Peru’s Colonial Past and Street Culture at Newark Photo Exhibit

Ana de Orbegoso with her book “Virgenes Urbanas” (Urban Virgins) (Photo via Reporte Hispano)

A modern photography exhibit arrives in the Garden State as part of the Newark Public Library’s Meet the Author events, where Peruvian artist Ana de Orbegoso will present her book “Virgenes Urbanas” (Urban Virgins).

Before the presentation, there will be a Peruvian dance performance, as well as a slideshow of the photographs – which have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns in Peru – and a roundtable with New York sociologist Suzanne Oboler and other guests.

“‘Virgenes Urbanas’ is based on religious colonial paintings from the Cuzco School, which I used as historic objects,” said Orbegoso. “I revised history and decided to change the information in the paintings by adding women of today as a way to decolonize the stories depicted there.”

The collection consists of 12 paintings turned into photographs representing the same number of “saints.” Orbegoso substituted them for Peruvian women from the present, mestiza women – of mixed descent – “the working women who form a family, a town, a country.”

In the book’s prologue, anthropologist Ramón Pérez-Pinilla says that the photographs demonstrate that “sainthood” not only exists in heaven but also among ordinary, faithful people who organize festivals and processions for their church’s saints in their punas – Andean towns.

Orbegoso explained that the book is part of a bigger effort.

The photographs have been shown in exhibits in Lima and other provinces in Peru. They have been featured in pasacalles, a traditional parade where the street becomes a stage featuring bands, musician and dancers. For these, the images have been printed in vinyl and worn by women as a second costume during the festivities, held in several towns in Peru.

The book also includes poems in Quechua, English and Spanish by the director of New York University’s Quechua Language Study Odi González. The poems narrate the everyday life of the characters in the style of the chronicler of the colonial period Huamán Poma de Ayala.

“I asked Odi to participate with the poems because this book was made by a Peruvian woman traveling across her country and visiting 30 places, most of them Andean, so it was impossible not to include the Quechua language,” said Orbegoso.

The photographs contain the faces of humble women glowing with happiness, or looking on with genuine solemnity or sadness, and they are portrayed in a different light than on Peruvian television, where white faces are generally shown as beautiful and women like them are relegated to the role of the servant or the battered woman.

Sociologist Guillermo Nugent contributes with an essay asserting that Orbegoso’s photographs and message could not exist without the informality prevailing in the country.

The book contains writings and legends in English and Spanish. A website has also been created to accompany the publication: www.virgenesurbanas.com.

The photographs represent a return to when images were recreated in photographers’ studios. Today, the subjects are digitally added over these paintings belonging to the Cuzco School. It is what they call “postmodern photography.”

This is Orbegoso’s second exhibition in New Jersey. For two years, the Peruvian consulate in Paterson has displayed her collection “Himnos” – “Anthems” – which was based on the culture surrounding criolla music in Peru.

In the next few months, also in the Garden State, the artist is planning to screen her short film “The Last Inca Princess,” which has been recognized in New York’s Big Apple Film Festival, the California Women’s Film Festival and the Festival Mundial de Cine Extremo (World Extreme Film Festival) in Veracruz, Mexico, among other awards.

Orbegoso is currently preparing a multidisciplinary piece entitled “¿Y ahora que hacemos con nuestra historia?” (So Now What Do We Do with Our History?), which aims to promote the art of Peru’s past.

“Peruvian gastronomy is a good example of what we could be doing in other fields,” said the artist. “Originally, food was made and consumed at home but, when cooking was modernized, it took off internationally to where it is now. That can be replicated in other disciplines too.”

The New York-based artist travels to Peru often, seeking to create new avenues for her art and to present her work to the people of her country, offering the enriched perspective of someone who sees it from the outside.

The presentation will take place on June 3 from 2:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Newark Public Library, located at 5 Washington St.

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