The Museum is in the Streets: The Itinerant Museum of Art for Memory

TTBY MAURICIO DELGADO

After 20 years of internal armed conflict, dozens of massacres, torture, and hit squads; after the terror of the Shining Path, the “iron fist” of two “democratic” governments, and the Fujimori dictatorship; after hundreds of reports, opinion pieces and newspaper articles, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and an estimated 69,280 victims and 15,000 missing; not much seems to have changed in Peru.

In 1980, in Ayacucho, Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) launched its armed struggle to overthrow the Peruvian government and institute a Maoist regime. As an armed group, the Shining Path forged a path that was markedly different from classic Latin American guerrilla organizations. Its leader, Abimael Guzmán, considered himself the “4th sword of world communism.” The fundamentalist, messianic, and highly vertically-structured Shining Path soon became the bloodiest terrorist group in the Americas—and much of the world.

The Peruvian government responded to the Shining Path’s atrocities against the poorest people of Peru by deploying the Armed Forces and the Peruvian National Police (PNP) who perpetuated equivalent cruelties, evoking the shared history of missing persons, massacres and torture that is so prevalent in Latin America. According to the TRC, the conflict produced a total of 69,280 victims, dead and missing, of which 75% were poor Quechua-speaking peasants. In 1992, during the Fujimori dictatorship, Abimael Guzmán was captured in an operation conducted by the Special Intelligence Group of the PNP and, in a few months, due to its naturally deep vertical structure, Shining Path collapsed and was defeated militarily.

In 2000, after the fall of the Fujimori dictatorship, the government of Valentín Paniagua accommodated the requests of civil society and established the TRC that, in 2003, launched the most serious effort to comprehensively document the internal armed conflict in Peru.1 However, the Commission’s work was not welcomed by broad sectors of Peruvian society. While the government of Alejandro Toledo, Paniagua’s successor, endorsed the TRC’s recommendations and conclusions, it appeared to treat its endorsement as a mere formality–a convenient photo-op.

Ultimately, Toledo’s chest-beating and declared empathy with the victims of the Lucanmarca massacre did not translate into state policy.2 In effect, the Pandora’s box that the Commission opened continues to be ignored.

Parallel to this process of vilification and attacks from the most conservative sectors of power and the media appeared, from civil society, memory-building initiatives that aimed to combat impunity and search for justice. With their own agenda, these collectives—comprised mostly of university students and relatives of the victims of state terrorism—were of vital importance in Peru’s last presidential election campaign promoting the anti-Keiko Fujimori vote.3

It is in this context that, in mid-2009, the Itinerant Museum of Art for Memory (MIAxM) was born. An interdisciplinary cultural association, MIAxM seeks, through art, to join efforts to rebuild the collective memory of the conflict experienced by Peru in the last 20 years. MIAxM is a museum that has no stable physical space. Instead, it is a wandering space: a mobile museum without walls that exhibits and is received in public spaces—schools, union halls, or conventional galleries, for example. MIAxM has three well-defined spheres of action: the art exhibition, intervention in public space, and awareness workshops. For reasons of space—and because it is the main activity of the Museum—I will only address MIAxM’s public art exhibitions here.

Art as a tool

MIAxM recognizes the transformative potential of art to reconstruct shared sentiments. Its innate ability to touch our senses at higher levels makes it, in our view, the ideal medium to sensitize the viewer to the topics it exposes. When political discourse or academic texts are exhausted, art—with its ability to speak to reason and feelings—becomes a crucial weapon to trigger curiosities, feelings, and empathies.

Thus, MIAxM seeks to be an experiential museum, one that immerses the audience in the exhibited art and allows them to live the feelings of the story being told. This is not a museum of historical facts and figures, but of impressions and emotions—a cauldron of emotions, which seeks to stir the memories of the audience.

It should be noted that a colonial mindset pervades Peru’s social landscape and many of its inhabitants. There is persistent racism and disdain for specific cultural manifestations, particularly those of Quechua and Aymara indigenous peoples. This was reflected during the internal armed conflict, and remains prevalent in large sections of Peru’s urban populations.

The art circuit is no stranger to this racist and exclusionary way of thinking. MIAxM understands that there exists in Peru a hegemonic mode of expressing one’s self: written Spanish. It is a form that ignores that the indigenous people of Peru have built and continue to construct their identity orally and visually. With the arrival of the Spanish and the founding of the republic, the Spanish language was imposed as a model of expression. Using a variety of media, however, artists seek to rescue ways of remembering that are still active in the Andean communities. The so-called “crafts”—Sarhua tables, burlap, looms, retablos, etc.—form part of the “collection” of MIAxM, and are displayed as equals, sharing space with paintings, drawings, prints, or other artistic installations.

In fact, retablistas4 from Ayacucho were the first chroniclers of the armed conflict. The retablistas were leaving testimony of the massacres and torture that they were experiencing in advance of others who later documented Peru’s internal armed conflict. Many artists had to bury their artwork to avoid accusations of involvement in terrorism by the security forces during the state’s nightmarish war against the Shining Path.

The MIAxM’s art exhibition is made up of works that have thematized the internal armed conflict, with a museological script that seeks to explain the process of the civil war through a chronological arrangement of the facts. The Museum wanders. It does not wait for visitors to come to it, rather it moves to greet its visitors. No exhibit usually lasts more than two days. A scaffolding structure provides the perfect support, not only because it permits the artists to change the layout and the path of the pieces, but also because scaffolding is an ideal metaphor for something that is under construction, only halfway complete, and which is still being assembled.

The traveling exhibition

Roaming allows the museum to move with the moment. In Peru, as in Latin America more generally, political events are fast-moving—as are the agendas of struggle. The malleability of the museum and its “collection” allow one to navigate this ever-shifting terrain of artistic intervention and political activism.

The challenge, however, is the calling. Just as the art exhibition is not physically static, neither is its message: it changes and nourishes itself constantly on the works of artists from host communities that incorporate local memories of the conflict in the Museum. This poses an ongoing challenge for MIAxM’s museographic production. First, as the Museum does not occupy a physical space, the ways in which the works are exhibited continuously varies. In addition, by not exhibiting the artworks in conventional galleries—but in public places or schools—there is no singular path for viewing the art and exhibitions must be held in spaces where reading and viewing can be done from any point of departure or arrival.

Citizen dialogue

Far from being a traditional museum with an established discourse where the visitor is informed and becomes a passive actor following a monologue that directs her to an unknown truth, the MIAxM, in line with contemporary museological trends, searches for and encourages dialogue, since only in the lively exchange of experiences can the various memories of the conflict of the last 30 years of our republic be reset.

Such a complex problem demands that we seek new mechanisms that facilitate interaction with the public: not only through guided tours but also through debate and discussion. The artwork becomes the ideal starting point for reflection and memory. We seek not unidirectional but multidirectional learning that we might learn from each other as we share. The Museum thus becomes an encounter in which the participant acquires knowledge and experiences emotions.

However, the most interesting dynamics involve what we might refer to as “spontaneous citizen dialogue.” Often, the artworks spark heated debates or even the trading of insults, which in turn become moments for reflection. Thus, the works of art become triggers for memories. Often, someone attending the exhibit responds decisively to an insult on the street and the fight drifts, with or without the initiator, into an exercise of memory, confrontation, and consensus. It is not uncommon to see a parent who responds almost obligatorily to the questions of a child who did not live through the conflict.

However, the public’s interaction with the exhibit is not merely reflexive, nor is the public a mere spectator. Sometimes the public intervenes spontaneously in response to one of the pieces. The Altar, one of the pieces that forms the Itinerant Museum’s collection, is a collective creation of artists and groups of relatives of disappeared in Lima. Often, in Ayacucho and Huancavelica, families come forward with their photos to add to the work, or individuals themselves add to their family’s contributions. This was not at all the intention of the piece, nor was it ever our intention to create such an interactive work of art. However, the strength of the images, the familiarity of the symbols used, and the urgency to pay tribute injected new life into the work. For the families, works like these are often not mere artistic artifacts: they are places of worship, sacred repositories of memory of an absent son or husband. The work of art transcends its destination.

It is through these actions that the museum can be more than “a collection of objects.” It is more of a process than a fact, more an action and a reaction than a collection. The museum becomes a “performance” in a public space—a dynamic experience that seeks to alter the quotidian experience of the spaces that house the Itinerant Museum.

Although the works function as a repository of memory, the “performative” experience of audience interaction turns the Itinerant Museum into a practice of memory in itself. That is, the fundamental fact in each presentation of the museum is the act of memory itself.

Colophon

While I could conclude this article by reaffirming its first paragraph, I don’t wish to leave the reader with the impression that all is lost. Large demonstrations against the possibility of the daughter of the dictator Fujimori becoming president, the repudiation of The Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights (MOVADEF—the political arm of the Shining Path), and persistent social mobilization in the rural provinces of Peru, demonstrate otherwise.

Within several months of taking office, the government of Ollanta Humala, who was elected on a platform of change and respect for democracy and human rights, made an about face that has left 15 dead in various socio-environmental conflicts. Despite this reversal, organized sections of the population—especially in the interior provinces of Peru—have learned to make their voices heard. Through the use of social networking sites or through innovative communication media, people are engaging in memory exercises that link the past with the present. Underlying these activities is the understanding that our current experiences are derived from our past and that the lethargy and indifference that still live in our society are part of amnesia as well as a monotonic discourse of “development at all costs,” which has been implanted in our imagination since the days of the Fujimori dictatorship.

The Itinerant Museum Art for Memory is part of this effort, stemming from its careful work that emanates from the ground up and is articulated by numerous voices within the human rights movement. The museum is and will always be the result of combined efforts and wills that exceed those of its nine members.5

 

Mauricio Delgado is a member of the Itinerant Museum of Art for Memory (Colectivo Museo Itinerante Arte Por La Memoria) and of the Muralist Brigade Collective (Colectivo La Brigada Muralista). Mauricio has had two solo exhibitions: The Smile of Ekeko (La Sonrisa del Ekeko) (2007) and Between Flowers and Accidents (Entre Flores e Infortunios) (2006) aside from collective exhibitions in and out of Peru. 

 

ENDNOTES

  1. For more, see the website of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: http://www.cverdad.org.pe/ingles/pagina01.php []
  2. On April 3, 1983, Shining Path militants, armed with axes, machetes, knives, and guns launched an attack throughout several zones of the district of Santiago de Lucanamarca, in Huancasancos province of Ayacucho. As a result of the incursion, 69 peasants were brutally killed (TRC Book VII, Chapter 2.6). The exhumation and burial of the 69 bodies in Lucanamarca was chosen by the TRC as a first symbolic reparation in compliance with the recommendation that the Peruvian State should endorse it. []
  3. The 2011 electoral campaign resulted in a runoff election between the center-left Gana Perú (Victory Peru) party candidate Ollanto Humala, and the daughter of ex-president Alberto Fujimori, Keiko Fujimori. The possibility of a return to power of Fujimorismo mobilized hundreds of students, collectives, organizations, and unions to throw their support behind the “anti-Keiko” vote in what became one of the most polarized and aggressive campaigns in recent years. []
  4. A retablista is an artist that makes retablos—rectangular wooden boxes with two doors. On the inside are placed plaster figures of Saints, virgins, patriotic manifestations, or figures dedicated to personalities of everyday life such as peasants, heroes, etc. These traditions have been present in the department of Ayacucho since the period of Spanish colonization. []
  5. Orestes Bermúdez (visual artist), Karen Bernedo (documentary maker), Rosario Bertran (visual artist), Maricio Delgado (visual artist), Susana Ilizarbe (anthropologist), Catherine Meza (sociologist), Jorge Miyagui (visual artist), Valeska Ruiz (attorney), and Gabriel Salazar (historian). []
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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 13th, 2013 at 4:28 pm and is filed under Activism, Advocacy, Art & Culture, Human Rights, Justice, Social Justice, Terrorism, Transitional Justice, Violence. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

 

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