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 the country was to perform as part of the Buenos Aires Ragtime and Early Jazz festival. 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. This divide still persists, not unlike a counterpart to the Republican-Democrat duopoly in the United States, and is 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 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). 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. The subjects conveyed in much of the graffiti centers around civilian lives lost in the midst of Argentina’s political turmoil, and 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.

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Due November 22nd.  Max Keenlyside.