Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Part 2

Next up we went to the Telfair building, a grand mansion from the 1800s housing mostly turn-of-the-century European and American paintings plus Edgefield pottery and some contemporary art that was billed as folk art but wasn't exactly. We drooled over the formal dining room that was covered in wallpaper that created a mural of a Parisian toile-esque landscape around the room and gleaming neoclassical furniture upon which sat priceless silver serving pieces. A little sign described the meals they would have had: first course, oysters 3 ways. Second course, [something ridiculous], champagne. 3rd course, [something else ridiculous 2 ways], [some fancy wine], caviar. 4th course, [some delicate French dish involving fish], pastries, [hard liquor, like brandy maybe?]...." etc. I tried and failed to picture myself dining there, being waited on, entertaining important people. But it was nice to dream.

Then we walked down the stairs and around the corner to the kitchen, if you can even call it that. It was like a hovel dug out of mud with rounded "shelves" molded into the walls. There was one rough wooden table. One fire pit that could barely pass as a fireplace. Enough room for two people reasonably, a crowded three. Dried herbs hanging from the ceiling. A pan. Bellows. Some mysterious thing with a wooden crank. A bucket. And a dumbwaiter where the food was transported to the elegant dining room.

I still try to imagine oysters 3 ways, caviar, delicate French crap and pastries coming out of that kitchen and it just does not compute. How do you make a croissant in a fucking fire pit?? I immediately felt foolish for having daydreamed upstairs about old-timey rich-lady-ness because the kitchen slapped me back to reality. For every 1 rich lady there are, what, 10 slaves? 15 servants? And you would rely on them for everything, someone is always waiting on you in the same room, and you know deep down they freaking hate you. I cannot even describe how uncomfortable that would make me. Knowing that kitchen is right below my slippered feet.

An antique photograph of the wood paneled room in the Telfair. My butt was on that very sofa.
But back to the art.
There's a row of large old portraits as you walk in the front, some finicky and detailed, others stuffy, others ethereal. One in particular stood out as having fluid, effortless brushstrokes, a relaxed natural subject and deep clear color. I glanced at the placard: John Singer Sargent. Of course. The portrait hall leads you to a grand rotunda two stories tall, paneled in dark wood with skylights at the top.  Gigantic spotlit European paintings lined the walls. I won't describe them individually, they're the usual belle-epoch mix of beautiful women, beautiful women as allegories, battle scenes, landscapes, beautiful women with adorable children. But they were all gorgeous and wonderfully executed. One of the battle scene had thin raised brushstrokes that mimicked the rhythm of bayonets in a regiment and shined under the light. I know the effect if often used and cheesy, but it gets me every time. 

Upstairs are two galleries. One contained Edgefield pottery, which is stoneware from a clay-rich region of South Carolina near Aiken and Augusta, GA, that was made by slaves, most notably "Dave the Potter," and continued to be made and sold in workshops after Emancipation. Dave inscribed his pots with short simple poetry and other text in flowing cursive using a sharp in instrument in wet clay. All of the pottery is either clear-glazed, unglazed or simply glazed, retaining a subtle natural look. 

In the other gallery, labeled misleadingly on the map as "folk art," was a collection of contemporary Black art, ranging from Mardi Gras costumes to satin Santaria equipment to a quilt (or maybe collage? I can't remember) made up of early 20th century re-printed newspaper headlines about lynchings and racial violence and other artwork dealing with African diaspora and cultural criticism. There's basically no one who wouldn't want to wear the Mardi Gras costume. Unless you're allergic to feathers (or sequins).

You know where else we went? Not to Vinnie Van Gogh's. Not to an awesome bar. To the public library. Because we're just that cool. Looking for books about Argentina I found two: a 1960s history of the colony that smelled like mold, and a history of "the mystery of" Afro Argentines. Obviously choosing the second and flipping immediately to the "arts" section the book seemed to reference everything I'd just seen in the last Telfair gallery. The mystery, as it turns out is simply that there are hardly any more black people in Argentina were there was once a large slave population and then a large free population. It seems there was a massive war where black men were used as cannon fodder, and the remaining black women intermarried into other races or left the country. There were almost no contributions to Argentina's visual arts (though I suspect the authors are defining visual arts too narrowly, as they repeatedly mentioned how Afro Argentine oldsters would chide the youngsters for wearing flashy, showy ensembles and neglecting "respectability" for fashion). There was more of an influence in music. In addition to drumming and traditional African musics there were improvisational rhyming battles between two musicians, each with a guitar (I immediately though of hip hop). But the most important art form seems to have been dance.  The early slaves and a few later generations kept their associations with different ancestral Nations and had separate events with separate dances. But gradually the Candombe emerged as a common Afro-Argentine dance to drumming. It had four parts, and I can't remember them all. In between each is a sudden pause:
1. A circle formed where people curved around in exaggerated walking-type steps with a slow beat.
2. Lines or circles formed of men and women. People would go toward each other, then away, then touch stomachs.
3. I forget, I think it was a faster dance with a different beat
4. A frenetic beat. Dance free-for-all where people danced themselves into exhaustion. When the lead drummer decided it was over, he gave the final beat, and boom. The event is over, everyone leaves immediately.

"Candombe," by Pedro Figari. [Image: folk art painting of black people in colorful 1850s-ish outfits dancing]

People kept doing the Candombes despite the government intermittently forbidding the dance and having to practice in secret, until the late 1800's when Afro Argentines began to feel that the "native dances" were not respectable and were embarrassing the black population of Buenos Aires. Young people began waltzing instead and those that still danced the Candombe did so in secret. But at that same time poor white riffraff who hung out in bars called "milongas" where blacks also hung out, invented a dance routine specifically making fun of the Candombe, to embarrass the black community further. They called it "tango:" it had the exaggerated walking steps, the pounding rhythm, the touching stomachs and the sudden pauses and intensity. While it was at first a mockery of the black population that accompanied white imitations of Carnival, many black musicians composed and performed tango music and the dance evolved into a standard for working class Argentines.

Combine all of this with the reading material I'd brought with me, a British exhibition catalogue called Afro Modern that outlined trans-Atlantic art from the African Diaspora, and an unexpected theme developed for the trip. I have so much to say about Afro Modern-- even though I didn't finish it because I had to return it to Chas. Public Library-- that I'm planning another post about it.

"The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900," by George Reid Andrews. [Image: the cover of the book.]

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