Monday, May 30, 2016

'Heaven, Hell, and Everything in Between' Q&A with Ananda Cohen Suarez

Examining the vivid, often apocalyptic church murals of Peru from the early colonial period through the nineteenth century, the new book Heaven, Hell, and Everything in Between: Murals of the Colonial Andes explores the sociopolitical situation represented by the artists who generated these murals for rural parishes. Arguing that the murals were embedded in
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complex networks of trade, commerce, and the exchange of ideas between the Andes and Europe, Ananda Cohen Suarez also considers the ways in which artists and viewers worked through difficult questions of envisioning sacredness.

Ananda Cohen Suarez is an assistant professor of history of art at Cornell University. She is editor and principal author of Pintura colonial cusqueña: el esplendor del arte en los Andes. She has also published articles in the journals Colonial Latin American Review, Americas, and Allpanchis. We talk to Professor Suarez about her work, her intentions, the preconquest and postconquest visual world in Latin America, and the challenges she faced in documenting, photographing, and writing about mural painting. 

In the region you cover in your book, what are the differences between rural art production and how religious art changed in urban centers?

I have found that by the seventeenth century, we begin to see a shift in artistic production between the city of Cuzco and its rural environs. The churches and convents in the urban center tend to feature larger-than-life canvas paintings, elaborate gilded retablos, and an array of aesthetic embellishments that endow these religious spaces with a sense of grandeur and architectural complexity. Rural parishes located in Cuzco’s southern provinces are usually much smaller with humbler interiors, especially the farther you travel from the city. You see a sparser prevalence of gold and silver, given their high cost. The artworks contained within these churches are often produced by so-called “second rate” artists whose prices would have been more affordable for the priests, donors, and confraternities that commissioned their works. However, their visual impact is no less stunning. It is in these spaces that you find the exuberant murals featured in this book.

Interior view of the Church of Rondocan, Acomayo Province, with murals dating to the late 17th or 18th century. Note the combination of trompe l’oeil framed paintings, depictions of angelic musicians, and textile murals lining the choir and nave. Photo by Raúl Montero Quispe.
Mural painting remained a prevalent art form in the rural Andes well into the nineteenth century. Even today, you can find political slogans and imagery painted along the exteriors of residences and stores throughout the Andean countryside. Murals were expected to do much of the “heavy lifting” for church decoration, imitating retablos, picture frames, textiles, and an array of other expensive materials through the medium of tempera on adobe walls. These murals began to develop their own aesthetic language by the eighteenth century, and in fact, we can trace uncanny similarities across far-flung mural programs by this period, demonstrating the cohesiveness of rural artistic networks across the southern Andes.

How important was it for your project to consider the preconquest visual landscape and how it informed the stylistic and conceptual trajectories of murals in the postconquest world?

My work sought to counter Eurocentric approaches to colonial Latin American muralism as a wholesale imposition of an Italo-Iberian artistic tradition onto New World soil. By grounding this study in the pre-Columbian period, we are able to see muralism as an artistic practice with deep roots in the Andes. The content and style of the murals changed radically with the Spanish invasion and colonization of Peru, but their role as large-scale images that commanded power, contemplation, and devotion remained intact across the colonial divide. As I discuss in the book, artists continued to make use of local materials and techniques in the creation of colonial murals. In other words, the continuities between pre-Columbian and colonial mural traditions can be found both at the structural and the material level. I also considered the ubiquity of muralism as a public art form in the Andes at the turn of the conquest era through analysis of ethnohistorical sources, nineteenth-century travelers’ reports, and archaeological evidence of murals produced under the Inca Empire (ca. 1438-1532), the last pre-Columbian civilization of Andean South America. The historical fractures produced by colonialism certainly present a hindrance to the art historical study of aesthetic traditions that straddle the pre-and postconquest worlds. Nevertheless, I believe that we must push ourselves to develop sophisticated methodologies that address the embeddedness of these art forms in their respective geographical, cultural, and spatial contexts while also acknowledging their allegiance to European themes and iconography.

Abstraction in Andean aesthetic practice made it hard for visual culture to be incorporated into Catholic modes of representation. What is unique about the visual traditions you examine in this book as opposed to other traditions in Latin America?

As you mention, much of the art produced under the Inca Empire employed abstraction as its primary vehicle of visual communication. Textiles, painted ceramics, and mural paintings tended to feature repeating geometric motifs that could be easily replicated and disseminated across this vast 2,500 mile-long empire. In the early colonial period, missionaries and colonial officials brought legions of European prints and paintings, along with artists hailing from Spain, Flanders, and Italy to train local artists in illusionistic representation. We see far less evidence of overt visual hybridity in early colonial art of the Andes as compared to say, New Spain, where the painting style of the indigenous tlacuilo (scribe) found visual traces in early colonial mural paintings and pictorial manuscripts. This early hybrid style eventually gave way to a more European visual language by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What is fascinating about the colonial Andes is that we see this process operate in reverse; paintings of the early colonial period tend to display more direct European influence while by the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, we see more visible reference to indigenous symbolism and localized aesthetics. This, in part, can be attributed to the rise in indigenous patronage in the southern Andes as well as the relative autonomy that native and mestizo artists enjoyed in the forging of a visual language that catered to the tastes of highland communities.

What were some of the challenges you faced in documenting, photographing, and writing about mural painting?

I found that writing an art history book about mural painting presented significant technical and methodological challenges, which I discuss briefly in the introduction (excerpted here). Murals are three-dimensional paintings located in architectonic space, making it nearly impossible to present certain views of a given mural program without omitting others. The cropping and manipulation of photographs helped to highlight certain sections that I wished to illustrate in the text, but inevitably altered and distorted the reader’s experience of the murals. While it is impossible to replicate the visual and sensorial impact of viewing a mural in situ, I strove to offer the reader a sense of this experience in my visual descriptions of the murals discussed in the book.

With these limitations in mind, I have put together a digital supplement for the book, available through the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion (MAVCOR) at Yale University. This digital supplement offers additional views and details of the murals under consideration to offer a more holistic understanding of how the murals appear in their respective architectural and spatial contexts. It also features mural paintings that I was not able to include in the book due to space constraints.

What do you hope your book will contribute to the study of not only the Andean region and its people but of mural painting?

It is my hope that this book encourages students, scholars, and art lovers alike to probe a little more deeply into the images they encounter to understand the complex histories and cultural exchanges that informed their creation. Before I had ever set foot in Peru, I became interested in murals as a volunteer curator at an organization in East Harlem in New York City. I was fascinated by the murals celebrating the lives of important Latino/a poets and historical figures such as Pedro Pietri and Julia de Burgos, which grace the walls of tenement buildings and local businesses across the neighborhood. These prominent figures galvanized community memory and were activated by oral histories of residents who were moved by their messages of empowerment and Latino/a self-determination. I never pursued any formal research on these artworks, but I was always struck by the ways that they transformed urban space into a place of community. I did not realize it at the time, but my initial engagement with street murals of New York profoundly impacted my approach to church murals of colonial Peru, serving as a constant reminder of the complicated intersections between mural art, community memory, and local space. 
While the methodological tools with which I approached Andean murals of the seventeenth and eighteenth century differ radically from an equivalent study of twentieth-century urban murals, I think it is important for us to search for continuities across what we might perceive as disparate art histories.

The deployment of murals as a form of urban public art goes back all the way to the pre-Columbian period, with fascinating examples, for instance, at the site of Teotihuacan in central Mexico (ca. 0-AD 700), the earliest gridded city in the Americas and one of the most densely populated cities in the world for its time. As I have sought to demonstrate in this book, murals of the Andes were informed by, responded to, and at times resisted the conditions of Spanish colonial rule. We can recognize instances where artists and their viewers made reference to cultural knowledge and local histories, which acted as a countercurrent to the hegemonic structures that attempted to constrain and contain the rhythms of Andean life. While the colonial period is long gone, we inherit many of its social inequalities and institutions in both Latin America and its global diaspora. By amplifying our lens to see the broad continuities that link artistic practices of the pre-Columbian, colonial, and modern periods, we can begin to understand the role of murals in ongoing struggles to carve out an alternative space for those whose lives are often excluded from the institution of history.

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