ANTH 2991 Visual Anthropology
"Photo Essay" Assignment

ANTH 2991, Dr. Kelly Baker

Max Keenlyside


The sociopolitical climate of Buenos Aires past and present can be well-observed in the relics of the cityscape. In contrast to the relative social and political stability known in Canada, Argentina has a history of constant change; since attaining independence from the British in 1825, Argentina has endured several civil wars, and numerous regimes of different varieties of government. Much of the architecture in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, is historic. The modern cityscape comprises a conglomerate of private and governmental building spanning the mid-19th and late 20th centuries. This Fall, I had the opportunity not only to visit the city, but also to get shown around by new friends who were eager to share their love for their city, country, and the history hidden in every street and structure. In this writing, I will reflect on some of the sights that were of political, historical, and social significance, and explore how they may be viewed through an anthropological lens.

My primary purpose in visiting Argentina was to perform as part of the Buenos Aires Ragtime and Early Jazz festival, held at the Centro Cultural Kirchner. However, with a week in Buenos Aires, and only one evening performance each day, me and my pianistic cohorts were free to explore and learn about the city. Ragtime music, though a North American idiom, is far from insular, and through globalization, it found its way to South America in the mid-20th century. We were welcomed by many Argentine ragtime musicians who, fortunately for me and three other pianists, were so generous as to share their time and knowledge. Chief among these was Nahuel Zacharias, a 27-year-old multi-instrumentalist street musician (Photo 1). Through conversations with both Nahuel and another street musician named Lucas Ferrari, I learned that in Argentina, their line of work does not carry the same social stigma that may be associated with it in North America. In most first world countries, such as Canada and the United States, street performers of any kind are closely tied with presumptions of poverty, lower class, and sometimes even homelessness. In Buenos Aires, Nahuel told me, a musician is expected to supplement their income with performances in a variety of venues, both formal and informal, ranging from concert halls, to outdoor markets, and even to city busses. Indeed, Nahuel was generous to take time out of his bus performance schedule to tour us about the city. Thinking in terms of reflexivity, my assumptions about street musicians in Argentina represent an ethnocentric interpretation of the Argentine culture.

Organized protest has long been a part of the way Argentinians engage in their political process. During my stay in the city, I witnessed how organized, controlled, and regular these displays were, and how their occurrence had long since become normalized as part of Argentinian culture. Since the 1946 inauguration of president Juan Domingo Perón, Argentinians mostly fall into two camps: Peronists and Anti-Peronists. The original Peronist government has since been argued to have been something closer to a fascist regime, not unlike that of Benito Mussolini, but with a purely political and non-racial slant. While the extremity of these policies has waned over the decades, this divide still persists, not unlike a counterpart to the Republican-Democrat duopoly in the United States. Peronist and anti-Peronist disputes are the contentious primary subject of public protests. Our hosts explained how one’s travels through the city should be carefully planned around these events; while they are peaceful protests, they can occasionally descend into violence, both from police intervention, organized militia, and within divided camps of protesters.

Nahuel took Will Perkins, Andrew Havens, John Reed-Torres, and myself on a bus tour that focussed on La Boca, a waterfront historic neighborhood in Buenos Aires (Photo 2). Our wanderings were focused on the El Caminito road area of the village. In addition to being a fertile ground for tourist-oriented craft businesses, restaurants, and cafes, the area is home to a wealth of cultural relics both old and new. Ubiquitous throughout Buenos Aires are sculptures from the 18th to 19th centuries, usually commemorating wartime events, celebrated figures of antiquity, or religious and political figures. Peppered about the city, alongside, and even on top of the sculptures, are the work of spray-paint graffiti artists. Most graffiti art found in Buenos Aires dates from the last three decades, and the styles generally fall into two categories: eye-catching artwork that celebrates Argentine culture (Photo 3), and politically-charged text or iconography (Photo 4). Nahuel drew my attention to the “Y SANTIAGO” graffiti, which could be seen replicated all about Buenos Aires (Photo 5). Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any English-language documentation of the story behind the “Y SANTIAGO” graffiti. Nahuel explained to me that, several years ago, there was a Peronist and anti-Peronist protest conflict during which a young boy named Santiago went missing. In short order, his remains were found, and it was clear that he had been trampled to death during the incident. The anti-Peronists did their best to hold their adversaries accountable by disseminating the rhetorical, damning question, “where is Santiago?” The phrase can be found on sidewalks, private residences, government properties, businesses, and Peronist statues. (Photo 6 is one such statue, but regrettably does not show the side containing the graffiti.) The example I have included here is from a residential area near La Boca.

I found the juxtaposition of the two art forms interesting: the “high-brow” expression of the privileged elite depicted in the statues; and the sharply honest language from the poorer demographics in the graffiti. It is notable that the disputes between the Peronists and anti-Peronists are differently depicted by these two demographics: the statues of the privileged celebrate the powerful figures and of both parties, and the opulence they enjoyed; the subjects conveyed in graffiti often center around civilian lives lost in the midst of Argentina’s political turmoil, their hardworking lifestyle, and the impoverished conditions they endure (Photos 7 and 9). I couldn’t help but speculate that the placement of graffiti on the statues was a direct retaliation; a way for the less-privileged to directly respond to their more powerful counterparts on the same platform.

As a resolution to this fierce dichotomy, I was pleased to find one avenue of public art that found some middle-ground. Among my favourite sights in La Boca were side-by-side statues of Evita Peron and Che Guevara (Pictures 8 and 10), presented together alongside a celebrated football player whose name I unfortunately do not recall. Evita Peron, while a member of the elite, and wife of the political movement’s originator, was something of a quasi-spiritual and moral icon to the underprivileged classes of Argentina; Guevara, an Argentine expatriat, went on to become a famous Cuban revolutionary. Photos 8 and 10 include Nahuel, John Reed-Torres, and myself standing with these illustrious figures. Nahuel explained to me that, while Peron and Guevara apparently had no personal interaction, they are often depicted together due to the shared ways in which they are celebrated, as ardent champions of the lower class, amplifying the voices of those without the power to be heard.

// Enable/disable default HTML formatter "html.format.enable": true, "Y Santiago?" "Photo essay by Max Keenlyside"
Due November 22nd.  Max Keenlyside.