Emilio Longhi: Cola de Ballena Jorobada

“You start to understand that art has this potential to change the future when you make a stand.”

Long before all of the petroleum activities started in the North of Peru, there were a lot of fishermen. Thousands of fishermen who used these smaller boats made of wood, not like the bigger industrial boats.

Here in Peru, we have miles and miles of ocean that can be fished, but when you pass like 200 miles you get to the area where they have a lot of huge boats and all the Chinese vessels that are in that area. But then we have these five miles offshore we can call the ‘low self-esteem line’ that is specifically protected for the artisanal fishermen but sometimes the industrial fishermen are getting into those five miles.

So, the people fishing there need to be empowered, as they’ve been living there all their life you know? But the country and state value them like worthless. As an artist you have to understand the local problems, because there are several things you should worry about, like how to make your art sensitive to the people.

So, there was all this beautiful, beautiful wood from the artisanal boats that washed up on the shore, making it look like it was just trash. But it was so beautiful, like you could just take a piece and hang it on your wall like a painting. But it is also important to consider how you can introduce symbols that people understand within the collective imaginary.

When I first saw this wood, I felt that it was like layers and layers of life. You can see how over the years the wood has changed with layers and layers of paint. And I was like yes, this is history, and this is about a relationship between systems. Even I saw it with the nails used in the wood- they weren’t industrial nails, they were like those ones that people would have worked themselves with their own hands…I haven’t seen nails like this before because usually mass-produced ones are all the same because a machine made it, right? But with these ones you can see its different.

Anyway, so now a lot of these artisanal fishermen that would have used these wooden boats are always in a conflict with the big resorts, or the tourists. But they are not communicating with them, they don’t focus on a solution there is only the problem. So, I this I saw an opportunity to work with the resources that existed, alongside the resort Selena. It’s not a big enterprise but they have a chain of hotels internationally and are eco-friendly. They want to cooperate with the fishermen and to make a connection, so I started to do the same thing, to ask myself how can we work better? And that is where the wood from the boats came in.

I went to one of the artisanal fishermen and told him about the project and introduced him to someone representing the hotel, and he knew about the space where it would be, like they really hated each other for that. We said how we really wanted to clean the shores, and to use the materials there, as in the end everyone had to share the same space. But also in return, they wanted to make a deal to sell their fish to the hotel but at a good price, so they had to communicate to cut out the middleman and do it directly.

I chose to make the whale out of the wood for this reason. In that moment, when I was planning to build the whale, it was a special season, from September to October, when you can see the whales and how they jump…they are so magnificent and huge, and even from the shore you can really get a connection with them, even it can be like 200 metres away. And then if you go inside the water, you can hear the conversation between the whale mother and her child, so that’s beautiful. It’s one of the largest animals but is also in the same space as yours, and I thought that making that connection work was great.

I went to Selena a few weeks ago to see the sculpture, and it was being treated really well. Even sometimes, you can see the wood drifting from the sea and then suddenly a wave comes, and it moves and it’s like you can imagine that the wood is another whale. Its an intermediation that I haven’t done myself! Like the sea throws out the wood and when it comes close to the whale sculpture it is all transformed into something special…it offers up things that I didn’t expect. It is working and the message is there!

 Emilio Longhi is represented by BLOC ART

Elizabeth Vásquez Arbulú: ‘Error Geográfico’

“The fishermen living in the geographic error exist at the margins of legality; it is all a big tangle.”

I produced the work ‘Error Geográfico’ (‘Geographic Error’) whilst undertaking a residency with the programme Hawapi. Normally they hold their residencies in spaces that are experiencing some kind of political or environmental issue.

It’s usually a different edition every year, and in my case, they chose the border conflict between Peru and Chile as the starting point. Because they don’t have like a physical residency space, we camped out right there in the area of conflict!

In this place there has been a political problem for a long time, as the territory has changed hands over the years. This discrepancy over land gave birth to what is called a ‘geographic error’, and here it has to do with a very small piece of land, like the size of a football field. It is encapsulated in the territories of both sides in a way, as it has to do with calculations over land and legal documents and things like that.

So, we made a camp in this triangle part, in the side that ‘belonged’ to Peru. While we were there lots of things happened, like the local news showed up and made a problem. They saw us like foreigners, there was Peruvians and Chileans, but also Bolivians, some Iranians, and Americans. So, they said we wanted to make a business there or something and then the police were obligated to remove us from that area.

It was a pretty conflictual exit, and so then we all decided to propose an artwork based on our experiences.

In my case, from this experience I decided to get in touch with a fisherman that I had met living there. This was a really interesting theme because it didn’t just focus on the territorial dispute on land but also because there was a dispute over the marine territory. This dispute affected the life of the local fishermen because they had issues to enter the ocean in case they went to the Chilean part, so there ended up being a lot of geographic and thematic conflicts. This also meant that there were issues about human consumption there, because the marine resources were in dispute over this geographic error.

The part of marine territory that enters the dispute came after the land issues had supposedly been resolved, and this also has a lot of commercial interest. In this part of the ocean there were a lot of resources that each country wanted, as well as foreign interests coming into play, so it was quite conflictual. After many years they did make a deal about the territory dispute of course, but still that little piece of beach and ocean is left!

So, I became really interested in the experience of the fishermen living and working in the geographic error, as this community was really small and had migrated to the coast from the highlands of Peru. I decided to do some interviews and make videos and concentrated in the sensations and the realities of the life of one fisherman.

This fisherman came from Puno, and it was really interesting to see the way that these political problems clashed with other issues about identity. The area was so close to the international limits, but this community spoke Aymara (Andean language) as well as Spanish, and didn’t really feel like Peruvian, or Chilean, but Puneños.

It was a really specific situation, and they felt totally abandoned by the government as they were the only people living so close to the border, on the Chilean side there was no one, and the police kept bothering them. They had been there already a long time before the police started to interfere, and they had their own territorial disputes because of this. They had bought some hectares of land and had the papers, but after the political issues with the geographic error they told them that the land didn’t belong to them anymore. Because of this issue they did not just suffer with fishing but also agriculture. Like, they would have to go and water their crops and harvest their land in the early hours of the morning to avoid the police seeing them.

So, I decided to explore this metaphor between the political issues faced and how the fishing community lived their daily lives, all at a cost from the geographic error.

Elizabeth Vásquez Arbulú is represented by BLOC ART

On seeing indigenous environments

This week I watched Alas de mar (‘Ocean Wings’), a 2016 documentary directed by Hans Mülchi which follows two members of the Kawésqar indigenous community as they return to their ancestral lands in the far south of Chile. To say ‘ancestral lands’ is a little misleading, though, as in the Patagonian archipelago and in Kawésqar culture, the surrounding ocean matters just as much.

Alas de mar grew out of Mülchi’s previous documentary, Calafate, zoológicos humanos (2010), which addressed the exhibition of indigenous people from Tierra del Fuego in human zoos in Europe in the late 19th century. During that project, Mülchi met Celina and Rosa, two members of the Kawésqar community, who then became the protagonists of Alas de mar.

Over the next couple of months, I’ll be focusing my research on how indigenous relations to coastal and marine environments are represented in Chilean and Peruvian culture, as part of a short visiting research fellowship at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. The way in which Alas de mar deals with this issue caught my attention for a couple of reasons.

The first is the prominence given to Kawésqar voices. Mülchi’s voiceover is sparse and reflective: he notes that he will never be able, as a filmmaker, to recreate how the Kawésqar saw and experienced the world before their near-extermination in the early 20th century. We hear much more from Rosa and Celina than we do from him. In one particularly touching sequence, Rosa patiently demonstrates a traditional form of weaving to an anthropologist travelling with the group, who is struggling to pick it up.

Alongside this active transmission of cultural knowledge, the film contains many sequences filmed from the group’s boat, which simply show the sea, the mountains, and the plant and animal life to be found there, sometimes accompanied by ethereal music. We also often see members of the travelling group in moments of quiet observation.

What Mülchi’s reflexive documentary suggests, I think, is that while it may not be possible for a filmmaker to recover or represent near-vanished modes of relating to the world, the effort and the attention are still worthwhile, and can still lead to a new appreciation of environments and cultures that are under threat.

Alas de mar is an interesting counterpoint, in this sense, to Patricio Guzmán’s El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button, 2015). I’ve written elsewhere about my unease with the way in which Guzmán confidently translates indigenous cultures through his own experience, and it’s intriguing to compare his work with a film that is superficially similar but ultimately very differently constructed.

This question of how to film (or indeed to write about) indigenous relations to the natural world is a complex one, to say the least, and I’ll no doubt return to it in the coming months…

PS I was intrigued, if not entirely surprised, to learn that the director of photography for Alas de mar was none other than Enrique Ramírez, who I spoke to about his fascination with the sea for this blog.

Ana Elisa Sotelo Van Oordt (Part 2): Guardian of Guano

“[The Guardian of Guano] would think like, looked like, and kind of behaved like a bird”

Originally, I was kind of obsessed with the very traditional National Geographic documentaries where you have a narrator and you’re seeing some sort of wonderful natural phenomenon. I wanted to shoot a documentary like that in Peru so I went to the Punta San Juan Reserve, which is the largest colony of Humboldt penguins in Peru. Those are these desert penguins, which is not the image we typically associate with penguins!

So, I went there with that idea, but when I arrived there was already a man from the BBC shooting a film about the desert penguins! First, I was like wow I can learn so much!… but then as a producer I thought why am I going to shoot a film on desert penguins when this guy already started and has all this equipment that is so much better than mine? why don’t I just do something else that’s going to that work better?

Then I spent a couple days in the reserve, which is basically an inlet, like a sliver of land in the water where you’re sitting on top of a load of bird poop (guano). It smells horrible and there’s so much wind, but it’s beautiful with the seabirds, and its full of a sea Lions. Then I started hanging out with the island guard Ricardo Moreno, and he would show me like ‘oh here’s where the penguins hang out’, or ‘this is where you can get the best shot of the sea lions’.

This reserve is under the protection of the Ministry of Agriculture, so in the same way you would have a park ranger, he was there  guarding the island because around these areas  the people like to hunt these birds, eat them, or go into the reserve and fish, because obviously since it’s a reserve there’s going to be a lot of fish that haven’t been depleted.  So he takes care of the birds and then he also reports back on the population and whether or not its growing.

He came from the mountains and he first saw the ocean as a guano collector because there’s not enough population native to the coastal areas to do the job, and at that time there was a lot of terrorism in the mountains. So, he came down as a as a guano collector and then eventually there was an opening as the guard. A couple of years back he got an award for being the guard with the longest service, but now he’s retired.

As I started hanging out with him, I became really fascinated by this man. He would think like, looked like, and kind of behaved like a bird, and I was just very drawn to the fact that he lived there all year on his own just taking care of these birds and kind of like having this really intimate relationship with them.

At first, I thought that the birds don’t have very exciting lives up here… you would think that they just sit and stare, but they’re like looking everywhere in all directions, and are aware of every sound. The first couple of times I would see him go and count the birds I would think it’s incredibly boring, as this guy’s just sitting there! And then, as I kept going I began to think it was an incredibly fascinating activity because he’s looking at one thing then you see one bird fly down, and then you can hear the ocean, or even hear another one, and I think that he adopted these very bird-like conditions where you’re kind of looking and being aware of your environment and feeling very frail… birds are very frail and they’re aware of it, especially when they’re not flying because obviously if you’re on land we have the advantage but in the air, they have the advantage.

One of his tasks there was that twice a week, he would collect the vomit after the birds regurgitated and then he would see ‘oh so this bird has eaten an anchovy, this one has eaten another fish or whatnot’. What was really interesting was that he saw that the birds were eating less and less anchovy because there’s not that many available anymore. And that’s a direct reflection of the depletion of stocks from overfishing, even if it goes on many kilometres away it’s affecting the birds that are in this area too.

Also, you’re always sitting and you’re walking on top of bird poop, so he was like knee deep in bird poop and guts and he was just fascinated! And I was fascinated by the way he talked about birds! I kept asking myself how this man could just have his life revolve around these birds, and he’s here all alone, his families in the mountains he never sees them…then I realised that to him the birds were his family and he I think he identified a lot with the birds, because they were also very solitary.

Watch Guardian of Guano:

Ana Elisa Sotelo Van Oordt is represented by BLOC ART