“This is our most important painting, it’s like the Game of Thrones of Argentina”, our guide told us at yesterday’s guided tour at the Fine Arts Mueseum in Recoleta. “La vuelta del malón” or “The Return of the Indian Raid” shows the “savages” carrying Catholic items looted from a church, a semi-unconscious white woman as their captive and severed heads on the saddles. The painting was used to justify what is one of the most controversial military campaigns in the country’s history: The Conquest of the Desert.
Showcased at the Columbus Exposition in Chicago
From the moment it was first exhibited in 1892 in a storefront window on Florida Street, La vuelta del malón was celebrated as Argentina’s “first genuinely national work of art”. It was painted for the specific purpose of being sent to the world’s fair set to be held in Chicago to celebrate the fourth centenary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. At the World’s Columbian Exposition, it was awarded a medal and when it arrived back in Buenos Aires. it was exhibited again. It was the first time that a scene depicting a topic that was so essential to the long frontier wars against the indigenous populations of the pampa throughout the 19th Century had been presented in a large scale salon painting: the looting of frontier towns, theft of livestock and violence against and kidnapping of white women.
Painted to justify the Extermination Campaign
La vuelta del malón was the first image dealing with an issue that had powerful emotive content in addition to unmistakably political and ideological significance to make its impact on the Buenos Aires public. The painting seems to be a synthesis of the topics that circulated at the time as justification for general Julio A. Roca’s 1879 “desert campaign”. The painting not only appears to be a glorification of Roca’s figure, but also implicitly suggests the extermination campaign as the culmination of the conquest of America in relation to the 1492 celebrations. It depicts the Natives as savage murderers and kidnappers; villains in need of vanquishing. The comments the painting received at the exhibition in Chicago referred to the scene represented as one of the difficulties that Argentina had managed to overcome in order to become an agricultural superpower and a confident, thrusting nation in the early 20th century.
Changing Views: It was a Genocide
Critics say Roca’s “conquest of the desert”, once hailed for uniting Argentina and rebuffing Chile in 1878-79, was a barbaric campaign which bathed the nascent state in innocent blood. Roca’s 6,000-strong cavalry force crushed Mapuche and other Indian groups, killing more than 1,000 and capturing thousands more who became servants or prisoners and were prevented from having children. As a result of this revisionist view, avenues across the country are being renamed and Roca was erased from the 100 Peso bill now showing Evita Perón. There even is a campaign to topple the former president’s statues in Buenos Aires and their idea is to teach children a new version: that Roca was a genocidal murderer who brought shame to Argentina. The row echoes debates across Latin America over whether to celebrate or lament the arrival of Christopher Columbus and European settlers. Several countries have renamed 12 October as indigenous day rather than Columbus Day and rehabilitated indigenous rebels as patriots. In Argentina, the 12th of October is called Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural, The Day of Respect For Cultural Diversity.