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For subversive political aesthetics: Mestizo performances challenging monuments of whiteness in Santiago’s urban space

Published onMar 17, 2022
For subversive political aesthetics: Mestizo performances challenging monuments of whiteness in Santiago’s urban space

Unsettling stone: Pedro mestizo.

The waters of the white marble fountain were blood-red. Black-dressed bodies, in wet clothes sticking to their skin, were slowly moving in it to the marked rhythm of the kultrun, the Mapuche drum.1 In the spring of 2019, the square was taken over by indigenous sounds and language, with a megaphone clamouring for a dark-skinned (morena) presence in the very heart of Santiago’s city centre. In the contest of intense protests calling for political change and resulting in the current process of re-writing Chile’s Constitution promulgated under Pinochet’s military rule,2 the crowd had flooded the Plaza de Armas. Through chanting and dancing, and performative gestures addressing the square’s monumentality, the unconcerned violence of the colonial longue durée was unveiled and challenged.

The climax of these interventions was the dressing up of the statue of Chile’s founder, Pedro de Valdivia in indigenous and mestizo (mixed indigenous and European ancestry) colours, fabrics and symbols. The Spanish conquistador, who founded Santiago in 1541 and went on to colonise the lands to the south, was eventually defeated and killed on the other side of the Biobio river, the frontier between the indigenous and colonial territories for the following three centuries. Celebrated in many ways in the capital city and other urban contexts throughout the country, Pedro de Valdivia is the main figure honoured in the square: a museum is dedicated to him in the former Central Post Office which had previously been his house; plaques pay tribute to his role as the founder of the country; and the bronze, majestic statue of him riding a horse - as if entering the city - is an imposing presence.

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The statue (figure 1) was commissioned by the Spanish Community in Chile and donated to the city on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Chile’s independence, though it only arrived in Santiago three years later in 1963 due to the Valdivia earthquake. The bronze with which the statue was made was cast from the ‘victorious’ cannons of the Spanish Army. It was built in Spain by Enrique Pérez Comendador, who, due to the short notice with which the sculpture was initially commissioned, used the model of a horse that he had prepared for a monument to Francisco Franco Bahamonde (general who ruled over Spain as a dictator from 1939 to 1975). After taking three years to reach its final destination, the statue was first installed on the nearby Santa Lucía hill, the actual site where the city was founded. It was moved to the Plaza de Armas in 1966, where it was first mounted facing east, as if ‘leaving’ the square; only following protests by the donors was the statue turned to face the cathedral, ‘entering’ it again.3 One curious and debated detail is the absence of reins on the horse, and various popular stories circulate regarding this fact: they fell off during the trip to Chile; the horse symbolizes a country capable of guiding itself towards its destiny; or what the Spanish sculptor wanted to show was actually the animal's fidelity to its owner, the conqueror, as a metaphor for the colonial relationship between Chile and Spain. Whatever the case, this statue is dense with history, ranging from its very materiality, to the events of its instalment, to its semiotic resonances, to its unexpected uses – for example, as a point of access to the square and popular reference and meeting point.4

There it remained untouched until recently, when this statuesque symbol was interrogated and transformed through performative gestures, as described above and as we will see in greater detail in what follows. Following Ann Stoler, this article interrogates objects and materialities in which imperial histories are ‘carried and conveyed’, the multiple ways in which the ‘tangibilities of colonial past and imperial present’ still mark our lives, collective trajectories and the increasingly interconnected urban spaces we inhabit5. At the same time, we want to explore how disruptions take place in relation to certain sites, spaces and materialities. Actions of bodies in place, through their very presence, challenge national and racial identities displayed in public spaces. If, as already noted by Henri Lefebvre, space is ‘perceived, lived, and produced’ by means of the body,6 certain bodies, occupying certain places and urban sites making use of particular aesthetics are what challenges the dominant narrative embedded in the city space.

The site we are addressing is the Plaza de Armas, the central square spatially representing - as in many other Latin American cities - the structures and hierarchies of society as an arena where diverse social groups and classes come together, albeit in a highly structured way7. Materially, indigenous and mestizo bodies challenge the narrative displayed in Pedro de Valdivia statuary representation. In this context, and moving from three ‘performance actions’8 which took place between 2018 and 2019, we are interested in exploring how monuments, far from being neutral urban decorations, are both representation of power and dominant narratives put in place by political elites and subsequently reinterpreted, challenged and subverted9. We thus focus on the multiple interpretations which they generate, or what Lefebvre had already noted when observing how monuments rather than having a ‘signified’, possess a ‘multiplicity of meanings, a shifting hierarchy in which now one, now another meaning comes momentarily to the fore, by means of – and for the sake of – a particular action’.10

The particular action here is the performative presence of bodies in place; it is what allows the ‘staining’ of monumental narratives of whiteness. These performances evoke at the same time transformation and the impossibility of escaping power, as their creative remaking must always come to terms with the givenness of particular histories, social relationships, and cultures11. By working through the limits of contingent possibilities, the givenness of historical and power relations embedded in the (post)colonial city are not defeated, but rather interrogated and challenged, ‘setting into motion’ dissenting imaginations.12 Engaging with both the political and the aesthetic, these imaginaries contribute to rearticulating meanings, alternative visual narratives and, ultimately, new political subjectivities. Thinking with Jacques Rancière, they actively participate in the redefinition of the relationship between what is visible, thinkable, and audible, and what is not. In what the author has famously defined ‘the distribution of the sensible’,13 the perceived elements of reality are shuffled and rearranged in ways that reconfigure the very relationship between the possible and the impossible.

In what follows, we address specific articulations taking place through performative action and bodily presence, spatial interventions through which political subjectivities emerge. We will analyse the ways in which colonial narratives and representations are defied by embodied performances that challenge the materiality of the city’s monumental landscape. In order to do so, we engage with three performances respectively held around the statue of Pedro de Valdivia in 2018, during a research and artistic project in which we both took part as coordinators, and in 2019, during the political upheavals in Chile that led to the current process of constitutional change.14 Before going into the finer details of the three performative interventions, we introduce the urban and national context in which they took place and in which the ‘statue in question’ still stands.

Urban panoramic: whiteness and the material obliteration of indigeneity

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In cities, bodies, spaces, things, and imaginaries stand in complementary, complex and contested relations. Hopes and fears shape urban trajectories, enabling or disrupting possibilities for action.15 Moreover, as recently noted by Ida Danewid, there has always been a close relationship between urbanisation and empire, with cities being ‘places where racialized forms of dispossession and expropriation are orchestrated and reproduced’(figure 2).16 In this context, Latin American cities have been built through practices of bricolage, imitation and recycling, and in the translation of languages and aesthetics often in conflict.17 The clashes or entanglements of these different codes are shaped by the marks of the past and present of colonial rules,18 and in the countries of Latin America, these processes are closely linked to the invention of the nation during the nineteenth century, short after their independence. The ‘colonial durability’ is particularly evident in how this construction of the nation involved two processes of obliteration. The first was the suppression of the indigenous presence (and those of African descent) in the national script. This phenomenon was apparent in the geopolitical order pursued by Latin American elites in order to dominate ‘Indians’, reducing their presence as much as possible through genocidal acts. An infamous example of such atrocities was Cornelio Saavedra and the Pacificación de la Araucanía (‘Pacification of Araucanía’) in southern Chile, a brutal process of occupation of indigenous territories at the end of the 19th century. The second, equally important, obliteration is the exclusion of large sections of society from historical and cultural narratives, resulting in their marginalisation and derision as ‘uncivilised plebs’.

Both kinds of obliterations contain an unresolved paradox. On the one hand, they seek to rid the nation of ‘barbarism’, but on the other hand those same barbarians are needed as industrious inhabitants of the national community. Here emerges a founding dilemma of Latin American elites: namely, the question of how to build a civilised nation with the burden of ‘barbarism’ inherent in its citizenry. This paradox is specific to Latin America, for, as German Colmenares points out, unlike the European bourgeoisie reconciling the past and the present in the universalisation of its claims of rationality, the Criollo of the Americas felt that he should start from scratch'.19 ‘Starting from scratch’ meant erasure, which in the 19th century was expressed through the tension between civilisation and barbarism proposed by the Argentine intellectual Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in his creative non-fiction book Facundo, which became a cornerstone of Latin American literature.20 The hallmark of national gestation was thus the confrontation between the civilised elites and the barbarian mobs who had to be purged, or at least sanitised, from constructions of national history and culture that espoused the ethos of ‘whiteness’.

‘Whiteness’, as conceptualised by Bolivar Echeverría, goes beyond pigment: it is an ethic that corresponds to the normative frameworks of capitalist productivity, and is deeply Eurocentric and patriarchal.21 The shift from an 'ethnic/biological racism' to an 'identity-civilising racism' makes acceptable a historical ethos that corresponds to the values, needs and behaviours of the elites: their particular interests become those of the nation, invalidating the varied character of the broader political community. Thus, on the basis of civilisational capital, a homogeneously white, elitist, and epistemologically utilitarian and Eurocentric nation was consolidated.

All of this was disseminated and reinforced by, among other devices, the public monuments of the cities. In cities, power is communicated through location and edifices: official accounts embedded in their materialities warn our bodies that they must behave respectfully, that they must be regulated, and assume solemnity in the face of power. Breaking the barrier of this solemnity invokes moments of protest. Just like the laws, the city is also performative, as identities and spaces are produced and mutually reproduced.22 The spaces where power is made visible are often in public squares, courts, ministries or government houses, and in each of them we find monuments: sculptures that recall the figures and discourses that must be remembered and celebrated as what gave shape - and therefore meaning - to the public urban space. Carved in these stones is what the ruling classes chose to remember: state memory policies and hegemonic urban imaginaries erect monuments, and give them content and form.

It is not by chance, then, that the main public monument in the central square of Santiago is one that reveres the conqueror Pedro de Valdivia. Clad in his regalia on horseback, the statue celebrates those who expanded Europe through the southern lands of the American continent. It is a representation that glorifies him through the marvellous, successful, and gallant attitude of the monument. It evokes an elitist utopia; his statue recalls those who fought against ‘indigenous barbarism’ to impose civilisation. The blanquina (‘whitish’)23 elites owe him a lot - he is the one who initiated the dispossession and the conquering of the prime lands from the hands of those they deemed sub-humans – ‘the Indians’. This urban monument is therefore far from benign; it is a powerful cultural object that works to instil a specific narrative in the public space of the city that embodies the violence of dispossession and elimination. Materialising ideologies that claim to represent ‘the historical truth’, the monument is a device that generates a particular sense of the past that is primordial and which shapes national discourse and belonging. To achieve this result, the monument must be fixed by stepping on other memories and identities. It must be built on experiences that power does not intend to remember, since they make its foundations fragile while they need to appear solid and durable. As Hugo Achugar explains: ‘the visibility of the monument makes invisible everything and all those that the monument denies or contradicts’.24

Monuments illuminate the history of the victorious, while denying the trajectories of others; namely, indigenous peoples, women, dissidents, and the working classes. Arranged as a means of reaffirming the narrative of an excluding nation, they materialise the colonial continuity into republican times, and are another apparatus in the hierarchical structure that celebrates the bodies and biographies of white men.

Valdivia is a representation of whiteness par excellence. Acts to blemish his sculptural body are therefore an affront to the long colonial history. They are staged daily in the Plaza de Armas, where the monument of Valdivia stands tall and vigilant. Here, acts of de-monumentalisation acquire a deeper meaning, expressing an unease with the elitist construction of the national narrative; the heroes of dominant sectors are no longer the heroes of the entire political community. These acts challenge the homogenising script of whiteness; de-monumentalisation then appears as a destructive exercise against the racialising narrative of the nation, as we will now address with regards to the three artistic interventions.

Close up: defying the narrative of whiteness

By intervening in the monumental landscape of the city, performative gestures engage in reconfiguration and remixing. Urban materialities become entangled with the poetics and aesthetics of political imaginations, generating relationships and/or tensions through bodies acting in and on place. As we will see in what follows, performances vindicate ‘catalytic signifiers’ in moments of rupture, allowing for visual and performative processes of meaning-making and opening up possibilities for ‘intervention and change’.25 Their ‘as if’ give way to the potential, albeit ephemeral, reconfiguration of subjectivities, social worlds, and dominant discourses.26 Following Elizabeth Povinelli, this performative engagement with monumental representations opens up ‘new possibilities of life’, not yet constituting but making space for ‘social projects that have not yet achieved a concrete existence but persist in the threshold of possible existence’.27

figure 3

figure 4

The three interventions took place on different occasions around the statue of Pedro de Valdivia. The first was a performance staged in March 2018 in the context of a workshop held during the research project in which both authors were involved28 and was an improvisation by one of the participants, Dania Quezada Vidal (figure 3 and 4). Wearing a black dress spontaneously crafted with some fabric provided for the workshop and with a ‘neutral’ white mask on her face, Dania climbed the pedestal underneath the statue of Pedro de Valdivia and lay down beneath the horse, a long multi-coloured braid coming down her shoulders and holding her tight to the animal’s leg. Waking up disoriented, she tried to escape, but the braid held her back. She then pulled until she broke it before jumping off to run to the nearby cathedral and kneeling down in front of it. Though Pedro de Valdivia was now behind her, she remained in his direct line of sight. She then crawled on the ground, and hugged her knees, before beginning to frantically paint her face/mask with markers of different colours until the mask was no longer white. At that point, she took it off and undressed down to her own clothes. Finally, she threw the mask to the ground and trampled on it in a rage before suddenly searching for her phone in her bag, answering it, and proceeding to chat and laugh hysterically while walking past the people who had spontaneously gathered to see her performance, as she disappeared into the crowd. The mask was left behind on the ground, a problematic tribute to the immobile Pedro de Valdivia.

figure 5

The second intervention was part of the site-specific theatre piece Santiago Waria, in the setting of the same project (figure 5). It enacted different historical narratives around the monumental square by staging a conflict between two characters: a Mapuche historian and a passing upper-class woman who interrupts his decolonial guided tour. Their interactions discourses dispute the place through conflictive readings of its visual icons, ceremoniously referring to or challenging the inheritance of Pedro de Valdivia; thus, the same material site is carved and overwritten with different meanings. While it is the woman, enchanted by the European architecture of the square and its erasure of indigenous history, who eventually triumphs, the unconcerned violence of her narrative lays bare the ‘recursivity and durability’ of colonial power relationships29 and related processes of racialisation.

figure 6

figure 7

The third and final intervention is the political performative act staged during the political unrest in Santiago which began in October 2019, with which we started this article (figure 6 and 7). As mentioned, the act took place in the context of extended protests against socio-economic inequalities and calls for change in the Constitution that had been written under Pinochet’s rule in 1980 and was still in place at the time. Interestingly, the aesthetic of this last performance, somehow taking to an extreme the two previous ones, questions the traditional emphasis on class for the understanding of inequality and privilege in Chile.30 By staging a challenge to Pedro de Valdivia from an indigenous and mestizo stance, claiming his death in the hands of resisting indigenous people and dressing him up with Mapuche and chola (mixed-race woman) symbols, this last performance explicitly visibilises the links between structures of segregation, socio-economic power relationships, and racialisation processes. As part of a broader targeting of colonial monuments across the country in those same months,31 with some of these statues destroyed or replaced, this action - if only for a moment- modifies visual icon of the monument; through the performers’ bodies and voices, this unsettled Pedro de Valdivia represents a questioning of the identitarian and racial celebration of the elitist nation embedded in the statue. In the protestors’ and performers’ own words:

‘On this occasion, our tactic is saturation, satire, the chant of tragedy. Don Pedro was the head of the Conquest, executed by the Mapuche people. Perhaps that is why he is celebrated and commemorated by official memory: they cannot stand a misplayed founder, defeated by the Indians! Against this aristocratic commemoration of societal whitening, we rebel through our ability to stain, to saturate with blackness the monochrome of the old whitish utopia’.32

This idea of ‘staining’ is precisely what is at the core of these (and other) performances and actions. Furthermore, the very possibility of ‘staining’ goes through what is significantly defined a ‘tactic of saturation’, as if referring to the word’s main meanings in chemistry: something that ‘is dissolved or absorbed’ and something that goes ‘beyond the point regarded as necessary and desirable’33. As such, by absorbing and reverting dominant narratives and reaching far beyond them at the same time, these actions convey the ‘multiplicities of meaning’34 of these monumental representational shifts, opening up to a different horizon of possible existences.

In conclusion, without denying the significance of each of these performative moments, the connections between them are telling. The first two were held in the context of an artistic project and collaborative research with Mapuche artists and activists, and their aesthetic and artistic dimension comes to the fore in the representation. Meanwhile the third one constituted a much more clearly political action. Still, we think of all three of them, following Paula Serafini, as ‘performance action’: instances in which the body is used as a political tool and the related aesthetics have the potential for world-making.35 Moreover, even if the third performance took place in a different context, some of its protagonists had previously taken part in the collaborative project, and some of the key motives staged there had been the red lines for reflection and artistic representation during the entire research. This is far from a claim of any kind of direct and simplistic link between the two moments. However, it shows how, on the one hand, the targeting of Pedro de Valdivia statue was the manifestation of unrest and new imaginaries already emerging in the metropolitan city. On the other hand, it shows how the performative aspects of politics and the political dimension of art mutually inform one another in an ongoing cross-pollination. Going back to Rancière’s analysis and the emergence of political subjectivities outlined in the introduction, these interventions are political acts in their interruptions of the ordinary in their constituting aesthetic gestures that have material and perceptive effects on reality.36 What makes the difference is the situatedness and very physical presence of the activists’ bodies37 as opposed to the petrified immobility of monumental representations.

…an ephemeral epilogue

On the 1st of June 2021, one year after the Rhodes Must Fall movement in the UK, the black scholar, journalist and activist Gary Younge, in an article published in The Guardian, wrote that every single statue – as a symbol of reverence rather than history - should come down. He doesn’t refer to memorials in general, but to statues of people specifically. He states that they are ‘poor as works of public art and poor as efforts at memorialisation’, but, most importantly, what troubles Younge about statues is their purpose of eternity, representing ‘the value system of the establishment at any given time that is then projected into the forever’. Yet history, far from set in stone, is not petrified.38

The interventions around the statue of Pedro de Valdivia specifically challenge the petrification of history. They do so through the fragile, yet meaningful, ephemerality of performance actions. Pedro de Valdivia’s statue is addressed and dressed up, interrogated and challenged by alternative icons and symbols; it is only temporarily, and yet these actions possess some kind of durability. They still participate in the construction of knowledge and political subjectivities: in the construction, we argue, of history. As noted by Diana Taylor, performance and embodied knowledge shouldn’t be thought of as something that simply disappears. Supposedly opposed to ‘the archive of enduring materials’ (such as documents, buildings or bones), what this author defines as ‘the repertoire’ (spoken language, dance, rituals) participates in the transference and continuity of knowledge. Requiring presence and the body, the repertoire is made of changing actions, of ‘choreographies of meanings' that are both hold and transformed. Holding the memory of their happening, the repertoire is thus coterminous with both history and memory.39

In dressing up and unveiling the statue of Pedro de Valdivia, the narrative of whiteness engraved in the city’s monumentality was, on the one hand, made visible and explicit, exposing it in the public space; on the other hand, it was questioned and challenged. In each of these interventions, the bodies of the performers played with the ambiguity of the ‘ethos of whiteness’, making a claim for mixture and morenidad under the (white) skin of the Chilean nation through a combination of artistic and political performances. The whiteness of the city has not been erased, only revealed as a constructed narrative. Nonetheless, this ephemeral gesture is enough; just like a white dress, the fiction of whiteness has been stained, and that stain is what reveals its pretence, enabling ephemeral but powerful alternative imaginations to emerge.

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