ICOM UK member Luigi Galimberti interviews Lia Colombino about the Museum of Indigenous Art, Asunción, Paraguay.
Lia Colombino is Director of the Museum of Indigenous Art, which is part of the Centre for Visual Arts / Museo del Barro in Asunción, Paraguay, where she is also the coordinator of the educational program Espacio/Crítica Seminar. Lia is Professor at the Instituto Superior de Arte of the National University of Asunción (UNA) and is an active member of Red Conceptualismos del Sur, a platform for research, discussion and collective position taking from Latin America.
Luigi Galimberti is Collection Care Research Manager at Tate, London, and a Board Member of Res Artis, the world’s largest membership-based network of artist residencies.
Luigi: What is the history of the Museum of Indigenous Art and what is its place in the Centre for Visual Arts / Museo del Barro?
Lia: At the end of the 1970s, the prominent Paraguayan art critic Ticio Escobar was working at his book An Interpretation of the Visual Arts in Paraguay. His intention was to cover the decades of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, in addition to reviewing what was happening with the visual arts in the country at that time. As soon as he began to collect material, he realized that there were not so many sources to consult. This is how he started to dig the elusive visual art history in Paraguay.
In the first volume of this work, published in 1982, he rejected linearity as a principle and introduced the possibility of multiple or fragmented readings about the same artistic act. In the second volume in 1984, which covers the period between the beginning of the 20th century until 1980, Escobar elucidated one of the fundamental bases of what will be the Centre for Visual Arts / Museo del Barro, i.e. the possibility of reading modernity starting from the local history rather than using a concept of modernity imported from what were at the time the most developed countries in the world. Modernity in Paraguay has a delay, which required reconfiguring this concept.
With his book El mito del arte y el mito del pueblo (‘The Myth of Art and the Myth of People’), Escobar laid the foundation for a more conclusive discussion about modernity and the nature of the erudite and the popular. He was no longer treating these two categories as binary contradictions, but was exploring them and defining their relationships. Escobar’s text sums up the vocation of the Museo del Barro. It departs from art theory to enter into cultural theory with all its political implications, i.e. the disputes for the hegemonic control of the symbolic capital of a territory evolved into a nation.
The theoretical bases laid by Escobar allowed for the insertion of the concept of popular art into the writing of another history of art and to begin dislocating Eurocentric concepts. These new ideas concern the autonomy of art, the concept of contemporaneity and of uniqueness.
Luigi: How did the collection of the Museum of Indigenous Art develop?
Lia: More than 90% of the objects of the collection of the Museum of Indigenous Art were acquired by Ticio Escobar with his own funds in different indigenous communities, craft shops and private collections. The rest was purchased by the Museo del Barro or donated by missionaries, anthropologists or private individuals.
The initial collection acquired a more systematic character in 1985 when the museum organized the show Feathers and Beads Art, curated by Ticio Escobar and Osvaldo Salerno, in the Galería Arte-Sanos in Asunción. At the time, Escobar and the ethnomusicologist Guillermo Sequera had made contact with the Tomáraho, an indigenous group belonging to the Chamacoco people (Ishír) who survived attempts of forced integration into the national society, although they were badly damaged by the neo-colonization of the Chaco region, which was bringing them to the verge of extinction.
This exhibition kick-started a process of support towards the Tomáraho through the establishment of the Commission of Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples and the Theo Binder Association, bringing together different sectors of the civil society. The first entity had a political direction and was aimed at supporting indigenous efforts in the area of land acquisition or recovery, as well as the political, cultural and religious self-determination and the denunciation of the cases of ethnocide during the years of the dictatorship. The second entity was aimed at supporting the processes of resettlement of indigenous groups in new habitats, provide technical advice and promote programs for health, housing, economic subsistence and education.
The collections of the museum were formed in the context of different activities run in support of the indigenous cause and were linked to the difficult situations in which the communities found themselves. This exhibition helped to start a process of vindication of their traditional territories and their demands and negotiations with the surrounding communities.
Similarly, this situation favoured the possibility that the collection was formed in symmetrical intercultural conditions and without disturbing the productive dynamics of the creators, well positioned to negotiate the sale (or barter) of the pieces. In some cases, indigenous people themselves gave indications about how the pieces should be arranged in the museum and even participated directly in their assembly, such as the case of the Tomáraho who installed the ceremonial costumes in the corresponding showcases.
Luigi: What would you like your audience to take home after visiting the museum?
Lia: How works are exhibited in this museum makes it possible for popular and indigenous art to be seen as equal to urban or ‘erudite’ art. The museum seeks to provide a dialogue between these types of art in spite of their differences, striving to undermine the official myth that popular and indigenous art can be reduced to ‘folkloric’, ‘authentic’, vernacular’ or ‘our very own’. Popular art can often be trivialized, stripped of its subtleties and differences. We want the audience to feel and understand the differences and to respect that.
Luigi: What do you think the role of imagination is in a museum?
Lia: In the museum what is imagined becomes possible. The museum gives to the imagination a tangible and concrete dimension through the exhibited works. As a space dedicated to research, the museum is an instance and a privileged device for imagination. Researchers working with sensibilities and memories inevitably require the support of imagination to guide their practices in a creative way.
Luigi: What is the role of art and artistic production in Paraguay today? How does the museum involve new generations of artists in its activities?
Lia: In many communities of Paraguay, art functions as an element of social cohesion, making intergenerational and intercultural dialogues possible. This occurs both in the art system and in society at large. Likewise, art is presented as a poetic space for the resolution of tensions and a critical interpretation of reality, ranging from the museum to popular festivities or rituals. From its diverse exhibition programs, the museum integrates heterogeneous voices. There are some specific programs that promote the artistic production of indigenous communities, indigenous artists or rural artisans.
It is not only a matter of including new voices and giving a place for them to be audible and visible, but of displacing the spectrum towards historically peripheral territories of the hegemonic culture. At the Museo del Barro, we have been presenting works of young indigenous artists, thereby giving them the visibility, which originates from the centrality of our museum in the Paraguayan artistic and cultural context, but we have also been promoting their artistic production and selling it in the museum shop.
Luigi: Can you tell us of a forthcoming show that you are curating?
Lia: This year I will be curating an exhibition of popular, rural and indigenous art, exhibited together with the work of Joaquín Sánchez, a Paraguayan artist living in Bolivia. Sánchez works in relation to the production of popular lace and of the woodwork of the Aché, an indigenous people in eastern Paraguay. My idea is to intervene in the permanent exhibition of the museum with the work of Sanchez, as well as to stress the idea of contemporaneity of the art of scholarly tradition starting from the symbolic production of the popular communities.