Category Archives: journey

Primitivism beckons

So far, we’ve ranged widely between north and south, from Canada to Mauritius, Colombia to Italy. The last two in particular reveal a South that is the scene of great violence, including FARC and mafia. This touches on the fears about the South as a primitive zone where life is cheap and rules of civilised behaviour no longer hold.

Of course, there’s another side to this. The next locations reflect the primitivist attitude to the South as a necessary antidote to the over-controlled life in the West. We start with the first Pacific destination, Tahiti, the original location of the noble savage, and which introduced the tattoo to the world.

After this, we visit our first country in the African mainland, Zimbabwe, which produced the internationally successful Shona Sculpture — a seemingly rare direct African contribution to the modernist oeuvre, but now the subject of critical review. Either side of this is the ancient empire of Great Zimbabwe and the contemporary spectre of Robert Mugabe. I’m waiting on the return of a colleague from Zimbabwe before posting this.

After this, we are due back in Latin America. My thought is to turn to Uruguay, the scene of Joaquín Torres García’s Le Escuela del Sur and the phenomenon of Mario Benedetti. Then it will be another turn to the north, such as Russia, which had a particular fascination for the South Seas.

Behind the scenes, the website at is now complete and work has begun consolidating this journey in a wiki. Of course, I am working away at the book.

As you might tell, the logic at play here is to keep the journey open, to prevent the idea of South congealing to quickly. As the Chilean proverb goes, camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente (‘the shrimp that sleeps is carried away by the current’).

Colombia – from El Dorado to FARC

The idea continues its southward journey. We move from an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean to a tropical land which, though part of the Northern Hemisphere, crowns the continent of South America. Not just geographically in the northern half, Colombia is also widely seen as ally to its northern patron, the USA, resisting the ‘pink tide’ that has pushed its southern neighbours to the left. How does Colombia inform our understanding of South?

It should be noted that Colombia is a complex story and this is very much an external viewpoint, related to the ongoing search for south-ness. To help explore a little more deeply, a number of people familiar with the country have been asked to comment on what might be missing in the world if Colombia did not exist. They help us reflect on a country that evokes the violence of gratuity.

It begins with El Dorado…

muisca95 On the shores of Guatavitá, a volcanic lake near present-day Bogatá, the new Zipa is prepared for the ceremony marking his ascension to the throne. He is stripped naked and covered with a sticky layer of balsam gum, on which gold dust is applied. Transformed into a golden figure, he steps on to a raft with other gold objects, including intricate votive figurines, tunjos. Once out in the centre of the lake, priests throw all the golden objects into the water, restoring the divine order of things. Finally, the Zipa plunges into the lake and swims to shore a new chief.

This legend of the ‘gifted one’, El Dorado, soon spread throughout the newly colonised world. When riches ran out in Mexico, Europe turned its attention to the tropics, seeking the valley of wild cinnamon containing untold gold reserves. The brutal colonisation of the northern stretch of South America can be traced directly to the expeditions in search of El Dorado.

The fantasy of El Dorado was based on the hypothesis that there existed a culture in which gold was of no value. Gold in Central America was used only for adornment, rarely currency. The Aztec word for gold was teocuitlatl, or ‘excrement of the gods’. The value of gold was only as it was crafted into precious objects. A Panamanian chief could not understand why the Spanish would melt objects down into featureless ingots.[1] In Candide, Voltaire writes about Cacambo and Candide visiting El Dorado, which is an idyllic isolated valley run on strict communitarian principles. The King treats them with great kindness, but is amused with their love of gold, which he dismisses as ‘yellow mud’. Like the number ‘zero’, El Dorado served as a null state that underpinned the emerging mathematics of global trade.

The dream of untold wealth was not an auspicious beginning.

Fault lines

Colombia emerged as a nation from the Viceroyalty of New Granada in 1810, lead by the forces of Simón Bolívar. The Bolivarian dream of a United States of South America came to a cruel end as the Colombian federation was broken up by reactionary forces in Venezuela and Ecuador. The conflict became a ‘war to the death’ (guerra a muerte) where no prisoners were taken. As Eduardo Galeano comments on Bolivar’s demise: ‘Was this, was this history? All grandeur ends up dwarfed. On the neck of every promise crawls betrayal. Great men become voracious landlords. The sons of America destroy each other. ‘[2]

The fault-line of violence continues into the modern era, with today’s three-way conflict between the government and left and right-wing guerrillas. The writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes the atrocities that have become part of everyday life in Colombia as a ‘Biblical Holocaust’. His News of a Kidnapping documents the national obsession with guerrillas, including children’s birthday parties broadcast on national television in the hope that their kidnapped parents may still be alive and encouraged by the happy scenes.

In this context, the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez appears as a kind of imaginary haven from the violence outside. For Marquez, the world of fantastic places like Macondo in 100 Years of Solitude reflects the true nature of Colombian life. As he said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: ‘Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.’

The happy sublime


Yet rather than succumbing to gloom, Colombia seems to counter violence with festivity. According to the Happy Planet Index, Colombians are among the happiest people on earth, second only to Vanuatu. This certainly reflects on the carnival of cambia, salsa, food and sex that is celebrated at the Colombian way of life. Colombian artists respond to this contradiction between reality and mood in different ways.

The artist Maria Fernando Cardoso has produced a number of exhibitions in Australia, including Zoomorphia in which animals perform baroque feats such as flea circuses. When considering what is unique to Colombia, Cardoso nominates its regional specialisations, ‘…being a particular Lechona (roasted pork) a Ternera a la Llanera, an Ajiaco, a Casuela de Mariscos, Cuajada con Queso, Melcoha, Alfandoque, Chicha, Arepa de Choclo, Pandeyuca, Almohabana, Chocolate Caliente, etc.  Colombia one of the most diverse countries I know, there are differences from town to town’ For Cardoso, Colombia is a nation of artists, including ‘street people, street culture, los recicladores, los vendedores ambulantes.’


Nadin Ospina

The artist Nadín Ospina created a series of work that reflected on the penetration of capitalism into Colombian identity. He commissioned objects from artisans who forged pre-Colombian artefacts and so produced objects incorporating Western icons like Mickey Mouse and Bart Simpson. His most recent work Colombialan uses the style of a children’s Lego game to reflect on the unreality of guerrilla violence. Ospina is critical of the escapist culture of Colombia; he says, ‘A society used to its pain and its violence is a society incapable of finding a solution to its conflicts.’

Oscar Muños gives expression to the fraught progress of Colombian politics with a series of portraits that require active participation in order to remain visible. Breath requires the viewer to breathe on steel plates to see the face, while in Project for a Memorial the face evaporates as it is drawn. The work evokes an anxiety about the lack of political progress.

What if Colombia did not exist?

Gabriela Salgado (curator, Tate Modern) sees Colombia as the projection of global anxieties:

Colombia is larger than the imagination and more positive than its media profile, which always associates the country with war, violence and drug production. If it did not exist, the ignorance- propagation machine of the global media would invent another Colombia to fulfil the need for gore and negativity with which invests selected parts of the world. On the other hand, if it did not exist, I would have not seen one of the most beautiful natural sanctuaries in the planet, and we would be missing a great deal of high quality contemporary art, literature, film, music, and intellectual production.

Jeff Browit (Coordinator of Contemporary Latin America at University of Technology Sydney) located Colombia firmly in the south:

Colombia is geographically ‘north’ of the equator, but philosophically ‘south’ in that it has a legacy of Iberian invasion and the imposition of an Iberian version of Westernisation and Christianity. It has subsequently laboured under neocolonial pressures from the United States and found itself trapped at times in the Cold War logics of the US-Soviet struggle for hearts and minds. In that sense it shares a common experience with many countries deemed part of the ‘south’. Aside from these geopolitical implications, it has an extraordinary diversity of geography, biology and culture and is blessed with a dynamic, hardworking, loving population, in spite of its constant demonisation in the press, in Washington and in Hollywood popular culture.

May Maloney, who has just returned as an exchange student in the region, the world owes an unacknowledged debt to Colombia:

If Colombia were to be missing from the world then all of Latin America would be suffering from a terrible identity crisis. If Colombia just zipped off the face of the Earth or was never there to begin with then we wouldn’t have ‘Pre-Colombian’ history, or Bolivar’s Pan-American dream. Spain wouldn’t have been able to transport (steal?) the all gold and silver of Bolivia without the port of Cartagena and, moreover, Henry Morgan and Francis Drake (along with all other pirates) would not have entered popular folklore if Santa Marta and Cartagena hadn’t been there to be sacked and razed at will. An obvious gap in the world economy would be left without Colombia—the Panama Canal as we know was once part of Colombia. The international drug economy, largely funded by the US, would have to be relocated to another part of the world and The War on Drugs wouldn’t have arrived at a Plan Colombia. Shakira wouldn’t be bringing her Laundry Service to the world, Miami could crumble to the ground and salsa would only be danced in Cuban circles if Cali hadn’t taught us that you can do it in straight lines. And worst of all for most Melbournians here in the South we wouldn’t be sipping at out ‘Italian’ coffee!

Sing as the birds do

The recent conflict between Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela has awakened the ghosts of Bolívar. Chavez is seeking to exhume the remains of Bolivar from his crypt in Caracas in order to discover if he was poisoned by the reactionary forces who then went on to rule Colombia.

Meanwhile, among the FARC guerrillas killed by Colombian forces in Ecuador was the folk singer Julian Conrado, who composed revolutionary songs in the traditional vallenato style, music of troubadours from the valley in north-east Colombia. One of his famous songs was El Canto

When you are going to sing
sing as the birds do
it has to turn out beautiful because it is done free of charge …
he who would pay for happiness,
no happiness will find.

The idea of Colombia is a world without value. Travelling through El Dorado to FARC we experience its sublime imagination and fraught reality. And along the way, we might glimpse a truth about the capitalist empire.

Next, southern Italy…

[1] Heide King ‘Gold in Ancient America’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 2002, 59: 4, pp. 5-55

[2] Eduardo Galeano Memory of Fire: II Faces & Masks (trans. Cedric Belfrage) New York: Pantheon, 1987 (orig. 1984), p. 138

Mauritius – is the South a mistake?

We began the journey way up in great Arctic landmass of Canada, where the idea of North frames a direction away from the dominant power—a loneliness that brings people together. Now we descend to the opposite end of the world, a little island in the Indian Ocean.

Early ideas of South speculated about an Antipodes that counterbalanced the known world. In this anti-world, the natural order of things would be reversed—day would be night and people would have feet on their heads.

Mauritius has several claims to fame. These are not the usual proud achievements—Nobel Prize winning novelists, the biggest of its kind in the Southern hemisphere, etc. Mauritius’ singular contribution to world history appears to be in its capacity to make mistakes.

The founding myth of philately is the Blue Penny stamp. On 20 September, 1847, a half-blind Mauritian watchmaker Joseph Barnard was charged with engraving plates for the first stamps to be produced outside the British Empire. After a visit to his friend the postmaster, Barnard mistakenly printed ‘Post Office’ rather than ‘Post Paid’. With this moment of absent-mindedness, Barnard had destined this penny stamp to acquire the current value of approximately €1 million Euros. Why should such a mistake be now so valuable? We tend to notice mistakes more than we do clockwork order. To what extend does our confidence in the bureaucratic systems of the north depend on the existence of their exception in the South?

The second claim is the Dodo. Portuguese for ‘simpleton’, the Dodo is a universal figure of ridicule. Though related to the pigeons of Southeast Asia, the Dodo abandoned the power of flight for a lazy life on an island secure from predators. For biologists like David Quammen, the Dodo is a classic moral tale of extinction through isolation: ‘that insular evolution, for all its wondrousness, tends to be a one-way tunnel toward doom.’ To ‘go the way of the Dodo’ is to stupidly cling to weak provincial tradition in the face of a stronger global force. To what extent has colonisation been assisted by the ghosts of South’s flightless birds?

Behind these two clichés of Mauritian errantry lies a complex country. This Francophone island is populated largely by those of Indian descent. Though French speaking, for the past two centuries Mauritius has been a proud member of the British Commonwealth. There is a significant population of Creoles, descended from African slaves. Marginalised from official life, Creole culture developed a rich oral and musical tradition. The Sega is a national dance of Mauritius, which combines European polka with African rhythm. In the 1980s, this evolved into Seggae, by a Mauritian Bob Marley called Kaya, who was allegedly murdered while in police custody.

Today, Creole plays a prominent role in Mauritian culture. The publishing house Lalit (‘struggle’ in Creole) produces bi-lingual editions. This includes a collection of Creole folk tales such as the ‘Foor Bells’ which explains why diamonds became rare. It has also published the story of Le Morne, about Creole slaves who escaped into the mountains where they lived isolated from colonial settlements. When troops finally appeared, the population collectively leapt from the precipice rather than submit to slavery again. They were wrong. The British soldiers had come to inform them of the abolition of slavery.

As indentured labourers, the original Indians were illiterate, thus had no way of maintaining contact with home. They were predominantly from Bihari, where the river Ganges plays a critical role in cultural calendar. In 1897, a Hindu priest had a vision of a spring containing water from the Ganges. From this grew a legend that Shiva had spilt some drops of the Ganges over the island while on his way to deposit it in India. This lake Ganga Talao is now the site of the biggest annual pilgrimage of Indians outside India. It is home to paris, or nymphs of heaven whose beauty cannot be matched.

Mauritius is a treasury of mistakes. They constitute a wealth of possibility.

Lewis Dick and Jennifer Bartholemew at their collaborative residency as part of Common Goods in 2006

Jean-Lewis Dick, the carver was the seventeenth child of a Creole family, born on leap day, like today, 29th February. His mother died in childbirth. For all intents and purposes, he was a mistake. Louis has since used his marginality and built a culture for his Creole neighbours, using whatever resources he has to establish a sculpture school and gallery. Strange how something of great value can emerge from what seems at the time to be a terrible mistake.

Might the same be of the South. Used as a theatre of ridicule to show up the civilised and orderly North, perhaps these mistakes form a treasury of meaning yet to be unpacked.

  • Sarita Boodhoo ‘Religious and cultural traditions of Biharis in Mauritius’, in (ed. Marina Carter) The Bihari Presence in Mauritius Port Louis: Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Studies, 2000, p. 134
  • Roger Moss Le Morne (trans. Lindsey Collen) Port Louis: Ledikasyon pu Traveyer , 2000
  • David Quammen The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography In The Age Of Extinctions London: Hutchison, 1996, p. 147
  • Sirandann Sanpek: Zistwar an Kreol (Baissac’s 1888 collection) Louis: Ledikasyon pu Traveyer, 1997
  • Lalit (see particularly Lindsey Collen’s articles on the political issues such as Diego Garcia)
  • Mahatma Gandhi Institute the island’s only art school and gallery
  • Littératures de l’Océan Indien

Is Canada south?

In 1964, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould took the Muskeg Express, a train that travels north more than 1,000 kilometres from Winnipeg to Churchill, in the upper reaches of Manitoba. At breakfast, he struck up a conversation with a surveyor Wally McLean and was impressed to learn about his ‘craft’ which was ‘to find in the most minute measurement, a suggestion of the infinite’.

Gould subsequently invited Wally to be the narrator for a radio documentary called the Idea of North. The one hour program included five voices in a contrapuntal structure that interwove varying strains of romanticism, cynicism and reflection. The nurse Marianne Schroeder describes her initial fears about the monotony of the North and how she began to identify with its innocent beauty. Frank Vallee criticises attempts at ‘northmanship’ where one seeks to outdo the other in experiences of remoteness.

Gould was notorious for eschewing the concert hall and retiring to the privacy of the recording studio. Accordingly, what interested Gould in the North was the experience of solitude. He identified with austere Nordic composers such as Sibelius, Bach, and Schoenberg.

Out of this isolation emerges a nation. Fellow Canadian composer R. Murrary Schafer stated that ‘All the energy of the world radiates from the Magnetic North Pole.’ One of the prophets of Canada’s north was Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an Arctic explorer of Icelandic descent. In 1922 he wrote ‘There is no northern boundary beyond which productive enterprise cannot go until North meets North on the opposite shore of the Arctic Ocean.’ This North is Canada’s frontier.

For Jim Lotz, Canada is founded on those parts of the North American continent that few others wanted. The North thus becomes a secret appreciated only by Canadians. Kevin McMahon describes the Arctic as Canada’s own mythological territory, defining nationhood in the same way that the Wild West defined the USA and the open seas defined England.

There have been attempts to broaden this idea of North beyond Canada. In Peter Davidson’s Idea of North, he notes the visit to St Petersburg in 2003 by the Canadian Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. She proposed to the Russians a ‘new humanism of the North’ shared to reverse the southern perspective that sees the far North only as a region to be exploited for its natural resources.

Canadian identity is grounded in the North. In her Canada and the Idea of North, Sherrill Grace quotes Henry Beissel’s Cantos North (1982) that the north ‘discovered us / fell upon our vanity / with tomahawks of ice’. Grace describes the Canadian idea of North as a habitus— a deep-seated phenomenological orientation that informs the Canadian sense of self.

It’s an interesting challenge with which to begin a journey to the idea of South. To what extent might the idea of South that we are exploring here be a version of the Canadian idea of North? Both might entail concern for a region that needs protecting from the rest of the world. A sense of inferiority becomes a noble mission.

And on the other hand, is Canada south? If you take colonisation as the common element linking countries of the South, then Canada shares much in common with settler nations like Australia and South Africa. A recent book by Joan Fairweather identifies the common cause shared between Canada and South Africa in the land claims of their Indigenous peoples.

So why couldn’t Canada be South? This question brings into relief the physical sense of South, evident in the weather, the skies and the nature. It points to a problem that an idea of South must resolve: how to reconcile the historical trajectory of the South with its physical reality. Canada puts that question on our agenda.

It also raises the possibility that the division between North and South may not be binary. If South is defined in opposition to a dominant North, then North eventually becomes South when its power wanes with distance in whatever direction. This is the idea of South as periphery. And if for Europeans the South is the realm of sunshine, then in countries like Australia, the northern state of Queensland is more south than Victoria below it.

These complexities prompt a dynamic concept of space. But how elastic can an idea of South be before it loses its meaning? Where does South end? What is the limit of South?


Listen to the start of Glenn Gould’s Idea of North

  • Peter Davidson The Idea of North London: Reaktion, 2005
  • Joan G. Fairweather A Common Hunger: Land Rights In Canada And South Africa Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006
  • Sherrill Grace Canada and the Idea of North McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 2002
  • Jim Lotz Northern Realities: The Future of Northern Development in Canada Toronto: New Press, 1970