Afterall (Issue 43) looks into deep-seated capitalist and/= (neo-)colonial systems not from political or economic perspectives but by dissecting the issues of indigeneity. Obviously, these are all interrelated in very sad and disturbing ways until today when grass-roots initiatives to overcome this state of affairs both proliferate and face elimination.
In her article ‘Chronicle of a Visit to the Museo Comunitario del Valle de Xico…’, Irmgard Emmelhainz, a researcher, writer and translator living in Mexico City, brings to our attention the ongoing struggle of a small community musem on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Museo Comunitario del Valle de Xico is an almost classic example of an organisation run in a poverty-stricken region and only thanks to the willpower and infinite dedication by its staff. The museum operates in an area where rudimentary infrastructure is often amiss and where the state presence clearly favours the private sector; ordinary people only have their solidarity and feistiness to build a counter-current.
In the following citations, Irmgard Emmelhainz writes about power, exploitation, environment, survival fight and an opportunity for paradigmatic shifts:
‘The Museo… holds five thousand pre-Hispanic artefacts… Aside from preserving and documenting the collection, the museum organises community-related activites [and] celebrations; …It has also served as a catalyst for initiatives such as the reactivation of a chinampa, or human-made lake, in Tláhuac, in addition to resistance to real estate projects in the area. […] Along with art workshops, [it] has a project to write and teach the history of Xico from its inhabitants point of view.’
Ironically, the museum was originally housed in a hacienda next to the remains of a 16th-century ranch owned by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés. [The whole landscape and its design embody such tension between the indigenous/oppressed cultures and the colonisers and its march through time – intentional drying of a local lake earlier on in the century for a Spanish enterpreneur has led to the dislocation of thousands of people and the subsequently built acquifer now annually causes floods in the valley. Environmental destruction, urban design, politics and race are yet again inseparably close.]
‘[In 2016], the Xico municipality began to restore the hacienda… – but failed to provide proper temporary storage for the [museum’s] collection, or provisional headquarters for the museum itself. [It] had to relocate to the hacienda’s adjacent barn, which had no water, electricity or ventilation… When [the director] told me this story, I suspected that the restoration project was an effort on the part of the municipality to take over the hacienda. By now, the restoration funds have ‘run out’.’
After the local authority has essentially evicted the museum, the community turned to larger institutions it had collaborated with before, such as MUAC (University Museum of Contemporary Art). However, no support could be given through any official channels; small staff donations were eventually put together to partly repair the barn but overall, the institutional network left the museum to its own devices. Emmelhainz writes that while ‘MUAC was [earlier] interested in fostering an artistic project that referred to a pressing social issue at its headquarters, its lack of interest as an institution in fully supporting the smaller-scale museum is evidence of that the power relations created in these exchanges are never at stake. Structural inequality remained untouched and restitution could only happen at the symbolic level, shedding light on the dissymmetry in publics and executors that characterises intervention work.’
The museum in operating in emergency conditions in the barn building with ‘metal sheets and canvas for its ceiling’ but ‘it has become evident that all efforts to maintain [its] autonomy and social initiatives pose a threat to and are also prey to appropriation by foreign agents of cultural capitalisation’. [Ever-present danger of eviction and destruction, for example].
‘In this context, the museum resists by surviving – through different modes of being and belonging; through the enactment of new economies of giving; and through the practices of exchange, obligation and reciprocity at work in the museum’s programme and objectives as well as in [the director’s] ethical stance.’
‘We (on the side of privilege) should reconsider the ways in which we think about these initiatives and the role they have in our political imaginaries. We should begin to learn from their experiments and experiences in self-determination and collectivity, acknowledging that they are situated and impacted upon by destructive forces in which we participate.’
‘Furthermore, we should no longer deny the way in which underprivileged populations are being negated by the kind of social relations imposed by capital and bureaucracy in operating their interests through betterment and restitution projects. It should be made clear that such interventions are neither neutral not horizontal and that exogenous reforms and interventions of all kinds have nothing to do with autonomy, solidarity and democracy. This is because current forms of power are embedded not in what we do, know, talk about or see, but in what infrastructures we operate within and how we do so.’
‘Museo…is an instance of a new paradigm of politics emerging at the surface of the social throughout indigenous and underpriliviged communities in Latin America. These exercises are building the possibility of living in dignity at the margins of capitalist markets and neoliberal states… What is needed is… awareness that social relationships cannot be transformed because they occur within the very system that denies that anything was ever broken – and is still being broken – by (neo)colonialism. It is that structure, the standpoint from which colonialism makes sense, that is limiting our ability to find each other.’