I will not pretend to understand Peru from the very limited duration and reach of my recent visit—and even that from quite a privileged point of
view. But that’s the wonderful thing about art; it allows one a legitimate impression, a feeling, about a place that need not hinge on comprehensive knowledge nor on any dialog but that between artist and beholder.
What I did learn about Peru is that, while its people certainly share the same fundamental aspirations as every other human population on earth, they are also colored by a lineage, a geography, a range of climate, and a collective memory that makes each community absolutely unique. And it is the intersections between those shared human qualities and those singular experiences and challenges where culture is forged.
I spent the first two days of my trip in Lima. I loved the vitality, sophistication and sheer range of artistic expression I saw there—from grand-scale works of architecture and monumental sculpture, to revered works in museums, to edgy graffiti and street performance.
WITH THE FLOW
What a contrast, then, when I flew two hours northeast to the smaller, seedier frontier city of Iquitos, the main point of access to the upper Amazon. There, the influence of that fabled river and the all-encompassing rainforest it sustains seems to color everything, not just in the ubiquitous visual themes of water, wildness and wonder, but in the practical nature of tools, weapons and regalia crafted by hundreds of rainforest tribes over the ages and now on display in museums.
Also evident in Iquitos, scattered architectural remnants of the era in which both the rainforest’s natural bounty and the labors of its human inhabitants were first successfully exploited by outsiders on a massive, industrial scale—the rubber boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
These people...seldom enjoy the
luxury of creative expression strictly
for personal or political ends.
Once I was on the river, the further away from urban life we got, the simpler and more utilitarian the objects of art and craft became. These people, amidst the daily challenges of surviving in this unforgiving place, seldom enjoy the luxury of creative expression strictly for personal or political ends. Most everything has a practical purpose, albeit sometimes with some decorative flair.
At many of the villages we visited, after “show-and-tell” about life in the community was over, artisans would make a modest effort to sell us their wares—generally quite simple but beautiful baskets, wood carvings, various decorative objects and items crafted of gourds or coconut shells.
Perhaps these artistic and cultural expressions will mean less to you, out of context, than they did to me seeing them in the moment and in the flesh. Or perhaps you’ve been to the area and experienced some of them for yourself. At any rate, I hope at least some of them will speak to you, as they have to me, of people, place and purpose.