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.”

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BLOC.Art.Peru

Website: www.bloc-art.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bloc_art_peru/

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 Ceviche Question

The smell of fresh fish fills the air as hawkers cry out the prices of that day’s menu popular in Mercado San Jose. I have been visiting this same ceviche stall in Lima’s Jesus Maria neighbourhood for many years; a non-so-hidden gem as I’ve often had to bustle for the chance to perch at the counter on a rickety stall around lunchtime.

Plates of the emblematically Peruvian seafood dish ceviche are piled high with sweet potato and toasted corn, and doused with an extra helping of leche de tigre. If you’re lucky, you can get an extra refill of chicha morada, a highly-sugared beverage made from boiled purple corn, to wash down the meal. As an anthropologist it is always quite the experience, both for my tastebuds as well as my ethnographic eye. Ceviche, and the entire culture surrounding it, is very special indeed.

Whilst Ceviche is a dish that now circulates internationally, it was born of the Peruvian Pacific and is an icon of the country’s gastronomic boom and associated rise in tourism. In recent years, the country has gained increasing international recognition for its gastronomic prowess, having won the ‘World’s Leading Culinary Destination Award’ eight years in a row, and only being beaten off the top spot in 2020 by Italy- a more than fair contender. The catapulting of Peru onto the worlds gastronomic and tourism stage goes hand in hand with a strengthening economy and sense of national identity; all with patriotic elements such as ceviche at the helm of this sea change.

However, ceviche enters dramatically into other important debates of our times too.

In recognition of the troubling rise in plastic waste, a campaign and subsequent changes in legislation were launched in 2018; ‘No quiero esto en mi ceviche’ (I don’t want this in my ceviche). The campaign saw renowned Peruvian chefs sprinkle vials of microplastics over their plated ceviche as a final and foreboding ‘garnish’, alongside the “sale” of microplastic seasoning vials in Lima supermarkets. Yet, such a campaign, and the wider question of contemporary ceviche, raises important questions that deserve attention.

It is true that plastics are fast becoming a significant issue of concern regarding the ocean, highlighted by documentaries such as ‘Blue Planet’ that have influenced significant changes in viewers lifestyles as a result. But plastics also negatively influence human health too- it has been estimated that we may be eating up to 5 grams of microplastics per week, snuck into our digestive systems through food and water.

Plastics are especially concerning when discussing the Pacific, as we need only look to ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, the worlds largest accumulation of ocean plastic, for evidence of the dire straights we are in. Hopefully, campaigns such as ‘No quiero esto en mi ceviche’ may go some way to address this and change attitudes towards plastics. For example, gaining momentum, the movement led to the Peruvian Ministry of Environment successfully banning single use plastics in coastal areas (beaches, ports) in 2019, with the rest of the country set to follow by 2022.

Whilst campaigns to reduce single-use plastics may certainly be welcome, the local expression of this in Peru deserves further attention for what it tells us about imaginaries of the Pacific. Through ‘No quiero esto en mi ceviche’, Peruvians are encouraged to abandon plastics as they may adversely affect the fish that go into ceviche, and thereby potentially harm national identity and gastronomic prowess if the dish is ‘contaminated’. There is absolutely no mention of the harm that plastics do to living animals though; fish only enter environmentalist discourse as marinated corpses contributing to symbols of national identity. As such, I want to ask an important question: Is the Pacific perceived as a multispecies world deserving of care and respect, or as a resource, filled with other little swimming resources, only worthy of protection when national goals and symbols like ceviche are negatively impacted upon?

It is this important question regarding oceanic multispecies health, Pacific-related national identity and gastronomic booms, and the circulation of ceviche imagery, that I will be exploring as part of the ‘Reimagining the Pacific’ project this year.

Images from Pixabay

Port Cities and the Moving Image

One of the topics that this project will be focusing on is the cultural and political life of port cities like Valparaíso in Chile and Callao in Peru.

Paul will be talking about some of the preliminary work he’s done on this topic at an online research event tomorrow, Wednesday 3rd February. The event, which is at 4pm GMT, will present four different perspectives on the topic of ‘Port Cities and the Moving Image’, from Chile to Japan via Vancouver and Bristol. It has been organised by the Screen Research group at the University of Bristol. You can find more details and a link to register here.

Paul will be talking about Pablo Larraín’s 2019 film Ema, in which the labyrinthine cityscape of Valparaíso stands in for intricate social hierarchies that the protagonist is aiming to upend. You can read a blog post on this topic, as part of a dossier on Ema at the film site Mediático, here.