REVIEW by Michael Malay

NWR Issue 99

Patagonia – Byd Arall/Otro Mundo/Another World

by Ed Gold

Patagonia by Ed Gold

Latin America has witnessed many odd migrations. In 1899, the steamer Sakura Maru set sail from Yokohama to Peru, carrying nearly a thousand Japanese labourers. They were later to be known as the ‘first’ generation, the Issei, and were followed by a steady flow of migrants. Less than one hundred years later, Peruvians elected their first president of Japanese descent, Alberto Fujimori. In the 1920s, fleeing persecution in Russia, thousands of Russian Mennonites – originally of German and Dutch stock – settled in Paraguay and established the city of Filadelfia. Their descendants continue to use Plattdeutsch, a language still spoken in parts of northern Germany and eastern Holland. From the mid nineteenth century and up to WW1, there have also been mass migrations from Italy to Argentina, Greece to Chile, and Ukraine to Brazil.

Of all these migrations, one of the strangest is the Welsh presence in Patagonia. Located at the southernmost tip of Argentina, the province is one of the harshest landscapes on the continent. Fringed by the Andes to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and deserts and petrified forests to the south, it is an unlikely place to start a colony.

One joke is that the Welsh explored Latin America until they found a place as wet as home. The reality, of course, is that they were invited there. The government hoped their presence would secure the country’s south, vast tracts of which were still uninhabited in the late nineteenth century. For the Welsh pioneers (religious nonconformists who found conditions in Britain increasingly oppressive), the promise of one hundred free acres was too good to turn down. This was a place they could call their own – and in a language of their own. And so, in May 1865, the Mimosa sailed from Liverpool to Argentina, carrying 162 Welsh passengers.

Ed Gold’s Patagonia, a compilation of photographs taken between 2006 and 2008, documents Welsh history and cultural life in Argentina. As well as fulfilling this role, the photographs are engaging and absorbing in their own right. The oddity of the cultural collision is reflected in names. Among Gold’s subjects, for instance, are Alberto Williams (a cattle farmer), Bruno Pugh (a car racer), and Elmer Davies de Macdonald (a conductor of the local choir). Similarly, the main river is referred to by two names, Chubut and Camwy, and the valley referred to as ‘16 de Octubre’ by the Spanish colonialists has been renamed ‘Cwm Hyfrd’ (Pleasant Valley).

This uncanny doubling of the foreign and the familiar pervades many of Gold’s photographs. One image shows a family sitting around the dining table, surrounded by a stove, kettles, pots and pans. It might have been taken in a Welsh household, except for one glaring detail: the drink being offered across the table is mate, an extremely strong herbal tea. For those who have tasted it, this is a bitter, bitter drink. Most Argentinians drink it as though it were water.

There is an urgency to many of Gold’s images. ‘Everywhere I went,’ he remarks, ‘I found machinery, heirlooms, clothing, furniture and stories which I had to capture before they too became eroded and blew away with the winds in this wonderful but harsh desert location.’ This interest in the life of objects often takes on a melancholy aspect. The opening image, for instance, is of a woman standing in an abandoned house, looking out of the window. The cupboards in the room are bare, and you can see where the old fire-place used to stand. In one corner, the ground appears to be nudging its way through the floor. In notes to the photo, we learn that the woman, Tegai Roberts, was once a friend of the house’s previous owners. The image that directly succeeds this is of the same house two years later, now in the process of being completely demolished.

The book contains a useful appendix, ‘Behind the Photograph’, in which Gold provides a commentary on his images. These read like extended notes from the field, and provide insights into the names and histories of his subjects and Gold’s photographic practice. In his enthusiasm for Argentina and Wales, Gold, a native of England, learned the languages of both countries. And true to the diversity of his subjects, his captions (and of course the title) are in Castellano, English, and Welsh.

The notes also provide valuable social commentary. As one of them reads, ‘There is very little –if any – help from the Argentine government for farmers, and they have to work hard to earn their living.’ The image accompanying this remark is one the most haunting in the collection: it shows a pig hanging from its legs, swinging above a muddy pool of water. As Gold laconically observes, ‘Note that steam rising from the pig’s body against the morning sun – this is from hot water that was applied beforehand which enables hairs to be removed (with a sharp knife) more easily. Every part of the chanco [pig] is used, and all the family plays a role when it comes to preparing meat for their table.’

Gold’s photographic style is direct and unobtrusive. He appears to have won the trust and respect of his subjects, many of whom are photographed in intimate domestic settings. It is a good thing that these images are here: they provide a thoughtful and careful stay against forgetting.

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previous review: Astonishment
next review: Beyond the Pampas, In Search of Patagonia


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