lunes, 16 de abril de 2012

A life involved: Wendy Watriss

By Fernando Castro R.

Part II: A Completely Foreign Country*
*Part I was published in Lteral´s Spring Issue 2012

After her adventurous African journey in 1970 Wendy Watriss came back to New York to publish her stories and photographs. There she met Frederick Baldwin by chance. She recalls, “We did some assignments together in New York and we had a great time.” Shortly thereafter, Wendy took off again for Europe to do several assignments as both a re-porter and photographer for NewsweekThe Smithsonian, and The New York Times. “Even though I had gotten involved with Fred, left for Vienna thinking that I was not coming back. But Fred prevailed (she laughs gleefully) and a year-and-half later I came back.”
Thus Wendy and Fred began a life as a couple built on shared interests and common projects. Almost immediately they embarked on a project that they called “Back Roads of America.” Wendy describes it this way, “It was a way to get back to the grassroots experience of the United States. Both of us had been socially involved in different ways: he in the Civil Rights Movement, and I, at the level of world and national news. However, neither one of us had necessarily gotten the sense of how people from small towns live the American, or the U.S. experience and history. We decided that we would start in Texas. Fred bought a dinky trailer. He liked to call it a camper but it was more like a trailer —pulled by his hand-made Mercedes Cabriolet. Poor car! They only made about 300 of them!” Wendy makes an effort to hold the laughter caused by that jocund image that is obviously one of her fondest memories thus far. “Texas to me was like a completely foreign country,” she adds.
Driving south through Arkansas and Mississippi Fred and Wendy arrived in Texas in 1971. Wendy reminisces, “Along the way we stayed with migrant workers, farmers, and many other people. I would write every night. Once when we were heading towards Austin we passed through Anderson, Texas. It was three o’clock and school was out. We saw two remarkable things. In this town of three hundred people, there was a very large and imposing late 19th century Victorian-style courthouse at the head of the one main street with western-like architecture on both sides. The buildings were a bit run-down, but the courthouse was in good condition and stood like a great sentinel. On the street where we were driving, there were lines of black students coming out of school. It looked like the old South. No question about it. So Fred and I said to each other, ‘There is something about Texas history that is not being told.’”
Later at a dinner party in Austin that Dave and former Texas governor Anne Richards had given on their behalf, Wendy and Fred confirmed their impression with the notable Texas historian Larry Goodwyn. After doing more research at the University of Texas library they decided to stay in the Lone Star State. Wendy explains why: “Texas cultural frontiers parallel and reflect important cultural, ethnic, and demographic movements in U.S. history.” For a while they chose Austin as their home base.
Fred taught at the Journalism School and Wendy at the American Studies Program of the University of Texas. Wendy remembers that they combined their classes in a hands-on project for students to reconstruct the history of different communities. “By going out and talking to people and politicians, we had identified two Austin neighborhoods that needed historic designations.  One was Clarksville, one of the city’s oldest African-American nei-ghborhoods; the other one, Hyde Park, a predominantly white middle class neighbor-hood. We sent out our students as teams of writer-reporters and photographers to document these neighborhoods block by block, research their history, and select a subject that was socially significant to be the focus of a written and photographic essay. These students were juniors and seniors of the advanced program of the University of Texas who were obliged to leave the classroom and make personal contact with strangers. It was an experience that changed the lives of at least ten of them.”
 After teaching at UT, Fred and Wendy set off on a two-year research project about Grimes County. “We stayed on a farm owned by an African-American family and we lived in our trailer!” says Wendy amused. “That family was a very unusual one because the father had created their wealth in the late eighteen-hundreds while the older generation had work-ed as tenant farmers in the big cotton farms along the Navasota-Brazos River.”
During that time Wendy and Fred also worked on a story about the black rodeo in the southwest, but their main focus remained the communities of Grimes County itself where there had been a history of racial tension. Wendy explains, “The county was part of the corn and cotton frontier of Texas first settled by Anglo-American plantation owners from the old South that had brought African-American slaves with them. After the Civil War, there was a lot of racial conflict and violence in the county. African-Americans had gained political power as post-Civil War Republicans. In the late 1890s, the Populist Party became powerful, bringing white and black people together. A white Populist sheriff who had African-American deputies was literally shot out of office by white landowners. For the following seventy years, the county’s politics were dominated by the White Man’s Union. This was true in many Texas counties and throughout the South until the Voting Rights Act of the 1960’s.”
Knowing that their presence in the county was quite conspicuous, Wendy and Fred took steps to preempt any unseemly confrontation. “In Grimes County, we were thoroughly checked out by law officers and the Department of Public Safety because we were outsiders. We were pretty bizarre. Luckily we had very good manners and Georgia license plates. We were very careful. We introduced ourselves to the presidents of the biggest banks, the county sheriff, the chief of police, and two of the county commissioners. We did not know until later how well we were going to be checked out. After two years of talking to people throughout the county and taking pictures of many events, we got to know everybody in the county. In fact, we were asked to do their sesquicentennial memoir. We did it like the English staging of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.  We asked students to read scripts of personal histories of people in the county.  Behind them, we projected pictures from family albums. Besides the original settlement, the county’s history included Polish people, German settlers, and Mex-ican-Americans.”
In 1976, Wendy and Fred showed the Grimes county work at the Menil’s Rice Institute for the Arts. The exhibit had 400 pictures. Wendy describes it, “The idea was to experience American history through the county. The show took you visually from the outside —as if you were driving through—and little by little it brought you to the inside: the black life, the white life, their segregation, and some aspects of integration. In one room we had a projection of the old pictures we had photographed of members of different communities. The opening night was amazing because many people from Grimes county came —both black and white. They hired about eight buses. Dominique de Menil, whom we did not know very well at that time, was beside herself with joy. One of the best things was when the African-American artist John Biggers brought hundreds of black students to the exhibit. He told them: ‘We may not ever have the chance to see this view of black and southern history again.’”
Wendy reflects, “A lot of what I know and understand about the United States now came from having lived that experience and then gone to the German Hill County —which was completely different. To do that second project we were able to get a research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. We should have stopped and done the Grimes book, but instead we went almost immediately to the Hill country. We stayed there for a little over a year, photographing and doing oral history. The Germans who settled there came as a result of the 1848 upheavals in Europe; the nationalist movements in Germany, Hungary, Poland… These immigrants came to the Central part of Texas when it was still Comanche territory. Many were craftsmen from small towns. The Germans were probably the only ones who could have settled that territory. Due to the harsh conditions they probably lost about a third of their people. They thought they were buying agricultural land but unscrupulous developers had sold them land with very thin topsoil. Nevertheless, they adapted. They learned from the Mexicans how to raise sheep and goats. They lived on relatively small homesteads seventy-five acres or less —compared to the larger plots in East Texas, which were about five hundred acres. They built settlements and limestone houses. But theirs was a completely different political culture. It was what in the book we called “artisanal republicanism” with a small ‘r.’ If you read Robert Caro’s book on Lyndon Johnson, the name of our book about this work, “Coming to Terms,” comes from one of its chapters.”
“In Coming to Terms we include a copy of a remarkable document about the conception of government of these German settlers. If I remember correctly the statement was from 1857. It spelled out what the relationship of civil society and government should be: what government and what individual citizens should be responsible for. Government has to be responsible for infra-structural developments like roads and schools. This was completely antithetical to any southern-democratic government. That there needed to be public schools was unheard-of in the South. There was also an anti-slavery statement in there. You can take that document today and say that it is what Barack Obama is talking about. During the Civil War the German settlers refused to be conscripted. They tried to escape to Mexico and they were massacred a couple of times. All of that history is completely different from the rest of Texas history. I don’t know how it is right now, but up to about ten years ago that county had one of the best hospital systems in the state, the best public school systems, music clubs, dance clubs, …because there was such a strong background of civic interconnection between the individual and society. Until about 1950 it was fairly homogenous. Even when we were there, there were families who just spoke German —fractured and bad German, but German nevertheless.”
After their work on the German Hill country, Wendy and Fred headed to the southern tip of Texas, adjacent to Mexico. Wendy starts off again, “Although we did not do as much work there, the next area that we worked on was a border county that was Spanish-Mexican first and now is a Mexican-American county: Hidalgo. It became one of the major destinations for Mexican farm workers coming into the U.S. around 1910. At the time the border was still pretty open and ruthless land-developers thought they could make citrus farms out of much of this county. So they sold these tracts of land to people from the mid-west who had come down to farm. That is when the big Anglo-American influx into south Texas came; particularly in Cameron, McAllen, Brownsville, and Hidalgo counties —not so much Laredo, which was a little further northwest. One of the big land salesmen was Lloyd Bentsen’s father, that’s were that money came from. We stopped our work there around the time the big Central American influx began. Still the colonias were in pretty bad shape when we were there. It was the last five or six years of La Raza, so Antonio Orendain was still a strong head of the farm workers union. He and Chávez had split because of personal egos. But he was a very strong leader of the farm workers of South of Texas, which may not even exist anymore. La Raza politics were beginning to challenge the Anglo politics that had dominated that area. A school by the name of Antioch College funded four or five grassroots community colleges around the county. They had a progressive curriculum that focused on history, literature, and social studies from a community level as opposed to just national culture. We documented a lot of that part of the Latino Hispanic heritage of Texas; although maybe not enough to do a book just about it. But we actually had some exhibits in the eighties and early nineties of this work. We showed the German and the Latino Southern area work at the Philipps Collection in Washington in 1979.”
In the late seventies Wendy and Fred had to make a decision over whether they should stay in Houston or go back to New York. Wendy recollects their decision, “Our experience here with the Menils was very strong. I think that if Dominique hadn’t been here, we might not have moved here. Houston seemed like the most cosmopolitan, most open, and most interesting city in Texas.” So they stayed in Houston and they got one of the houses in the Menil ‘hood. Fred was asked to come back to teach journalism at the University of Texas and he later taught at the University of Houston. Wendy continued to free-lance and did the story on Agent Orange over a year-and-a-half period. “There were a lot of Vietnam veterans around Austin, so I began doing the story there. Life bought the story and enabled me to finish it. The story ran in Life and it won the World Press Award.”
The Agent Orange work is connected with the history of FotoFest. In 1979 Leica had begun to award the Oskar Barnack Prize and Wendy’s Agent Orange work was its third recipient. She remembers, “When Fred and I went to Amsterdam to receive the award, we were invited to Leica in Germany and several people there persuaded us to go to Arles in the summer. We did and we had a fantastic time. We brought the Texas work and the Agent Orange work. There was no organized portfolio review, but there was a way of meeting a lot of people, many of whom were in French, Belgian, and Scandinavian institutions. As a result, we had a lot of our work published in European magazines. The Agent Orange work was also published in the German magazine Stern. It was a very rich time. Back on the plane, Fred and I were talking about Arles and he said, “Why don’t we try something like that in the United States?” We had seen at Arles work that never got to States. Our idea was to break down the hierarchy, the closed circle of the decisions, and the curatorial power of the existing institutions of the United States, and open up to the world. Just about that same time, Le Mois de la Photo started in Paris; so we went and met with Jean Luc Monterosso. In Houston there was a German gallery at the Rice Village owned by Petra Benteler: Benteler Gallery. A very fine gallery that showed showed predominantly European photography. They had a fine show of Atget. She also showed Hungarian photographer André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and some more modern ones too. We got together with Petra and we hatched FotoFest over our breakfast table in 1983.” The first FotoFest was in 1986 and the HYPERLINK ""FotoFest 2012 Biennial will be the Fourteenth International Biennial. Wendy and Fred’s profile as international curators gained along twenty-five years of intense labor has tended to hide their photographic work. That trend has been partially reversed with the recent publication of their book Looking at the US 1957-1987 (2009). In the meantime, Texas for them is no longer the “foreign country” that it once was.

Filming in León

 By Patricia Collins

Can it be that nine years  have passed since I heard the reading of David and Bathsheba?  Now, in rereading the dramatic story, I find myself in a small neighborhood church  in Leon, Guanajuato during our filming of the pilgrimage to San Juan de los Lagos . It would be part of “Guadalupe, Mother of All Mexico”. 

With the help of the Guanajuato Film Commission, our independent film party had been placed in a new hotel with an impressive two-story fountain in the lobby.  The first night I couldn’t sleep; I read while groups of pilgrims from time to time passed along the main street beneath my window.  They sang, and they presented an impressive sight as the men and women walked along in the dark, protected somewhat by red lanterns swung back and forth by celadors, officers from their own ranks.  The hymns began softly at a distance and got louder and louder until the pilgrims passed our hotel.  I was nervous and excited by this filming excursion.  But I was also very cold. My room had two beds, and I piled the covers from the second bed over me.  We learned later that the hotel, new and pretty, lacked any  heating,. It had a sun side and a shade side. Most of us were where the sun never reached,

Like all our shoots, this was “bare bones.”  No extras.  At the very beginning, our spare budget was the occasion of a miserable disappointment for our director.  He decided to go along with me and our driver to check the route on a day that was not budgeted for filming.  He decided, as a point of professionalism, not to take cameras. Without pay, no filming.

We came upon the major group of our pilgrims from San Miguel as they were praying under some mesquite trees.  The leaders were all together, resting after hours of walking in the early morning.  They appeared to have found an oasis.   Fortunately, our sound recordist had brought equipment and so we proceeded with interviews that served generously as voice-overs in the final edit.   But the setting, the perfect visual setting, slipped away.  Our director was furious, first with me for not having funds to budget that day for filming , then with himself for not bringing loaded cameras anyway. He should have.
I was always seeking funds.  Even on this trip I had arranged a couple of appointments with people who might lead to sponsors for this , our second film about the culture of Mexico and its spiritual basis.  “Guadalupe, Mother of All Mexico” was to be an hour-long documentary, primarily aimed for the American PBS audience. Our material was  coming together well.   The second or third day in Leon I had a funding appointment in the late afternoon  Returning to the hotel, I asked the taxi driver if he would come back in an hour to take me to the center of town for Mass.  He agreed, and disappeared into the heavy evening traffic. 

An hour later I was outside the hotel searching for him.  Finally I realized he wasn’t coming back and I hailed the first cab that would stop. The young driver advised that we wouldn’t get into the center of town in time for the 7  pm Mass.  I had seen a small church off several blocks from the main road and asked what he would charge to take me there and wait for me.  I wouldn’t feel safe walking around an unknown barrio after dark.  I trusted this young man to wait , but still I suggested he could come in to Mass, too, if he wanted.

After a short delay, I saw him enter the church and, somewhat to my surprise, come up and kneel down next to me. The first reading was of David and Bathsheba.   This evening Mass in a small church had drawn many people.  I wondered if the numbers were usual or if the proximity to the feast of Our Lady of San Juan had something to do with it. Returning to my back seat in the cab after Mass I asked the driver if he planned to go to San Juan.   In a sudden move, he unbuttoned his shirt and drew it back to show his right arm and chest—a patchwork of different shades of skin.  “ an accident, sulfuric acid “  He indicated with a wave of his hand that the damage extended down his leg. How many operations, how much time they had taken I didn’t absorb.  I was in a state of shock, responding to the visual proof of the event.

 “Si., Senora,  I will go tomorrow,” he said. “ It only takes two days to walk from here.”
   “I would walk barefoot if I could.” he added, “but my feet bleed too much.”
   A pause.  “ Are you going?”

I told him yes, but in a van.  We had heavy equipment to take because we were filming.  

miércoles, 11 de abril de 2012

Pinturas de los maestros latinoamericanos en el MFAH

A partir del 22 de abril el Museo de Bellas Artes de Houston (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – MFAH), albergará la exhibición en préstamo de una de las instituciones culturales más importantes de América Latina: el Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, conocido como “Malba”. La muestra presenta 39 obras maestras de algunos de los artistas más reconocidos de la región, incluyendo Tarsila do Amaral, Frida Kahlo, Wifredo Lam y Diego Rivera, así como reconocidas figuras que llegan por primera vez al público de Estados Unidos. 

Un gran destacado de la exhibición es una pintura de 1928, pieza central de la identidad nacional brasileña: Abaporu, de Tarsila do Amaral. Amaral fue una pintora líder del modernismo latinoamericano que vivió y trabajó en París y São Paulo. A finales de la década de 1920, su obra Abaporu se convirtió en el emblema del movimiento Anthropofagia (canibalismo) en Brasil. Ambos -Amaral y el poeta Oswald de Andrade- utilizaron el canibalismo como una metáfora para describir la habilidad de los brasileños para digerir y transformar la cultura europea. Abaporu presenta una figura sentada, larga y estilizada, un cactus y un sol brillante, elementos a través de los cuales Amaral combina sin esfuerzo el sujeto de la obra brasileña con las influencias de vanguardia. El trabajo inspiró a una generación de artistas para crear un arte brasileño único, cuyas raíces estaban en la creencia que la identidad brasileña podía ser a la vez indígena y cosmopolita. Esta pintura ha sido vista por largo tiempo como un tesoro nacional y en 2011 Malba cedió la obra en préstamo a Brasil para ser presentada durante una visita del presidente de los Estados Unidos, Barack Obama y la primera dama, Michelle Obama.

Uno de los primeros trabajos cubistas de Diego Rivera, con-siderado ampliamente entre los grandes pintores del siglo XX, es otro de los destacados de la muestra. Mientras vivía en Europa, entre 1913 y 1918, Rivera produjo cerca de 200 obras de cubismo antes de regresar a México, en 1921 y convertirse en muralista -el trabajo por el cual es más reconocido-. Retrato de Ramón Gómez de la Serna (1915) es uno de los trabajos cubistas más impresionantes de Rivera. La obra muestra a su amigo, el escritor español Ramón Gómez de la Serna, quien luego se mudó a Buenos Aires y continuó siendo una importante figura cultural.

El reconocido rostro de Frida Kahlo también hace su aparición. Autorretrato con chango y loro (1942), es un clásico trabajo tardío que muestra a la artista rodeada de dos de sus mascotas favoritas. La adquisición de esta pintura por Costantini en 1995, por aproximadamente US$ 3.2 millones (en ese tiempo, el mayor monto pagado por un trabajo de Kahlo), catapultó tanto la reputación internacional de Kahlo como la atención internacional a la colección de arte de Costantini.

Wifredo Lam, el artista cubano que se estableció en París y se hizo amigo de Picasso, alcanzó renombre por sus representaciones vanguardistas de la cultura afrocubana. Dos trabajos de Lam -una pintura sin título de la colección personal de Costantini así como La mañana verde (1943)- se podrán apreciar en la exhibición. Ambas están consideradas entre las pinturas más importantes de Lam por sus representaciones sintéticas de los símbolos de la santería y las leyendas afrocubanas, así como la delicada manipulación del artista del gouache (pintura al agua) como material.

Varios trabajos del artista uruguayo Joaquín Torres-García, el fundador del Constructivismo Universal, estarán en exposición, incluyendo su extraordinaria Composition symétrique universelle en blanc et noir (Composición simétrica universal en blanco y negro) (1931), uno de los ejemplos más fuertes y poco comunes que aún existen de dos años clave en su producción: 1931 y 1932, cuando el artista alcanzó el centro de su idioma Constructivo Universalista. Algunos de los trabajos de ese período fueron destruidos en el incendio de 1979 del Museo de Arte Moderno de Río de Janeiro.

Dos trabajos del amigo y coterráneo del uruguayo Torres García, Rafael Barradas, también integrarán la muestra. Barradas creó varios movimientos artísticos mientras vivía en España, destacándose el Vibracionismo,cuyo objetivoera capturar el color y dinamismo de la vida urbana. Los dos trabajos de Barradas en esta exhibición son preciados ejemplos de este género. El pintor y escultor argentino Xul Solar, quien fuera objeto de una retrospectiva del Malba que viajó al MFAH en 2006, está representado en esta exhibición por Troncos (1919), una acuarela que reúne los intereses de Xul Solar en la mitología mundial y el estereotipo filosófico.

Una serie de ejemplos de la prolífica carrera de Antonio Berni, la figura central argentina del siglo XX, estarán representados, incluyendo Manifestación (1934), un mural portátil que presenta una protesta pública. También de Berni, se podrán ver La gran tentación o La gran ilusión (1962), un comentario popular sobre el atractivo de la cultura consumista, hecha de un ensamblaje de plumas, lata y otros materiales encontrados. Uno de los monstruos alegóricos tridimensionales de Berni también serán parte de la muestra.

Muchos de los artistas en la exhibición, si bien son ampliamente reconocidos en Sudamérica, son menos conocidos para el público de los Estados Unidos. Emilio Pettoruti está considerado uno de los artistas más importantes de 1920. Integrante del movimiento Futurista mientras vivía en Italia, Pettoruti se esforzó por llevar el Modernismo a la Argentina. Junto con el artista Xul Solar y el escritor Jorge Luis Borges, Pettoruti se involucró en el periódico de vanguardia Martín Fierro, en Buenos Aires. Dos dibujos con carbonilla en lienzo, los cuales se refieren al período futurista, han salido a la luz recientemente y estos trabajos extremadamente excepcionales serán incluidos en la exhibición. Se podrán apreciar escenas monumentales de la vida de los trabajadores, realizadas por Cándido Portinari, uno de los más importantes artistas brasileños que trabajó en la década de 1930 en el estilo del realismo social. También se expondrán trabajos del artista argentino Alfredo Guttero, quien es virtualmente desconocido en Estados Unidos pero es renombrado por las texturas únicas que alcanzó en su trabajo. Guttero creó una técnica llamada “gesso cocido”, que le da a sus lienzos la apariencia de un fresco. El resultado fueron pinturas exquisitas pero extremadamente frágiles, por lo que su traslado a otros museos no es permitido con frecuencia. Por fortuna, los conservadores del Malba han declarado la Anunciación (1931) de Guttero lo suficientemente estable como para enviarla a Houston.

*Top Image
[Covarrubias – George Gershwin.jpg]
Miguel Covarrubias, Mexican, 1904-1957
George Gershwin, An American in Paris
Oil on canvas
Malba-Fundación Costantini, Buenos Aires
© Maria Elena Rico Covarrubias