they’ve assembled 30 or so of them into a huge wall of abstract shapes – you can see it in the background of this general view, a series titled Drop Marks, suggesting an alphabet but one that is too large, abstract and interrupted…

Installation view of Anna Maria Maiolino: Making Love Revolutionary at Whitechapel Gallery

Indicios

Another way of experimenting with paper is to stitch onto it. Maiolino created a series titled Indicios by stitching through paper and drawing a line through the stitch pints, and filling the resulting ‘drawings’ with lines crosses and webs. What is interesting about these is the gaps between the stitches – they all look unfinished and suggestive of something, as if memory is straining to join the dots and complete the image of a picture which isn’t quite there.

Installation view of Anna Maria Maiolino: Making Love Revolutionary at Whitechapel Gallery showing Indicios

This is a lovely, peaceful, beautifully laid out exhibition full of lots of beautiful, humorous and inventive wonders.


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Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography 1959-2016 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The history of Latin America has fascinated observers as much as it has mystified them. There is something apparently alien about the continent, an exoticism that derives perhaps from it having once been perceived as a ‘new world’, although there survive monuments and relics of ancient societies whose cultures remain poorly understood by us even today. This elusiveness – hinting simultaneously  at a former state of grace and some original corruption – has rendered interpretation of Latin American history peculiarly vulnerable to speculation and myth-making.
(Edwin Williamson in the introduction to his Penguin History of Latin America, 1990 revised 2009)

Urban Impulses

This is an epic exhibition, if not quite in scale, then certainly in scope. Across four rooms and two floors, the Photographers’ Gallery is showcasing some 200 works by 73 photographers from all across Latin America.

They use a wide range of techniques and approaches to chronicle every aspect of the continent’s violent politics and conflicts, its transition from a predominantly rural to a mostly urban population, its music and fiestas and cultures and traditions, its signs and streetlife, its nightclubs and dancehalls.

Most of the photographers are represented by only one or two images and so as you move from photo to photo, you are presented with a blizzard of names and biographies, not to mention a bewildering variety of countries and decades, which I found it quite challenging to get a handle on.

Cuba in the 1950s was very different from Nicaragua in the 1980s, and different again from Mexico now.

(N.B. In this review the texts in italics are copied from the thorough and very useful free handout which accompanies the exhibition.)

Calle Alameda, Santiago, 1983 by Álvaro Hoppe © Álvaro Hoppe. Courtesy of the artist

The history of Chilean photography over the past thirty years is above all that of a rupture, or a ‘tectonic shift’ caused by the military coup of 1973. Until that time, democracy had allowed the history of the medium to evolve without major disruption, but what happened in September 1973 created a generation of photographers committed to documenting the urban tragedy that subsequently emerged on the streets of Santiago during the 1970s and 80s.

As I wandered among this cornucopia of images and histories and countries and events, it struck me that there are many ways to group and arrange it – by subject matter, grouping together themes such as politics, street activism, street scenes, commercialisation, religion and, of course, every curators’ favourite topics, gender and identity.

Or you could divide them up by technique – grouping together black-and-white photos (most of them are, in fact, in black and white), colour photos, montages, collages, photojournalism, photocopies, and art works made of photos chopped up and attached to canvases. The curators back up the visitor’s sense of an impressive diversity of medium and approach:

Here a hybrid iconography emerges where photography exists in tandem with other media of mass circulation such as graphics, photo-copying and print media, often involving the marking, cutting and defacement of images where the notion of appearance and disappearance exist in tandem.

Take this striking artwork which features a collage of commercial adverts cut with urgent news photos, and then treated and painted over.

Equis (1985) by Herbert Rodríguez © Herbert Rodríguez. Courtesy of the artist

Rodriguez denounces the injustices suffered by the populations of the Andean and Amazonian regions, dominated by a process of gradual urbanisation, and, more generally, the exploitation of one part of Peruvian society by another. The approach is experimental, the materials – often salvaged from public spaces – are banal, and the collage technique allows them to be gathered together and reordered in different ways.

Another approach would be to zero in on a handful of the most famous photographers who won international reputations during the period and seek them out first – such greats as Alberto Korda from Cuba who created the iconic images of Che Guevara, or Graciela Iturbide (b.1942) from Mexico, or Sergio Larrain from Chile.

Again you could group the photographers by country because many of the photos are political, in the broadest sense, and require a knowledge of the political history of the country in question, foe xample the military dictatorships in Chile or Argentina.

In fact I realised I needed to stop and remind myself just what countries actually make up ‘Latin America’. Upon looking into it I discovered there’s a surprising amount of ambiguity about defining and framing the geography.

The term ‘Latin America’ can be taken to refer solely to ‘South America’, or to also include the many nations of Central America and the Caribbean. (Cuba always gets included, despite not being in South or Central America.)

Nations of South America by population

  1. Brazil
  2. Colombia
  3. Argentina
  4. Peru
  5. Venezuela
  6. Chile
  7. Ecuador
  8. Bolivia
  9. Paraguay
  10. Uruguay
  11. Guyana

We know these nations all have one big thing in common which is that they were colonnised by Spain or Portugal in the 16th century, and administered for centuries as key parts of their empires. So they speak the ‘Latin’ languages of Spanish and Portuguese, and hence the umbrella term ‘Latin’ America – as opposed to ‘Anglo’ America, settled by English speakers in the later 17th and 18th centuries.

Flying low, Mexico City, 1989 by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio © Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. Courtesy of the artist

Mexico is a post-apocalyptic city. It has refused to accept the many declarations of its death. it survived the devastating earthquake of 1985, and has withstood overpopulation and pollution beyond the assumed threshold of human tolerance. The country has attempted to enter the twenty-first century without yet having solved the problems of the sixteenth. – Mexican poet, essayist, novelist and short story writer José Emilio Pacheco Berny

To my surprise there’s debate about whether Mexico should be included in Central America, with lots of people, including many Mexicans, considering themselves part of North America. Incorrectly, I have included Mexico in this list of Central American nations.

Nations of Central America by population

  1. (Mexico)
  2. Guatemala
  3. Honduras
  4. El Salvador
  5. Nicaragua
  6. Costa Rica
  7. Panama
  8. Belize

Maybe the curators should have included a map, a big map, to help remind us of the precise location of all these places. (But then I’m biased. I love maps.)

Most of these nations gained their independence in stormy conflicts against the colonial powers in the early 19th century only to find themselves saddled with legacies of huge inequality and grinding rural poverty.

It was the enduring legacy of these inequalities which led to the revolutions, counter-revolutions, and military coups of the twentieth century. I well remember the era of military dictatorships in Argentina (1976-83), Brazil (1964-85), Chile (1973-90), and Paraguay (1954-89). Back in the 1970s we associated Latin America (and Greece and Spain and Portugal) with semi-fascist military dictatorships such as the notorious rule of General Pinochet of Chile. In one sense, then, many of these images fro the 1970s felt nostalgic to me.

Pinochet, 1987 by Fernando Bedoya © Fernando Bedoya. Courtesy of the artist

Fernano Bedoya is a key figure in the artistic activism of Peru and Argentina, involved notably in the latter country in the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group formed by mothers of young men who went missing during the military dictatorship. An irreverent artist, he plays with mass production – photography, screen printing, photocopying – and employs a hybrid iconography strongly influenced by pop culture. Committed to the democratisation of art, he has worked with several artists’ collective on participative projects with a distinctly political focus.

The nations of Latin America all have ethnically diverse societies, beginning with the fact that the native peoples of most of the colonised countries lived on, working as serfs or slaves for their European overlords, sometimes interbreeding with them, a racial mix which was then added to by large-scale importation of African slaves from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and then by migration from other, non-Iberian European countries – mostly in the 19th century.

This much most of them have in common. But each of the countries has its own geography and history and ethnic mix and traditions, which are hard to capture in such a variegated display. That’s the problem talking about this ‘region’, it’s so big and encompasses such a confusing diversity of peoples and places that it’s too easy to fall back on casual stereotypes – machismo, military dictatorships, Che Guevara guerillas, remote villages up the Amazon, the destruction of the rainforest, oh and a collection of cheesy dances that your grandparents used to like – the foxtrot, the tango, the cha-cha-cha.

In fact three or four of the photographers here are represented by pics they’ve taken of more or less the same scene, namely unglamorous, middle-aged couples from back in the day, dancing in (presumably hot and sweaty) dance halls. It’s a recurring topic.

Untitled, from the series Tango (1988) by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz. Courtesy of the artist

‘The tango image of Paz Errázuriz, without words, music or movement, frozen at one of those key moments when the dance danced by the dancers comes into its own, affirming the authenticity of the representation of a representation.’ – Chilean poet, playwright, and novelist Enrique Lihn

In fact all this pondering and wondering how to make sense of the profusion of countries and images and artists which I spent some time trying to group or arrange, has already been partly done by the curators themselves. They have divided the exhibition up into just two big parts (one on each of the two floors across which the show is presented), and titled them Shouts and Pop-ular.

1. Shouts

To quote the curators:

Shouts considers photography’s role not only in documenting identities and presences, but also to explore absences: in the face of kidnappings and forced disappearances carried out by authoritarian regimes, photography has been a weapon against silence. Public spaces and the city walls have also played an important role: when pen and paper, laws and rights, courts and judges have failed to obtain justice, the walls of the cities have taken on a life of their own. And photographers have portrayed these walls, covered with the slogans and cries of protest of those demanding political, social, and economic recognition, and reflecting the anger and cynicism, the hopes and frustrations of the cities’ residents.

Thus a raft of images depicting street protests, street fighting, street riots, protesters fighting cops. This is one of the rare colour photos in the show.

The Battle of the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, 20 December 2001 by Eduardo Longoni © Eduardo Longoni. Courtesy of the artist

Longoni documented in colour the disturbances that took place in 2001 in response to the economic crisis and the measures taken by the government of Fernando de la Rúa, which limited cash withdrawals from the banks to 250 pesos a week. The Argentinians, with humour and irony, soon found a name for the policy: the corralito (the diminutive form of the Spanish word for ‘corraling’, which also designates, in popular Argentine Spanish, a tollders’ playground.) On 19 December 2001 a state of emergency was announced. On 20 december, early in the evening, President Fernando de la Rúa resigned. The suppression of the disturbances had taken a toll of thirty-eight deaths all over the country, including seven in Buenos Aires.

2. Pop-ular

To quote the curators:

In Pop-ular, artists’ mine the tropes of mass media and their manifestation in public spaces. Since the 1960s, as Latin America has undergone rapid development, advertising images have diversified and multiplied, marked by the rapid transition to a consumer society. The first widespread use of colour photography was in advertising, and the richness of pop culture imagery, often associated with commerce and advertising, marks the visual identity of the Latin American metropolis. Signs, patterns and typographies, often created by self-taught hands, confer on the display windows an almost innocent beauty.

Thus there are quite a few photos depicting the most obvious aspect of a consumer society, shop windows, featuring shop window mannequins, or surreal subversions of them like the shapely, naked, young woman posing amid mannequins by Jorge Vall.

This all feels very retro since, as we know, the era of physical shops is on the decline.

Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski

This is the place to point out that the selection hasn’t been made from all the photographs taken by all 73 of these photographers from their entire careers. That would be an epic, maybe impossible, task.

No, this selection has been made from the large, but finite, collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski, who collected original prints throughout the period in question. 

Maybe this explains why, when I tried to link to some of these images, I couldn’t find any of them on the internet. Maybe they are very tightly controlled – although I did find plenty of other images by many of these photographers. As usual an exhibition like this makes a good starting point to go off on explorations of your own. But the fact that this is a selection from a selection explains some things.

Fifteenth Birthday Party in Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mixtecos Norte/Sur series (1989) by Eniac Martínez © Eniac Martínez. Courtesy of the artist

Produced for the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, the series Mixtecos Norte/Sur consists of photographs taken in Oaxaca and along the US-Mexico border. ‘It is the story of Mixtec indigenous people who leave their increasingly unproductive lands in the state of Oaxaca to enter the industrialised world of the United States.’ A girl’s fifteenth birthday party is a cultural milestone, not only in Mexico but all over Latin America. It involves a highly codified celebration, often accompanied by a religious ceremony, at which friends and relatives are given a lavish demonstration of the host’s generosity.

Alongside the street scenes and riots and cops and sex workers there was also a stream of images various different photographers had taken of the eerie beauty of details of Latino urban architecture – the pattern of cobbles in the street, or stripped posters on peeling walls.

Several photographers had captured the distinctive patters of tiles or brickwork to be found in local buildings, some of which harked back, maybe, to ancient Mayan or pre-Colombian sensibilities. For example, the attractive suite of photos by Pablo López Luz entitled Neo Inca.

Neo Inca LVIII, Pisac, Perú, 2016 by Pablo López Luz © Pablo López Luz. Courtesy of the artist

In the localities near Andean tourist destinations, Pablo López Luz photographs the doorways and facades of buildings and houses, adorned with the stucco relief work of Inca walls. The visual repertory drawn up in this way reflects the local taste for Inca motifs and shows how these have been grafted onto the urban context and brought up to date.

The photographers

So who exactly are the 73 photographers represented here? I’m glad you asked:

  • Carlos Aguirre (b.1948, Mexico)
  • Luiz Alphonsus (b.1948, Brazil)
  • Édgar Álvarez (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Yolanda Andrade (b.1950, Mexico)
  • Jaime Ardila (b.1942, Colombia)
  • Ever Astudillo (1948-2015, Colombia)
  • Álvaro Barrios (b. 1945, Colombia)
  • Juan Enrique Bedoya (b.1966, Peru)
  • Fernando Bedoya (1952, Peru)
  • Enrique Bostelmann (1939-2003, Mexico)
  • Bill Caro (b.1949, Peru)
  • Anselmo Carrera (1950-2016, Peru)
  • Jesús Reyes Cordero (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Armando Cristeto (b.1957, Mexico)
  • François Dolmetsch (b.1940, UK/Colombia)
  • Felipe Ehrenberg (1943-2017, Mexico)
  • Virginia Errázuriz (b.1941, Chile)
  • Paz Errázuriz (b.1944, Chile)
  • María Elvira Escallón (b.1954, Colombia)
  • José Alberto Figueroa (b.1946, Cuba)
  • Fernell Franco (1942-2006, Colombia)
  • RenéFreire (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Carlos Gallardo (b.1954, Chile)
  • Héctor García (1923-2012, Mexico)
  • Paolo Gasparini (b.1934, Venezuela)
  • Lourdes Grobet (b.1940, Mexico)
  • Billy Hare (b.1946, Peru)
  • Alejandro Hoppe (b.1961, Chile)
  • Alvaro Hoppe (b.1956, Chile)
  • Helen Hughes (b.1948, USA-Chile)
  • Graciela Iturbide (b.1942, Mexico)
  • Beatriz Jaramillo (b.1955, Colombia)
  • Mario García Joya (nee Mayito, b.1938, Cuba)
  • Alberto Korda (1928-2001, Cuba)
  • Sergio Larrain (1931-2012, Chile)
  • Adriana Lestido (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Diego Levy (b.1973, Argentina)
  • Eduardo Longoni (b.1959, Argentina)
  • Marcos López (b.1958, Argentina)
  • Héctor López (b.1955, Chile)
  • Pablo López Luz (b.1979, Mexico)
  • Ayrton de Magalhães (1954-2017, Brazil)
  • Eniac Martínez (b.1959, Mexico)
  • Agustín Martínez Castro (1950-1992, Mexico)
  • Sebastián Mejía (b.1982, Colombia)
  • Ernesto Molina (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Luis Molina-Pantin (b.1969, Venezuela)
  • Pablo Ortiz Monasterio (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Mario Cravo Neto (1947-2009, Brazil)
  • Viki Ospina (b.1948, Colombia)
  • Adolfo Patiño (1954-2005, Mexico)
  • Claudio Pérez (b.1957, Chile)
  • Ataúlfo Pérez Aznar (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Jaime Razuri (b.1956, Peru)
  • Santiago Rebolledo (b.1951, Colombia)
  • Miguel Rio Branco (b.1946, Brazil)
  • Herbert Rodríguez (b.1959, Peru)
  • Miguel Ángel Rojas (b.1946, Colombia)
  • Jesús Ruiz Durand (b.1940, Peru)
  • Osvaldo Salerno (b.1952, Paraguay)
  • Francisco Smythe (1952-1998, Chile)
  • Carlos Somonte (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Milagros de la Torre (b.1965, Peru)
  • Nicolás Torres (b.1957, Peru)
  • Juan Travnik (b.1950, Argentina)
  • Sergio Trujillo (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Jorge Vall (b.1949, Venezuela)
  • Pedro Valtierra (b.1955, Mexico)
  • JoséLuis Venegas (b.1944, Mexico)
  • Leonora Vicuña (b.1952, Chile)
  • Jaime Villaseca (b.1949, Chile)
  • Enrique Zamudio (b.1955, Chile)
  • Helen Zout (b.1957, Argentina)
  • Facundo de Zuviría (b.1954, Argentina)

And where would any exhibition of modern photography be without images of transvestites and transgender sex workers?

From 10 to 11 p.m., Mexico City (1985) by Agustín Martínez Castro © Agustín Martínez Castro Estate. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

In the photographs of Agustín Martínez Castro, the city is embodied in the anonymous inhabitants of its nights. The photographer is one o the most sensitive and profound chroniclers of the world of transvestism. Far removed from all sense of visual pathos, Martínez Castro offers an dmirable photo essay on private life, understood as a realm of intimacy, which is celebrated here, and on the stripping away of that intimacy, which is denounced. – Art historian, curator, and editor Roberto Tejada

Summary

If I’m honest, I didn’t like many of the photos in this exhibition. There are lots of them, and I suppose there’s lots of variety, but somehow I found the sheer number, and the hopping from one country to another, and from one decade to another, diluted and lessened their impact.

Hardly any of them have the standout lyricism and compositional genius of the thirteen prints by Manuel Álvarez Bravo which are currently on display down in the basement of the same building. Each one of those took my breath away.

And after reading and rereading the handout which includes almost every photo in the show, I realised that I was bored. There’s certainly an impressive range of technical diversity – many collages and montages and artistic treatments of photographic images, incorporating them into multi-media artworks. And ten or fifteen of the images did really stand out.

But almost all of these photos are images taken on the street. They almost all have a scrappy, hand-held quality. There isn’t a single one composed in a studio, and not a single one of a landscape, to give two types of photo which are completely absent. It’s shabby, urban sprawl everywhere you look.

Rough street people in rundown looking slums and dodgy neighbourhoods. Scary street punks, one or two convicts in prison. And plenty of scenes of cops and soldiers policing the street, and riots, and people getting beaten up. Grim-faced soldiers. Grim-faced dictators. Grim-faced revolutionaries. Grim-faced prostitutes. Grim-faced hoodlums, tearful mothers protesting against the disappearance of their sons, photomontages commemorating people killed in riots, tattooed gang members.

Untitled (Aquileo Valtierra González), Prisoners series, Mexico (1997) by Carlos Somonte © Carlos Somonte. Courtesy of the artist

Again I was reminded that the whole exhibition is taken from the private collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski. In other words – far from being a representative survey of all Latin American photography, this is a selection from a selection. A personal selection. A personal view of the politics and history of this continent and this era.

After a while it dawned on me that what was oppressing me was there was no joy or happiness in any of the photos. Surely someone, somewhere, in all these 20 or so countries, in the long period between 1959 and 2016, surely someone, somewhere, smiled. Maybe even laughed. Looked at the blue sky, the river, the trees and the exotic flowers in the botanical garden, and was happy? Is Copacabana beach not in Latin America? And hundreds of sun-kissed Caribbean beaches? Have there been no tourists in Latin America, no beaches and parties?

Not in these photos. Not in this exhibition. Glum and grim and earnest and embattled everywhere you look.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by María Wills and Alexis Fabry.

Demographics

The exhibition is divided between two rooms on floor 3 of the Photographers’ Gallery, and two rooms on the floor below. I visited about noon on a Wednesday. On one floor there were four teenage girl visitors. On the floor below there was just one middle-aged woman. That was it.

Shame. This exhibition deserves more visitors than that.


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Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn @ the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

This is a really wonderful exhibition. I thoroughly enjoyed it and had a struggle dragging myself away. And it’s FREE!

Luchita Hurtado has had the most extraordinary life and career. She was born in 1920, in Maiquetía, Venezuela, and is still working and painting, 98 years later! In fact the last section of the exhibition features a dozen or so works from just the past twelve months. But let’s start at the beginning…

The 1940s

Untitled (1949) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Private Collection. Photo by Genevieve Hanson

This is Hurtado’s first solo exhibition in a public institution, which seems amazing given the quality of everything on show.

The 95 or so works featured here are arranged in a straightforward chronological order to help the visitor make sense of the astonishing range and variety of styles and approaches to making art which have characterised her career.

Very broadly her career seemed to me to break down into two parts: in the 1940s and 50s she experimented with the type of abstraction which was very much in the air, a kind of post-war, atom-bomb modernism.

I can’t put into words how attractive I found many of these works, which are dated but in a good way, deeply evocative of the period, and executed with just the right quality of roughness and exuberance. The oil paint which is applied roughly, in dabs and swathes barely filling in the angular abstract compositions, so you can see the canvas through it, with a casualness which bespeaks its own process of creation, which captures the post-war mood of ruins and survival.

Joropo (1947-49) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

Moving to California

Hurtado moved from Venezuela to the United States in 1928, first freelancing as a fashion illustrator for Condé Nast in New York, before relocating to Mexico City, where she joined a group of renowned artists and writers who had emigrated from Europe in the wake of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War and who were working under the banners of Surrealism and Magical Realism. By the late 1940s, Hurtado had moved to Mill Valley, California, where she was closely associated with the Dynaton Group.

The work from this early period reminds me of the artists featured in a book about Mexican artists of the 1940s and 50s which I reviewed a few months back, particularly the work of Carlos Mérida and Gunther Gerzso.

These first couple of rooms reek of the visual world of the soft-modernist 1950s, but in a good way. I found lots of paintings to really like here, I really liked the combination of abstraction with the rough, pastel-sketch kind of finish. In 1951 Hurtado moved to Santa Monica, California, where she has lived and worked ever since.

Untitled (c. 1951) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo by Genevieve Hanson

Strip paintings

It’s in the next section, titled ‘Experimentation’, that you see her start to flex her wings, ready to establish her own identity. I especially liked a number of works where she painted an abstract design then cut it up into ‘strips’ and rearranged it. The effect is compared by the curators to a film strip, which is not untrue, but doesn’t convey what I felt to be the terrific dynamism and energy of some of the results.

Untitled (1967) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

It’s a little further along this gallery that Hurtado suddenly springs beyond abstraction with a series of paintings which incorporate depictions of the body – in a kind of rough, naive style: sometimes chopped up, sometimes reduced to Matisse-like cutouts silhouettes, sometimes morphing into Georgia O’Keeffe-style landscapes. There’s one (Untitled, 1965) where two sandy-brown mountain peaks run smoothly down to a mound which has three or four blue rivers flowing out of it, and between the peaks is descending an equally sandy-brown protuberance, which you don’t have to be an art critic to see as a pair of parted legs, revealing a mound of Venus which is being approached by a male member. It was the 1960s, after all, and sex was bold and new.

The ‘I am’ works

By about 1970 this interest in the body had led her to totally abandon the complex abstraction of the previous decades in favour of a highly simplified and figurative depiction of her own body. To be precise, she produced a whole series of works as she looks down over her own naked body.

Her body appears as a highly simplified, Caramac-brown pair of breasts, with the tummy and tummy button beneath and maybe the thighs or knees or feet also peeking out. What a complete change of style from the dirty expressionism of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s!

The most distinctive of these idiosyncratic self-portraits also feature one or other of the native American rugs which Hurtado collected. And, adding a peculiar, Surrealistic touch in almost all of them, there is a fruit – most often an apple or a pear – floating in this hyper-real, abstract space.

The result is highly distinctive and visually impactful and extremely beguiling.

Untitled (1971) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Jeff McLane

‘Sky skin’ paintings

In the mid-1970s she took this same stylised figurative approach and turned it outwards and upwards, into a series which feature skyscapes, blue blue sky and clouds, but framed by simplified rocky terrains which may, or may not, refer to the human body. Just as the downwards ‘I am’ paintings often feature a fruit incongruously floating in mid air, so the Sky skin paintings more often than not feature bird feathers, floating in almost identifiable patterns.

The Umbilical Cord of the Earth is the Moon (1977) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Jeff McLane

The way a vista of objects gives on to a startlingly blue sky suddenly reminded me of Magritte and his stylised use of the sky. And then I thought of the famous painting of the man in a bowler hat with an apple in front of his face, and saw a strong connection between this series and the work of the earlier Surrealist. (In fact that painting by Magritte, Son of Man, is from as late as 1964.)

Word paintings

Meanwhile, in a separate room, is displayed a series of canvases from 1973 and 1974 which are BIG and which return to a language of abstraction, but radically simplified from her 1940s and 50s work. You wouldn’t guess it if the wall label hadn’t told you, but in all these works, the abstract compositions, the expressive lines and the geometric shapes are in fact fragmented lettering.

First of all she chose a text. Then she generated an abstract composition from the word or words. And then she cut the canvas up and rearranged the sections into a new pattern, which deliberately disrupts the original composition.

Thus Self Portrait from 1973, actually conceals the words ‘I live’, rendered in a half abstract style, then cut up.

Self Portrait (1973) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

It’s a simple enough approach, but one which grows organically out of all her earlier interests, from the 1950s abstracts, through the 1960s strip paintings and then her growing sense of her ‘self’, and her subjective consciousness, as the subject of her art. It also confirms – if it wasn’t obvious already – her interest in seriality i.e. in making series of works which systematically explore a new idea or approach.

This serial approach gives each individual work added resonance and interest, and because the curators line up half a dozen or more works in each series, it lets you a) share the sense of fun and experimentation and trial and error which has gone into them b) gives you the simple pleasure of deciding which one from each series you like best.

White word paintings

In the next room along is another recognisable series, this time crated by applying white acrylic paint to raw, unprimed canvas, with the focus of each work being one or two resonant, highly meaningful words. Thus entire works are made out of the words EVE, ADAM, WOMB or WOMAN.

I have a soft spot for art works which are still fragmentary, unfinished, minimalist 1970s art or Italian Arte Povera, made from industrial leftovers, art where you can see the canvas, or is rough and unfinished. I think it’s partly because I warm to the fundamental idea that artworks only emerge from a troubled world with great effort. I like to see the sculpture emerging from the stone, a few lines beginning to create volume and shape, sketches and half-finished artifacts.

Anyway, that might be one reason why I really, really liked all the works in this room.

Untitled (WOMAN/WOMB) (c.1970s) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

Feminist art

Obviously there are vast tracts to be written about Hurtado’s feminist consciousness, and about her feminist journey from the early entirely abstract work which (possibly, arguably) was made in the shadow of the more famous American Abstract Expressionists and male Mexican artists of her day – through the breakthrough in the mid-1960s where she suddenly dropped abstraction in order to produce a series of very simple self-portraits – then all those simplified paintings looking down at her own boobs and tummy – through to these works of the feminist 1970s, which use big female concepts, rallying cries and credos, as the basis for artworks.

Or, in the words of American art writer and curator Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer:

Hurtado’s word-subjects tend to foreground a woman’s subjectivity (at least partly self-referential as verbal self-portraits) and echo her figurative strategies in the pulsation of line, pattern, and evocation around the perimeter, once again expressing an allegiance to looking at and living in relation to the periphery, the margin, the recesses, the acute edge of things.

Eco art

The final section of the exhibition is devoted to a series of new paintings produced by Hurtado in the last twelve months and displayed here for the first time. These are deliberately rough and ready placards, poster art, protest art, political art, devoted to raising awareness about the environment and the world we are destroying.

Installation view of Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I will Be Reborn showing some of her environmental placards and art works © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

To be honest, I liked these the least of all the works on display. I joined the World Wildlife Fund in the 1980s. My flatmate became a leading figure in the green movement, campaigning to save the rainforest in the 80s and 90s, another friend works for the European Development Bank, channeling Western investment to environmentally-friendly development schemes, Mrs Books and Boots helped to launch the Forest Stewardship Council in the mid-1990s, and I myself worked for the UK Department for International Development from 2008 to 2009.

In other words, I’ve been plugged into environmental activism for over thirty years and have got pretty tired of people crapping on about global warming and the environment and doing absolutely nothing whatever to improve the situation.

Become a vegetarian, sell your car, never fly again, review all your investments and divest from any which are involved in carbon industries – these are just the basic steps everyone needs to take, but I know no-one who, in the past 30 years since we first started hearing about global warming, has made any of these elementary changes to their lifestyle.

We were told that Luchita Hurtado had flown to London specially to attend this exhibition, as had at least one of the curators, who was American, accompanied by who knows how many assistants, PR and gallery people. And the pictures themselves, of course. Which were all shipped to London. In airplanes.

This is why we are doomed. Everybody talks the talk, everybody agrees this is a world-shattering crisis, everyone paints placards, wears t-shirts, goes on marches – but nobody, nobody at all, is prepared to get out of their car and walk away and never use it again. To forswear meat and dairy for the rest of their lives. To vow never to catch another airplane, never to take another foreign holiday. Nobody.

Pretty much everyone attending the press launch was tapping away on their mobile phones, mobile phones which contain rare and irreplaceable metals, are manufactured in the suicide factories of China, and then shipped half way round the world in gas-guzzling super-tankers, and which use a global digital infrastructure which now produces more greenhouse gases than the entire aviation industry.

How easy to give a Facebook ‘like’ to Luchita Hurtado’s worthy eco-art, or to retweet about it. How impossible to give up your mobile phone, all your other hi-tech gadgets, your car, your barbecue, and your next foreign holiday.

Which is why we’re going to burn the world.

That’s what I feel about the subject of environmental art. But I also just didn’t like Hurtado’s eco art as art, that much. The sentiments seemed to me trite and obvious and the execution, although I can appreciate that it is deliberately rough and home-made and in the style of handheld placards, just didn’t pull my daisy.

Installation view of Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I will Be Reborn showing some of her environmental placards and art works © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

All that said, on the upside, don’t you think it is absolutely remarkable that a person can be this engaged with a very contemporary issue at the age of ninety-eight!

Although these pieces didn’t do it for me, I was still awestruck by her ability to be open to the modern world, and engage with it, this vividly and vehemently, at such a very advanced age. The sentiments and the handmade placards perfectly chime with the activism of Greta Thunberg and all the other schoolchildren who’ve come out on strike against climate change, holding home-made banners and placards very like Hurtado’s.

If not as actual art, then as tokens of Hurtado’s lifelong commitment to being alert and alive and exploring and expressive, I couldn’t help being deeply touched by this final display.

Conclusion

This is a fabulous exhibition. There are lovely works to savour and enjoy from every part of her long and varied career – from the 1950s abstractions, through the 1960s film-strip pieces, the floating apple and caramac boob period, the sky paintings, the abstract hidden word paintings, and then the white feminist word works, as well as several other series I don’t have space to describe.

But it was, on reflection, the late 1940s, early abstract work which rang my bell most. As you walk in the door of the Sackler Serpentine Gallery this is the first work you see, and this is the work I found it hard to tear myself away from, a classic example of her early abstract period which I just found beautiful beyond words.

As usual, a photographic reproduction doesn’t do it justice. In the flesh you can go right up close and appreciate and enjoy the supreme confidence with which she has painted and etched and scratched and roughed in the colours of the wonderfully weird and evocative sci-fi, Juan Miro-esque, zoomorphic design, in order to create something which I found utterly compelling and persuasive.

Untitled (c.1947-49) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

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