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Art, Nature, and Religion in the Central Andes

Art, Nature, and Religion in the Central Andes
Themes and Variations from Prehistory to the Present

Taking a new approach to traditional Andean art that links prehistory with the present, this book illustrates the ongoing legacy of the past in contemporary art and the importance of art not only as a way of expressing religious ideas rooted in nature, but also as a means of resisting discrimination and oppression.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

May 2012
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368 pages | 6 x 9 | 92 b&w illustrations |

From prehistory to the present, the Indigenous peoples of the Andes have used a visual symbol system—that is, art—to express their sense of the sacred and its immanence in the natural world. Many visual motifs that originated prior to the Incas still appear in Andean art today, despite the onslaught of cultural disruption that native Andeans have endured over several centuries. Indeed, art has always been a unifying power through which Andeans maintain their spirituality, pride, and culture while resisting the oppression of the dominant society.

In this book, Mary Strong takes a significantly new approach to Andean art that links prehistoric to contemporary forms through an ethnographic understanding of Indigenous Andean culture. In the first part of the book, she provides a broad historical survey of Andean art that explores how Andean religious concepts have been expressed in art and how artists have responded to cultural encounters and impositions, ranging from invasion and conquest to international labor migration and the internet. In the second part, Strong looks at eight contemporary art types—the scissors dance (danza de tijeras), home altars (retablos), carved gourds (mates), ceramics (ceramica), painted boards (tablas), weavings (textiles), tinware (hojalateria), and Huamanga stone carvings (piedra de Huamanga). She includes prehistoric and historic information about each art form, its religious meaning, the natural environment and sociopolitical processes that help to shape its expression, and how it is constructed or performed by today’s artists, many of whom are quoted in the book.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Themes
    • Chapter 1. Pre-Columbian Andeans
    • Chapter 2. Andean Thinking
  • Part II. Variations
    • Chapter 3. The Spanish Colonial Period
    • Chapter 4. Globalization Today
  • Part III. Andean Arts Today
    • Chapter 5. The Scissors Dance (Danza de las Tijeras)
    • Chapter 6. Home Altars (Retablos)
    • Chapter 7. Carved Gourds (Mates)
    • Chapter 8. Ceramics (Cerámica)
    • Chapter 9. Painted Boards (Tablas de Sarhua)
    • Chapter 10. Weavings (Textiles)
    • Chapter 11. Tinware (Hojalatería) and Huamanga Stone Carving (Piedra de Huamanga)
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Mary Strong is a visual anthropologist, writer, and illustrator who has collaborated with painters and craftspeople in Latin America and the United States. She served on the Board of Directors and was president of the Society for Visual Anthropology of the American Anthropological Association. She also coedited and contributed to the book Viewpoints: Visual Anthropologists at Work; guest-edited and contributed to two special issues of the journal Visual Anthropology; and was ethnographer for the award-winning film compilation Arts in Ayacucho.

Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture


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This volume is a broad look at the cultures of the Andes and their arts. Readers will find an introduction to the subject here that will encourage further exploration of these fascinating and beautiful traditions. Following is a general ethnohistory of symbolic meaning in a selection of Peruvian religious art motifs relating to the natural world. The geographic and cultural focus is the central Andean region of Peru, especially in Huamanga (also known as Ayacucho) and its environs. This book is different from others in several ways. First, it concentrates on "folk art" images, but it also traces how contemporary "folk" traditions relate back to the arts of the Andean past. Second, rather than trying to seek out a tiny and supposedly isolated community where "pure" Indigenous forms have been somehow preserved despite tumultuous incursions of sociocultural change, this study looks at a major art production center and acknowledges outside influences coming from cultural interchanges in the Indigenous period, European colonialism, economic and political change later in history, and most recently the life-altering introduction of new telecommunications technologies. Third, in partial response to a "further research needed" request made a half-century ago by the renowned anthropologist José María Arguedas, these chapters show how aspects of the arts of today as well as the belief systems they express have been heavily influenced by Spanish cultural traditions as well as Indigenous ones. Fourth, rather than concentrating only on famous senior artists and their work, this book considers younger art makers and contemporary influences on their thought, art, and means of making a living.


The corpus of images in the study derives from a selection of Indigenous, or "Andean" in this book, art forms traditional to the region in and around the city and department (similar to a province) of Ayacucho, originally called Huamanga, in Peru's central Andes mountains. The city of Huamanga is known as an art center and has been famous for its creative work especially since European colonial times. The people living in the environs around the city trace their art inheritance into the deep Indigenous past. This area constitutes the main geographic focus in the study. Artists in the book have their roots in Huamanga, but their lived experience can include a much broader swath of the nation and regions overseas. These artists know about or have traveled to other art centers in Peru, including Huancavelica, Apurimac, Junín, Cuzco, Lima, and Lurín. A few have gone abroad, some to New York City and other world capitals. Many younger artists maintain sporadic contact with international areas through Internet cafes with wireless capability and cell phones. With these wonderful tools for communication, the previous requirements for literacy and wire-based electricity are no longer necessary for some degree of inclusion in global conversation because users can employ visual and voice media over satellite networks. The Internet is replete with Web sites where formerly remote communities now post their cultural heritage in complex detail. Andeans incorporate artistic influences from these media and national and international locations into their work. Artists' own relatives and friends now living and working in other parts of Peru and in Brazil, Spain, the United States, Japan, and other foreign lands serve as additional conduits for new, creative inspiration.

The themes and variations prevalent in Andean visual art and described in this book derive from the very extensive work carried out by archeologists, ethnographers, and artist-ethnographers cited here. Suggestions as to how and why it is that these themes and variations are expressed through time and space is the work of this study and based on bibliographic and field research by the author.

This book examines images in a few of the domestic and village-based art forms characteristic of Huamanga and the department of Ayacucho: the scissors dance (danza de tijeras), home altars (retablos), carved gourds (mates), board painting (tablas de Sarhua), tin arts (hojalatería), and alabaster carving (piedra de Huamanga). There is also a limited study of particular representations in the well-studied Andean high arts of textiles and ceramics. Within these traditions, this book looks specifically at images showing certain aspects of the natural environment. The motifs under study include selections from the animals, plants, earth forms, astral bodies, meteorological conditions, and, to a lesser extent, human beings that prevail in the central Andean environment.

The time frame for field and documentary research upon which this book is based extends from the late 1960s to the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The book deals with "themes," or relatively unchanging spiritual forms and meanings, as well as "variations," or forms and meanings that change over time. This volume goes beyond the usual anthropological literature staple of "continuity and change" studies, however, in several ways. Andeans have a particular idea of the workings of time and space and how they interrelate. Time and space have a political dimension both for Andeans and outsiders. Andean artists utilize special tactics to speak religiously and politically to insiders and outsiders simultaneously in ways that please both audiences. Three of these ploys are inversion, disjunction, and dual subjectivity. Artists make use of such techniques by taking advantage of the ambiguous character of visual media. They use visual art to countermediate outsider views about Andean culture and assert their own ethnic pride and ideology.

Borrowing and Incorporation

Andean imagery often incorporates elements from various deities, religious traditions, regions, and time periods into one piece of work. This was done in the past and continues in the present. Since prehistoric times, Andean motifs and art categories have exhibited multiple symbolic referents, types of construction materials, designs, historical periods, and geographic regions. Andean images often contain various symbols within one form. These motif hybrids can take the shape of chimeras, which may be serpents, pumas, rainbows, bolts of lightning, eagles, and jaguars all at once. A ceramic object can take on images and decoration more characteristic of textiles, for example, or a wooden art form can incorporate stone elements in terms of materials. The freewheeling Andean tendency to borrow and incorporate disparate elements has only increased today due to the ubiquity of modern telecommunications.

This cultural penchant for borrowing and incorporating has contemporary implications for research and researchers. Time periods matter little when artists can access images from archeological sites, books, and the Internet. In this way, the past, present, and future share space in their work. Nor does geographic delimitation constitute a boundary around ethnographic study for similar reasons. In fact, regionalism was probably never very strong in Andean art traditions because of the ritual and trade networks evidently fostered by the chronological chain of empires even preceding those of the Incas and Europeans. What binds this work together, then, are the artists the author knows who self-identify as being from Huamanga (Huamanguinos) and their work, which shows influences from across broad areas of history, geography, and ideological traditions.

Andean Time and Space

The eternal equilibrium of things is great, and the eternal overthrow of things is also great.

Walt Whitman, "Leaves of Grass"

The Andean art tradition of borrowing and incorporation relates to a particular concept of time and space that artists express visually. How pictures, images, and concrete forms appear to encase Andean thought better than written words is still somewhat of a mystery. An artist once said to the author as he tried to explain the meaning of his work, "I cannot say it to you, but you and I both know what it is." Andean thinking has been analyzed by experts as being three-dimensional or metaphorically spatial. Andean thought also incorporates the fourth dimension, time, particularly through a notion of repeating cycles that is embedded both in language and cosmology. In the Andean conception of reality, time and space appear to intersect. There are certain aspects of time/space that are cyclic and others that allow for aberrations and changes as each cycle repeats back upon itself. Celestino and others discuss the most dramatic instance of aberration in cycles known as a pachacuti (loosely translated as "world turned upside down"), or cosmic inversion that is expected to occur from time to time in Andean cosmology. The languages Quechua and Aymara, the two major Andean Indigenous tongues, have notions of blended time/space built into them, according to linguists. Nuñez and Sweetser, following Gifford, find that the Aymara and Quechua languages construct time in a very particular way. Their research shows that native speakers of the two languages seem to be looking "forward" toward "past" events, while the "future" lies behind them. Faller and Cuellar studied the same linguistic phenomena but perhaps interpret the data in a way that is more comprehensive because in addition to being cognitive linguists they are native speakers of Quechua. They posit that Andean languages conceive of time as a circular process. In this way the relative positions of "future" and "past" blend into one another. These authors contend that time consists of movement but that it is also a kind of container that can take on new elements each time it repeats its circular journey. An apt metaphor for this idea might be a child on a carousel who takes an additional gold ring each time she passes the same point in her rotation. Thus, say the researchers, Andean time encases the old while incorporating the new. Here readers can see how space and time seem to blend in this culture. Faller and Cuellar go further in that they contend that this spatial/metaphoric time sense relates very much to the ever-repeating diurnal and annual sun cycles so important in Andean religion and the complex agricultural systems that traditionally have formed the basis of their existence.

Andean concepts of time and space call up images of Einstein's obscure lectures about such conundrums as what happens at the speed of light. Pictures for Andeans are the best and perhaps only way to deal with these kinds of thought systems since they defy the usual possibilities allowed by spoken and written language. In the political realm, pictures also serve their makers well, especially when dealing with problematic outsiders who are not picture-oriented in a primary way.

The Influence of the Colonial and Postcolonial Experience: The Political Dimension in Concepts of Time and Space

A fish said to another fish,
"Above this sea of ours there is another sea with creatures swimming in it—they live there even as we live here."
The other fish replied,
"Pure fancy! Pure fancy! When you know that everything that leaves our sea by even an inch and stays out of it, dies. What proof have you of other lives in other seas?"
Khalil Gibran, "Other Seas," Collected Works

Why, one might ask, should Andeans choose to invoke a kind of circular timelessness in their verbal and visual expressive forms? Mircea Eliade describes the process very well in his 1949 book Le Mythe de l'eternel retour (The Myth of the Eternal Return, 1954). According to Eliade, myths and rituals are vehicles of an "eternal return" to a mythical age. Religious narrations, images, objects, and practices are a means for attaining a sacred dimension that gives life value and meaning. Victor Turner, in his classic study The Ritual Process (1969), finds that ritual and its accoutrements allow people to attain a state he calls "communitas." Communitas is an unstructured community in which all people are equal. This ideal level of being is most important to maintain among all people, but especially those who have been demeaned, colonized, or discriminated against. Eliade contends that people try to keep themselves in the eternal, timeless realm of the sacred (corresponding to Turner's communitas) in order to avoid being trapped in the linear, progressive dimension called "history." Historical time moves ever forward like a speeding arrow flying through space. Some questionable Western theories of social "progress" depend on the historical linear time metaphor. Social evolutionists of this type posit that culture and society change through time, always "improving." There is also embedded in social evolutionist thought an often unspoken assumption that the cultures of the powerful (to which these theorists, of course, belong) represent a later and therefore better stage of social evolution than those of the less powerful.

Social evolutionists often equate the future with what is "better" or "best" in human civilization and the past with what is underdeveloped, primitive, and not so good. Politically, these ideas have served militarists, colonialists, and empire builders well because they can justify imposing their regimes on other peoples in terms of providing "progress" and "betterment" for those they conquer. Nineteenth-century European colonialists justified their "white man's burden" of "bettering ignorant masses" over which they wished to impose power. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century imperialists have followed suit. Peoples who have been conquered and colonized thus become part of a misty, timeless, and aimless "past" wherein reside populations considered by the powerful to be part of the primitive "Other," that is, probably not as fully human and complex as they (the powerful) are. Edward Said presents this idea in depth in his book Orientalism (1979), and so does Johannes Fabian in his book Time and Other (1983).

How Religion and Politics Come Together in Andean Imagery

Many Andean scholars agree that pictures and three-dimensional forms are vital to that culture, in which thought systems are so different from those of many outsiders (whether or not they are exploitive) including researchers. Since Andean thought is nonlinear in nature, the all-at-once quality of pictorial representation may express the artists' mental patterns better than spoken and written language, a linear communication mode. Imagery in this culture has another aspect as well that is both religious and political. Andean pictures and forms not only "stand for" something in the symbolic role pictures usually have in other cultures. It seems that pictures for Andeans also actually "stand in" for what they represent. This, say scholars in the field, requires a special kind of semasiography, or method for creating form for and deciphering meaning inherent in images. The term "semasiography" is a derivation applied to images of the word "semasiology," or the philosophical and scientific study of meaning in linguistics.

Margaret Jackson studied the art of the Moche, one of several major pre-Inca cultures. She defines semasiographic images as graphic scripts or representations that do not directly reflect speech. She states that there is no reason to automatically classify pictures at the primitive extreme of human communication systems and alphabetic writing at the opposite or most advanced end. Semasiographic systems can represent ideas directly, but their ordering is different from what generally are considered language forms as such The Moche are famous for their realistic representations of beings and objects in nature. Jackson asserts that such close rendering of palpable forms created meaning for this culture.

Frank Salomon studied contemporary quipu, or knotted-rope systems that served the Incas as well as some modern Andeans as a way of keeping important records. Knotted ropes are an extremely abstract and, some believe, mathematical mode of visual representation. However, even here, Salomon concludes that these complex arrangements of ropes and knots are not just symbols that simply stand for something else but actually stand in for actual features of reality. Salomon goes on to say that the quipus and what they represent are the same essence. They are stand-ins for each other without the mediation of words.

It appears, then, that images for Andeans, whether naturalistic or abstract, are much more real than the words in this book are to readers. Because most images are sacred in some sense, they animate the minds of their viewers in the know with a sense of the holy.

Pictorial systems such as the Andean one present themselves in a simultaneous or all-at-once manner. Pictures and forms make artful use of positive and negative space; they indicate two and three dimensions through perspective and other representational conventions that push images forward and backward in space. Pictures placed on a frieze, scroll, or any area of space include the fourth dimension of time since they are meant to be read by viewers in a certain order or even no particular order. The process of "reading" produces a narrative sequence or story that can have one plot or many alternate plots depending on where and in what order the viewer looks. In this last case of no particular order, pictures allow themselves to be open to multiple interpretations.

This study shows how images can have spiritual power in themselves; in other words, spiritual power both inhabits and projects from images. This book uncovers a few tips of the icebergs that perhaps will eventually reveal themselves about how this form of communication functioned and still functions so well for the people who invented it. Pictures work for Andeans regardless of their mimetic correspondence, since some look very much like their models in nature while others are highly designed abstractions.

Tactics Employed by Andean Artists

Guile is the sword and shield of the oppressed.
Thornton Wilder, The Eighth Day

Artists use special tactics or ploys to communicate their praise and honor of Andean traditions to Andean audiences, at the same time hiding these messages from discriminatory outsider audiences. This research shows some of the subtle tactics artists employed to survive the onslaught of European colonization and still use today to overcome marginalization, the recent effects of a twenty-year civil war, and the vicissitudes of the global economic system.

María Eugenia Ulfe wrote a dissertation about retablos, or home altars, made in Huamanga by one of the extended families well known for this work. Some retablo and other local art forms depict the terrible violence and tragedy that centered in Huamanga during the two last decades of the twentieth century due to a situation of civil war (described in chapter 4). Many people still suffer from the effects of this period during which family members were killed, people left in financial ruin, and the rule of law ignored. As a result, even now Huamanga's residents suffer from violence, poverty, high unemployment, lack of trust in local institutions, fragmentation of civil society, loss of religious traditions, alcoholism, street gangs, and abandonment of customs and festivals. Ulfe follows Rowe and Schelling in saying that making art about these horrible events helps people distance themselves from them enough to begin thinking about ways to promote societal change for the better.

Visual images and forms seem to accomplish this task of healing and transformation effectively. Pictures also work well as survival tools because Andeans' adversaries and outsiders to their belief system have trouble understanding them. Non-Andeans are often limited by language systems that correspond to speech and writing. Outsiders also may live within time concepts with rigid present, past, and future time demarcations. This means that the full religious and political import of images escapes outsiders to the degree that they can become a useful secret code for insiders. Artists employ visual depictions that are ambiguous enough to allow for multiple viewer interpretations. Not only do they represent their concept of "inversion," or pachacuti described above, but also "disjunction" and "dual subjectivity".

A simple communication model will help to explain what is meant by inversion, disjunction, and dual subjectivity. A communication system basically involves a sender, a message, and a receiver. The artist is the sender, the artwork is the message, and the viewer is the receiver. Experts in the field say that any communication system and thus any message includes a certain amount of "noise," or interference with the clear reception of the message. In telecommunications, for example, solar storms create noise or static, which interrupts the free flow of messages sent by means of transmitters that are then bounced off satellites to finally reach various kinds of receivers. The art messaging system in this book involves a kind of noise created intentionally by artists and perceived according to a traditionally agreed-upon code cipher by special groups of receivers. This operates somewhat like the codes used in wartime like the "Enigma" manual scrambler used by the Germans in World War II, which notably had certain unchanging aspects as well as others that changed over time. Computer encryption programs also have these characteristics enhanced a thousandfold.

The artist employs calculated noise, or visually ambiguous code, to assert her pride in and support of her culture in an environment of social and ethnic discrimination. Indigenous Andeans, though the numerical majority in many highland regions, are nonetheless a sociopolitical minority in Peru and part of the "third and fourth world" of marginalized peoples from a global perspective. These "minority" artists must, however, appeal to and market their work to their own kind as well as to those who look down upon them in the national and international social structures. In order to do this, they must communicate effectively with two and sometimes more audiences with widely differing expectations. The artist presents a benign surface in her work meant for elite buyers, one that belies the critical messages lurking in its symbolic depths. These deeper ideas have to do with cultural pride and social protest, and they focus on a special in-group of viewers.

Artists' well-planned and calculated noise or intentional ambiguity allows them to communicate with multiple audiences simultaneously. The artists clearly show preference for one of their message systems: the one that exalts the lifeways and values of heir own cultural tradition. In this manner, artists avoid a common and devastating pitfall characteristic of groups of people living in discriminatory societies. W.E.B. DuBois discusses this danger when he describes the idea of dual subjectivity. The minority person living in a state of dual subjectivity perfects the skill of existing in two almost opposite value systems at the same time: his own culture and that of the social majority that oppresses his own culture. DuBois warns that this delicate balancing act can lead an individual to internalize the discriminatory ideology of the powerful in society and to develop a corresponding self-hate for his own background. As this insidious process advances, the individual takes on the values of the majority and leaves his own minority ideology, which he now considers worthless, behind.

Despite many historical layers of colonial and economic rule in their ethnohistory, Andean artists consistently avoid DuBois' pitfall. They live and produce art in multiple dimensions in ways that escape detection and thus avoid the destruction of their culture at the hands of outsiders. They employ tactics such as disjunction, described by Andean folk art historian Stastny as the process of depicting historical or nonmainstream imagery under the guise of acceptable or contemporary customs and mores. An example of disjunction drawn from European art history might be a typical eighteenth-century painter's tendency to clothe figures in a painting about a Greek myth in eighteenth-century fashionable attire rather than the togas and sandals the classical Greeks actually wore. Andean artists often play with disjunction and reverse disjunction.

Another common ploy is the use of inversion in addition to the pachacuti or cosmic inversion discussed above. Inversion is a concept discussed at length in several ways by Celestino. Inversion in art makes negatively valued aspects of society into positive ones. The weak in official society become powerful in art. An example of this is the Andean preference to depict fighting bulls with condors riding their shoulders, making the Andean sacred bird superior to the Spanish colonial mystical animal. The exalted become downtrodden and the downtrodden exalted. Another example is the high respect given the poor and the heavy criticism of the rich in Andean art. One of the biggest cataclysmic inversions of the universe was the European colonial period and its aftermath. Since Andeans' idea of time involves periodic inversions, their art shows a future time when they will reinvert their world and once more be in charge of their own destinies.

This ethnohistory draws from the both the research literature on these subjects as well as what artists themselves say and do. Artists speak about their work as they make it in their workshops. They comment on the effects of recent changes in art and society. They offer observations and practical suggestions regarding art making as well as economic and spiritual survival in the twenty-first century.

Final Thoughts

Andean traditional use of a sacred visual language not directly translatable to words and the postcolonial employment of images as survival tools in the face of difficult outside influences are connected concepts. Religion, art, and politics all relate to the concept of ethnic identity and pride. In postcolonial times the politics of discrimination keep the powerful elements in the nation and the world in an elite position by justifying their innate superiority. Andean religious art as a mode of communication counteracts this status quo because it makes Andeans spiritually powerful. This spiritual power is deeply connected with the natural world, which for Andeans contains the essence of life's meaning. Andean art as an assertion of spirituality, pride, and culture is ambiguous enough to be fully appreciated by insiders while being a message hardly seen or understood by outsiders.

This study presents ways in which the Andean empire builders, especially the Incas, marshaled the force of a pan-Andean corpus of visual symbols to consolidate their empires under uniform sets of religious beliefs. During the colonial and postcolonial periods, Andeans have used a similarly widespread image and design system to both resist and adjust to external forces. The post–Inca empire Andeans, bereft of their central state apparatus and social elite, were compelled to relegate their language of imagery to the small arts of the farm and home. After that period, they imaged coded messages among themselves to maintain their identity and even their very existence. Now, in the twenty-first century, these images take not only an Andean but a worldwide stage through telecommunications technology and transnational migration. In each of these three historical periods, the book describes and explains how pictures promote Andean basic values (themes) while they adjust to evolving circumstances (variations).

In sum, this book asks two questions about Andean religious images. First, how do they depict continuing cultural values (themes) on the one hand and adjustment to change (variations) on the other? Second, how does Andean art exhibit the strategies and ploys artists use to hide their true intentions from outsiders while conveying a strong message to cultural insiders? Another way of phrasing the second question would be: How do Andean artists construct their work so that it countermediates negative outsider concepts of their value and worth, and how do they assert their pride in a way that is hidden from these same outsiders? The answers the book offers are partial, but they will perhaps provide a beginning for further thought and study.


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