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Experimental ethnography in Tomás Ochoa’s Medieval Indians Project
by Joaquí­n Barriendos

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A Very Brief (Postcolonial) History of the Symbolic Reconstruction of the Indies

Experimental ethnography in Tomás Ochoa’s Medieval Indians Project*

There are threads of continuity that link the ideas of the monstrous in accounts of medieval voyages stories and in chronicles. In the same way the former symbolically presented the encounter between a civilized Europe and a savage Other, this same confrontation appeared in presenting the indigenous monster. The system of analogies coupled the newly discovered with the erroneous, which justified the discourse of monstrous indigenous forms of behavior.

Borja Gómez, Los indios medievales de Fray Pedro de Aguado

The ‘appearance’ of the New World and the ‘invention’ of America are two ideas that are rooted in the visual and literary rhetoric that the Chroniclers of the Indies and imperial travelers inherited from the medieval literary corpus. In the same way, the construction of the American savage developed by updating the various medieval imaginaries regarding the cannibal, the lines of argument and the use of the discursive exemplum and the inventio as rhetorical forms filled with historiographic, hagiographic and iconographic codes. As Borja Gómez sought to show in his book on Friar Pedro de Aguado’s missionary expeditions in the New Kingdom of Granada, American Indians “are medieval because their entire medieval subtext is; they are assembled from the Christian tradition, medieval literary thought and the weight of the authorities as generators of reality […] Aguado used medieval exegetical theory, the system of biblical types-antitypes and poetics in such a way that through another rhetorical element of long tradition in medieval literature, the exempla he could present history as a battleground between vices and virtues”.(1) The consolidation of the monstrous nature of the New World, i.e., the symbolic appearance of an ethno-cartographic beyond defined on the one hand by its distance from the West and on the other by the appearance of its extreme forms of otherness, that is to say the untamable Carib lands and the savage inhabitants of Canibalia who were not part of the transatlantic trade in precious metals, are closely related to the use of rhetoric in the fictional literature of the Chroniclers of the Indies. It can thus be said that the invention of the “good”and “bad”American savages is anchored in medieval tropology, so the new cannibal inaugurated by the modern/colonial world-system is above all a parable: an archive-image stemming from cultural flows, inter-epistemic confrontations and commercial exchanges of the transatlantic space and the economic logic of colonial modernity.

As I have sought to point out in another text,(2) it is in that rhetorical immateriality that the racializing potential of the colonial panoptical gaze rests. The matrix of coloniality on the cannibal of such rhetoric is so resilient that, as stated before, since then it has merely been adapted and renewed by overlaying Western archive-images on the cannibal.(3) As Antonello Gerby’s research on the “dispute over the New World”shows, far from being weakened, these narratives were updated by enlightened, positivist historiographies. In the context of today’s global migrant and labor exchanges, the archive-images arising from the rhetorical and proto-ethnographic invention of the colonial cannibal of the Carib territory seem to have taken on new symbolic strength, to such an extent that the invention of the “Indian”, the other and difference -as colonial categories- now feeds the iconographic substratum of the blend of imaginaries in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. Viewed from this perspective, the “chronicles of the Indies”function as transhistoric, transmodern Europeanizing accounts at the service of the contemporary transatlantic visual economy.

The Ecuadorian artist Tomás Ochoa’s Indios Medievales [Medieval Indians] project focuses on deconstructing those continuities; in other words, on unveiling the genealogies on which layer after layer has been placed to form the current archive-image of Latin American cultural cannibalism. In his project, the faces and biographies of male and female workers emigrating from Latin America to Spain in the 21st century act as more than mere contemporary stereotypes of the American savage. Its aim is more to shed light on the matrix of coloniality inscribed in every representation of the American native: in other words, to provide evidence of the process of sedimentation of all archive-images on the cannibalism of the Indies, and expose the fact that underneath these layers there is no essential, original prototype of the cannibal of the Indies "a pure iconographic stamp of the American savage" just the ethnographic development of the European panoptical colonial view.

Structured by confronting two series of photographs printed on metal, the Indios Medievales project situates two iconographic genealogies differentiated by their printing processes, but placed in a single rhetorical-visual matrix. On one side we find reproductions of some of De Bry’s engravings, made using a photographic technique on silver metal plates that emulates the bas-relief of Theodore De Bry’s original woodcuts by using an emulsion and an acid that eats away the uncovered parts of the metal plate, i.e., corrodes certain parts of the surface. On the other side we find a series of gold-color prints, also on metal, in which two sub-layers of the archive-images on cannibalism confront one another. In this second series, on the left side of the composition, we see prototypes of the ‘bad savage’ known for rebelling against the imperial metropolitan crown and criollo empowerment (such as Túpac Amaru, Cuauhtémoc, Rumiñahui, Bartolina Sisa, etc.). On the right side, we find stereotypes of contemporary ‘good savages’, that is to say Latin American immigrants that are apparently well ‘integrated’ into the Spanish labor market. This second genealogy, unlike the first one, was produced as ‘blind embossing’, also on metal plates, but using a technique that leaves the surface intact. Both genealogies a clear reference to the interaction of the transatlantic battles between silver (the concrete object of slavery exploitation in America) and gold (the symbolic object on which the justification of the conquest and expansion of cannibal territory was based)-- thus establish a contrast between the two sides, between surface and depth, hunger for precious metals and extreme appetites for the iconographic consumption of cannibal otherness, and, finally, between the positive (the good) and the negative (the bad) in the representational processes of savagery. Thus, this juxtaposition, attains to set the contradiction between the ethnographic distance and the technologies of the colonial panoptical gaze as metaphors for a transparent and innocent view. The strategy of ‘being present’ as an eye witness without ‘being part’ of cannibal otherness by establishing a kind of ethnographic distance (a characteristic ambivalence of De Bry’s etchings, which are supposedly literal translations of Hans Staden’s accounts of the Tupinambás) is revealed by confronting the two iconographic genealogies traced by Tomás Ochoa.

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