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Chasquis, Artists and the Military
by Inti Guerrero

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Chasquis, Artists and the Military*

The main reading of 1960s and 1970s Latin America art as being counter-political to the repressive context of the time is difficult to fully embrace when locating a generation of artists in Peru who, contrary to popular belief, strongly collaborated with the military government in the country's cultural reformation. Unlike most right wing proto-fascist and pro-American dictatorial regimes established in the region, Peru's Military Government framed itself as a populist revolution that maintained tight diplomatic and export connections with the Soviet Union. Known as Gobierno Revolucionario de la Fuerza Armada, it was an administration that sought great social transformations, such as Agrarian Reform, and which understood the field of culture as a key element to their political project as a whole. As its 1968 governmental manifesto states: "The action of the revolutionary government is inspired by the necessity to transform the structure of the State (..) transform social, economic and cultural structures"(1). Pragmatically speaking in the art field, the creation of the National Institute for the Arts (INC) was created to "propose and execute the cultural policy of the state; realize education extension; protect, conserve and give value to monumental and cultural patrimony of the Nation and offer artistic education"(2). What is interesting about this policy is that their idea of patrimony did not refer to metropolitan bourgeois cultural manifestations or institutions, but it was precisely built upon giving institutionality and preservation to vernacular-rural-traditions, which were highly grounded within a peasant-indigenous milieu.

In 1971, in accord with this policy of bridging popular traditions and culture with 'high art venues', the director of the Institute for Contemporary Art (IAC) in Peru, which by that time was stationed in Lima's Italian Museum, commissioned from artist Francisco Mariotti a large-scale cultural festival which was titled Contacta 71; Festival of Total Art. During four days in June of that year, Contacta gathered both trained and untrained artists, dancers and musicians in a multidisciplinary project which included outdoor exhibitions, poetry recitals, music, cinema, popular festivities, dances and games taking part in different inland areas of the country. By 1974 the second Contacta festival had the full support from the Military Government through its National System for the Support of Social Mobilization, bridging or connecting as its name suggest, even more marginal areas of Peruvian society by means of culture. It was the aftermath of this festival that a number of other artistic projects were developed in cooperation with the State, such was the case of Contacta's co-organizer artist Luis Arias Vera's Carreras de Chasquis, 1974-1976 (Chasquis races), which were commissioned by the National Institute of Recreation, Physical Education and Sport. The Carrera de Chasquis was a cultural and sporting event that wanted to connect more than 250 rural settlements in Northern and Southern Peru by means of athletic relays where competitors, representing each of these settlements, ran through the Andean landscape. As with Contacta, each race was accompanied by a series of multisciplinary artistic events taking place in each village where the athletes passed by.

What symbolically marked the radicality of this "community based, land art/rural, popular/peasant project", is its name: 'Chasqui' is an indigenous word, which in Quechua (the dominant language of the Incas) refers to the human messengers used as communications technology in the Inca Empire. The bodies of men and women were used to run from mountain to mountain passing (relaying) messages and news within a kingdom that controlled populations located in a grand mountainous territory. In the case of Arias Vera's Carreras de Chasquis, the obsolete Amerindian technology became an artistic-sport manifestation. In other words, its original functionality was re-contextualized passing from serving a utilitarian practice to an aesthetic and social experience. Bearing in mind the low self esteem of the Peruvian peasant lower class whose subjectivization is articulated and formed by a dominant racist pyramidal social structure, these experiences might well have served to empower the social-body by means of a cultural indigenous tradition that, was in turn, interrupted by the process of colonialism and left behind or marginalized by the nation-state project of the urban ruling class that ruled prior to the Revolutionary Military Government.


* Originally published in: Lagomarsino Runo and Motta Carlos, The Future Lasts Forever, Gavle Konstcentrum/ Iaspis?, 2011.

1) In Juan Martín Sánchez, La revolución peruana: ideología y práctica política de un gobierno military 1968 – 1975. Seville: Universidad de Sevilla 2002 (Translation the author’s)

2) In Politica Cultural del Peru; por el Instituto Nacional de Cultura, on-line 1977 version to the Unesco:

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