Peruvian artist Sandra Gamarra´s Good Government and the Decolonial Turn

By Martin Macdonald

Good Government at Sala Alcalá 31 in the Spanish capital is a poignant exercise in decolonisation from Lima-born, Madrid-based artist Sandra Gamarra. Curated by Valencian art historian Agustín Pérez Rubio, the exhibition features Gamarra´s new and recent pieces alongside crafts by native Peruvian artisans as well as paintings dating back to the Viceroyalty of Peru. In line with decolonial curatorial practices that explore coloniality´s structural forms of privilege and bias, Good Government also questions hispanicity, museological display, the avant-garde and hegemonic history.  

The exhibition takes its title from The First New Chronicle and Good Government, an illustrated manuscript by Quechua nobleman Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, completed around 1615. The tome presents a ´new´ version of pre-Columbian and early colonial history, different to that written by Spaniards, and was created as an attempt to reform the Viceroyalty of Peru by denouncing colonial exploitation of indigenous people. Although it was sent to King Felipe III of Spain, there is no evidence he ever read it. 

Funerals (The Funerals of Atahualpa), 2021

Fast forward 400 years and despite the fact a high percentage of native Peruvians perished during early Spanish colonial rule due to disease and exploitation, Andean culture continues to thrive in the South American republic. Racism against the indigenous population persists yet Andean culture is ubiquitous in much of Peru, from Cusco, the highland epicentre of the Inca Empire to the bustling coastal city of Lima, the country´s capital.

Upon entering the exhibition hall, the viewer is confronted with a simulation of historical paintings, some dating as far back as the 1700s. The series of new diptychs includes landings of the ´discovery of America´, Inca Atahualpa´s funeral, and an Inca princess´s Catholic wedding. Important creole figures involved in the fight for independence against Spain also stand out. The new depictions in blood-like red hint at violence and unease. Some of the works´ titles painted onto the canvases themselves are barely visible as though history has literally been whitewashed.

Independences (The Independence of Peru), 2021

The Independence of Peru immediately caught my eye, particularly as Peru commemorated its Bicentennial of Independence in late July this year. The work features creole liberator José de San Martín addressing desolate slum dwellings in the Peruvian desert. The Andean foothills are visible in the background yet this dusty coastal landscape is no promised land. 

As the work marks the end of colonialism in Peru, it brought me right back to the present, a reminder of the Latin American nation´s recently-elected president, Pedro Castillo. Like many Peruvian presidents before him, the populist, far-left, ´sombrero´ wearing former teacher from a rural Andean village, also addresses the poor in dusty slums. Castillo often fans the flames of discord with an anti-elite, anti-urban, and even anti-Spain message while claiming to fight for the rural poor. 

This is unsurprising in a country where systemic racism, inequality and corruption are rife and the political class is viewed negatively by the vast majority of Peruvians, who found themselves in the unenviable position of voting for either far-right candidate Keiko Fujimori or the little known Castillo.

Exhibition view, including the installation The Great Divide, 2021

Virgin Land, Sandra Gamarra in collaboration with Mario Lezama, Nely Pumayali and Sergio Collanque, 2021

Another challenging work in this room, though for different reasons, is The Great Divide (2021)a collaboration with master weaver William Rojas. The installation, which comprises security poles and delicate, inter-woven, silver-coloured wire, splits the Mirage Room in two. Intended to symbolise the Andes mountains - yet this is likely to be missed by visitors - it does prevent the easy flow of viewers from one side of the room to the other. This symbolic and physical divide both binds and separates Spain from its former colonies, the Peruvian highlands from the coast, the Spanish language from Quechua, and European narratives from Andean story-telling.

Further along, like a a golden Andean mountain-altar or house of cards, rises Virgin Land. It is a collaborative effort comprising 315 paintings Gamarra commissioned to select Cusco artisans specialising in the reproduction of viceregal paintings sold as souvenirs. The small paintings are based on the colonial-era piece The Virgin of the Mount and feature the Virgin Mary merging with a mountain. The depiction alludes to the ´Pachamama´ or Mother Earth venerated by the Incas and pre-Columbian peoples alike. As such, it brings together Christian symbolism and Andean spirituality. 

Virgin Land installation detail

From here visitors move on to a European ethnographic museum-like space, the Exploration Room, where four glass display cabinets stand. Painted cut-outs of objects - ceramics, tools, and jewellery dating back to pre-Columbian civilisation - from Madrid´s Museum of the Americas  appear to float in the large showcases, each with a mirrored background reflecting the viewer´s own image.

Display Cabinet, III, IV, 2021

Display Cabinet, I, II, 2021

Given that visitors can see themselves in the cabinet alongside the artefacts, the works echo the human zoos of the past, used to display people of colour for the amusement of whites. The tragic Hottentot Venus, once exhibited as a freak show comes to mind as does the The Couple in a Cage: Two Amerindians Visit the West performance art piece by Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez Pena which draws on the history of ´othering´. In the 1992-1993 performance piece, Fusco and Gómez Pena were placed in a cage in primitive dress and wore designer sunglasses for the ´entertainment´ of the public.

detail, When Potatoes Burn (Hot Potato), 2021

In When Potatoes Burn (Hot Potato), 160 oil paintings of Peruvian potato varieties on copies of pages from The First New Chronicle and Good Government adorn the walls around the display cabinets. The depicted tubers formed part of a shipment sent to Spain in scientific expeditions centuries ago.

Following the Extraction Room, which features a large installation resembling a looted archaeological site and alludes to Andean cosmology, one finds the Cabinet of Colonial Discomforts on the floor above. This vast space touches upon various aspects of colonialism - from the Spanish conquest to the present while subverting chronological timelines - and reflects a mix of styles, voices, authors and influences. 

What Makes Us Modern, 2014

What Makes Us Modern, detail, 2014

What Made Us Modern, a gradation of white to black canvases, features squares on each corner depicting Peruvian victims and/or perpetrators of violence during the armed conflict in Peru (1980-2000) between the state and two communist guerrilla groups, the Shining Path and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Gamarra´s own depictions are reproductions of photographs from the country´s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The gold edges on the paintings allude to Inca gold and the Cusco School of Painting. As such, by integrating pre-Columbian, colonial and more recent local history to the work, the artist subverts otherwise minimalist aesthetics.

Good Government, installation view

Gamarra does something similar with her paintings appropriating German artist Josef Albers´ geometric abstraction. In the centre of the colourful blocks she adds portraits of indigenous and mestizo Peruvians. Unlike her early appropriations for her LiMaC make-believe museum project, here Gamarra infuses her work with a ´native voice´.

Gradation, 2021

A further series of wall works, Gradation, a collaboration with Elvia Paucar, sees canvases wrapped in lambswool ponchos traditionally woven by indigenous women of the Andes. The opening in the centre of the pieces resembles vulvas and the black background is like a dark meeting point of the Global North and the Global South. This series appears to reference both Gustave Courbet´s The Origin of the World as well as Lucio Fontana´s monochrome slash paintings but Gamarra applies a feminist approach to undermine traditional notions of European modernism. It is also likely that Gamarra, a woman of mixed Peruvian and Japanese heritage, is also questioning the biased Western canon.

Above: Caste paintings attributed to the workshop of Cristóbal Lozano, commissioned by Viceroy Amat y Juniet, 1770
Below: Still Life of Peruvian Reality, 2019

The Cabinet of Colonial Discomforts also displays impactful original portraits commissioned by Viceroy Amat y Juniet in 1770 that deal with the issue of race. The rather shocking pieces denote the caste system and feature couples of various races and their offspring, each labeled by ethnicity/lineage. 

caste painting

Alongside these are various old manuscripts, evolutionary theory texts, paintings of local produce on recent newspaper pages touching on Peruvian politics, landscapes reflecting environmental concerns, as well as crafts depicting Andean life and state violence perpetrated against rural Quechua people. As much as they add to the exhibition with regards to context, some viewers might say they are fillers, and distract from Gamarra´s strongest pieces.

Tabla de Sarhua paintings, Primitivo Evanán Poma and Valeriana Vivanco, 2021

Tabla de Sarhua

The Timeliness of Decolonial Aesthetics

Looking into the politics around the exhibition in a Spanish context is also essential. Ironically, Good Government was mired in controversy as the Sala Alcalá 31 exhibition hall is run by the Madrid regional government, which took umbrage with the show just before the opening, banning it from referring to ´racism´ and ´restitution´ in its marketing and promotional material. It also prevented Good Government from taking part in the Hispanidad 2021 festival, a gathering of Latin American cultural events celebrating hispanicity.

This should come as no surprise given that in her late September trip to the US, Madrid regional leader, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, claimed that ´indigenism is the new communism´ in reference to the movement that questions the legacy of Spanish colonial rule in the Americas. Her statement was widely condemned for its racist overtones by the few Congressional Hispanic Caucus members who bothered to pay any attention to her American tour aimed at promoting Spain´s capital as an investment destination.

In short, Good Government is particularly relevant as it explores how alternative perspectives continue to clash with hegemonic narratives, and reflects how ´othering´ remains problematic. The exhibition also challenges the supposed neutrality of the ´white cube´ and serves as a critique of postmodern and postcolonial discourses set within the framework of European philosophy that show little regard to exploring problems arising in the periphery.

Likewise, there is a potential issue between intent and reception with Good Government as the vast majority of visitors to the exhibition are bound to be Spaniards with limited or biased knowledge of Peru and Spanish colonial rule in the Americas. As such, much of the intended messaging is lost. One thing remains certain, the time to decolonise knowledge is long overdue.

document on display, Good Government exhibition

Sala Alcalá 31, Madrid
21 September 2021 - 16 January 2022