Painting Peru: Cultural Identity in Murals
In developing the Perú: Pachamama program, the curatorial team crisscrossed the country, from the urban scenes of Lima and Iquitos to the beach town of Huanchaco. Our travels helped us better understand Peruvian folklife, and by the end I was absolutely sure of at least one thing: Peru must be the world’s No. 1 consumer of paint.
There were political campaign slogans and icons painted on homes, advertisements for bottled water or cell phone services painted on the sides of restaurants, declarations of “this property is not for sale” painted on private entrances, registration numbers painted on taxis, and signage painted on all kinds of stores. The most impactful use of paint, however, was in the ubiquitous murals.
Murals bring art into the public sphere, which has the mutual benefit of providing artists a wide audience who in turn has a chance to appreciate art outside a gallery or museum. They can function as a means of communication for the socially marginalized and can be an effective tool in creating dialogue. Although we saw murals in almost every large city we visited, it seemed that Lima was especially chock-full of them. Each work has its own appeal and message, which breaks up the monotony of the urban landscape and illuminates topics that resonate with the people of the city.
Muralists across the world face certain challenges in their work. In addition to economic barriers, they must surmount the negative connotations associated with street art and the laws that forbid it—even when murals are commissioned by property owners or the government. However, like many other artists, they often find inspiration in their constraints, whether they be physical, cultural, religious, or ideological.
Chicha music and the associated graphic art form definitely fall into this category. This genre developed as individuals from rural areas moved into urban environments and expressed their feelings of marginalization as migrant communities. The chicha-style murals we saw in Lima were much more than graffiti: they painted a picture (no pun intended) of a shared experience of migration and adaptation to a contemporary urban environment. Representing a growing aspect of modern Peruvian culture, there will be multiple music and visual artists representing the chicha tradition at the 2015 Folklife Festival.
As meaningful, beautiful, and important as we found this art form to be, not everyone shares our admiration. On March 13, municipal workers began painting over murals throughout Lima’s historic district. Officials expressed concern that the city would lose its UNESCO declaration as a World Cultural Heritage Site and, after citing an ordinance from 1994 requiring the maintenance of the city’s historic architecture, announced the plan to eliminate all murals from the center of Lima. Critics say that the decision was political—rejecting public art programs and murals commissioned by previous administrations. Whatever the reasons, over that single weekend, dozens of murals were erased.
One of my personal favorites, which I posted to our Instagram in October, was among those painted over, and one of future Festival participant Elliot Túpac’s emblematic murals, with the phrase “Antes Soñaba” or “I used to dream,” was also erased. Gone too are many of the murals created in the 2013 LatidoAmericano festival, organized by Peruvian street artists.
There was significant backlash from the people of Lima, who posted on social media using the hashtags #SalvemosLosMurales (save the murals) and #BorraronUnoPintaremosMil (they erased one, we’ll paint a thousand), as well as staged protests in front of murals so they would not be painted over. Where murals once were, you can now find graffitied phrases and images of protest. One group has tagged the city with QR codes, which activate an augmented reality smartphone app showing the murals that once adorned those now blank walls.
The question at the heart of this conflict is how and by whom culture is defined. The disappearance of murals in Lima is a significant loss, as they reflected the shared experience and culture of many city residents. However, just as many of these erased murals rose in deference to the marginalization of the artists and their work, it seems as though new works will rise from their ashes in the face of further criticism. Even though their physical form is no longer visible in the streets, these murals will continue to live in the memory of the public as integral to the vibrant culture of Lima.
Alexia Fawcett is the community engagement manager for the Perú: Pachamama program.