Political Violence and the Colors of Art

The View from Ayacucho

by | Oct 7, 2014

Photos by Edilberto Jiménez Quispe

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


Violencia Política y los colores del arte

Por Edilberto Jiménez Quispe

Fotos por Edilberto Jiménez Quispe

El autor de este artículo, Edilberto Jiménez Quispe, parado enfrente de uno de sus retablos que representa la violencia política.

Ayacucho es capital de la artesanía peruana con más de 60 líneas artesanales, pero también es uno de los departamentos que se ubica dentro del mapa de la pobreza,  e históricamente siempre estuvo entre la pobreza y la violencia. El 17 de mayo de 1980, los miembros del Partido Comunista del Perú Sendero Luminoso (PCP-SL), dieron inicio a sus acciones armadas, y algún tiempo después el gobierno peruano decidió la intervención de las Fuerzas Armadas (FFAA), generándose una cruenta guerra interna, que obligó a la  población civil a sobrevivir, a un alto costo. Los que más sufrieron fueron los campesinos/as quechua hablantes y nativos Asháninkas, quienes sufrieron desapariciones forzadas, violaciones sexuales, torturas, asesinatos y ejecuciones extrajudiciales de ambos bandos, sin tener piedad por la edad o por el sexo. La Comisión de la Verdad y la Reconciliación (CVR) estima que la cifra más probable de víctimas fatales de la violencia, muertos y desaparecidos, es de 69,280 personas, de los cuales se concentra en Ayacucho más del 40%. Frente a los acontecimientos deshumanizadores de esos años, el arte popular ayacuchano fue la voz silenciosa, recreando esos sucesos dolorosos del poblador desamparado, como un acto de denuncia a la barbarie cotidiana, sin ningún respeto por los derechos humanos básicos. Retablistas, ceramistas, tejedores, escultores de piedra de Huamanga, pintores de las tablas del distrito de Sarhua, expresaron la  violencia política de 1980 al 2000. Muchos artesanos fueron detenidos, desaparecidos y asesinados, como consta en los testimonios que dieron sus familiares a la CVR.

Como retablista, descubrí los colores en mi infancia, gracias a mi padre Florentino Jiménez, imaginero y pintor; y de mi madre Amalia Quispe, tejedora de mantas y fajas multicolores, ellos eran del pueblo de Alcamenca, en la provincia de Víctor Fajardo, del departamento de Ayacucho. Soy de aquel pueblo y crecí en esa hermosa envoltura de la cosmovisión andina. Muy tierno jugaba bajo la mirada de los cerros majestuosos,  de los cóndores, del sol, de la luna, de las estrellas, en un mundo de vida, y alegría. Descubría, sentía y cortejaba a los paisajes, al color del arco iris, a las flores multicolores, que me proveían sus estímulos, sus pigmentos y se apoderaban de mi alma, y así cada color florecía en mi existencia y me procuraba su sabiduría. Cuando el atardecer exponía sus celajes de matices rojizos me decían, “va a llover, es vida para las plantas y animales”; cuando exponía sus celajes de matices amarillentos decían, “es para la ausencia de la lluvia, es para la angustia y el llanto”. En la fiesta de los ganados, los dueños  colocan las cintas de su color preferido en las orejas de sus animales, y la sangre se bebe junto al aguardiente, luego se colorean sus caras en medio de cantos ceremoniosos; recuerdo que me decían que era “para la  procreación de los ganados y para que perdure el apego entre el animal y su dueño”. En la fiesta de los carnavales, las mujeres muy gozosamente entre risas se pintan sus caras de un matiz de rojo vivo, con ello expresan estar listas para dar inicio al matrimonio. En el pueblo siempre a las mujeres solteras no les faltan las flores más blancas en sus sombreros, dicen que es señal de su pureza y de su virginidad.

Pero cuando era niño, la noche oscurecía, y lo más oscuro expresaba el miedo donde transitaría el “kuku” diablo, condenado, incestuoso, sancionado por el castigo  divino. Los meses de lluvia hacen que las siembras y el campo se vistan de un hermoso matiz verde, ahí se oye el trinar de las aves, se ve el coqueteo de picaflores ante la mirada de las magníficas flores, entonces es la época de la felicidad y de la nueva vida. Viví en ese mundo y coloreaba mis retablos con aquellos matices de la vida.

Pero la violencia política de los años de 1980, también me violenta a mí, y sentí que debía expresar mis sentimientos, mi dolor, ese dolor humano que percibía,  sentía y vivía en esa maldita guerra que habían iniciado los miembros de Sendero Luminoso. Los colores de mi infancia se habían manchado con los colores de la barbarie, que revelaban ya el horror de lo cotidiano: el rojo señalaba el peligro y el miedo, era la sangre del detenido, torturado y asesinado; el  verde que conocí, mostraba ahora el matiz moteado de las fuerzas represivas del Estado; el amarillo palidecía  y señalaba la muerte lenta del torturado, y la tristeza de los familiares de los detenidos y secuestrados. La oscuridad de la noche era el miedo, el tormento y el salvajismo que  cometían los del PCP-SL y las FFAA. Los familiares víctimas de la violencia política se vestían de negro, como luto permanente, por sus seres queridos. Consta en los testimonios a la CVR que los conducidos al destacamento militar del Cuartel los Cabitos Nro 51, eran vendados de distintos colores: si el detenido tenía una venda roja, era porque había cometido algún delito y tenía que ser ejecutado; los que tenían venda verde eran investigados, y si tenían vendas blancas eran liberados. Entonces en Ayacucho primaron los matices del color rojo, verde, amarillo, negro y blanco, los cuales ingresaron fuertemente a mis cajones portátiles (retablos). Y cada retablo poseía el nombre de un acontecimiento específico de la violencia: los condenados, la muerte, la labor humanitaria de la Cruz Roja Internacional, el hombre, el huamanguino, la tortura, a oscuridad, el juicio popular, el choque armado, los detenidos, el abuso a las mujeres, el asesinato de niños, la muerte en Yerbabuena, la fosa en Chuschihuaycco, el sueño de la mujer huamanguina en los ocho años de la violencia, entre otros.

Puedo expresar un breve testimonio del retablo “Sueño de la mujer huamanguina”: Pensé en la lucha incansable de la mujer ayacuchana quien desde el primer instante del terror, batallaba en medio de la guerra desigual para  encontrar a sus seres queridos, arrebatado por los militares. Las mujeres constituirían luego la  Asociación Nacional de Familiares de Secuestrados, Detenidos y Desaparecidos del Perú-ANFASEP. Para ellas, no terminaba el día y aún de noche debían buscar al detenido. Entristecidas, con lágrimas en los ojos, rogaban a los verdugos en la puerta del cuartel, en las dependencias policiales. Caminaban, como llevadas por el viento, a lugares donde los militares acostumbraran arrojar a sus víctimas. Vestidas de negro, pedían colaboración para enterrar a sus hijos. Una cruda realidad. Entonces la figura principal del retablo es la mujer huamanguina vestida de luto (negro) quien después de tanta búsqueda, ya cansada, se queda  dormida en el interior de una montaña (apu o wamani) de oro y de plata; allí, abrazando a sus dos hijos, sueña que está encima de un charco de sangre,  y percibe la detención de su esposo por los militares, que está encarcelado, luego asesinado y arrojado a un abismo de tunales y cabuyas en donde los animales hambrientos lo devoran. El Padre Eterno, espantado de los hechos, manda al arcángel de Paz a recoger el alma del asesinado, mientras el padre sol, la madre luna y los cerros (apus) apenados, entre lágrimas, observan el horror del salvajismo inhumano.

Fall 2014Volume XIV, Number 1

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.

Edilberto Jiménez Quispe es antropólogo, periodista y retablista egresado de la Universidad Nacional San Cristóbal de Huamanga. Premio Nacional Bienal-Caretas 1991. Actualmente se encuentra afiliado al IEP, trabajando como miembro del equipo del programa Apoyo para la Paz, con sede en Ayacucho-Perú.

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