Monday, 17 January 2011

3.1 1st stop: Colombia -the paintings in their context. The camion de escalera

Not only do objects change through their existence, but they often have the capability of accumulating histories, so that the present significance of an object derives from the persons and events to which it is connected” (Gosden and Marshall, 1999: 171)

the point of Marx's analysis, however, is that the things (commodities) themselves believe in their place, instead of the subjects; it is as if all their beliefs, superstitions and metaphysical mystifications, supposedly surmounted by the rational, utilitarian personality, are embodied in the social relations between things. They no longer believe, but the things themselves believe for them.” (Zizek quoted in Mieke Bal, 2004)

The above sentences are perfectly suited to the idea of objects changing meaning according to different contexts and different people/ owners that I am focusing on. In fact, the main idea is that, as people and objects go through time and movemement and change they are ,as argued by Marshall in the Cultural Biography of Objects (1999), constantly transformed and this transformation of object and person are tied up to each other. At the same time, as asserted by Zizek, objects seem to know where their place is in relation to the people and this, I could argue, it is what happens with the paintings: no matter how much one tries to disconnect them from their original environment or move them around the world, they will always bring inside that culture, although slightly seasoned with other histories and cultures around the world.
Our first bus stop in this journey, where the vehicle is the bus, is the place where the paintings comes from, Antioquia. There they are in their place of origin, reverberant of stories accumulated by the locals in years of journeys throughout the impervious landscape near Medellin.
The culture which surrounds the paintings and of which these are imbued is essential to understand the subject of this research, a culture without which the paintings would be left with less history and no “soul” (Hoskins, 1998).
The architect Isaza Isaza, a friend of my father who has been writing articles about the camiones de escalera for a long time, recounts this funny and what I initially thought an inappropriate story , in a text sent to my father a few years ago:

Argemiro Villa «el muñeco, the driver of the colombian truck called «La Macarena» of the city of Bolívar tells an anecdote that well relates to the theme: “on a certain occasion, a peasant begged me to transport a cow to the village. The truck was almost full and at first I rejected the request for I didn't want to incovenience the other passengers, but the peasant insisted so much that I had to accept. He didn't warn me that the cow was ill. We put the animal in between the benches, at the back of the bus, tied to a pipe. Some passengers, especially the youngsters, started to bother the cow; I had warned them that they let the cow alone but they kept bothering her until she turned round, pointing her back to the direction of the kids who were annoying her and defecated over them. The cow was going to the village to be treated for diaorrea and the peasant had given her a bath before fixing her in the truck so that we wouldn't notice her being ill.” (Isaza Isaza, 2002: 10-11)
My first reaction to this story was of surprise and also found the situation itself inappropriate as I would never find myself in the same circumstances, nor in Milan or London. But then I realised how important this story was to convey the sense of this culture and understand where the product of it (the paintings) came from. The multifunctionality of the bus, indistinctively transporting people, animals and goods (fig.5), created the basis for a section of the population who wanted, or perhaps has no other choice, to live with and in contact with the nature, to the point of sharing the same bus with animals and find themselves in unpleasant situations like the one above told. The same concept can be applied to the workshops where the contruction of the bus takes place, where the work around the 'camion' is the result of a team involvement which includes artists as well as carpenters (fig 6), all sharing the same objective. It is this sense of community that transpires from the buses that leaves its mark on the paintings, in the popular subjects which pepper the sheets of metal.
Ordinary objects which have long been used by one master take on a sort of personality, their own face, I could almost say a soul, and the folklore of all nations is full of these beings more human than humans, because they owe their existence to people and, awakened by their contact, take on their own life and autonymous activities, a sort of latent and fantastic willfulness” (Paul Claudel quoted in Hoskins, 1998: 1).
Thus, the bus embodies these characteristics of a human being in that it is lived, built, painted by human beings and is constantly awakened by people's connection with it because the relationship with people is the only thing that makes and keeps it alive, just like a person. The entertaining part added to it makes it valuable to the eyes of the society and to the eyes of the researcher that sees this object as personified and key to the folkloristic aspect of the population.
Whether they are owned by individuals, a family, extended family or clan, collectively by a tribe or ethnic group, or whether they are treasures of a sultan's palace or princely realm, pusaka are a creation by society; it the meaning a society gives these objects, not anything innate in the objects themselves, which make them pusaka”. (1992: 159)
Therefore, to put it with Mac Donalds words, these 'pusaka', that is spiritual objects created by the society, which in this instance are the buses with their own 'soul', only exist because of the society that makes them and that introduces them as part of their culture.