January 31, 2019. 193 days, 4632 hours since July 23, 2018. One 20th birthday, one Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s in Brazil, 10 days in the world’s driest desert, a visit to one of the seven Wonders of the World, 20 volunteer hours with a surfing-mentoring program, 20 days of an internship with a non-profit sustainable textile company in Cusco, more cups of instant coffee than I’d like to count, a dozen beaches, a few museums, 1 semester of classes, a collection of interviews, an exhibition’s-worth of curated art by Chileans, Argentinians, Uruguayans, and 1 Peruvian.
And I’m not ready to leave. I’m not done.
Truthfully, I think it’s because my month in Peru wasn’t super productive research-wise. I made a lot of mental observations, and my internship was certainly enlightening and from that experience I will be able to draw some conclusions for whatever form my findings take in the coming months. So before I let it hang over my head like the gray clouds outside this café where I draft this blog, I’m putting it out there. I’m owning it. But I’m also questioning it…
Why? Why was it hard to tap into the artist community here in Cusco? Did I make enough effort to contact artists? Was it wrong to opt for an internship–an opportunity I thought would structure the end of my research–instead of the chance to live in Lima, a more modern city with significant distance from Peru’s heart of the indigenous world, i.e. Cusco? Should I have opened my mind more to female artists who run workshops that produce copies of religious imagery adorned with gold? I considered an interview with one such a woman, but it didn’t feel right. Plus, when I brought up my project, I noticed a difference in her voice. She spoke more quietly. Did I say something wrong?
Actually, I’m pretty sure I did. “Feminist” and “women’s rights” seem to be un-welcomed vocabulary here. I tried to leave those words out once I realized that. This is something I’ve noted and will influence my final conclusions. The lack of interviews from Peru is actually appropriately symbolic of how prevalent I felt the topic was here in the valley–the sacred valley.
It’s valuable to note that the hashtag, #NiUnaMenos, launched a revolution against “femicides” when it arose in Buenos Aires. Chile and Uruguay, then eventually Peru (in Lima, however), duplicated these protests. It began in 2016. Just yesterday I saw the Instagram story of an artist I met in Chile; she was lamenting the death of a friend, the 6th “accomplished” femicide in Chile in just 2019 so far. One month in. Peru, only 9 days in, had already documented 5 femicides in 2019. Peru is just different from Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. I believe many of the women want the same things and live with similar ambitions, but Peruvian women don’t have the same empowerment, the same freedom. I suddenly worried if I had endangered any women by asking them in public if they’d speak with me about their work, their lives as Peruvian women and artists.
So 4 weeks and 0 recorded interviews later, I zip up my suitcases with one work of art to take back and share with you. And, admittedly, it’s by a male artist. But it says “Quechua is the new black”; the image is collaged from a pasted photo of a Quechua woman. So I’m counting it–but here’s what I have to say about it…
We (college-aged Americans) are familiar with the “___ is the new black” thanks to the show Orange is the New Black. A TV show based on the entertaining and heartstring-pulling moments had by women in prison, its title playfully uses the idiom that essentially declare the first item the new vogue, the new fashionable thing. Following this logic, “Quechua is the new black” implies that to be Quechua–an indigenous group from the Incan-ruled Andes–is now the cool thing. And I believe there is a movement of pride from the indigenous peoples. However, whatever my lens or predispositions may be, I read “black” as a reference to the race, not a metaphor for a thing of fashion. I thought, Hm, so if Quechua is the new black, does that mean Quechua people are now at a stage in their own rights movement comparable to the experiences of black people today? 10 years ago? 30 years ago? And maybe because every piece of art I see with a subject of a women, I thought furthermore along. Are Quechua women of Peru like the black women in America, where feminism has not been addressed with the concerns and needs of women of color entirely in mind? Where black women feel like and are in the afterthought of white feminists? Are the women in Lima neglecting the issues Quechua women face as they move forward in the rights movement that has taken shape in South America?
I’m not sure if these questions were part of the artist’s intentions (we’re in the middle of emailing now, since he–like every other artist I’ve tried to contact–is based in Lima). I feel guilty that I spent a month here and didn’t get an interview…when I visited one of Threads of Peru’s (my internship for the month) weaving communities we collaborate with, I brought my camera to take photos for Threads’ marketing stock, and I quickly established relationships with the weavers. I just didn’t feel comfortable using (i.e. exploiting) their lifestyle for the benefit of my research. The women I interviewed in the other countries were so enthusiastic to talk with me. Their art often thematically matched my research–not just their already-sufficient identity as South American female artists. But the intricate weavings I worked with day in and out weren’t about access to contraceptives, abortion rights, or domestic violence protection; they’re about supplementing their family’s income, because the annual income of an indigenous women who works with Threads of Peru increases by 50% on average . Yet still I wondered: where do these women fit into the narrative I have been weaving over the past 6 months?
Clearly I’m not done. I’m leaving with more questions than answers, yet I feel this was somehow the higher goal of a project like this. Wofford sent me to South America, trusted me with their grant to safely travel and sustain myself for a few months, and expects me to come back with something. Yet I hold onto this faith that overall I have something to be proud of, even if this last portion of my research did not turn out like I had hoped (hm, I bet there’s a lesson there, too). So tomorrow I return–with questions, some art I’m pretty excited to transform into an exhibit come October, and incredible growth and experiences tucked into my passport holder for the next time I hop on a plane to visit these places again, hopefully discovering new cafés in more towns to write about.
My suitcases are a little worse for wear. Some of my sweaters are pilling and stained. My weight fluctuated dramatically throughout the whole time. My hair is more or less the same color and length. I can’t think in one singular lenguaje at a time anymore. The music on my Spotify looks a little different, thanks to additions from Denise Rosenthal and Inti-Illimani. I could tell where to get the best burger in Valparaíso, the best brownie in Montevideo, the best café latte in Cusco. I now have friends to reach out to all over the States, plus a few in Paris. I count these as wins.
I’ve also been keeping a countdown on my Instagram, and when I concluded today’s final post before I depart early in the morning tomorrow, I mentioned my next destination following a brief stint at home to exchange wardrobes and visit with friends and family: France & Italy! A friend I made in Moshi, Tanzania (while abroad for summer ’17 with The Space), and who is from Italy, just commented to offer her help should I need it while knee-deep in pasta and Roman ruins. Her message came after returning to my “place of stay” (in the home of a friend of a friend, but not quite a homestay) this evening. We don’t keep in touch at all, but I suppose we mutually tap the “like” button on each other’s posts. Feeling utterly despaired about leaving this part of the journey and not just moving onto the next South American country, I feel comforted in the reminder that everywhere we go, we have the opportunity to connect. I had no idea while living at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro that meeting Claudia would lead to a local’s aid while studying abroad in Rome, but here we are. This realization comforts me as I leave behind all the places and people I came to know over 6 months. I hope that I can either be that local connection for one of them, or that our paths cross again like mine and Claudia’s are bound to intersect once more on the streets of her home.
Bear with one on more reflection of the idiosyncrasies of long-term travel abroad, will you?
My Canadian and Peruvian co-workers of the month took me to lunch for my last day; afterwards, I haphazardly walked the cobblestone streets of Cusco one last time. It drizzled for hours. I had two goals for my last few hours and a few hours to fill in around them. First: find a ring, since I had purchased one in Chile and another in Uruguay, so I figured I’d complete a set. Second: visit the Koricancha, a famous site in Cusco with a lawn beside it where I frequently sat on a bench with my favorite Cusqueñan lunch. By the time I reached the Spanish church built on top of the most important Incan temple *rolls eyes*, I learned it had just closed. I laughed to myself, for it felt like an ironic ending to my time in South America. To double the irony, with all the rings I saw, I failed to pick one. I met neither of my goals, yet didn’t feel like the day was wasted (a huge lesson from living abroad). I took both as a sign that I just have to return to Cusco (hopefully just a weekend stay before busing north to Lima and the surf spots along the coast) one day. So as I stood a little aimlessly on Avenida El Sol near the bus stop deciding if I should stay downtown or catch a taxi back home, I walked past a man carrying some handmade rings. I turned my head and he caught me in a moment of weakness.
“Hola bonita, buscas un anillo?” he called back at me. I wasn’t going to be rude, so I swiveled my gate 180 degrees and explained to the clearly-Argentinian that I actually had been searching for a ring all day long. He invited me to look sin compromiso, or without an obligation to purchase one, but was sure to explain that buying one would help him continue to travel and see more of South American. While I entertained the thought of supporting him, he made me a regalito from the extra wire he had hanging around his shoulder. We talked back and forth a little while. As he twisted the wire into a new form, I thought about the day walking back from a similar afternoon of wandering in Valparaíso. It was the day I received a call from my dad that he was officially in remission (he had been going through chemo when I left the States back in July)! Spirits high but feeling extra distant from home, I walked a few miles from downtown to the boardwalk that takes–took–me to the metro station where I climbed the stairs to the overpass, and across the overpass to the hill, and up the hill to my homestay. When I had just reached the entrance to the sea-side path, another man had caught my attention and reeled me in. He insisted on also giving me a gift; that time it was the ring itself. The best way to show my gratitude for his small generosity was to explain to him that this ring will always remind me of a day of great news.
That ring looks just like the ones this man in Cusco, Emanuel, had made. This time, standing under the rain, I was 24 hours from my dad, from home. I searched my coin purse to pay Emanuel. When I looked up, I saw in his palm a wire flower with a built-in stand so I could sit it on my desk or dresser, per his suggestion. It was not the ring I was looking for, and technically it was made by an Argentinian but one I met in Peru. A little like my research and this whole adventure, the ring represented a moment and a feeling much larger than itself, plus I found it on its own time and in its own place. On top of it all, I had been thinking incessantly about growth throughout the day. I hadn’t planned on growing so accustomed to life here, but here we are, hours from take-off, some 4632 hours since my first take off on July 23, 2018, and I can’t imagine a day without things going not as planned.
I know I did not write as much near the end, so I hope if you’re interested in seeing how my research comes to fruition, please stay tuned for updates about my upcoming exhibition in the Rosalind Sallenger Richardson Center for the Arts in Fall 2019! Thank you to those who read along and kept up with my adventures as I pursued answers on the role of art in the South American women’s rights movement.