Sunday, January 9, 2011

Seeing the real Peru: beyond Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley

The Doors of Alto Cayma 1
In popular imagination Peru conjures up images of an ancient Incan civilization that lingers in jungles and atop mountains in noble defiance of the colonial conquest that led to its ruin. Despite a period of relative peace, contemporary Peru, like many of its South American neighbors, also suggests political unrest born of extreme social and economic stratifications. Most Peruvians, however, live simple lives from day to day, eking out a subsistence in one of the harshest landscapes on earth.

The Doors of Alto Cayma 3
The emphasis in my upcoming photo exhibit, Seeing Peru: Layered Realities, is on the contrasts I’ve witnessed in a land both mythical and humble. The terrain there rises almost vertically from the vast Pacific, reaching heights over 20,000 feet before falling just as precipitously into one of the most remote jungles in the world. Where it isn’t jungle, it is mostly desert. Amidst an arid landscape, irrigation in fertile volcanic soil makes possible the cultivation of a rich diversity of crops. Most tourists visit Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River, where the individual human is dwarfed by the colossal stonework of the Inca. But as impressive as these fabulous structures can be, they are themselves dwarfed by the sheer scale of the mountainous landscape.
 
Panoramic view of Inca ruins at Pisac 
 I went to Peru in 2009. It was my second journey there in conjunction with a cross-cultural program sponsored by Mount Mary College. We did the pilgrimage to Cusco, Machu Picchu, and other sites in the Sacred Valley and the exhibit acknowledges this important aspect of the experience. But the primary focus was on service learning, working with the poor, and cultural understanding. There is much we can learn from a place with such “layered realities.”
Paustina, weaver in the Sacred Valley
If you are familiar with my previous work, I invite you to come and be surprised. Paradox, which has long been a major theme for me, continues to excite me. But in Seeing Peru I have tried to do justice to the sheer scale of the subject as well as its layered complexity. My goal is to convey the incredible contrasts I experienced while I was there, contrasts between the barren landscape and the indomitable spirit of ordinary Peruvians, contrasts between the typical views a traveler might bring back from Peru and reality of life in a difficult place called Alto Cayma.
Zayda, community psychologist in Alto Cayma
The government of Peru permits migrants to settle on vacant land. Over the years they have come in successive waves to the outskirts of Arequipa, each moving higher up the arid, rocky mountainsides that surround the city. New arrivals mark a small plot of land by laying out a row of round stones. The row gradually becomes a fence of crudely stacked uncut stones. Little by little, tiny shelters are erected, at first with no roofs, no doors or windows. No other image of Peru – not even magnificent Machu Picchu – is so seared in my mind as my first view of these small stone structures climbing up the barren hillsides, knowing that each one represents a family that has come to live here in the dust, hoping to give their children a better life.
Beneath the Volcano
Peru is a land where reality itself is a harshly lit abstraction. If I have been successful, the photographs teeter on an edge that divides a solid narrative from an abyss of abstraction. I hope you’ll join me there.

Seeing Peru: Layered Realities runs from Jan. 16 – Feb. 12 in the Marion Gallery at Mount Mary College.

I will be present for the opening on Jan. 16, from 1-4 pm, and for a special reception on Jan. 30, from 2-4 pm.

The Marion Gallery is located in Caroline Hall, Mount Mary College,
2900 N. Menomonee River Parkway, Milwaukee
.
Gallery hours are M-F: 9 am – 7 pm and S/S: 1 – 4 pm.

Additional images from Peru can be seen in two sets on my flickr page.

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