True story: I used to move cowhides out of the Brazilian and Argentine interior. We had them trucked to Buenos Aires or Campinas, where they were processed into what was called crust. Then by ship to the Yucatán, and overland to Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso. They were finished there, so to speak, then passed through customs up to Detroit, where they were stitched into luxury car seats.
A driver would take us down the wide boulevards of BA, past grey-green palms and eucalypts, out to the tanneries and abattoirs on the western edge of town. The stench there was pretty great, a mix of chemical preservatives and decay that still lingers under what they call “new car smell”. Inside the plant, a conveyor belt ran along the ceiling taking hides on hooks to the different stages of processing. There was a young guy toward the back dock, I remember – tall, long arms – who stood on a high platform with a wheeled bin underneath. He wore a heavy smock, leather itself, one chainmail glove on his free hand and in the other, a knife like a scimitar. The belt didn’t stop for him, but he’d lean out over the bin, grab one corner of the hide in his gloved hand, and in a few strokes take off what remained of the balls and tail.
The guys I travelled with were family men, insisted on staying in El Paso, so at night I’d take a taxi to the border and walk over the Rio Grande into Mexico. It was about a mile or so to the center of Juárez, with rebar and cinder block filled lots lining the way. From the zócalo, the main square, markets poured out into the old narrow streets. Clay jars of molé, mounds of dried beans, and the cast-resin figures of homegrown saints – that’s what I remember. Then on to the bars and pool halls of the Calle Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, a street named after the gored Spanish bullfighter for whom Lorca wrote his Llanto. We were there for diplomacy, to check for inefficiencies in the process, always “trying to get them to use the software”. But I loved to watch the machines. Beautiful Italian machines, called “capital goods” so innocuously on the bills of lading. One machine could split a two-millimeter-thick hide length-wise into two hides one millimeter thick, in a fraction of a second. And the stampers. They looked like the drums of a printing press, spitting hides out from between them like newspaper sheets. Close up, you could see intricate patterns in the aluminum cylinders. Tiny pores and creases. I’ll never forget what they told me. That, after all the processing, the finished hides had to be stamped with faux leather grain. That, somewhere in Italy, “some Italian” is designing those grains.
GROUNDMAGAZINE # 17 2013
Photography: ÂŠ Johan Nieuwenhuize Courtesy of the artist and Van Kranendonk Gallery Text: @ Lorne Darnell Editor: Mieke Woestenburg