In the troubled ebb and flow of the heterogeneous contemporary realities of Peru, death has always occupied a central place. Not only because of the sixty thousand or more “disappearances” arising from the country’s tempestuous recent political past, but also because violence and funerary rituals have always marked the way of how the territory sees itself and how it processes conflicting historical memories. The initial point being not to forget about the past thus avoiding the exoticism of it. The second one is to remember that since the pre-Spanish/agricultural world, the cult of ancestral remembrance and the rituals of offering tributes to the dead have cut a deep furrow through the history of the country.
In the mournful history of Peru (a history that is reflected in Ximena Garrido-Lecca’s ‘The Followers’ – a wall of latent allegories and crossed aesthetic mutations) the exchanges, amalgamations and conflicts to both the pre-colonial and post-colonial languages of the mortuary are in abundance. The celebratory and dark aspects of Death, tribute/offering and memory, proceed and operate – formally and discursively- in the realm of an old agreement between pre-Hispanic and occidental traditions. Even today, in the modern arena of non-consensus between secularism and religion, said cult still flourishes.
To look back at the historical picture chronologically, it’s clear that for the pre-colonial peoples, the cult of the dead created a structure of communal and regional identification. Early collectives and groups shared the ritualistic idea of mentally cohabiting with the dead and their belongings, so that territory, religion and even agricultural production were made cohesive by it. Society united through the cult of death.
With the arrival of the Europeans came the attempt to secularise these practices. The European model introduced the cemetery and tried to impose a kind of tempered civil memory. The attempt to enforce a new type of identity and to push aside other forms of vernacular memory was carried out, but full conversion proved to be impossible. Confused and tired of simulating Catholic traditions, the indigenous people gradually reverted to their vernacular or hybrid practices. It is precisely in these forms (each time more complex in their mix) that Garrido-Lecca points out the dispersion of symbolism within the demise of a ‘unifying national identity’, using death as an image to express the ghosts of diverse local subjectivities of a country in open crisis.
Unlike the baroque vanitas – a subject previously used and questioned in Garrido-Lecca’s work – the popular cult of the dead in contemporary Peru does not have an expiry date, even less a moral judgment nor is it a simple sublimed celebration of the continuity of one life to another.
One has the impression that behind The Followers, behind this remake of the nichos of the Cuzco cemetery, there are yet more deaths and posthumous gestures than the miniaturised worlds spied through the windows of each tomb allow us to see. In that sense, the work operates almost as a transversal cut of other perspectives of the buried and unburied national subjectivities. Through these baroque arrangements (which also present a kind of kitsch domesticity), there is a suggestion that a disturbance exists in other aspects apart from death. It seems as if they portray the traumatic changes of the country and the search of a national identity.
Like the attempts to bury the national memories (the victims of political violence in the paupers graves, or the carnet photos scattered over the country, that remember the missing people…) the vernacular liturgies of Death in contemporary Peru are not a representation of the after life, but the empty remembrance of an expelled present. Its only way of redemption being the expression of memory as a ritual and permanent gesture, as a new space to recover: all allegorized yet quietly powerful.