His father was a hero to the British during the 1982 war with Argentina over possession of the Falkland Islands. But James Peck, artist and father of two Argentine children, last year became an Argentine in a public ceremony with the Argentine president, bringing notoriety on the islands and a moment of fame on the mainland. In this (condensed) profile from Buenos Aires’ Brando magazine, Peck seems to be a man at ease with his place in the world and the choices he has made.
Hidden away in his dark bedroom, the Arctic wind buffeting the cold outpost where he was born, James Peck finds consolation in the punk cassettes a cousin brought him from England.
There is something in the furious rhythms of The Clash or the dense depression of Joy Division that makes him feel less alone. James is a sensitive teenager in one of the most inhospitable places for his condition: The Falkland Islands.
“I remember the feeling of being locked up, of wanting to leave, that it wasn’t enough for me,” James says today, almost three decades later. He’s no longer an angst-ridden teen, but a 43-year-old man, the father of two children who live in Buenos Aires with their Argentine mother.
James is preparing his next exhibition, called The Falklands Up Close: Two Visions. His paintings are enormous, with blue sky or ocean peppered with tiny human figures. There are also maps of the islands, cut up and written on with quotes from T.S. Eliot and pop songs (“It’s where the water flows/ it’s where the wind blows”, by Roxette) or his own sentences (“Tired of your shit”, says one that shows Wally leaving the Falklands.)
“My work has been an effort to paint the people, paint what they are and what I am. I use the landscape of the islands because it’s what I have. You are more exposed to the elements and also what people thing of you, of their perception. On the islands, no one expresses their own personality. I don’t think there’s been anyone who has been able to articulate what it means to be there. There’s an idea that the islanders are very basic, and I understand how that came about. If they don’t speak for themselves, people form these ideas that they are materialistic.”
“Sad, angry and drunk” is how James describes the impression many have of his compatriots. If they heard him, the Kelpers [as Falklanders are called]would get angry, but James cares less about this then he once did. He knows it will be a long time before he can go home without causing a scandal.
James descended… to the rank of a traitor. He did it with a simple act that has enormous symbolic weight: last year he requested Argentine citizenship. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner embraced the situation, seeing it as a triumph in the escalating confrontation with Great Britain that the Argentine government decided to mount to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War. Not only did she have a national identity card printed with the name James Peck, but she handed it over to him in person at a ceremony that angered islanders.
“Why did you request Argentine citizenship?”
“Because I used to defend things there, on the islands, but I found there was nothing left to defend. So I thought I could move here and be a dad in Argentina. Before I never thought I could, but I realized I could and I did it. Argentina has changed. It’s not the same country it was in 1982.”
“So there are political reasons for your decision?”
“Yes, of course. I had to feel comfortable here before trying to get papers, and I got to the point where I felt more comfortable here than there. People on the islands only think about money. It’s not a place I want my kids to grow up. It’s a very different place than the one I grew up in. After the war, with the fishing royalties, we could have made the islands self-sufficient, but people abused money and now everyone is getting rich, and with the oil it’s going to be the same. People say we need oil to survive, and I say it’s going to be a mess.”
James’ family has been on the islands for generations. His ancestors are English, Scotch and Irish immigrants. The British government had stopped financing their old colony before the war and the price of wool, then the islands’ main source of income, had dropped.
Terry Peck, James’ father, started working in construction and was able to creep up the social ladder until he became a local police chief. The Pecks, James and his three brothers, lived in a big house and were in a privileged, if a bit uncomfortable, position in the Falklands society.
After retiring from the police department, Terry was elected as a representative for the islands’ legislative council. He was among those who tenaciously fought the representatives from the Foreign Office who, before the war, tried to get the Kelpers to reconsider their rejection of Argentina and let the British government move forward with an agreement with Buenos Aires. He also divorced Shirley, the mother of his children, and James, the youngest, went to live with him.
Terry’s open rejection of Argentina put him in danger when [then-President] Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri’s troops invaded the Falklands. James’ father loaded his pistol, packed a backpack with warm clothes and some food, borrowed a motorbike and headed for the immense, deserted Falklands countryside, one he knew far better than the Argentines. He spent a couple of weeks, constantly moving and surviving the elements with help from farmers and ranchers until he heard the good news: British troops had landed at San Carlos and were marching to recover the islands. Terry joined the British soldiers, sharing his knowledge of the land and Argentine positions, fighting at the battle of Monte Longdon – one of the war’s cruelest — and entering Stanley with the British troops, a hero, the only Kelper who fought to recover the islands.
James was 13 years old and he spent the war in fear of what would happen to his father and himself. Each time he heard the bombs he ran to hide in the basement that had been fixed up as a shelter. The British victory brought relief, but it also brought the conflicts that would hound James from then on: after divorcing Terry, his mother started seeing an Argentine living in Stanley. When the British took control of Stanley again, they forced the man out.
“They gave him 20 minutes to say goodbye and then put him on a boat. He never came back,” James says.
The war also changed the islands’ fate, moving them into a privileged position on Britain’s political agenda. The poor nation became wealthy thanks to the control of fishing licenses. With large amounts of money amongst the barely 3,000 people on the islands, the Falklands’ economy changed drastically. Another big change was the military base installed so the Argentines would never be tempted to attack again.
While many of Kelpers are happy with the new scenario and are secretly thankful for the economic impact Argentina’s failed military adventure had, for James it meant his local bar became violent-and the old rural community where he was raised took on the vices of the new rich.
The need to leave he felt as an adolescent drove him first to London – where he studied art but soon returned with his pregnant girlfriend – and later to Buenos Aires, where he went in 1996 to show his first paintings.
“Don’t get involved” were only the words of advice his father gave him while seeing him off to enemy lands. James took his paintings, which were darker and louder than his current work. There were paintings of Argentine soldiers, freezing cold with their FAL rifles across their chest, drawn with thick, anguished lines.
“When I draw the soldiers, I feel like I’m each figure. In some way, I’m also a soldier. I paint their suffering, which is tragic and profound. I get into that journey for myself,” James explains in the moving documentary ‘Con la mano di dios’, (‘With the hand of God’) made for Italian television.
Still marked by the war and frightened of the reactions his work might provoke, James received an unexpected call: Argentine veteran Miguel Savage wanted to meet him. James met him in the gallery in a panic, but soon they trusted each other.
“I want go back as a friend,” Miguel told him. And that’s what happens in a trip that is emotional core of ‘Con la mano di dios’. The documentary shows Miguel going to the trenches where he fought, crying at the tombs of dead soldiers, crying again when he returns a sweater he stole from a woman to ward off that terrible winter, and entering in deep friendship with James’ father. Both of them had fought at Monte Longdon.
“A bad dream that should have never happened,” Miguel says in perfect English.
“True, but when I saw you I felt comfortable. I could look you in the eyes and felt you could look me in the eyes,” Terry responds.
For these old enemies, the war had started to finish. James, on the other hand, still had a few battles to fight. One of them was with Maria, an Argentine painter who traveled to the Falklands and wanted to meet local colleagues. When she rang the doorbell, James opened up with an (Argentine tea drink) mate in hand. They fell in love and Maria got pregnant. The Falklands’ governor himself let James know that, if he had the child on the islands, he or she would not have papers. The hostility pushed him into exile and he drifted-the Argentine Patagonia, Australia, England. They had another child, but the relationship couldn’t bear the stress of travel and they ended up separating. James went back to the Falklands, but he had become a foreigner there too.
“There was nothing left for me on the islands,” James remembers.
And that’s how he ended up in Argentina, got the famous i.d. card, started working restoring paintings the National Archives and, most of all, stopped feeling uncomfortable when his son cheered on the Argentine soccer team or wore Lionel Messi’s jersey. His war was ending, but others had found a new front.
“He’s a confused young man and, if he were still alive, his father would have a heart attack,” Kelper lawmaker Mike Summers told the New York Times when asked about James.
“There are people who weren’t in the war, but they want it to continue. It helps to maintain the status quo. On the islands, forgetting is not allowed. You have to honor the dead, but 30 years have gone by-not 10 or 20 years but 30 years. It’s a long time to stay mad,” James says.
James, on the other hand, seems calm, comfortable with his decision. Even his paintings have changed.
“I used to stress out and think about the war all day. But I’m not like that now. I realized my work can be just as good without all the suffering. Obsessions are bad. They destroy those around you. I’m comfortable here in Argentina and don’t want to keep moving. Even my kids think I’m happy. All this about the past and the war is over. Goodbye.”
Nicolas Cassese Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard
11 Mar 2012