Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe
December 3, 2017 – March 10, 2019
On the wall of Crafting Memory: The Art of Community in Peru reads a statement describing the Peruvian capital’s thriving artistic communities: “Popular arts in Lima are all about remixing.” Moving through the show, it becomes clear that this statement extends to most of the country’s artisanal practices. Lima houses many working-class communities who migrated from the Amazon and from outlying villages to find work. Artists who represent these communities mix traditional patterns and customs with images of contemporary life. For example, the collective Amapolay’s graphic posters celebrate Peruvian staples such as corn, coca leaves, and the traditional ch’ullu head covering, and incorporate them into anti-corporate, anti-colonial narratives. One of their posters denounces Monsanto; another celebrates Peru’s tradition of political resistance dating back to 1492. Across from these and other multi-colored posters, Miguel Det’s broadsides tackle the myriad results of colonialist capitalism: mining and displacement, white privilege at the Miss Peru pageant, the robbing of ancient ceremonial sites, and economic inflation.
Crafting Memory displays the Museum of International Folk Art’s exceptional ability to juxtapose traditional artifacts from its collections with works by contemporary artists who adopt and rework those traditions. An intricate nineteenth-century brooch featuring peacocks, flowers, and fish hangs next to third-generation silversmith Edwin Del Pino’s delicate peacock filigree earrings. Similarly, textiles and pottery from various regions of Peru, some dating as early as the first century CE, exemplify patterns and animal figures that appear, reworked and remixed, in the mesmerizing trompe l’oeil weavings of Alfonso Sulca Chávez.
Oil and gas extraction, a major source of environmental racism in various regions of Peru, is a recurring theme in the exhibition. A particularly affecting section focuses on the arts of the Shipibo-Konibo, a rural community whose members were displaced from their village due to water pollution and soil erosion caused by the oil industry. Crafting Memory includes several Shipibo-Konibo works, including two large paintings by Inin Sul and Rono Mesta featuring cosmological iconography, such as the ayahuasca plant, dolphins, and the primordial anaconda known as Ronin. The paintings are magical-realist verging on the psychedelic and are some of the most visually compelling works in the show.
A sprawling display of retablos, traditional religious altarpieces with scenes featuring sculpted figures, traces the visual tradition from its nineteenth century origins to present-day works. The retablos are perhaps the most visually powerful objects in the exhibition; they provide a narrative in three-dimensional, theatrical polychrome from the arrival of Catholicism through the era of the Shining Path (a period between 1980 and 2001 when guerilla militants murdered seventy thousand villagers, most of them men). Tiny figures in shadowboxes enact rapes, kidnappings, and murders as these portable boxes represent an era in Peru’s history that its citizens still grapple with today.
The conceptual and physical centerpiece of Crafting Memory is a small, enclosed room whose walls have been painted blood red. Works in this space address the actions and the aftermath of the Shining Path, and many of them were made by citizens of Ayacucho. Once a flashpoint of violence, this region is now the locus of much of the healing and remembrance taking place in Peru. The Museo de la Memoria of the National Association of Families of the Kidnapped, Detained, and Disappeared of Peru, located in Ayacucho, aims to demystify the period during which, in addition to massive acts of violence, leaders of the Shining Path spread misinformation and untruths. Ayacuchanos who remember this era are coming to terms with a collective, public trauma, as well as revealing facts that were once hidden or oppressed. The activist-artists who work to represent these events hope to protect new generations from falling under the sway of the Shining Path, which still exists, though in smaller numbers. The retablos, paintings, and sculptures featured in Crafting Memory, then, are much more than just the remixing of traditional iconography to keep artistic practices alive and vital; they are also visual memories, documentations of a history that no country or culture should forget or erase.