56. ‘Picasso’s Guitar’

Argentina, 20th century
Size: 54 cm

Ricardo Paz is a most unusual man. He and his wife Belen run a shop in Buenos Aires where they sell unusual and wonderfully crafted furniture made in their workshop at the back. Upstairs is Ricardo’s den, packed with treasures, a small part of their extraordinary collection, fruit of decades of a relentless quest. The collection would generally be thought of as ‘Folk Art’, Argentinian ‘Folk Art’, but in reality it represents much more than such a term implies. Both Ricardo and Belen have, and have continued to develop a rare sensitivity and understanding of the poetry inherent in objects which for many others appear too humble or primitive to merit attention. Furniture, textiles, tools perfectly shaped to perform the function they were designed for, some ancient and some not so old, but they all sing the same song to you, about how beauty enhances every aspect of every human life. The collection is known, of course – it has been published in several finely presented books – but it deserves to be better known, since it is unique, both in scope and quality.

It was in Ricardo’s den, in early April 2014, that I first laid eyes on ‘Picasso’s Guitar’, and I begged him to lend it for this exhibition. Not only did he agree, but he also wrote its story, for which I am most grateful.

The Time Machine. Who wouldn’t ride a time machine given the opportunity? Objects from the past can perform this function, as long as the passenger in these time machines has imagination and a desire to learn. Every object has a story to tell, but the trick is to get at the story. For instance, how was a man’s life in Europe before the Industrial Revolution? Life and actions were so dependent on Nature that sudden rain or a storm could affect a man’s life for days. It is hard for our children to realise how life has changed over the last fifty years. It is almost impossible for them to imagine how their life would be without electricity. But the human species lived without it for thousands of years until the 19th century. Not so long ago. Even simple things like gas lighters would seem magic to a man little more than a hundred years ago. And how much is a hundred years in the scheme of things? So, when meditating about where we are going as humankind, it is never a bad start to ask ourselves where we come from. With this question in mind I entered my homeland’s dry forest. Probably the biggest dry forest in the planet, and the most threatened, by the way. The province of Santiago del Estero, in Argentina, is as big as France and as old as Spain. Named after Santiago de Compostela, probably because of the enormous amount of stars filling its vast sky, Santiago del Estero was the place where the Spaniards settled when first arriving from the actual Peru in 1550. The Incas guiding them had to stop in this spot between the fertile margins of the rivers Dulce y Salado (Sweet & Salty rivers) where natives had been gathering for centuries before their arrival. Fierce and primitive people coming from the Amazon jungles; more developed communities from the Andean cultures; and among them, the walkers from the flatlands, the Pampas and Patagonia. They had been living in that forest long before that group of bearded white men arrived. Can we say those days had nothing that resembles the actual ones? It’s worth remembering that these new adventurers were running not only from hunger, but also from the Inquisition. Some among them, Jews and Moors, brought seven centuries of Islamic culture, and harmonised easily with the native populations. They were not just looking for gold, as is often said: they were also looking for freedom.

Five centuries later, me, a descendant of those two, the newcomers and the natives, find myself sitting by a friendly fire. Its light is the only light in the black desert around me. A sweet, determined and mature woman is singing for me, sitting in the yard of her adobe house. ‘Una mujer del Monte’, as we call the dry forest. She is happy and proud of her new guitar, an industrial one, just arrived from the distant town, but already turning grey and greasy, like all of us. The first paved road is more than a hundred kilometres from here, a day by car, much longer on horseback or walking. We are singing together in the gateway between civilisations. The guitar is used like a percussive instrument, a six strings Berimbao, which allows her to sing and laugh as only a grown-up woman can. She is great. My own lack of knowledge of chords (which embarrasses me) has no meaning here, she says, and laughs. It is such a different rhythm, coming from such a different heart, a whole different music erupting from her. Only much later will I be able to play for her, when the fire is close to ashes. At some point she begins to laugh again, and decides she wants to give me her old guitar, the one with which she sang before the new guitar arrived. It was abandoned somewhere, but she finds it and gives it to me. She made it herself, a long time ago, but she isn’t attached to it at all. Having no use for it, it simply has no sense any more. With her new guitar she is now discovering a new civilisation. Flying between the night stars and the sunlit landscape, she spends her time singing in celebration of Creation. When she travels, as is usual for the people of Nature, her vehicle is Silence.

On loan to the exhibition.