Listen to this article
Cristina Planas is often accused of “impertinence” in her native Peru. The Lima-based sculptor has an unerring instinct for what will discomfort her audience and, “like a monkey offered a banana, I can’t help reaching for it”, she says.
Unlike artists who court controversy, however, Planas is patently troubled by the gallery closures, the charges of blasphemy and the catholic masses for her soul. “People say this to me [that notoriety sells], but to me this is fatal,” she says, hitting the word as if she is dying inside. “I live in Latin America — here they close all the doors on you.”
The first whiff of controversy came early in her career, with her depiction of Abimael Guzmán, the architect of Peru’s bloody Maoist-inspired uprising of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Guzmán is reviled for his “revolution” in which 70,000 people died.
Planas’s sculpture, The Wawa, depicted Guzmán in his striped prison garb dancing on corpses, and provoked protest rallies and government threats to prosecute her as an apologist for terrorism. “What I wanted to say was that a country that forgets is a country that will repeat its errors,” she says. “Many people felt — still feel — I had been very impertinent. Who wastes time doing a portrait of him when no one wants to think of him? We are still a wounded nation. It costs us greatly to examine these things — we don’t want to remember, we want to hide from them.”
After an eight-year hiatus, during which she married and had three children, Planas returned in 2008 with two shows: “Lima”, which won best artwork at the city’s biennale, and “Migration of the Saints”, which was censured by the authorities that year.
“I had been thinking about how this age of terrorism had left us abandoned. So many people fled for our neighbouring countries or the US or Spain, and I wondered, ‘When you leave so much behind, what do you take?’” she recalls. “Peruvians have a very fervent relationship with their saints; they take them with them.”
Planas reinterpreted four of Lima’s beloved saints, stripping them of their habits and cassocks, and making them appear as ordinary people. The show attracted the attention of an ultraconservative Catholic group, which protested at her “sacrilege” until the authorities closed the gallery.
A child of both the Amazonian jungle and Peru’s dusty desert capital, Planas is possibly the artist the country needs if it is to come to terms with its violent history and its racial and socio-economic divides. Her questioning — of God, religion, terrorism, inequality or impending apocalypse — gets under Peruvians’ skin but also speaks to a much wider audience.
“I don’t believe in an art that is decorative or complacent. I work in things that bother me,” she says. “I am always looking for answers, and I don’t find them. I look in the church and I only find things that bother me. Possibly that’s why my works don’t sell.”
Planas spent her early years in the remote Amazon city of Iquitos. When the family moved to Lima several years later, it was a shock for Planas. “In Iquitos, there’s a happiness — everything is possible, the people are very free,” she recalls. “When we came to Lima I was sent to a Catholic boarding school with nuns — German nuns! I thought they were giants.”
Planas’s mother, a devout Catholic and theologian, looms large in her life and work. She was the subject of her first acclaimed sculpture — a life-size figure with a cloud of wild hair, caught in full song. The sculpture now stands in a corner of her living room in the bohemian quarter of Lima.
The room, and many of its contents, are enormous. There is a tree growing into the roof, adorned with the head of a black vulture. A piece of driftwood rests on a table stacked with faux gold bars — a protest at the toll Peru’s illegal gold, wood and narcotics trades are taking on the Amazon rainforest. The vulture’s head is a nod to Planas’s Gallinazos, a flock of black vultures’ heads, which rested atop deadened palm trees in Lima’s only nature reserve during the COP20 UN climate change talks in 2014.
“I had been feeling hopeful about the new pope and I wondered what animal should accompany him. Should he be rising up on a lion or a tiger or a dragon? Then I thought, a vulture — it eats garbage and all that is putrid, and this pope wants to clean the church.
“No one wants to see [the vultures] but I will revindicate them. We will start to see the value of things that had no value and become a society with better values.”
Understandably, Planas was dubious when a Colombian priest, Gilberto Jaramillo Mejia, called her in 2013 to say he was interested in one of her reinterpreted saints, El Señor de Los Milagros, a potent figure for Limeños, who parade in their hundreds of thousands behind his figure every October. “He said, ‘Cristina, I am interested in your black Christ,’ and I thought, ‘What for — to burn him?’,” she says, laughing.
It turned out that the Colombian government had given the padre the prison, nicknamed “the Cathedral”, that had housed fabled narco-trafficker Pablo Escobar, to establish a place of memory to the victims of narco-trafficking.
And so Planas’s Christ, impaled with and surrounded by golden guns, made his own migration to the countryside surrounding Medellín, where Escobar had a God-like status. There, the priest presided over a ceremony to strip the Christ of his guns.
“Look at how a work of art — so difficult in Lima, where it signified the nakedness of God — can be converted into a work that signifies brutality for Colombians.
“This was an armed Christ. And in the moment they disarmed him, it was incredibly powerful,” she says.
Fabiola Menchelli Tejeda
After studying and working in Australia and the US, Fabiola Menchelli Tejeda had only been back in her native Mexico City for two years when she won a prize at the city’s prestigious Biennale of Photography. Last year’s winning abstract compositions look more like sculptures than the careful juxtaposition of paper and light.
But expanding the boundaries of photography is Menchelli Tejeda’s passion “and there is fertile ground to explore”, she says. In her latest show she is exhibiting works developed on canvas without a camera, using the iron structures of Mexico City’s imposing Museo Universitario del Chopo as the negative and letting the sun’s ultraviolet rays capture the images.
That exhibition, which opened last month, is called, fittingly, “Appearances Deceive”. Menchelli Tejeda enjoys, as she puts it, “confounding perceptions” — including the idea that photographs can be reproduced an infinite number of times. While finishing her masters degree in Boston in the US, she made a series of giant coloured Polaroid prints, their pictorial quality emphasised by the way she let the developing chemicals dribble in rivulets at the bottom of the image. Taken using one of only a handful of giant Polaroid cameras in the world, each is unique.
Her approach is to use “the language of abstraction to make images which seem to present a tangible visible reality but are, in fact, never quite there, except in the eye of the camera and the mind of the maker”.
Menchelli Tejeda grew up with art: her mother was an architect and painter “and I took lots of art classes”. She bought her first camera at 16 and photography was a hobby, until a trip to Australia led to a degree in visual digital arts at Melbourne’s Victoria University. Jude Webber
Pablo Mora Ortega
“That’s when he became a file,” says Pablo Mora Ortega, describing the day in 2002 when his property lawyer father was shot and killed in Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, on his way to a meeting. He says most murder cases are never solved and his father’s murder remains a mystery. “There was never an investigation and we still don’t know what happened.”
In the years that followed, Ortega, 39, explored his grief through art. He wanted to find a creative use for stacks of case files left in his father’s office, to make a statement about injustice. His second exhibition, “October 22”, named after the date on which his father was killed, was held at Galería de la Oficina in Medellín in 2014.
One of the works on show was “Cabinet”, a compelling installation featuring a desk brimming with case files — a comment, says Ortega, on the bureaucracy of justice. “They are just getting forgotten there; nobody is working on them any more.” “Abandonment” is a video installation capturing vapour that leaks from files as they are burnt by intense light — “a poetic way of seeing how the history kept in the files is disappearing”.
Ortega’s installations are about more than his personal story and that of his father. Many people were killed or vanished during Colombia’s turbulent period in 2002, when president Álvaro Uribe ordered the military to disband militias and drug traffickers. “It’s about all the people who are struggling to find answers about why their loved ones are missing or were killed.”
Ortega is optimistic about Colombia’s art scene, with young artists tackling themes such as environmental damage. “They are telling the world how the land in Colombia is being destroyed by mining,” he says. Andre Rhoden-Paul
Get alerts on Visual Arts when a new story is published