With Noorderzon officially coming to an end this Sunday, the performances of Alkonza&Toloza call for continued reflection
Written by Sandra Mako Sanchez
This year, the Groningen Forum hosted two performances by the artistic duo, Laida Azkona Goñi and Txalo Toloza-Fernández, known collectively as Azkona&Toloza. Azkona was a tall, gliding Spaniard who had dedicated the majority of her past life to becoming a professional ballerina before turning to performance art; Toloza was a short, grounded Chilean who moved to Europe, establishing himself as an artistic audiovisual producer.
Tierras del Sud (‘Southern Lands’) and Teatro Amazonas (‘Amazonian Theater’) are the second and third shows of their theater-documentary trilogy Pacifico. A theme of neocolonialism ties Pacifico together. Each explores the subject in a different area of South America.
We are transported to the Atacama desert, the Patagonia mountains, and the Amazon rainforest through the beautiful sets created. The scenery is created piece by piece throughout the performances. Throughout the multi-media performance, there are moments where the audience is presented with images, text, and video projected above where the artists add more and more to the worlds they take us to.
“While people read we construct the landscape of the place… In spite of the barbarity that those places have suffered, in spite of the quantity of blood spilt, these are places that are beautiful, places that are going to keep overcoming what comes. Now we talk about the extinction of the planet; but no, the ones that are going to be extinguished are the humans, the planet will adapt, become a different thing, and continue on,” Toloza said in an exclusive interview with the Northern Times.
Indeed, the duo must have great respect for the areas they traversed, after spending a year on average in each area, gathering the stories of the people there.
Amplifying Indigenous Voices
“We always told the people that we aren’t journalists, we aren’t historians, we aren’t someone with a clear motive or method. The first thing we did was get a car and start talking to people. One person would lead you to another person and then they to another person. What we basically did was talk, and record with our phones.”
The reciting of these interviews with indigenous people was a key feature in the performances. Azkona and Toloza wore large headsets which played back their recordings. They would repeat what they heard in a neutral voice.
“We are not Mapuches,” Toloza stated after Tierras del Sud. “We are loudspeakers, not representatives… More than us explaining what was happening to them, it needed to be them who were telling their story. We are just repeating what they say.”
Tierras del Sud
The Mapuches were the indigenous people at the center of Tierras del Sud. The other key figure in the story was the United Colors of Benetton. They exposed the role the well-regarded clothing chain played in the neocolonialist exploitation of the Mapuches. To do this, they contextualized their audience by taking them through the history of abuse suffered by these people in the name of god, glory, and gold.
Spanish conquistadors forced the Mapuche from their lands, slaughtering thousands in continuous wars. The Mapuche fled, creating strongholds in Chile and Argentina. In the late 19th century, a resurgence of this, unrecognized, genocide was enacted by Argentinian President Julio Roca. Roca led bloody military campaigns to take their lands in what was called the “Conquest of the Desert”.
Throughout this time, and after, the Mapuche were othered and demonized in order to justify these and subsequent injustices. Azkona and Toloza show the power that the colonizers had over the image of the Mapuche. They do so by recreating photographs taken of the Mapuche by government agents sent to document their lives. By using first person narrative, they emphasize how awkward and unnatural the process was, resulting in false depictions. Mapuche were dressed in clothes which were not theirs, told to position themselves in strange manners, and even made to stand naked in front of the camera.
As we approach the present, and the United Colors of Benetton, we see how Argentina’s capitalist goals continue to outweigh their concerns over the Mapuche. Their reservations continue to be designated “fiscal lands” and thus are continuously used for mining, luber, oil and gas developments. Despite the Argentine constitution laying out that the Mapuche have rights to the land of Patagonia, without legal titles this land has been considered in the hands of the government. The government of Argentina sold approximately 900,000 hectares to the Benetton family, where almost 100,000 sheep are farmed. Claiming their right to the land, Mapuche families have moved into unused parts of the territory. Since then, they have been harassed by Benetton representatives and, eventually, forced out. A leader of the Mapuche resistance, Santiago Maldonado, was soon after drowned, with all fingers pointing to Argentine officials.
“The images I saw of the United Colors of Benetton’s ads in the 80s of human rights and social justice was a reference point for me. I studied audiovisuals and in a big way, they were a source of inspiration. So suddenly, when I see the reports coming out of their treatment of the Mapuche, I was like wow. I felt implicated. It was like, what did we understand? From there, we decided to cross over to Argentina [from Chile]. We investigated there for a year and a half.”
This conflict of image, resulting from the revelation of neocolonial truths, is also present in Teatro Amazonas. The show is named after an opera house built in Manaus, Brazil, during the 19th century. While beautiful and ornate, it was not meant for the people from the area, but for the incoming European colonialists.
Of course, Americans too played their part. In the early 20th century, Henry Ford built an industrial town centered around the production of rubber, for tires and other parts of cars. It was named Fordlândia. Through animated videos and historical reels, Azkona&Toloza show how Ford brought in indigenous people to populate houses, run a fire station, and work at the rubber manufacturing plant. The industrial town soon collapsed as the people began to die from disease and the harsh treatment and poor diet imposed upon them. This disaster highlight’s the carelessness with which the people of the Amazon are treated.
In the mid-20th century and onwards, Evangelical missionaries were sent en masse to the Amazon. There they surveilled the peoples, forcing them to attend masses where they were told that they were demons and needed to reject their cultures and, fundamentally, themselves. Azkona&Toloza recite interviews and show videos in which young people, even today, communicate how they have come to internalize this message that they are ugly and “wrong”.
Brazil’s government’s long history of taking indigenous lands and lives continues today. Top officials use derogatory rhetoric to encourage the current crisis taking place in the Amazon Rainforest. Loggers and cattle ranchers have been expanding their territory, killing the tribes that stand in their way.
Not only is this devastating for the peoples, but it is visible on a planetary scale, as the “lungs of the earth” lose their power to protect our planet from rising CO2 emissions. Azkona&Toloza projected one of the many photographs of the devastating 2020 Amazon Fire. It had peppered the news at the beginning of the year, just in time for it to be overshadowed by the Covid-19 outbreak. The same outbreak that sent Azkona&Toloza back to Europe earlier than expected.
What can we do about neocolonialism?
At the end of one of Teatros Amazonas, an older dutch woman approached the artists, asking what can be done to help. Later, during our interview, Toloza said this is the wrong question.
“We have to re-examine Europe’s relationship to these peoples. They have a paternalistic outlook of how can we help, what can we do, when ultimately, what these people want is for others to go away and leave them in peace. It needs to be understood that these are powerful and organized tribes that deserve respect, not savages.”
The audiences left these performances having heard a clear message from across the ocean about the persistence of injustice, and the price paid when this message is ignored.