In Conversation With Lía Colombino

The Museo del Barro and Multicultural Art in Paraguay

The Museo del Barro in Asunción is dedicated to all types of visual arts that highlight the cultural and ethnic diversity of Paraguay. We spoke with Lía Colombino, director of the Museum of Indigenous Art, part of the institution, about the objectives and challenges of the museum.

C&AL: What can we expect to see in the collection at Museo del Barro?

LC: There are three collections: Indigenous art, folkloric art – or rural art – and, finally, a collection of more eruditely rooted art, or what people generally understand as “art”, such as paintings, installations or prints. It is a collection of works not just from Paraguay but from all over Latin America, and it is the most urban part of the collection. The museum has a permanent collection as well as temporary exhibitions. The collection of indigenous art was donated almost entirely by Ticio Escobar – a Paraguayan writer, curator and art critic – although there are also donations from other people. Most of the works however were purchased from indigenous communities over many years. This also goes for the religious images. In Paraguay, there was a very large production, especially of domestic santería and some ecclesial santería that was in private hands. The popular ceramic collection was purchased, as were the ñanduti and the Kamba Ra’anga masks. As for the most erudite and urban art collection, almost all pieces were donated or given in exchange.

C&AL: Taking into account this highly diverse collection of works, how do you bring together indigenous, folkloric and erudite art in one place?

LC: We advocate the contemporaneity of these pieces. We do a reading of the works from different categories, because it cannot be expected that artistic production be the same under different living conditions, say for example in the case of the indigenous people and of an urban artist. What we do is we cross all those productions so that they communicate with each other. The Museum is divided into different rooms and in some exhibitions, the works are mixed and suddenly it is possible to perceive the differences. Ultimately, the world is just that: diverse.

C&AL: Do the indigenous communities participate directly or are the works curated and exhibited from a purely museological perspective?

LC: In 1988, Ticio Escobar wrote a book called Mission: Ethnocide, where he denounced the indigenous ethnocide during the military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, from 1954 to 1989. In addition, along with other anthropologists and indigenous communities, the Solidarity Commission was formed with the Indigenous Peoples, whereby it was possible to help buy land and defend the rights of these communities. First and foremost there is a deeper-lying concern that goes beyond the simple object. In 1989, just months after the fall of the dictatorship, Escobar together with anthropologist Miguel Chase Sardi and Olek Vysokolán organized The Threatened Dream: Indigenous Art in Paraguay, which saw the participation of indigenous communities. The exhibition presented a panorama of the aesthetic production of the different ethnic groups, beyond their ritual destinies and their utilitarian functions. That exhibition gave rise to the museum’s collection of indigenous art.

The ceremonial costume section was assembled inside the showcases by the indigenous people themselves. There is an ongoing connection with the indigenous communities – sometimes stronger, sometimes less so – but we are always willing to support them in their struggles. What we are looking for with this collection is to give them greater visibility and help change the perception of the indigenous, a perception that usually entails victimizing. Also, we believe that the fact that their pieces are categorized as art and are part of the museum can benefit them. And that is precisely the notion of ​​the museum: to put artistic manifestations on an equal footing regardless of who made them, and to give them the same importance.

C&AL: What criteria do you apply when selecting the pieces?

LC: The historical value, what the work represents and an aesthetic value too, although the latter changes over time. Currently, we hardly purchase new pieces as we lack both the funding and the space for that. But if a donation appears, we discuss it and decide whether or not to accept it. Currently, there are around 10,000 objects in the museum, including a large collection of works on paper. Only what indigenous is concerned, we presently have more or less than 2,500 pieces, approximately 800 religious images and about 300 Kamba Ra’anga masks.

C&AL: What are the challenges and projects for the future, taking into account current technological innovations?

LC: That, at the moment, is not a concern. What we would like to achieve is that the museum receives a greater number of visitors, and that itself is a big challenge, because in Paraguay people don’t often go to museums. With that in mind, it is necessary to develop a dissemination and marketing strategy. It would be good, for example, if the school curriculum included obligatory visits to a museum or that some government institution were in charge of attracting visitors.

C&AL: In your opinion, what are the main attractions of the Museum?

LC: The Mask Room of Kamba Ra’anga is usually the most photographed on Instagram. There is also a piece by Ricardo Migliorisi called La Carpilla Sixtina – that is the second most photographed. It allows you to physically enter the work and many visitors take their picture inside it.

Museo del Barro
Grabadores del Cabichuí 2716
e/ Cañada y Emeterio Miranda
Asunción, Paraguay

Fátima Schulz Vallejos is a journalist and editor. She lives in Asunción, Paraguay.

Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen.