Painting on Pesos

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    Artist Sergio Díaz shows a painting on a U.S. dollar and an Argentine 500-peso note featuring George Washington holding a rifle alongside a jaguar. (AP/Javier Corbalan)
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    Sergio Díaz, a member of the Argentine artists’ Money Art movement, works in his studio in Salta, Argentina. (AP/Javier Corbalan)
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    A piece of Money Art by artist Sergio Díaz features the late soccer legend Diego Maradona on an Argentine 10-peso banknote. (AP/Javier Corbalan)
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    A shopper shades her face from the Sun as she reviews prices at a produce stand in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on September 1, 2023. (AP/Natacha Pisarenko)
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    A shopper reaches for a 1,000-peso banknote in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (AP/Natacha Pisarenko)
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    Venezuelan artists also use banknotes as art supplies. Venezuelan migrant Edixon Infante shows a handicraft made with devalued Venezuelan currency in Cucuta, Colombia, in 2019. (AP/Fernando Vergara)
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A jaguar lies beside George Washington. The United States’ first president holds a rifle with one hand as he rests the other on the dead Argentine predator.

The backdrop of artist Sergio Díaz’s painting is a U.S. dollar and an Argentine 500-peso note joined together. The artwork alludes to the rapid depreciation of Argentina’s currency.

The Argentine peso has depreciated (lost value) around 60% compared to the U.S. dollar over the past year. Meanwhile, the country is experiencing one of the world’s highest inflation rates. In August 2023, prices were 124% higher than they were in August 2022, according to the government’s statistics agency.

Some artists seek to draw attention to the economic damage the best way they know how: with art. The artwork increases the value of the increasingly worthless bills they use as material.

Many Argentines struggle to make ends meet. People change their habits. Middle-class women give up nonessentials such as beauty-parlor visits. Some families turn to soup kitchens. Argentines with extra cash buy stockpiles of things they need, knowing prices will rise next month. At the same time, restaurants in the capital city are packed. People see no point in saving when a paycheck loses so much purchasing power every month.

Díaz and other Argentine artists of the Money Art movement use moderately priced brushes and acrylics to paint banknotes of 10, 20, 100, or 1,000 pesos. They share their work on social media. Díaz has painted Argentine soccer stars Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, animals, and Star Wars characters on bills.

The artwork sells for prices ranging from 40,000 to 70,000 pesos domestically and as much as $300 abroad.

Argentines aren’t the first to create this form of art. Venezuelan artists also have used money to create artwork and crafts. Their country entered hyperinflation in 2016, and its currency also suffered a sharp drop in value.

Artist Cristian English began working with peso bills three years ago. During the quarantine imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, he found it difficult to get canvases. So he used bank notes instead. He often paints portraits of Argentine musicians.

English says that he plans to continue using the bills for his art, in part because they are much cheaper than the traditional canvas. But, he complains, it’s not an easy material with which to work. The paper is very low quality.

The government unveiled a new 2,000-peso bill in May. English calls it “a 2,000-peso bill that’s worth nothing. It’s just printing for the sake of printing.”

Why? Inflation and devaluation of Argentine currency brings hard times but creativity and artistic expression find ways to survive.

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