They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Travel diary (10 out of 28): clay views

Travel diary (10 out of 28): clay views

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated and commented by Sara Plaza

[Diary of the journey by land across the ancient Inka Empire, from LIS Meeting to LIS Meeting, through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and NW Argentina, from November 5th to December 1st, 2006]

On Tuesday, the 14th of November, the day got up grey and there was a cloudy sky over Lima, something that was not estrange to that city of "melancholic" weather. Once more, the breakfast we bought in the supermarket, brought us the opportunity to discover new fruit and never-tasted flavors. With our happy stomachs and glad eyes we had to decide whether to participate in a Librarianship Congress that did not tell us much about Peruvian reality (after having had a look at the schedule for that day) or better set off for that reality in the streets of Lima.

The very first presentation of the day was called "Public policies on information access in the Knowledge Society", and the second one "Knowledge management in academic institutions and research centers". All the rest were workshops (already presented the day before) and the services and information resources presentation (business, business and business). The two main conferences of the first table were going to be given by Emir Suaiden, from Brazil ("The Knowledge Society construction in Latin America and sharing the knowledge") and by Maite Vizcarra, from Peru ("Public policies on the Information Society development in developing countries"). In my opinion the most interesting lecture of the table would be the one by Carlos Quispe Jerónimo, from Peru ("The problem of misinformation on the Internet and its influence upon the spreading of information on the part of librarians"). The two main conferences of the second table would be held by Jesús Lau, from Mexico ("Informative skills in the Information Society") and by José Luis López Yépez, from Spain ("The new professional of information"), together with a series of presentations about librarian practices at different universities.

The proposals (at least a couple of them) seemed interesting to me. But I have to admit that, in general terms, I thought I was going to listen to the same words repeated once and again in most of the Congresses. That information can also be found in many papers published on the Internet, and usually it is neither good enough for a particular purpose or need in real life, nor for the provision of tools that might be of any use for participants. Later talks would give me the reason, though I would also be informed of a number of ideas exposed that were worthy of note. Since there is nothing written about likes and dislikes, and I prefer seeing (and telling) realities rather than being sat listening to words already said, I decided that I would go out and visit museums, libraries, narrow streets, and look up any piece of valuable information in the summaries and the presentations' full texts a bit later.

Many people asked me why I did not attend the lecture delivered by López Yépez, considered by many a librarianship giant. Well, the equation, though a bit estrange, is very simple: I have usually found that the most famous people are the ones who disappoint me the most because they do not have too much to say. On the contrary, I think that many times, those who are not very well-known, the "small" ones, are the richest people, the most interesting ones, in the sense of having something new to add to what has been said.

With very few exceptions, "the big names" use to live of their "bigness". I frequently undergo this unpleasant fact in every Congress and did not want to experience it once more. Furthermore, I already know López Yépez (I took part in one of his seminars in Córdoba, Argentina), and he is not the kind of person whom I have an enthusiasm for.

After haggling over the price for a while, we got a taxi that took us to the Anthropology, Archaeology and History National Museum, our first stop of that day. The Museum –which forms a whole cultural complex together with the House-Museum of Simon Bolivar– is placed in Pueblo Libre district, opposite to Bolívar Square. It is one of the main and most interesting tourist centers for foreign visitors that want to know about regional history. First we admired the enormous bust representing Símon Bolívar in the middle of the square and then we entered the colonial style building.

Crossing different rooms –following chronological order– we learnt about the diverse civilizations that had settled on Peruvian grounds through centuries. In the first one we saw models and tools from Chavín culture, situated in the north/centre of Peru, 300 years BC. Despite the fact that one monolith from this culture –absolutely wonderful, beautifully decorated and engraved with the jaguar's big canines and wide mouths with thick lips silhouettes that characterized its art– was exhibited there, I would have liked to be able to see a copy of the famous "Lanzón de Chavín" (Chavín big spear), a monolithic block literally stuck in the underground corridors of the prehispanic city of the same name, Chavín de Huantar – which gives the name to the culture itself. On that spear –2 meters high, carved on the stone– you can also admire the very same jaguar shapes, but... it has to be really impressive to find it there, without previous notice, right in the middle of an underground corridor. I imagine that, many centuries ago, when caverns were lit only by bright torches, lights and shadows should have adorned such places with the most unbelievable tints. The Chavín people turned their art expressions into something unforgettable and very peculiar thanks to the systematic use of the jaguar figure – probably a totemic animal.

A bit further on, in the history told by the Museum through small pieces of those very old cultures, we found the Paracas people, a culture of the thirsty and deserted Peruvian southern coast. The Paracas people are characterized by their funerary expressions, especially by their bundles, which preserved perfectly the mummified bodies due to the weather conditions. When I am talking about "bundles", I literally refer to a number of things (clothes, offerings and ornaments) wrapped together, covering the death body with different layers until it became a real pack. The quality of the textiles used, the fine wool and the geometric patterns done with hand-dyed fibers, the ornaments made of metal, the offerings (ceramics, food)... everything was there, for the visitor pleasure of recognizing its value, and there were also real-size models representing the underground caverns and the different types of structures that Paracas people employed when burying dead ones.

It was curious –though maybe would be better to say "moving"– to observe the many details that those people had towards their deceased: the dishes left next to their hands, the things they loved (musical instruments, weapons, playthings) placed between their fingers, the body position (wrapped in "ponchos" and blankets), the jewelry and adornments made of rare valuable elements (such as stone and sea shells)... Everything together was a little, intimate tribute to the memory of those who have died and were loved so much. Those mortal remains exhibited in the museum glass cases did not only spoke about a people, a culture, an era: they explained human beings' life, people like you and me, who cried, who laughed, who missed, who felt sick and sorrow, who would have not –probably– understood the mystery of death, who had faith in afterlife...

From the Paracas people, we went to the Nazca and Mochica ones, two cultures situated in the Peruvian southern and northern coast respectively. Both of them were famous, as well as the previous one, for their textiles and their metal work, but in the last ones, ceramics was of great importance and had an extraordinary development. Vessels from Nazca and Mochica peoples were more than containers used for holding liquids or food: they were those peoples' life representations turned into amphorae, bowls, cups, and jars. From a depicted vegetable to a mythical scene, without forgetting the intimate ones, everything was represented in their ceramics.

Although Mochica ceramics put emphasis on pictorial representations done on their earthenware pots, the Nazca people used to shape the clay into different figures, meaning that the vase had the shape of an animal, an important person... The patterns were absolutely realistic and naturalistic. Concerning colors, they were quite temperate in Nazca ceramics and much brighter in the Mochica. Medical studies have been developed from Nazca ceramic portrayals (faces, busts, whole bodies); through them it has been possible to elaborate a catalogue with different pre-Inkan illnesses. In addition we can also know the farming products they ate, the animals they hunted, the fish, the means of transport they used, the clothes they wore, their personal adornments, even their social structure and how they were organized...

...and their sexual life as well.

I am not joking at all: one of the favorite sections in the Museum is the one related to Mochica ceramics with erotic representations, vessels with scenes from the sexual life of men and women. It is a complete series of different positions, in which the artists (normally ceramics was done by women) expressed their likes, desires or experiences. From oral sex to homosexuality, from relations with animals to the ones in group, all you can imagine is described in those containers, in three dimensions, with all necessary detail.

Once more, in front of those such real expressions (not only the sexual ones, but all of them) we recognized that their value was more than archaeological: the memory of people like us, people who enjoyed the art as such, who enjoy decorating their vases, telling their daily life in them, expressing their more intimate dreams and desires, portraying with total realism the sick, the cripple, the silly or the funny ones... Those clay faces were of men and women like us: the one who laughed, the one over there who chewed coca leaves, the one beside him who had cried or had got toothache... Their eyes were looking at me, ancient pupils made of clay many centuries ago. Those ceramics represented people that existed in reality, who had loved, who had hated, who had shown their desires and their fears. Like me, like both us, like you.

It was there, at that very moment, that we understood the true value of a museum, of a library, of a school (if we want to make them of any use for our society, of course). In the pages of our books, in the scenes of our pictures, in the silhouettes of our ceramics, in the many and different expressions that men and women have used for representing their lives, themselves, the world, are their opinions, their likes, their fears, their fails, their successes, their culture, their history –in fact, our culture, our history– the words said many centuries ago, their sounds, their music, their prayers, their songs, their stories, tales, legends...

Through the documents that we preserve and spread, the voices of the past can be listened to at the present. The tangible heritage preserved in a museum, the intangible one kept in the library and the learnings from both of them discussed in any classroom (inside and outside the school) are the two sides of the very same coin: humankind memory.

That memory is our most valuable treasure, especially when we realize its meaning, where it comes from, why it exists and how it can be used for learning to walk our own path.

We continued with our visit and crossed room with metal works, other cultures –not less important– remains, such as the ones of Chimú, Lambayeque, Tiwanaku... And the section where Incan culture was also explained through some of its manifestations.

This part of the museum was connected directly with the Colonial Art Museum. You only had to cross a large corridor where there were the illustrations –in a very big format– from Guamán Poma de Ayala's book, which digital version, free and online, can be found in a Danish archive.

The book tells about the history and the nature of the Inkan society, the Spanish arrival and the colonial regime, showing its brutality through the tortures, assassinations, injustice and discrimination acts that they committed... The sufferings of an indigenous people that was murdered and condemned to slavery by the ones who have just arrived to their lands.

If you manage to know a bit about Inkan history, you should be informed that they were not precisely people who lived in peace: they were war-minded conquerors and few times took pity on their enemies, on the rebel, on those who resisted their attacks (though they also made formal agreements in order to enlarge their territory under the terms of those treaties). However, looking back in history and considering the result after 500 years with the same policy of brutality and repression... I felt a cold shiver running through me while looking at those images. One of them –one that always impressed me the most– was placed there: Atahualpa execution. The legend says that, when he was killed, "it got dark at noon". That sentence, repeated in Quechua language generation after generation up to now –punchaw chawpi tutallarqa, if I am not wrong– always touched me.

It is very moving to see how, nowadays, almost every Andean music group that is proud of its music has at least a song dedicated to Atahualpa. There is one very special that begs him not to give up and go back like a rebel:

¡Jatariy, Atawallpa,
Runa rebelde, Atawallpa...!

There was something in that room that caused us pain. A broken memory, a lot of blood, many chains... Tears in every corner, on four sides, under our feet, above our heads. Our Latin American peoples' history has much of any of them. One scar upon the other.

Very quickly we passed the Republic period collection –basically consisting of photographs, portrayals and copies of some documents– and at the end of this last corridor we arrived at present time. There were more photographs, big posters with some pieces of news from newspapers, historic objects and the portrayals of main Peruvian characters, from "the Chinese" Fujimori to Vargas Llosa...

Peruvian people, was written on the walls, was a mixture of elements almost impossible to come apart, to be understood without placing one next to the other. Many centuries have passed and whole processes of adaptation, of learning and forgetting what was learnt. I understood that we, Latin American people, are also this: a shapeless mixture of memory and oblivion, of things split down the middle, which other half was never known or we decided to ignore it.

I became aware of how complex we are, how difficult it is to come to know each other, to understand each other.

I did also realize the fragility and fragmentation of our memory, the amputation of our roots and the mixture of them, the changed values, the ideas blown by winds coming from all possible directions. Nevertheless, and taking everything into consideration, we felt ourselves Latin American people. A great enigma. An extraordinary mystery. And, why not, a wonderful miracle of adventure, love and survival. A strong desire for life.

After a short visit to the house where Gral. San Martín has one day lived –and that was also Simón Bolívar's home– we left the Museum and headed for our next stop: The Ceramics Museum, property of Rafael Larco Herrera, placed in the same district of Pueblo Libre.

This museum possesses one of the most impressive collections of Peruvian ceramic works, including its famous "erotic collection". The old owner, who was able to trace the surname of his family back in history, had won fame –and fortune– being talked by many people as an erudite, but probably better known as a "huaquero", the one who assaults and violates tombs and steal the objects that finds inside. He was the one formulating the hypothesis –during the 60'– about prehispanic cultures use of pictographic symbols written down in "porotos pallares" (a sort of beans) as their writing. Always considering their arguments, certain lines of "pallares" colored with different symbols might have served as true "books" between Mochicas and Nazcas. With this record, we went to the museum, but only to find there that the ticket was ridiculously expensive. We realized how some cultural institutions tried to survive thanks to tourism –or maybe taking advantage of foreign exchange– but, regretfully, with those policies the only thing they obtain is to drive away visitors (nationals and foreigners).

With the absence of that museum in our travel diary, and fearing to find similar deceptions/disappointments in our way, we directed our steps downtown. We wanted to visit Riva-Agüero Institute, an institution that belonged to the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (a "semi-private" university, as many Peruvians say) that put most of its effort into anthropological studies. Personally, I was interested in knowing about the Andean Ethnomusicological Centre, which has thousands of audiovisual registers from the Peruvian mountains and neighbor areas in its collection, plus descriptions and information about documents, rhythms and dances. Continuing with our "good" luck, we found it closed. Then we took notice of another absence in our schedule of the day and went on through narrow streets of the grid design of Lima.

Our tour basically followed the very same places that we have seen the previous day in the evening, though it was really nice to appreciate those buildings, monuments, churches, balconies, streets, squares, corners, roofs, arcades emerging into the bright daylight.

In the next post I will write down some details concerning the daily life in the streets of Lima, under its balconies... and also about its citizens' opinions, the needs that can almost be touched in every corner, and the beauty of the indigenous glances that appear as you walk in the streets. Retell everything that Sara and I saw during that day –on architectural, cultural, urban and historical scale– would took us various pages of this weblog. I will finish confessing that one of our last stops was a musical instruments shop. There we enjoyed "huanca" harps, mandolins, violins, guitars and charangos, and I also gazed the thin silhouettes of quenas, sikus and mohoceños.

With the smelling of wood and reed, of native music, of ancient sounds from the mountains, we leave you now.

A big hug from Córdoba, Argentina...

Image.