Animating Peripheries

A View from the Museo del Barro

By Lia Colombino

The Museo del Barro’s modern exterior. Photo courtesy of Lia Colombino, Museo del Barro.


View the photo gallery. 

The Museo del Barro in Asunción immerses the visitor in a collection of images and objects, often in a somewhat disordered fashion, not all categorized or classified in the way such institutions tend to present them.

The Museo del Barro, as the Center for Visual Arts is commonly known, houses collections of Popular Art (the Museo del Barro) and Ethnic Art (Museum of Indigenous Art), as well as several expressions of Urban Art of Paraguay and Ibero-America (the Paraguayan Museum of Contemporary Art).  

The visitor might encounter a collection of popular masks, an ample assortment of Franciscan and Jesuit images, striking ceremonial costumes or the impressive selection of Iberoamerican art, including works by Ricardo Migliorisi, Carlos Colombino and Osvaldo Salerno. The temporary exhibits are widely varied, from a showing of some emerging artist to large overview exhibit that bring together different works on document on 19th–century portraiture in Paraguay to a collection of the recent production of the weavers of ao poi, an indigenous cloth that takes its embroidery from the type used on colonial shirts.  

The museum has three entrances from a central patio. From there, the visitor can lose herself in a circular game, always returning to the same site. There is more than one way to go through the Museo del Barro; one does not always read from left to right nor begin as focus groups mandate; everything is left up to chance and no particular sequence is required. The museum leaves open the possibility of felt experience, rather than just inform the passive gaze of a directed spectator. 

It seeks to erase the distinct ways of classifying art, doing away with the boundaries between the popular, indigenous and urban in Paraguay.
Thus, the Museo del Barro preserves the ambiguity of being a museum without totally being a museum. It attempts to skirt the boundaries of the concept of a museum while at the same time renders this concept ill-fitting and permeable. 

It is an art museum as fluid as the definition of art itself, which here has tried to include, in the words of Paraguayan art scholar Ticio Escobar, “the beauty of the other.” 

A BRIEF HISTORY

The Center for Visual Arts/Museo del Barro came into being through several initiatives over the course of forty years. What makes it unusual is that it has been created by artists, anthropologists and art critics. Originally, it emerged as a project that would function on the margins of the state and in opposition to its politics. 

The Center’s three museums sprang into life independently. However, they eventually came together under one roof as one project. The Center’s roots go back to 1972 with a Circulating Collection started by Paraguayan artists Olga Blinder and Carlos Colombino. As its name implies, the collection did not have its own space and moved from one place to another. 

In 1980, a permanent space for the collection was sought, with the Museo del Barro inaugurated in a small house. Artists Osvaldo Salerno and Ysanne Gayet, along with Carlos Colombino, spearheaded the effort. Art historian Ticio Escobar later joined the group. In 1984, the first exhibition space was opened and later developed into the three collections integrating the Center for Visual Arts.

The group had long been interested in popular and indigenous art, inspired by poet and art critic Josefina Plá, a native of the Canary Islands who settled in Paraguay, as well as such important personalities as Brazilian-Paraguayan artist Livio Abramo, Jesuit indigenous rights champion Bartomeu Melià, and Olga Blinder herself. 

The treatment of the works 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,” “our very own.” That is, popular art can often be trivialized, stripped of its subtleties and differences. 

When Ticio Escobar, who has given deep thought to Paraguayan art from this triple perspective (popular, indigenous, urban) in a systematic way, wrote La Belleza de los Otros (1994), he recounts there the foundational story set out in El brazalete de Túkule. Túkule, a powerful Ishir shaman, is delicately making a bracelet called oikakar (created from vegetable and hand-tied, one by one, with small and oversized feathers). Escobar questions why it is necessary to add a line of multicolored feathers to something which appears to have already been finished, and receives this answer: “So that it looks more beautiful.” This bracelet is functional—ceremonial, shamanic and ritual—but at the same time, it is aesthetic: it should attract our attention through its shining beauty. 

The language of difference emerged intuitively at the beginning. First came the practice and then the theory; the Museo del Barro followed a path that revealed itself in the middle of the journey. It went about constructing itself in fragments from total chance until it jelled (although it never completely jelled) in one place (actually in two—that of the physical place and its conceptual place). 

Paraguayan art finds in the Museo del Barro a space in which we can see ourselves from multiple perspectives, talking to the “we” that in Paraguay means we are two (or at least two, since language always puts that duality in evidence). In Guarani, the language of the majority of the Paraguayan population, there are two words for “we,” one which is inclusive (ñande) and the other which is exclusive (ore). These two ways of saying “we” make up a specific way of understanding identity. If the official culture tries to propagate a unified “national being” through diverse means, the language itself gives the lie to this concept. 

DEVELOPING DIALOGUE

The idea of setting up a dialogue and bringing together the artistic productions of Paraguay’s different peoples came about through an unplanned action. While Ticio Escobar was writing Una interpretación de las artes visuales en el Paraguay (An Interpretation of Paraguay’s Visual Arts, published in two volumes in 1982 and 1984), he was faced with the dilemma of how to verbalize these differences and to find a place within an official history that denied these differences. 

With his book El mito del arte y el mito del pueblo (The Myth of Art and the Myth of People), Escobar consolidated his thinking about the equivalence of popular and indigenous art alongside so-called erudite art. This analysis laid the foundation for a more conclusive discussion about modernity and also about the nature of the erudite and the popular, no longer facing them off as binary contradictions, but in terms of exploring them and defining relationships. Escobar’s text sums up the vocation of the Center of Visual Arts/Museo del Barro. It departs from art theory to enter into cultural theory with all its political implications: the disputes for the hegemonic control of the symbolic capital of a territory evolved into a nation. 

The Museo del Barro significantly adopts the praxis of this text, the theoretical basis that ties together questions that have arisen through doing. This concept of art set forth by Escobar and, by extension, at the museum—this manipulation of material forms that shake up the senses—permits the insertion of the concept of popular art into the writing of another history of art and to begin to dislocate Eurocentric concepts. These new ideas concern the autonomy of art, the concept of contemporaneity and of uniqueness.

ART FOR INDIGENOUS AND PEASANT COMMUNITIES

One of the major discussions regarding the use of the word “art” to talk about the aesthetic-poetic productions of non-Western cultures has to do with a concrete fact. These cultures do not use the word “art” to describe the production of material objects nor, for the most part, do they consider their production to be art. 

However, art history has no qualms in using this category when it considers that one production or another corresponds to its own past. So, for example, Egyptian art or cave paintings are categorized as art. 

Likewise, both indigenous and peasant art appeal to the senses when they seek to represent the world in which they live. According to Escobar, certain cultural moments are thus stressed and safeguarded, resulting in tense configurations equivalent to what the West understands as art. 

PARTICULAR NOTES

Both indigenous and popular art have particular characteristics that differentiate them from modern or so-called contemporary art.  These forms of art, unlike modern art works, have not needed to appeal to autonomy to separate themselves from a belief system. They have guarded a narrow relationship with it and at times the forms are intimately connected to ritual. The poetry that surrounds an object is mixed up with both beliefs and everyday life in such a way that they cannot be separated out. In this sense, the postulation of an indigenous or popular art form questions the notion that for art to be art, it must be devoid of function. 

The notion of originality is also called into question, since these cultures work for the most part along the lines of traditions from the past, and their ways of resignifying and reelaborating these forms propose other paths than those taken by erudite art. The question of who authored a work is not a primary one, although with the passage of time this is changing, and many ceramic makers and wood carvers are signing their works. 

Popular or indigenous art strengthens its forms and creates dense meanings that correspond to the conditions of existence and production of the community in which they are created; indeed, this perspective of thinking about art shakes up the established conventions of what centers of learning have defined as “contemporary art.”

THE MARGINS

The Museo del Barro, with every action it has undertaken—often outside the scope of what is considered usual for a museum—has tried to make more malleable the borders of certain academic categories. Following this model, it finds other ways of involving itself in the world. 

The postulation of indigenous and popular art comes from this ability to make the borders between different types of art more flexible. It looks to shake up the certainty of fields of knowledge; to move apparently fixed concepts so that we can observe that reality moves, letting one see what is out of sight. It appears. 

Indigenous and popular artists, from their ways of responding to their reality, attack the gaping wound that the Western conception of the history of art has left open. The work of Ticio Escobar and the effort that the Museo del Barro has demonstrated from the beginning bear witness to these processes and contribute to the continual shaking up of the borders that have been, perhaps for way too long, unmovable. 

Lia Colombino is the director of the Museum of Indigenous Art that is part of the CAV/Museo del Barro. She teaches at the Instituto Superior de Arte de la Universidad Nacional de Asunción and coordinates the seminar Espacio/Crítica. She is part of the Conceptualismos del Sur network.