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CLARIN

Siberian Photos Help Connect Argentina To Its Asian Ancestry

There's something strangely familiar about the 99 images on display at the Abadía Art and Latin American Studies Center in Buenos Aires.

Siberian Photos Help Connect Argentina To Its Asian Ancestry
Susana Reinoso

BUENOS AIRES — A journey through time with some surprising results. At the risk of oversimplifying things, that's what came to mind after visiting a photo exhibit called "The Other Frontiers: Photographing the Fast East" (Las otras fronteras. Fotografiando el Far East).

On display at the Abadía Art and Latin American Studies Center, in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires, the exhibit features exactly 99 digital copies of black and white photographs that are at once beautifully exotic and historically significant. The images, captured more than a century ago and copied from original gelatin silver prints belonging to the Russian Ethnography Museum in Saint Petersburg, are of native inhabitants of Siberia.

Staring out of the pictures are the faces of hunters and farmers, their faces weather-beaten by Siberia's frigid climate; women with particular garbs depending on whether or not they were married; children; and shamans putting their rituals on display. The photos are fascinating in and of themselves, but have a special resonance here in South America.

The copies were made by the MUVIM (the Valencia Museum of Illustration and Modernity) in Spain. Indeed, the show is a collaborative project between MUVIM, La Abadía, the Ethnography Museum and Montevideo's MAPI (Museum of Pre-Columbian and Indigenous Art) in Uruguay. It was previously seen in Valencia, Montevideo and in Corrientes, north of Buenos Aires.​

Clarín visited the exhibition in the company of Gregori Berenguer, the curator in Valencia; MAPI director Facundo de Almeida; and Abadía's director (Miguel Frías) and exhibitions chief (Andrea González). The show, which runs through Nov. 11, offers a record of the daily lives, customs and rituals, but also subsistence methods, economy and environmental relations of a people whose presence in Siberia and the Far East of Asia predates the arrival of humans in the Americas.

For Berenguer, the photographs highlight the cultural ties uniting the Americas with Siberia, and offer hints regarding the origins of Native American ritual practices like shamanism. "You can generally view the Americas from two angles," he says. "There's the image as seen from the West. But is this show, we see it from the East. It underscores the fact that the first colonization did not happen across the Atlantic but along the Bering Strait."

We owe this fascinating cartography of native families, dresses and customs to the foresight of the government of Imperial Russia, which sent photographers and ethnographers to Siberia to register the lives of its communities around the turn of the 20th century. These were also adventurers and lovers of folk cultures, and included such names as Konstantin Maslennikov, Serguei Rudenko, Nikolai Moguilyanski and Alexei Makarenko. Their pictures are testament, furthermore, to the vastness of the Russian Empire, which stretched then from the Caucasus to the ends of the Asian continent.

"It is thought that the peoples of northern Asia and their native American descendants tended to conserve certain, very old cultural traits that were registered and documented at the moment of their contact with white men," Berenguer observes. The most notable example, he says, are "practices of shamanic origins, which we observe in both groups of peoples, the Siberians and native Americans. All of them are historically descended from the peoples who inhabited the far northeastern corner of the Eurasian continent."

Perhaps the most surprising thing on visiting the exhibition is to think that even as far south as Argentina, our earliest inhabitants came not from Europe, as so many later arrivals did, but from across an entirely different sea. In the catalog that accompanies the exhibit, Facundo de Almeida points out how genetic studies in recent decades "tie certain native American populations to Mongoloid populations of North Asia, based on some of the affinities they present. These similarities are also visible in the physical traits of current Siberian and American groups."

Interestingly, Native American population groups also appear to be linked to non-Mongoloid groups from eastern Europe, further evidence of Siberia's genetic and cultural variety. The exhibition puts this fascinating fusion on display.

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