Political Violence and the Colors of Art

Edilberto Jiménez Quispe depicts political violence in Peru in this retablo. Art courtesy of Edilberto Jiménez Quispe. 

The View from Ayacucho 

By Edilberto Jiménez Quispe

Ayacucho is the mecca of Peruvian handicrafts with more than sixty types of crafts, ranging from ceramics to textiles. Historically, this small city, nestled into the mountains of southwestern Peru, has also been the capital of violence and poverty. It is also known as the cradle of the Shining Path guerrilla movement.

On May 17, 1980, members of the Communist Party of Peru-Shining Path (PCP-SL) began their armed actions, and some time later, the Peruvian government decided to mobilize the armed forces to wipe out the movement, sparking a bloody domestic war. The civilian population paid a very high price. Those who suffered the most were the Quechua-speaking peasants and native Asháninkas. They became victims of forced disappearances, rapes, torture, murder and extrajudicial executions by both parties in the conflict. The victims’ age or sex did not matter. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) estimates that 69,280 people were murdered or forcibly disappeared nationwide—forty percent of those were in the state of Ayacucho.

In the context of these dehumanizing events, the popular art of Ayacucho became silent testimony, recreating the suffering of defenseless inhabitants. Folk art—artistic handicrafts—condemned the daily barbarity committed without the smallest respect for human rights. Creators of retablos (a special type of Peruvian tableau in portable boxes) pottery makers, weavers, sculptors of the alabaster stone found in the region and painters of planks from the Sarhua district all expressed through their art the political violence from 1980 to 2000. Many artisans were disappeared and murdered, as documented by testimonies of relatives given to the Truth Commission. 

It should not be surprising that I grew up to be a maker of colorful retablos. I discovered the art of color in my childhood, thanks to my father Florentino Jiménez, a carver of religious images and a painter, and my mother Amalia Quispe, a weaver of blankets and multicolored belts. My parents were from the village of Alcamenca in the province known as Víctor Fajardo in the state of Ayacucho (of which the city by the same name is the capital). I was born there too, and grew up surrounded by the beautiful Andean cosmovision. From a very young age, I played under the gaze of majestic mountains, accompanied by condors, the moon, the sun, the stars, a world of life and joy. I discovered; I experienced; and I paid homage to the landscape and to its brilliant flowers with pigments that captivated my soul and stirred my senses. Each color bloomed in my existence and brought me wisdom. When sunset exploded with its shades of red, the colors told me, “It’s going to rain, to bring life for plants and animals.” When the sky turned yellow, I learned that it was because of the absence of rain; that color meant “distress and a flood of tears.” In the cattle fairs, owners attached their favorite colors to the animals’ ears; blood was drunk along with the homemade anise liquor known as aguardiente. Later they would paint their faces to the sound of ceremonial songs. I remember being told that this ceremony was “for cattle fertility and to strengthen the bond between the animal and its owner.” At carnival time, women joyfully and with laughter painted their faces in a tone of vivid red, announcing to the world they were ready to get married. The single women always wore the whitest flowers in their hats—a sign of purity and virginity. 

The author of this article, Edilberto Jiménez Quispe, stands in front of one of his retablos depicting political violence. Photo courtesy of Edilberto Jiménez Quispe. 

In the rainy season, the fields turn a lovely shade of green; the birds are constantly singing, and the hummingbirds flirt with each other in the view of magnificent flowers; this is the season of happiness and of new life. I lived in this world and colored my art with those bright hues of the life I knew. 

But when I was a child, the night also grew dark, and in the darkest nights the fearful “kuku” roamed—the devil, the bogeyman, condemned, incestuous, sanctioned by divine power as punishment. I associate that fear with the political violence of the 1980s, which also made violence part of my life. I believed that I ought to express my feelings, my pain, in my art: the human suffering that I perceived, felt and lived in this cursed war that the members of the Shining Path had begun. 

The colors of my childhood had been stained with the colors of barbarity, revealing daily horrors. Red was the color of danger and fear; it was the blood of those who had been detained, tortured and assassinated. The green, the green I so loved, was transformed into the mottled tones of the repressive government forces. Yellow became paler, a somber sign of the slow death of tortured sufferers and the encompassing sadness of the relatives of prisoners and kidnap victims. The darkness of night was fear, torment and savagery committed both by Shining Path and the Armed Forces. The relatives of victims of political violence constantly wore black for their loved ones. Testimonies to the Truth Commission tell us that prisoners led to a military post were blindfolded with different colors: red was for prisoners who had committed crimes and would be executed; green was for those to be investigated; and white blindfolds were for those who would be set free. Thus, in Ayacucho, shades of red, green, yellow, black and white dominated. They became the colors of my retablos. Traditional tableaus depict religious or pastoral scenes. Mine came to bear the names of specific acts of violence and the surrounding context: death, torture, darkness, popular justice, battles, abuse against women, the murder of children, death in Yerbabuena, the grave in Chuschihuaycco, the dream of the Ayacucho woman after eight years of violence, even the labor of the International Red Cross. I became an artist expressing these realities, these horrors. 

Let me talk briefly about one of my retablos: “Sueño de la mujer huamanguina” (“Dream of the Ayacucho Woman”), a title which brings back the traditional name for Ayacucho: “Huamanga.” I thought of the tireless battle of the women of Ayacucho/Huamanga, who, from the very first moment of terror, battled in an unequal war to find their loved ones who had been swept away by the military. The women later formed a group, the National Association of Relatives of the Kidnapped, Detained and Disappeared of Peru (ANFASEP). Day and night, they searched. Saddened, with tears in their eyes, they showed up at the barracks and police stations to beg for their loved ones. They walked, as if carried by the wind, to the places where the military often dumped bodies. Dressed in black, they pleaded for help in burying their children—a crude reality. Thus, the main figure in my retablo is the woman from Ayacucho, dressed in black, exhausted, who falls asleep in the interior of a mountain (apu or wamani in Quechua) of gold and silver. There, embracing her two children, she dreams that she is lying on top of a river of blood, and intuits in her gut that her husband has been arrested, jailed, then murdered and hurled over a cliff into an abyss of tunnels and sisal plants where famished animals devour him. The Eternal Father, horrified by the events, sends the archangel of peace to gather up the soul of the murdered man, while the father sun, the mother moon and the mountains (apus), ashamed and on the verge of tears, observe the horror of inhuman savagery. 

Perhaps—like my fellow artists and painters and carvers from Ayacucho—we could only look on with horror as the war continued, but like the archangel of peace, we did what we could do stop it and make the horrors known through our craft.

Edilberto Jiménez Quispe is an anthropologist, journalist and artist—a maker of tableaus known as retablos. He graduated from the Universidad Nacional San Cristóbal de Huamanga. The winner of the National Bienal-Caretas Prize in 1991, he is currently affiliated with the Institute of Peruvian Studies (IEP), working as a member of the team of Support for Peace (Apoyo para la Paz) with headquarters in Ayacucho.