A conversation with visual artist Gaby Messina about historical, institutional and personal difficulties in examining African identity in Argentina.
Gaby Messina, Margarita, 2017. Video. Courtesy of the artist.
Gaby Messina, I, Afro, 2017. Video. Courtesy of the artist.
Gaby Messina began her professional career in publishing. Her interest in photography began almost incidentally when she received her very first camera as a gift from her parents. Initially, portrait photography was a way for her to channel her relationships with the people around her. Currently Messina, who identifies as African-Argentine, uses video art as a way of exploring her place in the world.
C&AL: In your career as a visual artist, there is a moment when you begin touching on topics related to Afro-descendants in Argentina. What brought about this turn?
Gaby Messina: I reached a point in my work when I realized that I needed to tell my own story instead of those of other people. It began with my projects Fe, Maestros, El Bosque and El Árbol (Faith, Maestros, The Forest and The Tree).
When I was twenty years old, my father was the victim of a violent assasination. Fe (2011) gave me an opportunity to express the frustration I felt at this death and at the fact that I hadn’t been able to talk about it for many years. I allowed myself to open up about the hopelessness I felt towards the Christian tradition in which I was brought up as well as towards the socio-political system that discouraged my mother from denouncing the death of my father.
In Maestros (2016) I interviewed 112 Argentine artists who worked actively during the dictatorship. They were all elderly people and soon after our interview, some of them passed away. This was a call for attention about myself, my identity, my roots, who I am and why I suffered so much in my childhood, why I felt different. In both projects I started to use the symbol of the tree as a metaphor for roots, identity and the search for oneself.
Margarita (2017) was the first project on Afro-Argentines and their invisibility in Argentina. In the experimental documentary Yo, Afro (2017) I immerse myself in a more analytical investigation, working together with political scientist Ana Paula Penchaszadeh.
C&AL: After the colonial emancipation in the 19th century, how did the narrative of Argentina as a biologically white and culturally European country emerged?
GM: To the Afro communities, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, was the number one racist. Sarmiento was a driving force in eliminating barriers for European migrants, mainly from Spain and Italy, promising them a better quality of life, work and, above all harmony for these people who were fleeing from the warlike conflicts on the old continent. This marked the beginning of a whitening campaign. In today’s textbooks there is no reference to an Afro population. White people appear as the sole heroes of our country, and of course, if there are no alternative stories, you believe what they tell you. Also, there was a strong pressure on Afro-descendants not to recognize their origins, since this gave them a lower social status and limited their job opportunities etc. Thus, not acknowledging themselves as Afro-Argentines was – and is still used today – as a survival strategy.
C&AL: To what extent do the policies of visibility and recognition of Afro-Argentines respect the creation of an independent identity?
GM: In general, the policies of visibility promoted by the State are not only weak but also very scarce. The 2020 census will include the option of Afro-descendant, and this will be a big step. In 2013, the National Congress established November 8 as the official Afro-Argentine Day. The date was chosen because it was on this day that María Remedios del Valle died. She was known as the Mother of the Country and fought in the War of Independence between 1810 and 1818. I like to observe how the media echoes that date, since there are no references to this national celebration and no information about why Afro-descendants are celebrated. Very few people even know who María Remedios del Valle is. If the State does not take advantage of this day to at least inform the people the person behind this face, representing the Afro population in our country, then we are in bad shape.
C&AL: In recent years a kind of “fashion” seems to have emerged among international cultural agents who are not themselves of African or indigenous descent but who deal with these issues. Is this problematic? And when do you cross the line from being an ally and becoming an opportunist?
GM: This is a complex discussion. When I propose to talk about racism I find myself quite alone in the artistic field. I started to discover different Afro groups, and yet there are very few contemporary art projects that deal with racism. My interest in this subject stems from the discrimination I suffered as a child. I’m not black but I’m not white either. On the one hand, it’s interesting to live the experience from both sides, but at the same time it’s very difficult because you realize that racism continues and how the color of your skin defines who is entitled to this or that. There are people in my country who are visibly African-American and discriminate against me because I am not black enough to deal with these issues in my work. I also ask myself whether you need to be Jewish to talk about the Holocaust, and how do I legitimize my right to talk about these issues?
The truth is that navigating the intersection of African descent is a complex matter to the point where it blocks me creatively. I think that in the face of the little, weak or entirely denied possibility of rethinking this situation in Argentina, anyone who works on these issues should be welcomed.
C&AL: On the current art scene in Argentina, is there an interest in and specific plans to create inclusive spaces for Afro and indigenous artists?
GM: Unfortunately in Argentina this is not, and has never been, an urgent issue. I think the most serious problem has been invisibility, denial. They have instilled in us a European, white Argentina; this notion that we are all descendants of Spaniards and Italians. We, the original peoples and those of African descent, are forced to maintain a permanent and daily struggle. Slowly however, it is becoming more and more clear that the Argentine population is represented by a myriad of nuances.
As I said before, I usually feel quite alone presenting these themes in my artistic work. Nonetheless, the National Art Foundation (Fondo Nacional de las Artes) gives many of its awards to artists from the interior of the country, thus encouraging creation beyond Buenos Aires. I don’t think there is any support dedicated specifically to work by Afro-Argentine artists. At any rate, the people in positions of power are all white. The different Afro groups are fighting for representation inside the government, because without it, there can be no real visibility. These spaces need to be created and grown little by little.
Interview by Raquel Villar-Pérez, curator and essayist of Spanish art, based in London.
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen