Lima, Peru

Agustina Valera, El mundo del Ayahuasca (The World of Ayahuasca), 2019, ceramic, 33 1⁄2 × 15 3⁄4 × 19 3⁄4". From “Dar forma al tiempo.”

Agustina Valera, El mundo del Ayahuasca (The World of Ayahuasca), 2019, ceramic, 33 1⁄2 × 15 3⁄4 × 19 3⁄4". From “Dar forma al tiempo.”

“Dar forma al tiempo”

Museo de Arte Contemporáneo

The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Lima used to feel half-abandoned. Erected on the edge of a picturesque artificial pond in a beloved neighborhood park, it was immediately cursed with the resentment of the community it allegedly served. Since opening its doors in 2013, it has struggled to find its raison d’être. But since a major shakeup of the institution’s senior staff last year and the arrival of a new head curator, Giuliana Vidart its profile has started to change; word of her good work at the beleaguered museum has spread around town.

Dar forma al tiempo. Miradas contemporáneas a la cerámica precolombina” (Shaping Time: Contemporary Views of Pre-Columbian Ceramics) was the finest exhibition I have ever seen at the museum. Curated by Vidarte, it presented an intergenerational dialogue among Peruvian women artists working with the rich legacy and enduring influence of pre-Hispanic ceramics. What distinguishes these objects, as Vidarte says, is that they are suited to practical needs such as holding water or food, while also being essential to rituals, scientific knowledge, and art.

The decision to present work by women exclusively was not treated as a feature as much as a given in the exhibition, ceramics being a field in which women have traditionally played a leading role. Among the many highlights were pieces by two artists from the Shipibo-Conibo people, Agustina Valera from the San Francisco de Yarinacocha indigenous community and Lastenia Canayo from Ucayali. The former is a master potter who learned the craft from her mother and grandmother and channels the continuous presence her ancestors have in her community and culture. Titled El mundo del ayahuasca (The World of Ayahuasca) (all works cited, 2019), her piece was a tall, four-level tinaja, or large clay vessel, intricately painted with geometric patterns that are not merely ornamental but also represent a spiritual and intellectual praxis for the Shipibo-Conibo people. The object has symmetrical handles in the shape of black snakes, human faces painted in black and white with red lips, and, on the top level, a sculptural rendition of a half-human, half-fish being lounging on its side accompanied by Ronin, the primordial anaconda that is at the origin of every design in the universe.

Canayo’s works are similarly complex. Although she is also an accomplished painter and embroiderer, the exhibition featured three of her doll-size ceramic sculptures representing the íbos, the spirits or owners of everything that surrounds the Shipibo-Conibo people: plants, trees, animals, water. The íbos grant objects power and subjectivity to allow them to act in the world. Canayo represents them as funny creatures: Duende del Huayruro (Huayruro Elf), 2019, is a winking bug with four arms, half red and half white, painted in traditional geometric patterns. The eponymous figure of Mujer pájaro picaflor (Hummingbird Lady), 2019, wears a round black-and-white dress painted in the same patterns; she has her hair slicked back and her left fist up. Her expression is a little angry. Canayo and Valera both employ traditional techniques in their sculptural practices, and their artistic sensibilities and skill with ceramics are, simply put, staggering.

The show joined a wave of attempts throughout Latin America to integrate indigenous peoples’ practices—which usually entail much more than merely aesthetic concerns—into the institutions of art, and specifically contemporary art, in a way that is not patronizing and that doesn’t rely on the artificial dichotomy of folklore versus high art. It’s not easy to counteract the schizophrenic violence of a capitalism that on the one hand constantly disrespects and dispossesses indigenous peoples and on the other values and markets their material and aesthetic production. But the continued attempts to overcome these problems are crucial, and, as in this case, can create space for extraordinary artists to get their due.