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.


Liliana Avalos is represented by BLOC ART
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. 


Brenda Ortiz Clarke, BLOC Art Peru

“We can start with something very small, like a grain of sand, but in the end, it could tell us a lot about the power of art if we work together in collaboration.”

This post is part of a series on Peruvian Artists working about, for, and with the Pacific Ocean

“BLOC Art is an art portfolio, named after my initials (Brenda Lucia Ortiz Clarke). In July we will turn six years old, and we represent 40 Latin American artists with about 85% of those artists coming from Peru.

I wanted to create this mix of Peruvian artists that came from different parts of the country, but most of them are from Lima. This is mostly because we don’t have decentralization, and art is not democratized yet, so you will often hear about the ‘artisans’ and then ‘artists’, you know…that’s what you would usually hear. And if you travel to Cuzco or if you travel to Puno, you will see a lot of ‘artisans’ but not ‘artists’, although there are also fine arts schools there so there must be a little bit more organization now, between the artists, but I think that’s probably only within the academic world in the arts outside of Lima.

A problem with this lack of representation is that the students outside of Lima are not given the right tools from college, you know, like a list of galleries to visit or information on how to prepare their art portfolio and present themselves professionally, like the images that you need to bring with you and how you build up your persona and all that. In the past, when I asked for portfolios for artists that are from other parts of the country, they are like “oh yeah, I’m working on it”, or “no I don’t have it”, so I literally cannot write down anything about their portfolio or create interest because that’s the first rule to have glimpse.

So, BLOC Art has been around in the art market for almost six years participating in art fairs internationally and locally. It has three different lines, the big one is on the commercial side where we represent the artists, we have their portfolios, we have exclusive, semi exclusive, and then some other collaborations as well.

Then there is a more artivist (activism through art) line which is literally seeking to democratize the arts seeking to recognize the power of the art and to move and communicate unifying the masses and the people. I believe that art is a fifth power in the country, considering the other four are corrupt! I come from a Latin American country and that’s something that I can see, from my point of view.

And so, I can recognize the power of art if we work together in collaboration towards something better, if we don’t think that something is correct or democratic, we can change it. A good example is the ‘Peruvian Artivist Archive’ as the first digital Peruvian archive where we gathered Peruvians artworks as protest from all over the globe. In November 2020 (after the coup d’état) people started sending their art pieces and now we’re presenting this to the Museum of Memory (LUM) in Lima. If it’s approved, we want to organise a performance in Madrid, where there was a feminist group who sent their videos, pictures and all documents that they wanted to be part of this archive.

So that’s the artivist line, and then we have the ‘disruption’ line, which works with different proposals and different types of projects that bring disruption into the art ecosystem. I consider that in Peru, our art ecosystem is like a foetus that people are trying to pull out but also, they’re trying to kill at the same time like make an abortion somehow! I’m using very strong words, because I can literally see that from institutions and from niche groups, but how about if we all work together it could turn out into a pretty good baby!

I can relate this to Peruvian art in its culture and heritage as well, as it’s super important to the world. I think that it’s very, very interesting but sad at the same time, how locals do not embrace it or recognize it. You can find examples in other categories, for example, our culinary arts and how Gastón Acurio had to bring a Spanish chef over to Peru to tell us all how good our food was and the potential it had before the people here recognized it!

I wonder why it is that we all need someone foreign to notice us before we start believing in ourselves? Maybe… and I’m just going to leave this as an open question…maybe we’re still colonized in our minds?

I’m a true believer and know as a matter of a fact that our cultural baggage and talented artists have the potential to be pretty competitive and take them to another level such as in London, Paris, New York and many other big cities. It will take a little bit more of hard work to visibilize and reach out to global markets.”




Creative Environments workshop: call for contributions

Creative Environments: a workshop on collaborative methods for researchers and artists

Friday 17 September 2021

Call for Contributions

The Brigstow Institute and the Centre for Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol invite contributions for a workshop on the role of creativity in conducting and communicating environmental research. During this one-day event, participants will consider how creative research methods and collaborations between researchers and artists can enrich our understanding of contemporary ecological challenges. 

Amid growing scholarly interest in art-science collaborations and in transdisciplinary and co-produced research, what can be learned from existing best practice, and what innovations are needed in order to further cultivate ‘arts of attentiveness’ (van Dooren et al., 2016) to our environments? In seeking to answer these questions, the day’s activities will include presentations from academics, a showcase of work by local and international artists, and plenty of time for brainstorming and generating new ideas. 

The workshop forms part of the AHRC-funded research project Reimagining the Pacific (PI Dr Paul Merchant). The event will be held in person at the University of Bristol, subject to covid restrictions, but may switch to an online format if necessary. Virtual participation will be facilitated. The workshop may lead to a co-authored publication or other output (format to be discussed at the event). 

Contributions are invited in a variety of formats (the following list is not intended to be exclusive):

  • presentations showcasing examples of academic collaboration with artists and creative practitioners, or the use of creative research methodologies
  • readings or performances of material created as a result of such collaborations
  • (audio)visual materials to be displayed at the conference venue and online
  • theoretical reflections on the co-production of knowledge 

Submissions from early-career researchers are particularly welcome. Please send a 250-word abstract and a brief biography to by 15 July 2021

Enrique Ramírez: sea thinking

In early April, I spoke to the artist Enrique Ramírez, whose work returns again and again to the ocean as a source of inspiration, a place for reflection, and a material with which to make art. Ramírez was born in Santiago de Chile, but has lived and worked between Paris and Santiago since 2010.

Ramírez told me that he feels like a Chilean artist when he is outside Chile, but that when he returns to his home country, he feels like something of a tourist. This sense of displaced identity emerges in his work: much of it has to do with the particular political significance of the sea in Chile, but Ramírez also makes art that explores travel and migration across oceans, as well as ecological problems that ignore national borders.

Here are two examples to demonstrate the multiple meanings attached to the ocean in Ramírez’s work. The first is Los durmientes (The Sleepers), a video installation from 2014. The title is a macabre play on words that refers to the bodies of those ‘disappeared’ by the Pinochet regime in Chile, which were tied to heavy rails and thrown into the Pacific from military helicopters. The installation consisted of three screens, arranged in a 180-degree arc around the spectator. Each screen played a different, 15-minute-long video: an aerial view of the ocean, a long travelling shot following an old man walking along a beach, carrying a dead fish, and a view of floating crosses. At the end, the camera drops in terrifying freefall into the water ( you can find a shortened version online here).

Still from Los durmientes (2014). Courtesy of Enrique Ramírez.

Océan, 33°02’47”S / 51°04’00”N (2013) is, at first glance, a very different proposition. This is a film consisting of a 25-day-long continuous shot, from a camera mounted aboard a cargo ship travelling from Valparaíso, Chile, to Dunkirk, France. The project has existed in various formats beyond this film, however, including a multi-screen installation, a book, and a website on which one can view 23 short films relating to the journey. These short films draw on, but go beyond, the long film at the work’s centre.

Still from Océan, 33°02’47”S / 51°04’00”N (2013). Courtesy of Enrique Ramírez.

The way in which Océan makes visible the ‘forgotten space’ of global shipping is highly reminiscent of the film with that title by Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, and Ramírez told me that Sekula has long been one of his great sources of inspiration. Los durmientes, meanwhile, addresses some of the same topics, albeit in a more formally daring and arresting manner, as Patricio Guzmán’s 2015 documentary El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button).

Yet Los durmientes and Océan have something in common that gets to the heart of Ramírez’s interest in the sea. Both works start with film, but are not – or not just – films. Film and video projections instead become material elements of the exhibitions that Ramírez puts together. He told me that he takes the cinematic principle of montage as a starting point for his exhibitions, with the big difference, of course, that whereas the film spectator is sat in front of one screen, and has to follow the scenes and shots in an order that the director has determined, the visitor to an exhibition by Ramírez (or, in fact, to the Océan website) can choose their own path. They are, as it were, in the editing room, splicing together their own experience from the elements that the artist offers, whether those are videos, sculptures, or a sailing boat suspended from the gallery ceiling.

Ramírez hopes that this might generate a kind of dialogue, ‘as if the exhibition and the spectator were talking to each other’. In this way, though his works might make reference to specific historical events or political issues, the requirement for any prior knowledge from the spectator is superseded. ‘They might know something about Chile, or not. And if they don’t, then perhaps that work can speak to them about migration in the Mediterranean, or the problems at the Mexico-US border. It’s important for the work to be able to speak without us knowing where it comes from.’ Ramírez wants his work, like the ocean, to resist containment by national labels.

In Guzmán’s documentary El botón de nácar, we are told that ‘the act of thinking is like the ocean’: unpredictable, endlessly flowing, creating unexpected connections. This is the kind of thinking that Ramírez’s work encourages in its spectators as it takes film and turns it inside out, transforming a finished product into an element to be ‘edited together’ again with other elements of an exhibition. As befits the son of a sailmaker, Ramírez is constantly asking his spectators to reflect on their relationship to the ocean, and by extension on their relationship to each other.

Seaspiracy, or, Why bother with paper straws when you can become a vegan?

A new documentary has recently blown up on the Netflix UK chart: Seaspiracy.

Intending to deliver a somewhat sensationalist, hard-hitting view into the evils of the fishing industry, the film’s overall message is quite clear: stop eating fish if you care about the ocean.

In the three short weeks since its UK release, the film has already caused quite the storm, from accusations of misrepresentation and out-of-context interviews, a reliance on older and questionable scientific data, exaggeration of the facts, total lack of important stakeholder contributions or opinions (including fisherman and other marine workers), denial of sustainable fishing when it does in fact exist, overlooking global lived realities of people who eat fish and expounding a discourse of food privilege, to perpetuations of the white saviour narrative.  

It may be so that these issues, and more, exist with the documentary, and I would encourage the discerning viewer to do their own research into them before implementing significant lifestyle changes (if you can get past watching the astounding entitlement exhibited by director Ali Tabrizi when he gets in a huff after his impromptu appearance to demand an interview at the offices of the Marine Stewardship Council is denied, that is). However, for me it was not what the documentary highlighted that was of interest, but what it pushed to one side as secondary: plastic pollution.

The documentary opens with Tabrizi discussing his personal efforts to engage in beach clean-ups and limit the plastic pollution that is tarnishing the oceans (and his opinions on Asian whaling…though that is a discussion point for another day). Yet, plastic is promptly discarded as a key threat (or at least one to be directly targeted), to instead focus on the fishing industry.

For example, we are told that in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 46% of the plastic comes from fishing lines. Conclusion? Fishing (and our part in fuelling the industry through eating fish) is actually causing the greatest plastic pollution via discarded nets. The viewer is also told that only 0.03% of ocean plastic comes from straws. As such, what is the point of using paper straws, reusable bags and cups, and household recycling, this documentary seems to ask, if you continue to eat seafood?

But as some reports show, this may conveniently overlook some facts that should be noted. Fishing nets do contribute a great deal to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but this may be because ‘thin’ plastics like bags and straws (the kind that are targeted in environmentalist campaigns) disintegrate and sink to the sea bed. If we bear in mind that microplastics come from the breakdown of larger plastics, then the ghastly fishing nets sitting atop the ocean may suddenly seem less threatening, at least to those of us interested in microplastics. It is the plastics that we don’t see, the straws and the bags that are broken down and washed away, that the fish are ingesting.

This kind of discourse reminds me of the Peruvian microplastics campaign that I have been researching, ‘No quiero esto en mi ceviche’ (‘I don’t want this in my ceviche’). In that campaign we are told that using plastics will result in humans eating bits of microplastics in their seafood ceviche dishes- we don’t want that. However, it does not attempt to address the wellbeing of the actual fish who are eating the plastics, and they are only mentioned as a food source.

Seaspiracy also seems to neglect the fish eating those microplastics, unless in a context of being eaten. It is all well and good to stop eating seafood and contribute to the diminishment of the ‘evil’ fishing industry, but this arguably needs to go hand in hand with attention to plastic waste. If not, it seems to me that we run the risk of leaving marine life to its own devices, only to keep pumping microplastics into their environments anyway.

Image from Pixabay.

World Water Day and the Día del Mar

There’s been an odd sequence of themed days this week. Monday 22 March was World Water Day, a day instituted by the United Nations in 1993 which is part of an effort to advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. The following day, Tuesday 23 March, was the Día del Mar (Day of the Sea) in Bolivia, commemorating the loss of the country’s coastal Litoral department in the War of the Pacific against Chile (1879-83).

This project is about the ocean, rather than about freshwater resources, and isn’t (directly) about Bolivia. So why am I bothering to write about the near conjunction of these two dates? Well, for a start, the more conversations I have with artists, curators and NGO members in Chile and Peru, the more I realise that it doesn’t really make sense to consider the ocean as separate from the other parts of the water cycle. In both of these countries, freshwater resources like lakes and glaciers are under threat from climate change and from activities like mining, and there are a quite a number of recent artistic interventions drawing attention to this issue. Here are two examples: Cecilia Vicuña’s ‘Menstrual Quipu‘, an installation which protested against the effects of mining on the Glaciar del Plomo in Chile in 2006, and the work of three Peruvian artists exhibited online this week to mark World Water Day.

Bolivia’s Day of the Sea, conversely, enshrines a vision of water as territory which can be claimed by a nation: this week, the Bolivian president Luis Arce reiterated the country’s demand for sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean and called for a new round of negotiations with Chile.

In short, the sequence of these two very different commemorative days shows us how water is never just one thing (to put it rather inelegantly). It is both a universal resource that transcends national boundaries and, in some forms, highly contested territory. To borrow a phrase from the geographer Jamie Linton, ‘water is what we make of it’. Our social and cultural attitudes to this fundamental element of global ecosystems can and do shape the current state of the world’s bodies of water.

This much is easily visible in Chile, where the current Water Code, which allows for free trading of privatised water rights, has given rise to a range of environmental problems and social inequalities. I’ll return to this topic later this year, as the process of drafting a new Chilean constitution continues.

Next week, I’ll be interviewing Enrique Ramírez, an artist whose work explores the uncomfortable political history of the Pacific in 20th-century Chile.

Seahorse Exports in the Sinopharm era

Last week saw the celebration of the UN ‘World Wildlife Day’. The date, March 3rd , was so chosen to honour the ratification of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1973. Though this year’s theme was on ‘Forests and Livelihoods’ instead of Oceans, the watery neighbours of forest multispecies environments are also home to an abundance of wildlife that deserve our celebration as well. Yet the signing of the global convention to protect wildlife, now almost half a century ago, has not managed to completely stop trade and overfishing of endangered species in the Pacific and beyond. Many species fall victim to illegal activities, but there is one that crops up again and again as a mass-fished commodity along the Peruvian coast- the seahorse (or, as marine biologist Helen Scales has playfully called them, ‘Poseidon’s steed’). But why should we be interested in this particular animal when considering multi-national relations across the Pacific? In answer to this, it is not necessarily just the seahorse itself that is of interest, but the multinational relationships within which it becomes entangled. In this instance, between Peru and China.

In the increasing attention paid to Peru’s Pacific mega-fauna, including the imposing humpback whale, manta ray, and green turtles, the more diminutive figure of the Pacific seahorse may be overlooked. Human-shy and certainly not capable of attracting anywhere near the same tourist dollars as the mega-fauna for their dearth of appearances, seahorses have instead been exploited for another economic motive along Peruvian shores; they are illegally caught, dried, and exported to Asian markets. The quantity seized by port authorities has steadily grown over the last decade, from 16,000 in 2012, to 8 million in 2016, to an astonishing 12.3 million in 2019, making Peru the second largest exporter of Pacific seahorses in the world, second only to Mexico.

Due to destruction of marine habitats, direct and by-catch, the Pacific seahorse makes it onto the CITES IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) red list as a vulnerable species. Though it is illegal to fish seahorses in the Peruvian Pacific, this practice continues unabated on an apparently enormous scale. Illegal fishing in itself is an important and relevant topic of enquiry for imaginaries of the Pacific and coastal community cultures, however seahorses in particular hold a specific interest when thinking about the international connections involved in maritime relationships, and how these may change with the ongoing development of geopolitical considerations.

So why are seahorses caught and dried in Peru in the first place, if not for domestic use? The short answer is that they hold a special value for the export market, and it can be profitable for fisherman to source them even at the risk of being caught and sanctioned. Principally, seahorses are sent to Asian countries where they are in high demand as an ingredient for use within Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). On the motivations behind this use, Kumaravel et al. (2012) write that:

“Seahorses, a syngnathidae fish, are one of the important candidate organisms which have been used in Chinese traditional medicine from time immemorial. It is believed that seahorses have the potential to cure infertility, baldness, asthma and arthritis”.

Whether or not these claims are scientifically substantiated is a matter of ongoing debate, however it is the relationship between the export and import countries, and medicine, that is of greater interest here. What do Peruvians think about the depletion of an endangered species living within their waters, in order to satisfy a foreign demand for medicinal benefit that may never reach Peru itself? What is the Peruvian perception of Chinese medicine and relationships with China more generally?

Undoubtedly these are all pressing questions that would have been worthy of exploration when the very first illegal vessel carrying dried seahorses was seized. But now, in a pandemic-era Pacific, the question may become more complicated still as it has been China and Chinese-developed vaccines that are leading the way in Peru.

Peru was one of the countries originally enrolled for China’s Sinopharm vaccine trial, hinting at an increasingly strengthening relationship between these neighbours across the Pacific. With an order of 38 million doses, Peru’s largest vaccine purchase, Sinopharm will now make it into the arm of a significant number of Peruvians. Putting the ‘vaccinegate’ scandal in which politicians and their relatives clandestinely jumped the vaccine queue to one side, the fact that Peruvians will rely on Chinese-produced inoculations to combat the pandemic might lead us to wonder how the Peruvian public views on medicine and China might develop. On this, we might query whether TCM might become more favourably viewed in the country following the Sinopharm rollout. If so, what might this mean for the seahorse (and perhaps, other marine animals used in TCM such as manta rays)? Might their protection be overlooked in order to maintain and nourish medically-minded international collaborations?

Interesting questions indeed, and though they are not to be answered here, it may be worth keeping a close eye on the entanglements of marine life, exports, and changing pan-pacific relationships as pandemic-influenced geopolitics influence international relationships.

Images from Pixabay

A Surfing Story

The latest instalment of the BBC’s excellent Storyville documentary strand is a film called Into the Storm: Surfing to Survive. This documentary, directed by Adam Brown, follows Jhonny Guerrero, a teenager from the Chorrillos neighbourhood of Lima who is pursuing a career in professional surfing with the help of a project set up by Sofía Mulánovich, Peru’s most successful surfer.

While not an entirely cliché-free production (kid from tough background finds a way forward by following his passion), it’s a sensitively constructed film that shows how surfing in Peru has traditionally been the preserve of the wealthy and the well-connected. And this appears to remain largely true: Jhonny discovers his passion for surfing off the beaches of his own neighbourhood, but the documentary suggests that without the intervention of Mulánovich and her team, he might have been drawn into a life of crime and drugs.

Does this deprive Jhonny of agency, and perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes about Lima’s poorer barrios? Into the Storm comes perilously close to falling into that trap, but ultimately avoids it by paying careful attention to Jhonny’s own words and experiences.

“Local surfers from above #chicama #surf #peru” by neverything is licensed under CC BY 2.0

At one of the documentary’s most affecting moments, Jhonny is persuaded to leave his home and to go and live with a family in the more affluent area of Punta Hermosa after being injured in a shooting. Into the Storm doesn’t shy away from depicting the emotional turmoil involved in this decision, nor does it avoid addressing the mutual incomprehension that arises between Jhonny and his mentors, who by their own admission belong to a different world. Jhonny only achieves his best results once he has achieved a degree of reconciliation with his family, and moved back to Chorrillos.

The film raises some intriguing questions for our project: to what extent can the ocean truly act as a space of liberation or escape from social divisions on land? How does the practice of surfing relate to contemporary social and cultural tensions in Peru? Writing in 2009 about surfing in Peruvian literature, David Wood suggests the following:

surfing emerges as an effective medium for addressing the tensions inherent in binary visions, which have characterized Peru’s cultural history […] (the coast and the Andes, heterosexuality and homosexuality, tradition and modernity). By locating itself in a border-land (or, more properly, a landless border), a transitional and ever-shifting space that is located between or beyond such binaries, surfing and the surfer constitute a privileged means of considering problematising and transcending some of the most thorny issues in contemporary Peru and Latin America[…].

David Wood, ‘On the Crest of a Wave: Surfing and Literature in Peru’, Sport in History, 29, 2 (2009), 226-242 (p. 241).

It will be interesting to see how recent cultural developments might fit into, or challenge, this critical framework, and to what extent it might apply to Chile. One area we intend to explore is the intersection between surfing and environmental activism: Peru is unusual in having a ‘Ley de Rompientes’, a law passed in 2000 and implemented in 2013, which allows specific waves to be inscribed in a register for conservation. The NGO HAZla por tu Ola campaigns to have more waves included on this register, and the documentary A la Mar (in Spanish) recounts the history of this campaign.

In Chile, meanwhile, Fundación Rompientes is campaigning for a similar legal framework to be implemented. More to follow on surf culture on that stretch of the Pacific coastline…