When the Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig walked through Bogota’s Museo del Oro he found himself transfixed not by what he saw, but by what he thought was missing: he asked himself how a museum about gold in Colombia could so completely ignore the role of African slaves in its extraction?
He wondered what such a museum would look like – one that acknowledged the transgressive nature of gold, and latterly cocaine, in Colombia: two natural substances which have taken on such destructive power as they have been fetishized and commercialized – and resolved to create his own in the pages of this book.
This denial of that slave labour seemed so “monstrously unjust” to Taussig – “so limited and mean a vision incapable of imagining what it was like diving for gold in the wild coastal rivers” (Taussig, 2004, p. x). Considering that the museum is the property of the Colombian Banco de la Republica, this avoidance of the “money-grubbing reality of the bank” and the missing stories of the slaves upon whose suffering much its wealth was built prompted Taussig to construct his own museum1 through his writing and intimate knowledge of the jungles and rivers of the Colombian Pacific coast.
His museum, rather than being located in the very heart of Colombia’s capital, “lies at the furthermost extremity of the nation where the Pacific Ocean seeps into four hundred miles of mangrove swamps and trackless forest, where the air barely moves and the rain never stops” (Taussig, 2004, p. xvi). It is a living museum, where the “life of gold and the life of cocaine” come together in the suffocating heat and torrential rain of Colombia’s Pacific jungles (Taussig, 2004, p. xix).
How does the author go about creating his titular museum? Taussig’s museum forgoes the typical style of the museums which the author so dislikes – the exhibits here are not dust-gathering relics trapped in glass cabinets. Instead, wandering through the pages of this museum we experience heat, boredom, water, rain, lightning, moonshine, cement, and colour.
His goal is to bring the everyday realities of life in these far-flung regions into sharp focus. Take the chapter on heat: the author confesses himself “perplexed as to the absence of heat” is so many books and films about the “Torrid Zone” (Taussig, 2004, p. 32). Rather than ignore the reality of heat and rain and sweat, he focuses on these realities in stark detail and thus brings his subject matter to life in a way that a museum cannot do.
Taussig isn’t interested in recounting a linear history of gold and cocaine; rather, he chooses to “combine a history of things with a history of people forced by slavery to find their way through these things” by utilizing a language “that runs along the seam where matter and myth connect and disconnect continuously” (Taussig, 2004, p. xviii-xix)
My Cocaine Museum is an unconventional anthropological text, to say the least. Anyone looking for a historical analysis of the lives of Afro-Colombian gold miners may not find what they seek within the book’s 300-odd pages. What they will find, however, is something as close to a “true” ethnography of the Pacific region as any writer has yet achieved as well as an important examination on how we present knowledge and history.
For instance, the book reportedly upset the curators of the Gold Museum when it was first published but has since come to be accepted by many as a vital reflection on the role of museums and how they present their objects.
A common criticism of the text is that Taussig strays too regularly from his subject, and it is true that he diverges at length on subjects such as Walter Benjamin, Goethe’s ideas on colour, Jean Genet, William Burrough’s meditations on words, prison islands and tax havens, and the idea of writing.
Anyone who has read any of his other books will be familiar with his eccentric cut-and-paste style, but it may prove jarring at first for newcomers to his oeuvre. However, there is a method to the textual madness and his polymath musings are what truly make his ‘museum’ such a dense and interesting one in which to wander.
Unlike the relics of the Gold Museum, trapped in darkened rooms behind glass and padlocks, Taussig’s exhibitions surround you, draw you in, and then take you somewhere else.
The truth is that the book might be better titled My Gold and Cocaine Museum, as the author dedicates at least as much – if not more – time to examining the peculiar relationship between people and gold in the forgotten swamps and forests of the Colombian Pacific.
Cocaine receives fleeting mentions, but this may well be intentional – if gold has been the substance which has dominated the life of these jungles for centuries, then cocaine is the looming spectre on the horizon, creeping up and over the Andes from the chemically-sprayed Amazon, ready to take its place alongside its fellow “fetish” or even surpass it entirely.
The constant threat of imminent guerrilla or paramilitary violence is a shadow hanging over these riverine communities: this is the shadow of cocaine, the successor to gold in the transgressive capitalism of the far reaches of Colombia.
The author first highlights the connections between gold and coca through the centrepiece of the Gold Museum: a golden poporo which a label proudly tells us “began the collection of the Gold Museum in 1939.”
Of course, the missing elements of this pristine golden artifact are precisely what makes it so interesting to Taussig: dried spit, the encrusted residue of powdered coca leaves and crushed burned sea-shells, and a hand holding it. Its pristine perfection perfectly highlights the central concern of the text – how can objects in museums possibly tell the true story of their existence when they are so disconnected from that reality?
For gold and cocaine – or at least coca – have been “firmly connected since ancient times” (Taussig, 2004, p. xvi). Both substances are fetishes – “substances that seem to be a good deal more than mineral or vegetable matter” – and, like gold, cocaine is “is imbued with violence and greed, glitter that reeks of transgression” (Taussig, 2004, p. xi).
Both are also natural substances which commodity fetishism has twisted beyond their roots into something dark and destructive. Both gold and coca were (and are) sacred to pre-Hispanic communities, yet both have become objects of such strange and violent lust in modern history that they cause untold suffering and death, especially in the region chosen by Taussig for his figurative museum.
Early on in the book, the author states that “[t]he Gorgon haunts My Cocaine Museum,” and it’s no coincidence that the museum’s “terminal exhibit” is the wave-battered prison-cum-paradise of Gorgona Island, marooned ten miles off the Colombian Pacific coast (Taussig, 2004, p. xviii). Although named for the snake-haired Greek mythological creature due to the inordinate number of deadly serpents found there, Gorgona has another meaning for Taussig.
The true menace of the Gorgon was that she could turn those who looked upon her face into stone. She literally petrified and, as such, is “the patron saint of museums,” where objects and stories are frozen in time; robbed of their vitality and context.
Not Taussig’s Cocaine Museum though – his is the opposite of the frozen, “hostile” Gold Museum. The Cocaine Museum housed within the book’s pages seems to waver and flicker before your eyes, like the miasmic heat haze of the Pacific jungles.
In the end, the best epitaph for this interesting work comes from the author’s great hero Walter Benjamin and are the same words Taussig chose for My Cocaine Museum’s epigraph: “Right from the start, the great collector is struck by the confusion, by the scatter, in which the things of the world are found.”
Perhaps no curator has done a better job of finding some sort of order and truth among the confusion.
All photos by Chris Bell