Jorge Gronemeyer, Tarjeta Postal

JTF (just the facts): Published by Gesto Editorial/Gronefot in 2018 (here). Hand-bound double-leporello with softcover, unpaginated, with eight color photographs and six facsimile picture-postcards, 7.6 x 5.9 inches. Includes a text by the photographer. In an edition of 100 signed copies. Designed by Jorge Gronemeyer. (Cover shots and spreads below.)

Context/Comments: In the basement of the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art in Santiago de Chile, an extensive chart accompanies the permanent exhibition, Chile, before Chile. Running across the main wall, concurrent timelines trace the presence of the country’s pre-Columbian cultures and native peoples from north to south, beginning in 12500 BC and progressing to the present day. Spanning millennia of human migration and endurance, these lines ultimately turn into a profoundly somber abstraction of death and genocide that followed the Chile’s Spanish colonization in the 16th century. In the furthest south, known as Tierra del Fuego, however, two of the four timelines stop in the early 20th century. It is here where Jorge Gronemeyer’s Tarjeta Postal begins.

Retracing an expunged history of muted suffering, Tarjeta Postal combines Gronemeyer’s own photographs of the Chilean south with facsimiles of ethnographic postcards from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both willfully obstructing and corresponding to Gronemeyer’s hazy sea- and landscapes, the postcards show different groups of indigenous people within their so-called natural surroundings. Staged for the camera, they wear tribal attire and are captured in canoes, hunting and smiling, collecting firewood, or adorning each other’s faces. Each postcard was sent in the first decade of the 1900s, from either Chile or Argentina, to family or friends in Belgium, Germany, Hungary, the United States, and Uruguay. Their messages range from holiday greetings and recovery wishes to apologies for a missed get-together – and jarringly juxtapose the postcards’ generic, often derogatory captions, such as “Indians in the canals of the Magellan Strait”, “An Indian woman’s toilet”, or simply “Memories from Tierra del Fuego”. What is so disturbing about these postcards is not only the innate disregard of their subjects (a manifestation of racism present in most ethnographic depictions of indigenous people and native tribes), but that their very existence coincides with the genocide of the people they depict.

Gronemeyer, who grew up during the Pinochet era, did not know much about Chile’s south and its native inhabitants until he went to art school in Valparaíso. “It is the kind of history that was not part of our study plan – which is, of course, not that surprising, given that throughout the 1980s we lived in a full-on civil and military dictatorship,” he says. “My interest in the subject, its starting point, is closely related to photography.” Originally pursuing a career in painting and drawing, he switched media because, at the time, “photography felt less speculative; it required a deep technical and scientific know-how, and conceptual discourse. And that adapted very well to my methodological temperament.”

Since the early 1990s, Gronemeyer has been making work that probes the languages and techniques of applied photography, including anthropometry, architecture, ethnology, and medicine. Within this context, Martin Gusinde’s and Alberto de Agostini’s (both priests and ethnographers) photographs of the Selk’nam and Yagán people, images that Gronemeyer knew from a young age, began to resonate differently. His more “contemporary relationship” with, and reflection of, the subject was formed, however, after seeing the work of the Chilean photographer Paz Errázuriz documenting the Kaweskar people, who are among the last living tribes of the region.

To create Tarjeta Postal, Gronemeyer first conducted extensive research on the Kaweskar, Selk’nam, and Yagán peoples; their territory in southern Chile and Argentina; and their history and culture, which inevitably lead him into the history of the Selk’nam genocide, occurring throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Increasingly pushed out of their original lands and deprived of their resources of livelihood by the invading ranch owners, gold miners, and other intruding entrepreneurs, these nomadic people began to defend themselves. In response, armed groups and militia were paid to systemically hunt and kill them. Others, serving as target practice, were shot from boats, kidnapped and shipped to Europe to be exhibited in human zoos, or taken to shelters run by Christian missionaries. During this research process, Gronemeyer came across these postcards, some which were sold online. His initial unease about acquiring them was overcome following an extended trip to the south.

In 2007, with a book project in mind, Gronemeyer took the landscape photographs, included in Tarjeta Postalin the surrounding areas of Punta Arenas and Puerto Williams. We see images of slate gray waters calmly waving towards a horizon, first sharp as a pencil line, then riddled by mountains, valleys, and shores. The forests are deep and lonely, with gnarly trunks and crowns spread like gesturing hands. There is mist, moss, and earth, at times covered by patches of grass, sitting flat or on mounds. Walking for hours in solitude, Gronemeyer says that “It was impossible to look at these landscapes without imagining the people, who originally inhabited these territories, being present – and at the same time knowing that their presence was turned into a souvenir, objectified, and erased.”  To generate a critical reading of the landscapes, he decided that his photographs, while maintaining their integrity as individual images, had to primarily work as a backdrop for the postcards.

Converging the space between art and artifact, Tarjeta Postal pairs six postcards with corresponding landscapes. Set one-to-a-fold, these photograph/postcard combinations do not correlate in terms of geographic accuracy, but scenery. In doing so, the postcards function both as images of symbolically reinserted presences, and objects, disrupting a merely aesthetic view through the history inscribed in them. This is why it was important to Gronemeyer “that the cards had a history, that they were stamped and written on, that these images had traveled, like the people within them, but never came back.” Materially, this interconnected relationship is reflected by book’s construction of two intersecting leporellos, in which the postcard leporello is inserted through the folding edges of the landscape leporello, and thereby supporting the latter’s binding.

The final postcard in Tarjeta Postal depicts a group of nine Selk’nam, five adults and four children, sitting on a sidewalk or leaning against a wall. They look weary and exhausted, while a man wearing a suit and bowler hat stands next to them. The caption reads “Ona Indians, brought to Paris by Mr. Maître in 1889.” It is the only postcard that is followed by a story.

On the book’s closing pages, we learn that Maurice Maître, a Belgian whaler and smuggler, with the Chilean government’s authorization, kidnapped eleven members of a Selk’nam family, and took them to Europe. Two members died during the ocean journey. The nine remaining members were exhibited as “cannibals” at the 1889 World Exhibition in Paris. Following the death of one child, whose brain was removed for “anthropological research”, the group was exhibited in London, where another woman fell ill, left at the Saint Georges hospital, and died. Due to the increasing outcry by the South American Missionary Society, Maître fled to Belgium, where he, again, exhibited the remaining seven, and then confined them at Petis-Carmes prison in Brussels. Eventually forced to return to England, the six of the surviving Selk’nam were shipped back to Punta Arenas on February 18, 1890; while one boy, Calafate, choose to remain in England, with a Chilean employed by Maîtres. Only four survived the trip to Chile. A year later, the missionary José Maria Beauvoir found Calafate in Montevideo and helped him to return to the south of Chile. While the specifics remain unknown, the surviving members of the family likely suffered the same fate as the remaining eight hundred Selk’nam people. All were detained in a Salesian mission on Darwin Island, where they died of illnesses transmitted by the settlers, for which the Selk’nam had no natural defenses.

Despite an increasing effort in recent years to relate this history and its violent aberrations through books and documentaries, censorship – and racism – in Chile prevails. The reasons are primarily related to preservation of economic power and prestige, both held by a few families and their associated political groups (most dramatically affecting the country’s ongoing Mapuche conflict). Gronemeyer’s motivation to break this silence through images was reinforced by a singular event in 2010. After one hundred thirty-one years, a Swiss museum restituted the bones of five Kaweskars, who had been exhibited in human zoos, to Chile, where they were escorted to Tierra del Fuego and buried. Gronemeyer wrote me that he wanted to symbolically reproduce this act. “In a way, the postcards were repatriated as well, from other continents, and back to the landscapes they once belonged […] It was important for me that [my] landscapes have an ascending relationship, from sea level to the height of a mountain, moving progressively away from the surface, the waters, the forest.”

I am not sure if Tarjeta Postal, or any photobook, could possibly – symbolically or factually – perform such a historically delicate and politically laden act. Though in the hands of a less transparent or considerate artist, this material could have been easily betrayed by misguided politics and pseudo-awareness. Gronemeyer’s attention to form feels crucial. The book is sparse and concise. And yet, so much is left to the viewer, and their willingness to engage in the kind of labor that is as emotional as it is intellectual, demanding both empathy and tenacious questioning. As such the book is a challenge, like a mountain of pain to cross, or vessels of secrets to unearth.

Collector’s POV: Jorge Gronemeyer doesn’t appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely contact the artist directly via the Gronefot Fine Art website (linked in the sidebar).

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