Historias de la selva y la ciudad (Stories of the Jungle and the City), 2013, by Julia Ortiz Elías and Olinda Silvano Inuma (Reshinjabe)1, is one of those works that is capable of unraveling a wide array of the country’s socio-structural issues that intersect with the authors’ individual experiences: the intimate and familiar experience of the political violence of the internal armed conflict of the 1980s; the conditions of extreme poverty of Indigenous peoples, their migration to cities, and the colonization of their knowledges; and the adversities that women face in a society marked by what Rita Segato has called the “pedagogy of cruelty,”2 which is manifested in the suffocating, repressive policies of patriarchal capitalism that continues gaining ground and making it difficult to achieve social justice and equal rights.
As if it were the territory of a free trade zone, academic and Indigenous arts suggestively converge in this work: a strategy that seeks to sabotage the cannons of prevailing taste and the hegemony of urban and Western power that draws a hierarchical line between the two practices. These Western conceptual models had already begun to be destabilized decades ago by different cultural agents, such as the anthropologist César Ramos Aldana (Ancash, 1963 – Lima, 2017), who promoted the production of this important piece by Ortiz and Silvano. The result of the confluence of these two traditions and forms of transmitting memories is revealed in its hybrid nature, both in its languages and in the main techniques used—painting and embroidery. The base of the piece is a fabric dyed with mahogany bark, painted with oil, embroidered and sewed, over which a visual figurative grammar is displayed, which is allegorical or covered with Indigenous Shipibo-Konibo graphics. Like a river, the work reveals a flow of visuals that contaminate and enter into dialogue with one another, that dilute the hierarchies and normative classifications that, until a few decades ago, made it impossible to imagine their encounter.
One of its authors, Julia Ortiz Elías, is a painter born in Lima in 1975. After graduating from the Art Department of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, she focused her interest on art history, drawing, and painting. She consistently works on issues of gender, democracy, and citizenship in collective and individual exhibitions and projects, among which El problema del otro (The Problem of the Other), 2011, and Estereoscopías, el enfoque doble (Stereoscopies, the Double Focus), 2017, stand out. From a political and poetic perspective, her visual language ironically portrays the perverse forms of the reification of feminine bodies since childhood, as well as the practices of structural violence that surround them.
On the other hand, Olinda Silvano Inuma (Reshinjabe), is an artist and political leader of the Shipibo-Konibo community, one of the fifty-one Indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon. She was born in 1969 in Paoyhan, Pucallpa, Ucayali. As a child, she learned to make ceramics, embroidered pieces, necklaces, bags, and other handicrafts that she would sell as a street vendor. She arrived in Lima in 1997 in search of better economic opportunities and first settled in Comas, a working-class district in the north of the city. In 2000, she joined the first group of Shipibo-Konibo settlers that inhabited Cantagallo, an urban settlement located next to the Rímac River. There they faced health problems due to the presence of insects. Like other migrant women, Silvano ventured into various forms of work to support her four children, including selling handicrafts as a street vendor throughout almost all of Lima. She made up part of the second generation of Indigenous Amazonian women artists to have emerged in Lima since the late 1990s, when various museums, cultural centers, and galleries organized exhibitions of Indigenous artists driven by the historian Pablo Macera and the Andean Rural History Seminar (SHRA) project of the National University of San Marcos (UNMSM).
Historias de la selva y la ciudad offers a sequential narrative: it is a spiral of episodes from the artists’ life stories whose common element involves rescuing the memory of pain, dispossession, and violence, and their social roots. Julia Ortiz presents an account in which she reveals passages from her childhood and adolescence, interrupted by the tragedy of her father’s death caused by the terrorist violence that devastated the country. The consequences of this in her personal life, as well as her mother’s resilience in the face of the desolation of a severed family and a destroyed home, are a central aspect of her narrative. Olinda Silvano Inuma (Reshinjabe) captures her childhood as a fisher, her grandmother’s embroidery lessons, and the invisible crown that she gave her to be able to better elaborate kené –geometric patterns through which the knowledge received from sacred plants, such as ayahuasca (Banipteriosis caapi), chacruna (Psychotria viridis), and tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) are made visible and used for therapeutic purposes. Her images also show an accident that affected her leg. She records her arrival in Lima, a city that appears as a distant and inhospitable place, with buses lying in wait. Ortiz and Silvano’s work is structured as vignettes that emerge as a central spherical image, thus highlighting the passage of time through different scenes.
In both artists’ stories there is an axis that
appears painted in the center of the work: their
fathers’ faces emerge from the spiral looking at the
viewer. Julia Ortiz’s father, an engineer assassinated
in 1987 for refusing to collaborate with the MRTA
(Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru –
Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement), was one
of the 69,280 fatal victims of the internal armed
conflict between 1980 and 2000, according to the estimate by Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation
Commission, 2003.3 This conflict was the most
prolonged episode of violence in Peruvian history
since its foundation as a republic, and underscored
the ethnic-cultural inequalities that prevail in the
country and instill fear and extreme suffering that
divide society even further.
Olinda Silvano’s father died a short time later after receiving a severe beating in Cantagallo while defending the land that his people had occupied since the late 1990s. That tragic incident, associated with the migration process, further defined Silvano’s desire to become a social fighter and activist through art. For each of them, their father’s presence is a gravitational element whose memory not only continues being powerful, but also reveals an affinity between the two life stories.
The inclusion of the image of the artists’ fathers is not very common in a work that we could see as connected to a feminist discourse. This male protagonism drew the attention of César Ramos himself, the promoter of the collaboration between the two artists and the curator of the exhibition Mujeres de la floresta (Women of the Forest), in which the piece was displayed for the first time in 2013. Ramos expected a narrative of political denunciation, a topic that is widely addressed in contemporary art. However, the artists decided to carry out an exercise of symbolic liberation and elaborate on, based on their personal experiences, the vindication of their fathers’ memories. This exercise was not only a chance to challenge the official narratives of violence, but also a space to promote the deconstruction of their languages and creative methods. That is what gives rise to the power and richness of this work in interrogating the monolithic categories that do not allow for understanding men as victims of the violence of the patriarchal system. The artists render visible the nuances of their lives that underscore the role of racial and class-based violence associated with the complex Peruvian reality. Historias de la selva y la ciudad reminds us that the art-woman relationship continues to be a space of profound exploration that keeps pushing further and forcing a revision of the parameters of feminisms and the theoretical models of gender that, in recent years, have produced diverse ways of thinking, while challenging the historical crossroads of colonialism.
Even in the most hostile contexts, women’s versatility accounts for the central space that artistic practices have historically held for their survival. And, in the particular case of Indigenous women, the solidarity of community work stands out, as does a resilient power that unleashes innovative aesthetics committed to change. All of this enables us to see why the Shipibo- Konibo community of Cantagallo has become a sort of laboratory and space for the exploration of the artistic possibilities of Indigenous urban women. The case of Olinda Silvano, who has today become a multidisciplinary artist and initiator of Shipibo-Konibo muralism, along with Wilma Maynas Inuma (Pekón Runa) and Silvia Ricopa (Ronín Kaisi), is an eloquent example. Today her murals are being presented in various international spaces. Based on artistic practice, we can see the collective struggle for self- determination and demand for creative and aesthetic freedoms through which they have started to rewrite their history.