The street artists of Puerto Maldonado are taking what was once used to make the people feel ashamed–their indigenous roots–and turning it into pride.
By Camila Güiza-Chavez
“I believe that the conquest of America was realized concretely by builders, foremen, architects, painters, and artisans of art.”–Jose Sabogal, Peruvian 19th–20th century artist.
Walking along the dusty roads of Puerto Maldonado, Peru, be ready to become a sponge. You’ll drink in the bluest sky you’ve ever seen, the greenery that pokes through every crack and crevice refusing to be tamed, and the sound of motorcycles roaring by just close enough to remind you of your mortality. As if all this weren’t enough to keep your senses heightened, the very spirit of the town seems to fold inside out; the ideas and dreams of the people within them seem to leak through the walls of buildings in vibrant hues of orange and purple, as if they couldn’t possibly be contained by plaster and brick.
If you thought big, commissioned murals can only be found in bustling urban settings, think again. Every few bends in the road in Puerto Maldonado will bring you face to face with sprawling murals. This might be surprising, given that the town is a considerable trek away from the rest of civilization and it contains a mere 50,000 residents. What would a commissioned street artist be doing here?
If Jose Sabogal were still alive, he might say that Puerto Maldonado is exactly the kind of place that street art was made for. Leader of the artistic indigenist movement, Sabogal published the quote above in 1940 in a book of observations on popular art in Peru. To Sabogal, the function of art in society far surpasses mere entertainment; rather, art is the blueprint of culture. It reflects the ideas of individuals and turns them into a collective consciousness. Art, with its power to captivate minds, can be dangerous when used as a tool to oppress. According to Sabogal (and many other historians), that’s how the conquistadors managed to dominate the Americas: by imposing Catholic iconography, inserting Spanish architecture, and appropriating indigenous icons into ones that fit their colonial narratives. In this way, the Spanish redirected entire societies that had been over a thousand years in the making.
But while indigenous culture was cut with the spears of conquest, it was never uprooted. If art was used in conquest, it could be used to decolonize. Sabogal and other indigenist artists worked to identify the remnants of indigenous influences in contemporary Peruvian art, tracing a line of “lo nuestro,” or what is ours, that extends from the farthest corner of the past until the present. In doing so, he promoted the preservation of and pride in indigenous Peruvian culture, asserting that it had never been lost and could never be crushed.
Today, it isn’t hard to identify indigenous influence or indigenous pride in the street art of Puerto Maldonado. Common themes in the murals include cinnamon-skinned faces amidst backdrops of palm fronds and regional animals. One mural, for example, pictures the worn face of an indigenous man, with lines around his eyes that imply wisdom and a lifetime of hard work. The mural is painted in bright colors and a dreamlike aesthetic, making the pictured man seem powerful and eternal. The street artists of Puerto Maldonado are taking what was once used to make the people feel ashamed–their indigenous roots–and turning it into pride. It’s resilience in 1,000 colors.
Camila Güiza-Chavez is an Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.