Some museums are forever being rebuilt, while its own biennial has already been scrapped from the agenda, as have several noteworthy artists' initiatives. Surviving in the art world of Lima is not easy.
Above the city of Lima, vultures are continually circling, guardians of the vestiges of Spanish rule, dictatorship, the Shining Path, Alberto Fujimori and the recipes for economic recovery imposed by the International Monetary Fund. Against this background, a balancing exercise is played out that marks the everyday social and economic realities of postcolonial Peru.
In contemporary art, Lima is not on the tip of everyone's tongue. Legendary pioneers of modernism or major collectors –such as those who have become virtual institutions on the ‘Latin’ continent – are absent. Tourists are primarily in search of traces of the Andes civilizations or are scouting out such postcolonial phenomena as the Cumbia (Colombian-style music and folk dance). Compared with its large neighbouring countries, Lima lacks their strongly nationalistic chauvinism and is ruled by pragmatism in its more small-scale construction of economic and cultural infrastructure.
The fact that institutions of contemporary art and the prestige of artists make up part of the economic recovery process has nonetheless not escaped Lima's project developers. This artistic urban symbiosis is expressed in new construction projects for a national and a private collection. Here, it is primarily the expansion and reorganization of the nationale Museo de Arte de Lima that is significant, because it is deemed to be of great symbolic value for the revitalization and redevelopment of the old historic centre of Lima. In the meantime, private collector George Gruenberg is building his Museum for Contemporary Art, whose new skeleton is now visible. With these two initiatives, it is hoped that Lima can overcome the lack of an institutional frame of reference for contemporary artistic developments and tradition.
At the Museo de Arte de Lima, probably caught in a permanent expansion impasse, alongside pre-colonial, colonial and national art, there is also the ambition to collect and exhibit the work of younger artists. The Museum of Contemporary Art is its private counterpart, with equally eclectic ambitions, but with more financial clout. In addition to its collection, it also wants to serve as a platform for the history more recent art, and present information about both Peruvian art and its connection with international developments. It is striking how much everyone is counting on significant contributions from international corporate sponsors and private Maecenas. In Lima, there is virtually no government support. Everything relies on private money or foundations. Government has removed itself from the public sectors and is leaving everything to be organized by private companies.
In Peru, there is less staring at one's navel than is the case in the big neighbouring countries, where psychoanalysis and plastic surgery have become alternatives for identity and self-image. The contrast to the well-structured institutions in Brazil and Argentina is considerable, and the uneven relationship between possibilities in Lima itself and the experiences of those studying in other countries is analyzed with considerable lucidity. Connections to other countries are therefore self-evident, because as an artist, once you have finished your studies, you have to leave in order to survive.
Nonetheless, scepticism about the ambiguous attitudes of the authorities (and their international partners) in their dealings with immense social and economic disparity dominates. Discussions amongst those in the art world revolve around lack of structure, vision and support. Alongside that is the striking total absence of the indios. Cultural groups do not count in present-day Peru, or they are allowed only to act as providers of the ubiquitous ‘authentic’, ethnic, handcrafted tourist production.
Lima is a global metropolis, neatly divided into favellas, a dilapidated old historic centre and attractive suburbs or ‘garden cities’. Most (private) organizations, galleries and universities are found in the garden city districts overlooking the ocean. There is also a bohemian neighbourhood: Barranque. Government institutions are located in the old city. Here too, hidden above a parking garage, are two artist's initiatives: [e]star and ATA Escuelab, as well as the interdisciplinary podium organization, LOT, coordinated by Jeroen van der Zalm.
Along the coast, in the Miraflores and San Isidro districts, most of the commercial galleries and institutes are found. In this ‘California-like greenbelt’, the light is good, while the old city is plagued by smog. Amongst the residential pavilions, there is a recent monument for the victims of the terror of the Maoist guerrilla organization, Sendero Luminoso. The monument, entitled The Eye that Cries, is a mandala with the names of all of the victims engraved in stone. In this monument, Buddhist piety and the memory of the terror at no point really come together, which illustrates the degree to which aesthetics can fall short. At the same time, it also shows the split that exists in Peru where the dictatorship and armed revolts are concerned.
Housed in a bungalow is also the experimental Vertice Gallery. When I was there, people were hard at work on an exhibition by a generation of ‘upcoming’ Peruvian artists. The exhibition, Imagines de la migration, in fact primarily illustrated the problems people are dealing with here: the only connection between the artists is the fact that they have all emigrated out of Peru.
The Centro Fundacion Telefonica is a touch of high tech, a cultural affiliate of the telephone company found in all of the Spanish-speaking countries. The Centro is aimed at bridging the economic, cultural, social and geographic divides all in one go. And what other medium than digital data communications technology could be better suited to catapulting a nation from folklore to cutting edge, all in a single step? The progressive optimism characteristic of this wealthy foundation is perhaps not utterly lacking in the necessary interests, and the institution also has an interesting collection of media and video art from Peru and neighbouring countries, offering a good overview.
The nearby Centro de la Imagen, originally devoted to photography, has access to exhibition spaces that are well-suited to both analogue and digital presentations, varying from a white cube for vintage photographs to a black box for projections. We saw an exhibition there whose concept and selection of artists, as well as the accompanying texts, revealed sharp insight. It is a private initiative with no collection of its own and which depends on educational programmes and courses for funding. Together with the Alta Tecnología Andina (ATA) , where Mauricio Delfin organizes an annual video and new media festival, these two relatively well-structured and informed institutions bridge the chasm between tradition and new media in Lima fairly well.
The contrast with the Espacio La Culpable artists’ initiative, which created its working space in a private home in Barranque, the adjacent ‘artists’ neighbourhood’, is salient. La Culpable became an institution in its own right thanks to actions, informative evenings and happenings developed by Philippe Gruenberg, Rodrigo Quijano and Gustavo Buntinx, with varying groups of friends. They responded to local situations and shortcomings with social interventions that included assembling music programmes for parties and distributing flyers and posters.
In Barranque, you also find the beating heart of the art scene, and a little farther away, the most interesting of the experimental galleries, 80 Metros Cuadrados (80 m2), which represents an eclectic range of artists, including JJ Salazar. Around the corner, together with the ideal guide to Lima and Peru, Jorge Villacorta, is the popular bar and hangout Juanito on Avenida Grau. Along with being the driving force behind the art scene, Villacorta is also the director of the ATA. With his insight and erudite knowledge of all ages of Peruvian culture, art and politics, he brings clarity to the complex picture that is ‘Lima’.
Dirk Snauwaert is curator and director of WIELS in Brussels.
With thanks to Jorge Villacorta, Natalia Majluf, BAM, the Mondriaan Foundation and the Prins Claus Foundation.