Memories from the Margins: Art and Political Violence in Peru

BY KAREN BERNEDO

Remembering is a process in constant motion, transformation, and negotiation. In that sense, memory is a way to mediate with the world, a filter through which we understand ourselves as being part of a community and a historical process. Although “memory” evokes a past that we cannot change, societies constantly re-define this past in the present according to the needs and agendas of current social and political contexts.

Memories of war are particularly complex, since wars are usually part of historical and political processes that exist beyond the violence itself. These memories are anchored to political, journalistic and even moralistic agendas, and thus the narratives surrounding them must connect with the current demands of a variety of social actors and sectors. In this regard, states and social movements both seek to construct hegemonic discourses and narratives aimed at satisfying a wide range of demands. In some cases, these demands may be driven by the desire for truth, justice and reconciliation, but in others, their purpose is oblivion and impunity.

Peru experienced an internal armed conflict between armed rebel groups and state security forces in which civilians were the main victims. This conflict lasted for 20 years (1980-2000) and left a toll of at least 69,280 deaths, of which 75% were inhabitants of the poorest rural areas of the country—Quechua-speaking citizens dedicated mostly to agricultural activities. The conclusions of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2003) defined this war as “the most extensive, intense, and prolonged episode of violence in the history of the Republic.”1

This tragic conflict principally affected Peru’s poorest rural, Andean, and jungle towns. The indifference of the rest of the country to the situation in these areas highlights Peru’s major ethnic, cultural, social, and economic inequalities. These features are still manifested today in the lack of interest on the part of the state and some sectors of civil society in supporting projects to recover historical memory.

The war in this sense, was lived, felt, and perceived in very different ways among Peruvians, both in cities and in rural communities. The superstructure of violence manifested itself in various ways and it was only after the democratic transitional government took office after a decade of Fujimori dictatorship that a “window of opportunity” emerged for memory.2 In the post-conflict context, and following the publication of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), two hegemonic memory discourses vie to dominate the public debate.

The first is “the memory of salvation,” a term with which anthropologist Carlos Iván Degregori employs to describe a version of events pushed by supporters of Alberto Fujimori’s dictatorship. This narrative, forged and nurtured by the state and media apparatus during the Fujimori years, argues that the success of the fight against terrorism can be attributed to undemocratic measures that were applied during the 1990s. This discourse justifies the multiple violations of rule of law and human rights committed during Fujimori’s rule as part of the social cost of pacification.3

The second discourse is that provided in the final report of the TRC. This research gives an accounting of the responsibilities of both insurgent groups and the Peruvian armed forces, which portrays the main victims as civilians caught in the middle of a crossfire. The report points to social inequalities and suggests that the search for truth and memory can be a path to social reconciliation.

Both accounts, as with any narrative that attempts to establish itself as hegemonic, tend to overlook the complexities and peculiarities of the conflict in order to cater to society’s moral demands for justice and reparation. That is to say, they are arguments that serve specific purposes for different groups. For the state, the “memory of salvation” can legitimize impunity, whereas for civil society, the discourse of the TRC can bring bring the promise of reparations, social cohesion, but also risks overlooking the agency of various social actors in the history of violence.

Memories of the internal armed conflict then, are constantly in conflict with each other and yet many of them not only coexist in the same time but also in the same space. In this sense, we believe that attempts to establish a hegemonic memory not only discursively but materially (through the creation of national museums and memorials), whether created by the human rights movement or the state, are bound to fail. The challenge then, is to find the remnants of memory that are beyond hegemony. Most human elements of memory emerge from small spaces, such as local or even individual initiatives that emanate from communities that have no intention of recreating the whole story of the violence but only a small part of it.

In this regard, artistic and cultural practices become a language and a medium in which many communities as well as artists have sought to express these “other memories.”

It is in this realm of the symbolic, marked by subjectivity, where one can recognize the discourses that highlight the particularity and diversity of the experience of the war across various communities. These memories manifest themselves in diverse expressions of art and culture that often do not fit into the realm of political correctness, nor do they adopt the formal documentary format that is considered valid for reproducing official narratives of the war. They are testimonies that rebel against the imagery of victims and victimizers we have of the internal armed conflict.4

In this regard, there are many communities that have decided to tell their own story of the conflict in their own terms, and in language that reflects their cultural identity. These stories have the potential to be a repository for memory, although they may include cultural codes that are difficult to decipher.

The series of quilts created by the Mama Quilla community of displaced women is one example. The Mama Quilla community comprises 39 families, the majority of whom are women who were forced to flee to urbanities as a result of violence in their home communities. The group members have produced a series of seven textile arpilleras (quilts), which recount their experiences of displacement, gender discrimination, and racism in the city. The quilts also tell a story of resistance and a struggle to overcome and challenge prevailing gender norms, depicting the group’s involvement in the construction of schools and hospitals and its activism to obtain housing rights and basic services like electricity and water.5

Another interesting example of a community constructing artworks to tell its own story is embodied in a series of 25 paintings from Sarhua, Ayacucho. Through this series, titled Pirak Cause, the community of Sarhua conveys its own story of violence. They recount their experiences in confronting the onkoy (subversives) and the sinchis (security forces), revealing an agency often made invisible by the dominant view of the peasant as a mere victim caught between two armies.6

In other cases, the testimony has been more surreptitious, which requires one to read between the lines. This is the case of the pumpines, a musical expression of the Hualla community in Ayacucho. It is through the pumpines that Huallinos (residents of Hualla) remember the horror they lived during the time of violence. The pumpines festivals were not celebrated for many years and not until the late 90s did migrants from Hualla living in the cities begin to incorporate into their songs themes of longing for the land.7

Every community, whether urban or rural, articulates its own dynamics of remembrance or forgetting. In their cultural practices, they reflect the desire to make visible a painful past that is difficult to express in words. But they also involve a desire to reflect their role in confronting difficult moments, to display the strength that has enabled them to survive and generate their own strategies for reconciliation. In other cases, these cultural practices have fostered a process of healing. The willingness of communities to expose their memories in public spaces has helped to develop connections between these communities and other actors in civil society. On the other hand, the production of memory-based art is embedded in a network of institutional, social, and political relations that in turn unfold on various platforms of production, distribution, and consumption. In this sense, these cultural artifacts interact with ongoing cultural and political processes, reflecting both the diversity and conflictual nature of memory in the public sphere.

An excellent example of this is the Kimono To Not Forget, an urban installation by artist Jorge Miyagi, a Peruvian of third-generation Japanese descent. During the Fujimori dictatorship, Miyagi was invited by the Japanese-Peruvian Cultural Center to participate in an exhibition premised on the artistic intervention on a kimono. Miyagi decided to use this opportunity to denounce the systematic human rights violations of the Fujimori government, and make visible the silence of the Japanese-Peruvian community vis-à-vis the government of Fujimori, who is a second-generation Japanese-Peruvian.

Another example is Ecce Homo, a piece by artist Alfredo Márquez, who was accused of terrorism and jailed during the Fujimori dictatorship. After four years he was pardoned for being innocent of the charges. Ecce Homo (2000) was a video installation that invited the viewing public to identify with those who were incarcerated by allowing them to interact with a computer that contained information about innocent prisoners.

The varied artistic production of the years of violence —whether the authors are peasants from rural communities, people who have been displaced from the countryside to the city, or individual and collective urban artists— reveal that there are various ways of perceiving the conflict as well as various ways of portraying it through artistic expression.

Because it does not attempt to install a singular narrative at the national level about the years of violence, art has a greater margin of action to meet the memory demands of the various actors in the conflict and society than other mediums of expression. In some cases —and without intending to romanticize it— art is a pure state of consciousness and memory. In other cases, it is a political response or a tool to negotiate public space, but it always comes from within. Therein lies its transformative potential to lead us out of the banal, to build bridges of communication and appeal to different sensibilities of the human experience.

Through these narratives, we can humanize a war that has become for many little more than numbers, statistics, and cases. In prioritizing the subjectivity of memory we can, perhaps, learn to leave behind the polarization of the past and begin to understand the large gray areas of such a complex history.

 

Karen Bernedo works in the creation and implementation of social projects in memory, gender and human rights related to the period of armed conflict and political violence in Peru. She has worked as a director and producer of documentary films about arts and politics and as a consultant for the women’s human rights NGOs Flora Tristan and DEMUS. Karen is also a founding partner of the Itinerant Museum of Art for Memory (Colectivo Museo Itinerante Arte Por La Memoria) and is a researcher and curator of the Virtual Museum of Arts and Political Violence of Peru.

 

 

ENDNOTES

  1. Final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) published August 28, 2003. For more information, visit www.cverdad.org.pe [Spanish] []
  2. Term used by anthropologist Carlos Iván Degregori to refer to the democratic transition period that permitted the promulgation of the decree that established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. []
  3. Degregori, Carlos Iván. The Decade of the Anti-politic: Rise and Fall of Alberto Fujimori and Vladimiro Montesinos. Lima: IEP, 2000 []
  4. The final report of the CVR was accompanied by the Yuyanapaq, an exhibit of journalists’ photographs. This exhibition is the only visual documentary of the period of violence promoted by the state for pedagogical ends. For more information, see http://www.cverdad.org.pe/apublicas/p-fografico/e_yuyanapacha.php []
  5. See The Other Memories, Mama Quilla documentary, 15 minutes, Karen Bernedo, 2011, http://www.museoarteporlasmemorias.pe/content/las-otras-memorias-capitulo-i-mama-quilla-arpilleras-de-huaycán []
  6. For more information, see Gonzales, Olga. Unveiling Secrets of the War in the Peruvian Andes, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011 []
  7. See the documentary Time of Memory with the Pumpín of Hualla, Aroni, Renzo and Bernedo, Karen, 2011, http://www.museoarteporlasmemorias.pe/content/tiempo-de-memoria-con-el-pump%C3%ADn-de-hualla-0 []
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