Nicolás Janowski
Argentina -
July 12, 2023

Afro-Argentine, the third root

Rumbos. Ensayos fotográficos 2010-2020 Brings together and engages in dialogue in five works by Nicolás Janowski. The exhibition’s centerpiece is Afro-Argentina: An Essay on Systematic Whitening, a political project carried out in collaboration with the African Diaspora of Argentina organization, aiming to deconstruct the foundational myth of the nation and reconsider the Argentine national identity.

By Marcela Vallejo

In 2017, like other photographers and visual artists from the continent, Argentine artist Nicolás Janowski received an invitation to participate in the first Africamericanos exhibition: a multi-platform project that sought to discuss the construction of imaginaries of Afro-descendant communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. Initially, this task caused some unease due to his positionality (as a non-Afro-descendant). Still, by working closely with the anti-racist organization African Diaspora of Argentina (DIAFAR), Janowski was able to develop a collaborative project, not through the exoticization of the other, but by contemplating the white perspective on Afro-descendants in his country.

In early June, the artist inaugurated the exhibition Rumbos. Ensayos Fotográficos 2010-2020 at the Arte x Arte Foundation in Buenos Aires includes an expanded version of that work titled Afroargentina, Ensayos Sobre el Blanqueamiento Sistemático, accompanied by other projects carried out during the same decade.

Janowski’s projects engage various narrative mediums, focusing on photographic images that increasingly delve into profound levels of abstraction. His processes are based on working hypotheses, and he considers himself a photographer who does not quickly arrive at images, thus requiring research as a construction tool.

In the case of Afro-Argentina, the artist questions the hypothesis that there are no Afro-descendants in Argentina, an idea widely disseminated and upheld in a country that assumes itself as white. That, of course, also led him to question his positionality. In this interview, Janowski reflects on this: from which position do we construct discourses about others to understand the white perspective on the Afro-descendant roots in his country.

I find it interesting that the name of the exhibition, Rumbos. Ensayos fotográficos 2010-2020 proposes a way of understanding the exhibited works from the outset. In the curatorial text that opens the show, curator Florencia Battiti refers to your results as “long-term photographic essays.” It is not as common nowadays to use that term to describe photographic series or projects. What do you think about your work?

I am interested in photography and the photographic camera as a tool (among others) to narrate a story. The construction of visualities, but also thinking about them from other logics, more linked to social processes, political structure, or perhaps even approaches closer to strategies found in contemporary art.

Florencia Battiti, the project curator, framed these processes from the last ten years as photographic essays, which implies thinking of articles related to narrative developments. However, these constructions do not solely rely on photography but extend to other narrative mediums.

Over the past 15 years, I have been interested in developing image construction processes based on transmedia narratives, using various narrative mediums to tell a story. A significant part of my projects revolves around the image, photography being my primary narrative medium. However, I am also interested in projects that involve websites, incorporating sounds, videos, painting, text, or sculpture. I believe Florencia gave this title to the exhibition, considering that my images are the core of my essays, which address specific themes related to human rights, social policies, processes of acculturation, and territorialities. For me, all of this is also connected to my positionality.

I understand that you and Florencia worked on this exhibition over the past year. What was the curatorial process like?

The exhibition Rumbos is designed for the Arte X Arte space, a foundation in Buenos Aires. We intended to present an in-depth project, in this case:  Afroargentina. Ensayo sobre el blanqueamiento sistemático, along with excerpts from the other four projects already presented in Buenos Aires. For DIAFAR and me, giving this essay in Argentina was an outstanding debt, which was highly necessary, especially after the project had toured Mexico, Uruguay, the Netherlands, and England but had not been presented in Argentina. Together with Florencia and DIAFAR, we decided to give it in its entirety and engage it in dialogue with other projects from the same period, 2010-2020.

In addition to Afroargentina, we presented La Serpiente Líquida, Adrift in Blue, La Inteligencia de las Flores, and Paraíso, as we believe there are points of connection and dialogue among these projects. Honestly, I wasn’t fully aware of it myself. They started to make sense to me when placed in conversation, linking them based on historical processes as articulators of these projects and by repeating certain types of images. All of them relate to territorialities, and the axes of enunciation were present in these places.

Let’s talk about Afroargentina, a project you worked on with the African Diaspora of Argentina organization (DIAFAR) as part of the Africamericanos project by VIST.

Afro-Argentina is a project that originated from Claudi Carreras’ research on the third root of the American continent, which is the African root. Claudi invited several visual artists to develop projects related to this theme in different Latin American countries.

In Argentina, the process of whitening and invisibilization of Afro-descendants has been so effective that even with a background in social sciences, I had never questioned or considered this third root in my country. Historically, we have had this imagery of the white root of our country, this idea that “we all descend from the boats,” clearly referring to European immigration, without acknowledging that beneath these boats were enslaved people.

When VIST and the Center of the Image in Mexico gave me the opportunity to develop this project, it initially raised some concerns for me. The first question that came to mind was why I should work on this process if I am not Afro-descendant. I began my education through the educational programs with DIAFAR, and I started talking to people like photographer Nicolas Parodi and political scientist Federico Pita, who are anti-racist activists and part of DIAFAR. After this process, I started to think that if I accepted this commission, the project had to be a collaboration and had to subvert the order of enunciation of the project, addressing it not from the exoticization of otherness but starting from how Afro-descendants have been treated from the (white) historical construction of our country.

A central focus of the project is to reconsider the logic of cultural appropriation and question the process of assimilation and systematic whitening of the Argentine third root, which was so effectively developed in constructing our foundational narrative, our nation-state.

How is the project structured?

The project is presented through a website where we propose a historical narrative developed in five chapters. I am particularly interested in these historical processes and their connections to the concept of territoriality, which allows us to reflect on the current state of affairs.

I developed the project’s first chapter based on research in the General Archive of the Nation. There, I worked with catalogs of ships arriving at the Río de la Plata, one of the largest ports in the region, between 1700 and 1750. I found records showing the merchandise brought by these ships from Europe. I also found other ships that didn’t indicate their origin, and interestingly, these were the ships that arrived with enslaved individuals. So, I made a rather symbolic gesture, exhibiting the ship catalogs and marking in black those that didn’t indicate the place, which were the ones transporting enslaved people during the transatlantic slave trade period.

Then, I continued working with the early censuses of the country (1753, 1813) and realized that there was an explicit intention to eliminate any reference to our African roots. Consistently, for over 210 years, we erased any racial reference in our country. It’s like the first exercise of post-truth carried out by the Argentine National State, which was highly effective.

Your mention is exciting because it’s not just a rhetorical exercise. Not recording racial differences for one period and ethnic differences for another erases people from the historical record.

What is not named is invisible, and what is not visible “disappears.” Today, we seem to be much more aware of these logics and processes. That is also influenced by the historical moment we live in and the discussions raised by the use of artificial intelligence. We are questioning what is true and what is not and engaging in the exercise of constructing our identity. Although we are more aware, it allows us to perceive this invisibilization and whitening where one of our three identity roots was systematically eliminated.

Then comes the second chapter, where you include racist speeches by Argentine heroes. I understand that in the exhibition, you used mirrors at this point. How is it structured, and how does it function in the show?

I ironically titled this chapter on the website “National Heroes,” and it is closely linked to the process of institutionalized racism in our country. These works present phrases and sayings from the Generation of ’37, used by the Generation of ’80, to which the national heroes belong. They constructed the idea of this Argentine Nation-State in the image and likeness of a European country.

In this chapter, we find phrases that speak of constructing a unified population to form a “new and beautiful white race,” a statement by Sarmiento, one of our national heroes who promoted public and free education. Or the phrase by Bartolomé Mitre, among others, redefining the idea that everything civilized is European. There is a logic of binary opposites in this construction: if what is civilized is European, then what is uncivilized? The gaucho, the indigenous peoples, and the Afro population.

In the exhibition, we presented these phrases on mirrors to encourage viewers to reflect on their identity. We were also interested in giving the mirrors in a historical context, encountering the national heroes from the beginning of national history to neoliberal presidents of our country like Carlos Menem or Mauricio Macri, reinforcing this idea. Not only because they construct these narratives from a place of total ignorance but also because they continue to strengthen these imaginaries where Afro-Argentines are not part of our national identity.

What is the third chapter about?

In this chapter, we work with Afro-Argentine newspapers. In Argentina, between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, there were around 20 Afro-Argentine newspapers: La Luz, La Bondad, La Juventud, La Broma, La Perla, El Unionista, El Aspirante, La Igualdad, among others.

Something interesting happened here as well. Since there are no keywords like Afro-descendants or Afro-Argentines in our catalogs, there is also no possibility of finding these archives. The reference has been eliminated.

So, how did you find them?

We find them researching with DIAFAR. We knew there were many newspapers, but they didn’t have them either. With some clues, I started searching in the National Library and a storage facility for out-of-print materials, where I found many of these newspapers. Usually, in the National Library and other major Argentine institutions, these historical archives are well-cataloged and well-preserved. However, the documents I found deteriorated, damaged, and even burned. In other words, it’s another way of making them invisible. The state of preservation of our heritage also speaks to how Afro-Argentine identity is perceived.

We scan the archives for the presentations and leave them practically as I found them. In the installations, we overlay these archives to make visible the number of Afro-Argentine newspapers that existed until the early 20th century. The exact number is unknown, but we estimate it to be between 20 and 30. Today, only one Afro-Argentine newspaper is being published, edited by DIAFAR: El Afroargentino.

The fourth chapter is titled “Whitening Processes,” in the introduction, you talk about invisibilization, erasure, and, above all, white-European migration. That is where images start to appear.

As I mentioned, when you research at the General Archive of the Nation (AGN), there is practically zero cataloging using words like black, blackness, Afro-descendants, Afro-Argentines, or race. You won’t find images because the majority of them are not cataloged. With the few pictures I did find that depicted Afro-Argentines due to their features, I developed the same idea that has been systematically implemented in our country: whitening.

The process is straightforward. Once I found the images, I scanned, digitized, and printed them on cotton paper. Then I started applying white paint on top and removing it with layers or rulers. What remained was that Afro-descendant root.

This project is conceived from the image, and it’s not until the fourth chapter that it includes photos, which are more artistic interventions. But the last chapter already has photographs. 

What is the story behind that chapter?

Here comes an anecdote from Claudi. The project was complete, and it made a lot of sense to me both formally and conceptually, considering that it’s not a project about “Afro-Argentineness,” but rather a project about the white reading of blackness. In our discussions, Claudi made a very insightful comment. She said, “But if you present this process and don’t show the current Afro-Argentine community, you are assuming that the systematic whitening process was so effective and, therefore, there are no longer Afro-descendants in Argentina.”

I found her comment accurate. Through dialogue with Claudi, we decided with DIAFAR to develop a series of direct portraits of the organization’s members. For this, we set up a photographic studio at the DIAFAR headquarters.

In addition to these five chapters, what else is included in the exhibition?

I added some of the pieces I have been working on in recent years. I started working with footage from Argentine historical films, especially from a specific era known in Argentina as the Golden Age of national cinema, between 1930 and 1950. I work with video excerpts that I use to construct a piece that reflects on how Afro-Argentines have been historically represented in our cinema.

This piece relates to the concept of representation. Generally, in all these films featuring Afro-descendants, they are presented in an exoticized manner. In general, terms, since the whitening process was so successful, we hardly have any visual references beyond the Viceroyalty era, the colonial period. Regarding Afro-descendants, historical imaginaries referring to our third root depict candle vendors or riverside laundry women during the colonial period. After that, there are very few visual or historical references.

Therefore, this three-part video piece, linked in a loop, once again presents some ideas about veiling and the whitening process, not only on a symbolic but also on a practical level. There are also two pieces related to “black tangos,” which are devices that reflect, although veiled, their black roots to discuss the connection between tango and drumming (both have the same 2×4 rhythm). Finally, there is an installation where we present an intensely illuminated black saint to whiten it. It is a metaphor to work with the projected and latent shadow, which is Afro-descendant.

In the beginning, you mentioned the importance of the enunciation position. What is yours, and how have you constructed it in relation to this project?

I believe it is necessary to constantly question and rethink where one is working, taking it responsibly and knowing that we can often make mistakes or mess up. I also understand that it’s not a game, so I have to educate myself and be open in my practice. That is something I learn day by day from my colleagues at DIAFAR. I could give you several examples of this, but there is one that I found particularly illustrative.

For us, it was essential to present the project in Buenos Aires because it is a necessary cause that goes beyond the logic of giving an art project. And not only to think about essential reparative justice but also to think about a political project that deconstructs our founding myth and allows us to (re)think our identity as a country.

A year before this exhibition, we had a significant presentation for us in Argentina fall through, and when I told the members of DIAFAR about it, they were not surprised at all. I was outraged. My colleagues responded, “This has historically happened to us.”

Of course, you were not alone but with all these Afro-activists.

Absolutely. That is one of the key points to think that in Argentina, this particular project not only denounces but also involves a double play between denunciation and the enunciation position of the person denouncing being a part of it.

  /  Afrodescendant  /  Argentina  /  Marcela Vallejo  /  photo essay  /  race  /  racialization  /  whitening
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