Amazonian art is taking off once again, in a new, different, and transformative way. Here is the history that brought it to be.
The history inherent in Amazonian art
The year 2042 will mark the 500 year anniversary of the “discovery” of the Amazon river by Francisco De Orellana and his fellow explorers. Through these 500 years of colonialism, artists and visionaries of Amazonian tribes have continued to create visionary artistic designs that explore the mythologies and meanings of life in the jungle. Religious missionaries, the rubber boom, contemporary life are all depicted on artists’ canvases. Those who gaze at these amazing paintings can learn a lot about the history of indigenous Amazonian people, their relationship with nature, and the history of colonialism.
“I think that Amazonian painting today looks to expose aspects of history that have been swept under the rug,” says Christian Bendayán, one of the most influential painters from the Loreto region, and perhaps the biggest promoter of Amazonian art.
A little history of the Amazon region
The Kotosh were the first recorded civilization to inhabit the Amazon, dating back to two thousand years BC. Hundreds of years later – around XIII AD – Peru witnessed the rise of the Chachapoyas, who populated the Amazon’s high and lowlands, leaving few archaeological traces. Today’s larger urban conglomerations are generally located in the lowlands, where Spanish explorers and religious missionaries arrived during colonization. Upon their arrival, the Spanish projected their own values and beliefs onto the people, animals, and landscapes of the Amazon. They even named the Amazon river after the Greek myth of the Amazons, rather than attempting to understand the complex reality of the native peoples.
The rubber boom transforms the Amazon, and also jump starts an unlikely cultural boom
The government saw the Amazon as an uninhabited territory. Natives were virtually invisible. The jungle was a virgin area full of natural resources that were ready to be harvested for the benefit of adventurous businessmen. All of a sudden, European families began to arrive and settle in what is now known as Iquitos. And so began the rubber boom. In that time, the entire economy of the Iquitos was based on the extraction and sales of rubber. The demand was huge, and to supply the need, hundreds of natives were enslaved on their own land to harvest the tree sap.
“Nonetheless,” adds Bendayán, “rubber, with all the barbarities that it brought, also brought people who were interested in creating cultural spaces, like the Alhambra Theatre. Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo character is not that different than the actual immigrants who lived in Iquitos and dreamt of turning the city into a cultural metropolis – trumping even Brazil’s Manaus. But with the fall of the rubber-based economy, those dreams disappeared forever.”
European aesthetics impact the Amazon
The presence of the European immigrants brought with it new styles of formal painting that was inspired by modernism. Through this, artistic production of the time, which was mainly landscape oriented, transformed the tropical jungle into an almost European scenery. This was the case for painters like Otto Michael, the Victoria sisters (1900), Emilia Barcia Boniffatti (1904-1986), and Américo Pinasco (1906-1991). During this artistic stage, formal painting excluded the depiction of natives, fauna, and flora. Painters completely ignored, if not rejected, environmental and native cultural surroundings.
Modernism arrives in the Amazon
This shift marked a new focus for painters like Américo Pinasco, Víctor Morey Peña (1900-1965), César Calvo de Araujo (1914-1970), among others. Pinasco, for example, after training in the European school, became the first painter to incorporate images of natives into his paintings. This evolution – aside from being well received in galleries abroad – began to alter the Western perception of the Amazon.
With the help and participation of European modernist artists, the Regional School of Fine Arts was founded in 1960. Morey Peña was appointed as director, and art deco and art nouveau were established as the most representative movements for the region. In 1965, however, Morey Peña was killed in a tragic accident, and painter Ángel Chávez took his place. Chávez arrived in the jungle from Trujillo and was already very well known for his innovative, defined style. He generated much enthusiasm from his students, putting together a team of artists – including Nancy Dantas, Samuel Coriat and Fernando Rios – who still to this day continue to produce strong work.
The Iquitos school meets the Ucayali school. Ayahuasca visions make their way into art.
The most interesting turn of events came when members of the Iquitos School discovered the Ucayali School of painting, which included Hildebrando “Yando” Ríos (1940), Eduardo Meza Saravia (1928-2001) and Pablo Amaringo (1938-2009). All three men were sons of shamans, who worked with the native hallucinogenic root – ayahuasca, and thus the Ucayali school freely incorporated the Amazonian spirit world into its paintings.
Yando Ríos introduced unique techniques for depicting the darknesses of the jungle, while Eduardo Meza Saravia developed his own psychedelic style, influenced by witchcraft, the mythical world of the Amazon, and Shipibo traditions.
Pablo Amaringo takes the painting world by storm
The most influential artist in the school, however, was Pablo Amaringo, who not only came from a family of shamans but was also one himself. Amaringo rose to fame with the release of the being globally circulated book that he published with Colombian anthropologist Jose Eduardo Luna in 1991, called Ayahuasca Visions. Immediately after, a number of important institutions began to acquire his work. With the earnings, Amaringo established his own school of painting called Usco Ayar. Hundreds of students came through the school, free of cost, to learn from Amaringo. His style remains to be influential in Amazonian art today.
The influence of Christian Bendayán: jungle art meets street art
The 90’s saw another interesting artistic evolutionary moment when paintings began to depict the Amazon as an urban environment, rather than an exotic, isolated place. Bendayán, probably the most important painter from this new style, not only encourages people to see the jungle in a different way through his paintings, but also paved the way for the rise of self-taught street artists. These painters, previously hired by businesses, like hair salons, barber shops, and small grocery stores, to paint decorative murals, are now making their art on canvases and taking them to galleries. Some of these artists include Julio Walter Guevara Piero, Luis “LU.CU.MA” Cueva Manchego, Luis Zaquiray, Miguel Saavedra, and José Asunción Araujo.
“I think that artists from the jungle have realized that they can have a political role,” explains Bendayán. “I think that art production today is a reaction to the government’s refusal to recognize the issues – they are seen as distant as if they aren’t part of Peru. This attitude spawned a show called Green Power in 2011. And perhaps the most precise political show that we have presented this year is From their long cry, the Amazon was formed. At this moment there is a general concern for the rights of the Amazonian people – the right to own your land, to protect your traditions and culture. There’s a strong concern to recuperate history, to recognize the traumatic episodes and expose the hidden moments – from the discovery of the Amazon to the issues with rubber, petroleum, wood, and coca.”
As Bendayán suggests, there is currently a tendency to revalue local traditions in new ways. The “kenés” (traditional hand-drawn graphic designs) done by Shipibo women have become present in contemporary art. Legends are being rescued and recognized as the basis of Amazonian identity, rather than thought of as whimsical, exotic myths.