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Mobility and identity in the Patagonian Archipelago

By Paul Merchant

Cast your eyes over a map of Chile, from top to bottom, and you’ll notice a strange development. South of Temuco, the lakes become more frequent and larger, and eventually, after Puerto Montt, the land fragments into hundreds of islands, some quite large, like Chiloé, and many that are very small. You can travel by road as far south as the town of Villa O’Higgins in the Aysén region, but beyond that, unless you cross into Argentina, a boat is the only option. In Chile’s far south, the Andes seem to gradually sink into the Southern Ocean.

This remarkable landscape (though perhaps seascape would be a more appropriate term) is home to communities whose lifestyles and methods of travel offer visions of identity and belonging beyond Chile’s current political order.

Quellon on Chiloe Island (image: Wikimedia Commons)

My research project ‘Reimagining the Pacific: Images of Ocean in Chile and Peru, c.1960 to the Present’, which is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, explores how cultural responses to the ocean reveal contemporary ecological challenges and neglected local histories. In Chile, the last ten years have seen increased interest on the part of documentary filmmakers in the past and present of indigenous communities in Chile’s watery south. These communities, such as the Kawésqar and the Yaghan, suffered terribly as a result of the arrival of European explorers, missionaries and colonisers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with many dying from disease and malnutrition, and some groups disappearing entirely.

Yet not all is lost. In Patricio Guzmán’s documentary El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button, 2015), we meet Martín González Calderón, a Yaghan man who explains how the Chilean Navy’s strict control over maritime space has made it almost impossible for him and his family to travel by boat using the skills and techniques passed down over generations.

Guzmán also speaks to Gabriela Paterito, a Kawésqar woman who recounts a long journey by canoe that she made when she was a girl, and the director prompts her to state that she does not feel Chilean at all. In Guzmán’s film, indigenous mobility by water in the Patagonian archipelago is presented as lost to the past, and impossible in the present (I’ve written elsewhere about how Guzmán consistently relegates indigenous experience to a separate timeframe, or even a separate world).

Other filmmakers have taken a different approach to these issues, however. In Tánana, estar listo para zarpar (Tánana, being ready to set sail, 2016), for instance, we meet Martín González Calderón again, but this time at much greater length. The documentary’s directors Alberto Serrano Fillol and Cristóbal Azócar do not provide an explanatory voiceover. Instead, the camera follows González Calderón as he goes about his daily life, and then seeks to build a boat in which he can recreate a childhood trip around the False Cape Horn, near the southern tip of the continent, that he undertook with his father.

Another documentary from 2016, Alas de mar (Sea Wings) exhibits some similar characteristics. Here, the director Hans Mülchi does provide a voiceover, but it is intermittent and reflective. The film follows the journey by boat of two Kawésqar women, Rosa and Celina, back to the region where they grew up. The voices of Rosa and Celina are much more prominent than that of Mülchi, or indeed that of the European anthropologist who is travelling with them.

Yaghan bark canoe, Wuluaia Bay, Chile (image: GrahamAndDairne on Flickr)

It is not only the human voice that counts, though. Both Tánana and Alas de mar contain long sequences in which the only sounds audible are the sounds of travel by sea: the flapping of a sail, the rush of the wind, the crash of waves against the hull, or the roar of a motor. This openness to the sounds of the marine environment allow the spectator to share in the embodied experience of the protagonists in a way that escapes any definitions that might be imposed by spoken or written language.

It is precisely because Alas de mar and Tánana do not offer definitive answers to the question of the relation between indigenous identity and Chilean identity that I find them valuable to think with. The people whose stories are told in these films have been displaced from their childhood homes (as is the case for Rosa and Celina), or are held in place by the state’s unwillingness to allow maritime travel outside of specific, limited purposes (in the case of Martín). And yet we see them strive to retrace past journeys and reclaim certain modes of mobility as an essential part of their heritage.

In fact, indigenous identity itself appears as fluid and mobile in these films. Martín notes that while he understands much of the Yaghan language, he cannot speak it well himself, and in Tánana we see him teaching boatbuilding techniques to family members who are clearly of mixed heritage. In Alas de mar, Rosa and Celina share weaving and construction techniques with their fellow travellers.

At a time when the Constituent Convention in Chile is determining the form of the country’s new constitution, with the participation of many indigenous groups, including the Kawésqar and the Yaghan, these films’ visions of mobile and changing identities present a source of inspiration for a plurivocal or even plurinational political order.

Brian Russell Roberts and Michelle Ann Stephens have suggested that an ‘archipelagic American studies’ can offer a way of ‘decontinentalising’ our understandings of space and identity. A way, in other words, of recognising the cultural and political value of apparently marginal or ‘in-between’ spaces like islands, seas, beaches and inlets, and the people who live in them. Perhaps a decontinental understanding of Latin America might allow a similarly generous approach to its many voices and perspectives.

This post was first published on the Migration Mobilities Bristol blog: https://migration.bristol.ac.uk/2021/11/02/mobility-and-identity-in-the-patagonian-archipelago/

Cherman: Lima Art Week (Part 2)

“Ichma was a lost coastal culture of Lima, but through art we sought to rescue some of their influences”

I created this image of the Manta Ray for the ‘Week of Art’ in Lima, which also meant to contribute to a wider social movement that was taking place within the Alto Peru neighbourhood, using the pre-Colombian Ichma culture as inspiration.

Not many people know about them, but the Ichma had a culture like the Nazca, Paracas, Chavín etc. They were supposed to live in the Chorrillos district of Lima, or in the area of Alto Peru. Although the Ichma is not so well known, we have a lot of cultures other than the Incas. From an outside perspective you might see the Inca as the image that we sell about ourselves, like that you should visit Machu Pichu and that. But when you are in the country you can see that there is so much pre-Colombian culture, and the campaign was also to try and tell people about this Ichma culture that existed before in Alto Peru.

This is a very risky neighbourhood, where there used to be a lot of thieves and criminals living there. It is very poor, and you can see a big economic divide. But a movement began to try to improve the conditions for the people living there, through projects like the creation of a Muay Thai gym and artistic workshops for the young people. Of course, though this area used to belong to the Ichma people, now in Alto Peru they don’t have any idea about this ancestry, so we tried to help support this by designing murals of graffiti art all about Ichma culture throughout the neighbourhood. We gave all this artistic information to the local artists so they could continue, though sadly the municipality painted over it all after two years. There are no real connections between the municipality and artistic movements that are changing things for the better. Well, we can always paint again and again!

As I said, Ichma is something that doesn’t exist for Limeña people, so with another artist I decided to make something based on their art to include within a call for other artists to add to this project. We went to museums where they have some Ichma history, and we tried to make a connection with some people from Chorrillos who are making several research projects and developing some new information about this culture. These ideas about history were my inspiration, as well as the connections that I made with people who are working to try and preserve the Ichma culture.

Working alongside a historian friend, we went to some of these museums to see Ichma relics, and there I saw the original manta ray on a textile. The textile was kind of broken, but I could still see how beautiful it was and the historian told me a lot about it. I just loved it, so I started to develop the graphic!

It can sometimes be a bit complex for me to develop this style because I am an old-fashioned graphic designer. For that reason, I tried to avoid using inspiration from jungle art, for example, as they use so many geometric patterns, whereas for me I feel like this design is a mixture of architecture and mathematics. So, to do this I made like a grid with measurements and then point by point I develop the design, trying to make it all logical and perfect using these isometric symbols. That’s how I developed the Ichma manta ray, and I felt very proud of this design afterwards because the colours, and design, and the shape was very beautiful! Maybe it was because of the colours or the form, but everyone who saw this design knew for sure that it was a version of something pre-Colombian, and it had a good impact for that reason.

In my work I always try to work within the collective memory, though I never had the chance before to produce a piece about a pre-Colombian coastal culture!

 Cherman is represented by BLOC ART

Cherman: Se Konciente (Part 1)

“I designed this piece to help something alive to keep on living

In the north of Peru, in Piura, you can go and swim with the turtles that are living there. When I went it was the middle of summer but even so, the water was so cold! For a small fee you can take a tour to go out into the Pacific Ocean and swim with turtles, and really you have the chance to be amongst so many giant turtles!

But the people living there are poor, like the fishermen and those in the community. It was necessary to address how the turtles could be preserved, and make sure that the people were taking better care of them. Before they would hunt them or feed them bad things or not leave them in peace to procreate. But this place, El Ñuro, was like a goldmine of turtles! Yet there were no laws, and the fishermen didn’t really see or consider the importance of these animals.

This social project, that was with the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF Peru), had a lot of impact in these communities. I created this graphic for a poster that you can still see on so many walls around the community! For me that is the relevance of taking part in this, that people might come up to me and offer to buy me a beer, or you know we also made t-shirts with the graphic, and you can see this.

Everyone loves to watch and swim with the turtles, and now there will always be tourists there in the community to help preserve them. They are taking care of this project and growing it, and now they have a better community. This project was something like ten years ago, but it still surprises me to find the turtle murals there whenever I visit.

Cherman is represented by BLOC ART

Emilio Longhi: Cola de Ballena Jorobada

“You start to understand that art has this potential to change the future when you make a stand.”

Long before all of the petroleum activities started in the North of Peru, there were a lot of fishermen. Thousands of fishermen who used these smaller boats made of wood, not like the bigger industrial boats.

Here in Peru, we have miles and miles of ocean that can be fished, but when you pass like 200 miles you get to the area where they have a lot of huge boats and all the Chinese vessels that are in that area. But then we have these five miles offshore we can call the ‘low self-esteem line’ that is specifically protected for the artisanal fishermen but sometimes the industrial fishermen are getting into those five miles.

So, the people fishing there need to be empowered, as they’ve been living there all their life you know? But the country and state value them like worthless. As an artist you have to understand the local problems, because there are several things you should worry about, like how to make your art sensitive to the people.

So, there was all this beautiful, beautiful wood from the artisanal boats that washed up on the shore, making it look like it was just trash. But it was so beautiful, like you could just take a piece and hang it on your wall like a painting. But it is also important to consider how you can introduce symbols that people understand within the collective imaginary.

When I first saw this wood, I felt that it was like layers and layers of life. You can see how over the years the wood has changed with layers and layers of paint. And I was like yes, this is history, and this is about a relationship between systems. Even I saw it with the nails used in the wood- they weren’t industrial nails, they were like those ones that people would have worked themselves with their own hands…I haven’t seen nails like this before because usually mass-produced ones are all the same because a machine made it, right? But with these ones you can see its different.

Anyway, so now a lot of these artisanal fishermen that would have used these wooden boats are always in a conflict with the big resorts, or the tourists. But they are not communicating with them, they don’t focus on a solution there is only the problem. So, I this I saw an opportunity to work with the resources that existed, alongside the resort Selena. It’s not a big enterprise but they have a chain of hotels internationally and are eco-friendly. They want to cooperate with the fishermen and to make a connection, so I started to do the same thing, to ask myself how can we work better? And that is where the wood from the boats came in.

I went to one of the artisanal fishermen and told him about the project and introduced him to someone representing the hotel, and he knew about the space where it would be, like they really hated each other for that. We said how we really wanted to clean the shores, and to use the materials there, as in the end everyone had to share the same space. But also in return, they wanted to make a deal to sell their fish to the hotel but at a good price, so they had to communicate to cut out the middleman and do it directly.

I chose to make the whale out of the wood for this reason. In that moment, when I was planning to build the whale, it was a special season, from September to October, when you can see the whales and how they jump…they are so magnificent and huge, and even from the shore you can really get a connection with them, even it can be like 200 metres away. And then if you go inside the water, you can hear the conversation between the whale mother and her child, so that’s beautiful. It’s one of the largest animals but is also in the same space as yours, and I thought that making that connection work was great.

I went to Selena a few weeks ago to see the sculpture, and it was being treated really well. Even sometimes, you can see the wood drifting from the sea and then suddenly a wave comes, and it moves and it’s like you can imagine that the wood is another whale. Its an intermediation that I haven’t done myself! Like the sea throws out the wood and when it comes close to the whale sculpture it is all transformed into something special…it offers up things that I didn’t expect. It is working and the message is there!

 Emilio Longhi is represented by BLOC ART

Elizabeth Vásquez Arbulú: ‘Error Geográfico’

“The fishermen living in the geographic error exist at the margins of legality; it is all a big tangle.”

I produced the work ‘Error Geográfico’ (‘Geographic Error’) whilst undertaking a residency with the programme Hawapi. Normally they hold their residencies in spaces that are experiencing some kind of political or environmental issue.

It’s usually a different edition every year, and in my case, they chose the border conflict between Peru and Chile as the starting point. Because they don’t have like a physical residency space, we camped out right there in the area of conflict!

In this place there has been a political problem for a long time, as the territory has changed hands over the years. This discrepancy over land gave birth to what is called a ‘geographic error’, and here it has to do with a very small piece of land, like the size of a football field. It is encapsulated in the territories of both sides in a way, as it has to do with calculations over land and legal documents and things like that.

So, we made a camp in this triangle part, in the side that ‘belonged’ to Peru. While we were there lots of things happened, like the local news showed up and made a problem. They saw us like foreigners, there was Peruvians and Chileans, but also Bolivians, some Iranians, and Americans. So, they said we wanted to make a business there or something and then the police were obligated to remove us from that area.

It was a pretty conflictual exit, and so then we all decided to propose an artwork based on our experiences.

In my case, from this experience I decided to get in touch with a fisherman that I had met living there. This was a really interesting theme because it didn’t just focus on the territorial dispute on land but also because there was a dispute over the marine territory. This dispute affected the life of the local fishermen because they had issues to enter the ocean in case they went to the Chilean part, so there ended up being a lot of geographic and thematic conflicts. This also meant that there were issues about human consumption there, because the marine resources were in dispute over this geographic error.

The part of marine territory that enters the dispute came after the land issues had supposedly been resolved, and this also has a lot of commercial interest. In this part of the ocean there were a lot of resources that each country wanted, as well as foreign interests coming into play, so it was quite conflictual. After many years they did make a deal about the territory dispute of course, but still that little piece of beach and ocean is left!

So, I became really interested in the experience of the fishermen living and working in the geographic error, as this community was really small and had migrated to the coast from the highlands of Peru. I decided to do some interviews and make videos and concentrated in the sensations and the realities of the life of one fisherman.

This fisherman came from Puno, and it was really interesting to see the way that these political problems clashed with other issues about identity. The area was so close to the international limits, but this community spoke Aymara (Andean language) as well as Spanish, and didn’t really feel like Peruvian, or Chilean, but Puneños.

It was a really specific situation, and they felt totally abandoned by the government as they were the only people living so close to the border, on the Chilean side there was no one, and the police kept bothering them. They had been there already a long time before the police started to interfere, and they had their own territorial disputes because of this. They had bought some hectares of land and had the papers, but after the political issues with the geographic error they told them that the land didn’t belong to them anymore. Because of this issue they did not just suffer with fishing but also agriculture. Like, they would have to go and water their crops and harvest their land in the early hours of the morning to avoid the police seeing them.

So, I decided to explore this metaphor between the political issues faced and how the fishing community lived their daily lives, all at a cost from the geographic error.

Elizabeth Vásquez Arbulú is represented by BLOC ART

On seeing indigenous environments

This week I watched Alas de mar (‘Ocean Wings’), a 2016 documentary directed by Hans Mülchi which follows two members of the Kawésqar indigenous community as they return to their ancestral lands in the far south of Chile. To say ‘ancestral lands’ is a little misleading, though, as in the Patagonian archipelago and in Kawésqar culture, the surrounding ocean matters just as much.

Alas de mar grew out of Mülchi’s previous documentary, Calafate, zoológicos humanos (2010), which addressed the exhibition of indigenous people from Tierra del Fuego in human zoos in Europe in the late 19th century. During that project, Mülchi met Celina and Rosa, two members of the Kawésqar community, who then became the protagonists of Alas de mar.

Over the next couple of months, I’ll be focusing my research on how indigenous relations to coastal and marine environments are represented in Chilean and Peruvian culture, as part of a short visiting research fellowship at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. The way in which Alas de mar deals with this issue caught my attention for a couple of reasons.

The first is the prominence given to Kawésqar voices. Mülchi’s voiceover is sparse and reflective: he notes that he will never be able, as a filmmaker, to recreate how the Kawésqar saw and experienced the world before their near-extermination in the early 20th century. We hear much more from Rosa and Celina than we do from him. In one particularly touching sequence, Rosa patiently demonstrates a traditional form of weaving to an anthropologist travelling with the group, who is struggling to pick it up.

Alongside this active transmission of cultural knowledge, the film contains many sequences filmed from the group’s boat, which simply show the sea, the mountains, and the plant and animal life to be found there, sometimes accompanied by ethereal music. We also often see members of the travelling group in moments of quiet observation.

What Mülchi’s reflexive documentary suggests, I think, is that while it may not be possible for a filmmaker to recover or represent near-vanished modes of relating to the world, the effort and the attention are still worthwhile, and can still lead to a new appreciation of environments and cultures that are under threat.

Alas de mar is an interesting counterpoint, in this sense, to Patricio Guzmán’s El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button, 2015). I’ve written elsewhere about my unease with the way in which Guzmán confidently translates indigenous cultures through his own experience, and it’s intriguing to compare his work with a film that is superficially similar but ultimately very differently constructed.

This question of how to film (or indeed to write about) indigenous relations to the natural world is a complex one, to say the least, and I’ll no doubt return to it in the coming months…

PS I was intrigued, if not entirely surprised, to learn that the director of photography for Alas de mar was none other than Enrique Ramírez, who I spoke to about his fascination with the sea for this blog.

Ana Elisa Sotelo Van Oordt (Part 2): Guardian of Guano

“[The Guardian of Guano] would think like, looked like, and kind of behaved like a bird”

Originally, I was kind of obsessed with the very traditional National Geographic documentaries where you have a narrator and you’re seeing some sort of wonderful natural phenomenon. I wanted to shoot a documentary like that in Peru so I went to the Punta San Juan Reserve, which is the largest colony of Humboldt penguins in Peru. Those are these desert penguins, which is not the image we typically associate with penguins!

So, I went there with that idea, but when I arrived there was already a man from the BBC shooting a film about the desert penguins! First, I was like wow I can learn so much!… but then as a producer I thought why am I going to shoot a film on desert penguins when this guy already started and has all this equipment that is so much better than mine? why don’t I just do something else that’s going to that work better?

Then I spent a couple days in the reserve, which is basically an inlet, like a sliver of land in the water where you’re sitting on top of a load of bird poop (guano). It smells horrible and there’s so much wind, but it’s beautiful with the seabirds, and its full of a sea Lions. Then I started hanging out with the island guard Ricardo Moreno, and he would show me like ‘oh here’s where the penguins hang out’, or ‘this is where you can get the best shot of the sea lions’.

This reserve is under the protection of the Ministry of Agriculture, so in the same way you would have a park ranger, he was there  guarding the island because around these areas  the people like to hunt these birds, eat them, or go into the reserve and fish, because obviously since it’s a reserve there’s going to be a lot of fish that haven’t been depleted.  So he takes care of the birds and then he also reports back on the population and whether or not its growing.

He came from the mountains and he first saw the ocean as a guano collector because there’s not enough population native to the coastal areas to do the job, and at that time there was a lot of terrorism in the mountains. So, he came down as a as a guano collector and then eventually there was an opening as the guard. A couple of years back he got an award for being the guard with the longest service, but now he’s retired.

As I started hanging out with him, I became really fascinated by this man. He would think like, looked like, and kind of behaved like a bird, and I was just very drawn to the fact that he lived there all year on his own just taking care of these birds and kind of like having this really intimate relationship with them.

At first, I thought that the birds don’t have very exciting lives up here… you would think that they just sit and stare, but they’re like looking everywhere in all directions, and are aware of every sound. The first couple of times I would see him go and count the birds I would think it’s incredibly boring, as this guy’s just sitting there! And then, as I kept going I began to think it was an incredibly fascinating activity because he’s looking at one thing then you see one bird fly down, and then you can hear the ocean, or even hear another one, and I think that he adopted these very bird-like conditions where you’re kind of looking and being aware of your environment and feeling very frail… birds are very frail and they’re aware of it, especially when they’re not flying because obviously if you’re on land we have the advantage but in the air, they have the advantage.

One of his tasks there was that twice a week, he would collect the vomit after the birds regurgitated and then he would see ‘oh so this bird has eaten an anchovy, this one has eaten another fish or whatnot’. What was really interesting was that he saw that the birds were eating less and less anchovy because there’s not that many available anymore. And that’s a direct reflection of the depletion of stocks from overfishing, even if it goes on many kilometres away it’s affecting the birds that are in this area too.

Also, you’re always sitting and you’re walking on top of bird poop, so he was like knee deep in bird poop and guts and he was just fascinated! And I was fascinated by the way he talked about birds! I kept asking myself how this man could just have his life revolve around these birds, and he’s here all alone, his families in the mountains he never sees them…then I realised that to him the birds were his family and he I think he identified a lot with the birds, because they were also very solitary.

Watch Guardian of Guano:

Ana Elisa Sotelo Van Oordt is represented by BLOC ART

Ana Elisa Sotelo Van Oordt: Líneas de Expresión

“The ocean has all these different faces, and it can completely change”

I am Lima born but have lived all across North and South America. I started working in production straight out of college, and then I started working more specifically in documentary films after my master’s degree.

I worked on a couple of different documentary projects, mostly focusing on traveling to view study the relationship between humans and the natural environment. But then in 2015 I fractured my back, so I was quite immobilized for a couple of months. In that time, one part of my therapies was swimming in the ocean and here in Lima it is very cold because we live near the Humboldt current!

So, I started swimming as part of my therapy and it was amazing because it helped, as on the one hand the cold just helps alleviate the pain, and also because it’s the only kind of exercise I could do, because in the water you weigh a lot less so I could move in ways that I couldn’t move otherwise. However, I couldn’t pick up more than five kilos so I couldn’t work more in production anymore, because before I was also very hands-on with the camera along with the tripod and lights.

Because of my fracture it was a case of continuing to do photography, but with my camera inside the ocean using a water case, because in the ocean the camera was weightless.

It was very healing and kind of a very healing way to get back into documentary making, but in the form of water-based photography and not in a form of video production anymore.

As my body started healing, I got back into production of both film and photo, but I kept taking photographs in and of the ocean.

Through my work in the ocean, I feel that experience of being immersed and surrounded by water, which is kind of something that I’m amused by everyday living in Lima, in the middle of a desert in a chaotic city with a lot of traffic. Yet, it still borders the Ocean, and the way that you live, and breathe, and see, and even smell the city can change completely if you just step a couple meters into the ocean and experience it all from the water.

That’s kind of what I try to transmit with my work, and I always try to make an ode the ocean and how for me, in one moment, it was a very healing experience and was very curative not only physically but mentally as well…because it’s just so silent and there’s something about being immersed in salt water that is so energising.

The photograph ‘Líneas de Expresión’ (Lines of Expression) is one of my favourite photos that I have taken in the Ocean, because basically I like to think of it as the oceans ‘expression’ when it looks back at me. You know how on your forehead you have your expression lines?

I suppose that water can sometimes seem so boring, it’s just water… a lot of people are like, why are you always going into the ocean and doing the same photograph over and over again? But for me it’s always different, like there’s always these different faces making these different lines of expression. I at least feel that it does look back at me, and in that photograph, I think it just looked at me very serenely and very wisely. I think that’s why I called it ‘lines of expression’ which is kind of like the facial lines that you get as you age (wrinkles). At that point I felt like it was just looking back at me with this kind of wisdom that comes with age, and it was very serene as well.

It just shows me that the ocean has all these different faces, and it can completely change. You can also see that with a wave, like it’s always changing as it comes and goes.

Ana Elisa Sotelo Van Oordt is represented by BLOC ART

Liliana Avalos: Ceviche and the City

“Lima is a place embroidered by migration”.

I studied in the school of Bellas Artes in Lima, specialising in oil painting which I always loved. But, for me it was always more accessible to pursue print making, as one can really start from zero with basic materials and make a great piece of art.

With time other techniques took my interest, like working with the traditional art of my country. This really affected me a lot, this ability to draw upon the knowledge of traditional masters. It can result in such rich work because it makes me feel closer to my territory, and country and identity…it gives more power to the work.

The embroidery technique I use is from the Mantaro Valley in central Peru. I didn’t learn this at the school of Bellas Artes, instead I took a course in the National Museum of Peruvian Culture. This was a place that I had been fascinated in all my life, since childhood. When I was small, we used to wait at the bus stop right outside the museum and I always gave it so much attention, but I never had the chance to visit. When I was an adult, I finally went to do a course there with Moisés Balbín Ordaya, where I learned all about the ancestral techniques and embroidery from the Mantaro Valley. It was such a wonderful experience and was so different from learning in school; you could really see the warmth that was transmitted when they were teaching, and I think this is because it’s a technique that is passed down through generations. Maybe this was not possible before, but in the last ten years at the school of Bellas Artes there was an anthropologist César Ramos who invited some traditional masters to share their techniques with urban artists, to create a kind of horizontal experience and produce a beautiful project.

My focus on the daily lives of people in Urban Lima, and especially about food, started from an early discomfort that I had with the routine of life. One time, when I was still studying in the school of Bellas Artes, I was concentrating hard of my work when my father arrived from the market with food, telling me to leave everything to one side and go and cook. For me this was a big conflict for a long time, I felt so fed up, so I decided to include this in my work.

“To deal with this resentment about the interference of daily life I turned this into a possibility for creation, and that’s where my focus on daily realities began”.

So, then I took my camera and began to take note of all the basic things in my house and the kitchen- the chopping board, the food, the cooking…I registered all of this through my camera. This contact that I made with my own life allowed me to have greater contact with the lives of people on the street, with people in the marketplace. More and more I found a much richer perspective of life became illuminated. I love to speak with people on the street or the market, so much so that when I go shopping my husband accompanies me to just to stop me talking too long! I like to develop a warm relationship with people, and it is this approach that strengthens the perspectives that you see in the images I produce, like those of the cevichera.

It’s curious because the images in my work come naturally from the experiences I see, and by coincidence I have a lot of images of people eating ceviche because its ones of the most common things that people eat in the street. On any street corner you’ll find a cevichera, now in the pandemic its changed, but before it was a very typical image to see people eating in the street. I love these images because people go to eat in the street because they are working, and they don’t have any other option.

‘Vendedora de Ceviche III’

I took this particular image for the piece ‘Vendedora de Ceviche III’ (2020), with the woman and her cevichera trolley, in Lima Norte. This woman was just going about her day with her cevichera trolley, and I loved this image.

So, when I came to make my exhibition series ‘Escuderas: Identidad y nación’ (‘Coat of arms: identity and Nation’) I wanted to pay homage to this woman with her cevichera trolley and totally transform her, making her full of flowers in a portrait style and to give her a place of importance. Working in this traditional way completely transformed her.

I also have a piece called ‘Cevichito’, which shows some construction workers eating ceviche. I love this scene because I captured it in a large avenue when they were building a bypass and a mall at the same time, so two large constructions. In this space there was a lot of movement, and you couldn’t pass by easily. It was fascinating because in the middle of this busy, broken road there was this cevichera trolley with some construction men sat there eating…probably with dust in their ceviche!

All my photos are from lima, as it’s such a mix.; we have a rich variety from all the different places like the jungle, the mountains, the coast, and this makes new images and scenes. So, it is kind of inevitable that my artworks are inspired by these techniques from the Sierra.

‘Cevichito’

Liliana Avalos is represented by BLOC ART

https://liavalosarte.wixsite.com/lilianaavalos
Instagram:  liliana.avalos.artista

A long durée history of the commodification of the South Eastern Pacific

This week, we have a guest post from Dr Natalia Gándara, a researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile.

During 2020 and 2021, the international press has run several stories about the presence of a Chinese fishing fleet in the South Eastern Pacific region. Governments in Chile, Peru, and Ecuador have installed alert and defence systems to monitor the extractivist activities of this fleet in their exclusive economic zones.  Despite this, the NGO Oceana has reported that in the waters off the Galapagos Marine Reserve alone, the fleet pulled up thousands of tonnes of squid and fish.[1] This phenomenon is not of course new. For centuries imperial powers have plundered the waters of the South Eastern Pacific, altering the marine ecosystems. If in the past, fur seals and sperm whales became a commodity, now is the turn of squid and tuna, products highly appreciated in the international market of the twenty-first century. 

This history of extractivism and commodification of marine nature needs to be critically examined. Moreover, it acquires a sense of urgency as the region is increasingly facing the impact of climate change and the deterioration of marine ecosystems. In particular, we need new and disruptive ways of thinking about society’s relationship with nature to comprehend and tackle these social, economic, and environmental challenges. For historians, this means writing the history of the seas, oceans, and coastal communities in a way that focuses on representations of nature, power relations between locals and foreign powers, the changing needs of global markets, the knowledge systems and technologies used in fishing, as well as the localised human impact of these activities. 

My doctoral thesis, titled ‘Thalassologies of Empire and Republic: Competing for Knowledge of the South Eastern Pacific in the Age of Revolutions’, engages with recent scholarship in environmental humanities. It explores the construction of global geographic knowledge systems and the commodification of coastal waters of the South Eastern Pacific, specifically addressing the changing representations and knowledge constructions of this region in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This focus allows me to analyse the origins of enduring social representations of the seas as spaces of natural resources for human exploitation and profit. 

A critical understanding of society’s relationship with nature must also take into account the geopolitics of knowledge production and economic exploitation of these environments. In the case of Latin America in general and the South Eastern Pacific in particular, the commodification of the sea and its exploitation at an industrial scale in the late colonial and early national periods was entangled with imperialism, state formation, and the global expansion of capitalism. Crucially, my research also engages with how these power relations influenced and even shaped local representations and experiences with this marine region.

The commodification of the South Eastern Pacific propelled local initiatives to exploit what were considered local or national resources. In the late eighteenth century, colonial authorities in Chile and the viceroyalty of Peru fostered fishing projects, creating internal markets for these products, especially conger eels. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the South American republics had developed sizeable national fishing industries, particularly on whaling, catching animals from the Southern Ocean to the North Eastern Pacific.  

Latin American coastal communities have historically been marginalised from the studies of the cultural productions and economic exploitation of the Pacific. The acknowledgment of their engagement in the exploitation of the sea and the commodification of marine nature is relevant to tackle current Eurocentric and imperialistic narratives about the South Pacific history, and, very importantly, to illuminate how to engage with historical unsustainable practices of marine exploitation in Latin America.

My goal as a researcher is to rethink the history of global commodification of the world’s oceans, to question current inequalities in the production and exploitation of marine nature and their impact on environmental justice, and to re-imagine human history in the light of the climate crisis. Only by linking local with national and global dynamics, and giving agency to local actors as well as international and imperial powers, we will be able to truly examine global representations of the world’s seas, their historical economic exploitation and to develop new critical understandings of how coastal communities respond to social and environmental pressures, particularly relevant in the current political and environmental context. 


[1] https://usa.oceana.org/publications/reports/oceana-finds-300-chinese-vessels-pillaging-galapagos-squid