In a city where food is top of the cultural pile, several small alternative spaces are leading the emergence of a vibrant contemporary art scene
As soon as we had landed in Lima, the city was abuzz with talk about the fair. There were arguments over which was this year’s best stand; complaints about crowds and entrance fees; and scandal sparked by a critic’s declaration, in El País, that the whole affaire was ‘over’.
This was not an art fair but Mistura, the largest culinary festival in Latin America which annually attracts nearly 400,000 visitors to sample regional and haute Andean cuisine. In general, Peru is deeply divided by class, race and other legacies of colonialism, but the kitchen is a space where these differences can be bridged. The fusion that characterizes Peruvian food is a source of national pride.
Artists are usually the chief purveyors of radical idealism, but in Peruvian popular culture, chefs occupy that role. The worldwide escalating trendiness of foodie culture, growth of gastro-diplomacy and increasing importance of food politics in the face of climate change has all helped to contribute to their status. Writer Adam Gopnik’s assertion that, ‘mouth taste inevitably becomes moral taste,’ holds true in an overtly political sense: Peruvian chefs also enjoy an unparalleled degree of political clout. The most notable of these figures is celebrity chef Gastón Acurio, the founder of Mistura whom many believe to harbour presidential ambitions.
The sociopolitical prominence of Peruvian cuisine is emblematic of a nation on the rise after years of economic isolationism, terrorism and political instability. The war which lasted from 1980 to 2000, claimed 70,000 lives. During these years Limeños lived under military curfew and in constant fear of bombings, making public outings to restaurants (among other places) a risky venture. All this was compounded by the Latin American debt crisis and a disastrous populist economic policy, both of which threw the nation’s finances into a tailspin, with inflation peaking at 2,200,200% and driving per capita annual income down to just USD$720 in 1990. In this climate dining out became a rare expenditure reserved for the most special occasions.
Right-wing authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori (1990–2000) used the war to justify the dissolution of the Peruvian legislature and violent suppression of civil liberties. Under Fujimori, art academies and museums were restricted to modernist theories and aesthetics. Experimental, contemporary practices were ignored or not taken seriously, and many - like the Grupo Chaclacayo, whose members fled to Germany in 1984 – pursued their careers elsewhere. The 1992 capture of Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the Sendero Luminoso terrorist organization, signified an overnight shift in the social climate; suddenly for the first time in twelve years public space didn’t seem quite so threatening. Two years later, Acurio returned from France and opened his first restaurant to pioneer Nuevo-Andeño cuisine. The universal appeal of food enabled Peruvians like Acurio to experiment, when the visual arts were still being repressed.
It is now 20 years since the fall of Fujimori; Peru has seen nearly a decade of booming economic growth and a relative loosening of conservative ideology. In this context of social stability and economic growth Peruvian artists and curators are becoming a more conspicuous presence in the Lima. While the local art market is still small – reflecting significant wealth inequality and a lack of state support (the Ministry of Culture, founded in 2010, has mostly focused on preserving pre-Hispanic heritage) – several smaller, alternative spaces are paving the way with programmes committed to unearthing the conceptual practices suppressed during the Dirty War. ‘For years public space was potentially dangerous, and projects like ours are trying to recover some agency over public space,’ explained Pablo Hare, artist and founder of nonprofit gallery Garúa. When opening Garúa two years ago, Hare and his co-founder, Dr. María Balarin, determined that the best way to engage the public in critical dialogue on contemporary art would be to construct a ‘white cube’ space for artists to show experimental work, and to publish editions of critical writing. Garúa is also launching their own internet radio station, a strategy partly borrowed from the experimental space La Culpable (2002-08), which mailed out pirated CDs, fliers and stickers to a community of subscribers in order to bridge the vast distance between Lima and other art epicentres, and encourage collaboration across borders.
In 2014, a group of artists and curators - Andrés Pereira Paz, Christian Luza, Eliana Otta, Florencia Portocarrero, Iosu Aramburu, Juan Diego Tobalina and Miguel A. López - opened Bisagra, which they envision as a creative-community meeting place, in a house in the neighborhood of Pueblo Libre, outside of the city centre. The space’s founders felt that communities outside the exclusive Miraflores and Barranco districts are critically underexposed to art. Rather than host exhibitions, Bisagra holds artist talks, screenings, performances and other events that encourage neighbourhood attendance and direct public engagement. Like Hare, the founders of Bisagra stress that the art scene in Lima is not representative of the whole country, and so they run a residency for artists and curators from other parts of Peru to work in Lima. Perhaps most importantly, Bisagra self-publishes a self-titled journal of critical art writing, the first of its kind in Lima.
At Proyecto AMIL, founders Joel Yoss and his partner Juan Carlos Verme invite international artists to produce and exhibit new works with the intention of fostering creative, cross-cultural dialogue. In addition to a gallery space that hosts ambitious rotating exhibitions by visiting artists and work from Verme’s collection, AMIL hosts an international residency and public programs, as well as provides studios for local artists. The project occupies the subterranean retail space of a shopping mall that was abandoned in the 1990s, when people began to consider it too dangerous to shop there for fear of terrorist attacks. AMIL’s program has included starry international names like Martin Creed, Martin Gustavsson, Abraham Cruzvillegas and – most recently – Richard Tuttle, exposing locals to art they might not otherwise have been able to access.
Lima’s famously dreary weather does not match the sense of optimism in its emerging contemporary art scene. Although its development from a community of atomized individual projects to one of collective exchange will be slow, the artists, writers and curators at work there are gaining momentum, unearthing critical histories and producing innovative proposals for the future of Peruvian art.
Main image: Fátima Rodrigo, Otras Tardes, 2015. Courtesy: Garúa, Lima; photograph: Pablo Hare