“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.
“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!
“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
“[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
“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
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).
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.
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 theOcéan 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.
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.