When you think of Patagonia, you probably think of nature and adventure tourism, rather than art. However, its vast, sparse, landscapes have been inspiring art for over 9,000 years, as witnessed by the famous Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands).
It probably shouldn’t be surprising that such a dramatic place, stretching windswept and flat to distant horizons in every direction, should inspire artistic expression. It’s often referred to as “the end of the world”, after all. The fantastic Maritime Art Museum (MAMU) in Ushuaia hosts a permanent collection of Argentine maritime paintings, both contemporary and dating back to the 1880s, while several Río Gallegos-based artists have been painting Patagonian landscapes for decades, including Alejandra Borrelli, Alejandra Harris, and Rosa Saissac.
The first reaction of many who visit Patagonia’s giant, almost hypnotic landscape, though, is to take a photo, unknowingly participating in the region’s most prolific artistic medium of the modern era.
In the late 19th century, explorers like Italian missionary Father Alberto de Agostini and Argentine academic Francisco ‘Perito’ Moreno were the first to photograph Patagonia, which had previously been considered inhospitable. European Pioneers soon followed them, establishing farms, with many bringing cameras and charting their new lives on film. The work of the Walter Roil in the 1930s is perhaps the apex of Patagonian photography from the age of the Pioneers. A meticulous German, he carefully archived all of his negatives, and his body of work is still considered an important contribution to Patagonian – and Argentine – art.
The tradition of Patagonian photography continues to thrive today. Notable contemporary Patagonian photographic artists include Alberto Cortés and Eduardo Frías, from Viedma, whose work depicts the absurdity and frailty of the human impact on the enormous Patagonian landscapes. Also Gustavo Groh, a native of Buenos Aires but resident of Ushuaia for over 25 years, who creates photographic montages that juxtapose the different aspects and eras of Patagonia – the land, the Pioneers, and the technology and architecture of the 21st century.
The Southern Renaissance
If Patagonia has experienced something of an art renaissance over the last 10 or 15 years, Río Gallegos, formerly a drab, windswept departure point for oil, coal and wool export, has emerged as the unlikely hub of the movement. Sonia Cortez, who creates conceptual art that combines photographs and drawings to portray an anthropological or social concept, has acted as a mentor to a new generation of local artists, since she began to connect and rally them in the late 1990s, encouraging them to exhibit. Río Gallegos’ artistic dawn has also been aided by the number and quality of art venues, notably the Museo de Arte Eduardo Minnicelli, and the spacious municipal exhibition rooms.
Patricia Viel meanwhile, a former Director of Culture for Río Gallegos, together with another local artist, Marcela Magno recently established Vendabal (meaning ‘gale’), an online community and exhibition space, and physical gallery by appointment.
As Director of Culture, Viel toured Santa Cruz province looking for interesting new artists to invite to exhibit in Río Gallegos, leaving her uniquely placed to bring the region’s artists together, develop and promote them. An artist herself, whose work explores the timeless Patagonian themes of the land, enormity, and solitude through the mediums of photo-collage and paintings, Viel describes the Vendabal project “as a platform to showcase the work of the growing number of talented young local artists, as well as a community to allow them to come together, inspire each other, and share ideas. Initially we are focusing on ten local artists, however we hope that this number will grow over time as more people come together and get involved.”
Besides Río Gallegos, the principal centres of art in Patagonia are Bariloche and Ushuaia. Each have distinct artistic communities and both public and private exhibition spaces. Situated hundreds of miles apart, the three cities’ different geographical settings are reflected in the character and content of their artistic endeavour: Ushuaia exposed to the Beagle Channel, Río Gallegos the gateway to the vast, flat southern farmlands, and Bariloche in the shade of the Andes.
Bariloche’s best known artist is perhaps Monica Giron, an installation artist who has spent much of her career in Europe, and who has won numerous awards, both Argentine and international. She describes her work as a commentary on the human condition and Patagonian and Argentine culture. Her recent installation, entitled ‘KOL (Homo Sapiens)’, is a good example, consisting of five stone blocks, three cubes with inscriptions (‘spirit’, ‘soul’, and ‘homo sapiens’), and two spheres that resemble eyes, draped down a grass bank beside a road in Bariloche.
While Patagonia’s indigenous community is relatively artistically inactive beyond its traditional textile and jewellery crafting, a handful of individuals are beginning to emerge into the mainstream, such as the Mapuche painter and photographer Juan Carlos Carrilaf, who chronicles traditional Mapuche life, rituals and mythology. Another stand-out Mapuche artist is the actress Luisa Calcumil, who since winning the best actress award at the Argentine Film Festival in 1987 for her performance in Gerónima (which chronicles the story of an oppressed Mapuche women), has been touring the region performing in her own plays, while also continuing to appear in films.
“Over the last decade new technologies have allowed Patagonian artists to create, connect and promote themselves and their work in ways not previously possible,” says Patricia Viel, summing up Patagonia’s young, vibrant art scene. “This in turn has provided inspiration to more people, so that now the movement has taken on a life of its own.
“Our future is bright.”
Hugo Lesser is based in Salta in north west Argentina. He is the founder of Estados (www.estados.co.uk), which offers beautiful handmade Argentine leather goods in the UK.
Where to experience Patagonian art
Ushuaia Host of the National Festival of Snow Sculptures every July, which attracts entrants from around the world. The city also boasts one of the finest collections of maritime paintings in the world at the Maritime Art Museum (MAMU)