— I —
Her / Hair / Heir / Heirloom…
Can a play on words play out the polysemy of images?
The conundrum of their entanglement
with a history yearning to be collective.
But inevitably unravelled in multiple, singular, stories.
Such as those of the ordinary / extraordinary women
captured by these intriguing photographs of the everyday doings
of an eccentric start-up initiated barely a year ago
in Huayronccoyoc Pampa, at the outskirts of Ollantaytambo:
one of Cuzco’s most paradoxical towns,
submerged in history, in geography, in geology itself,
and at the same time threatened
by the disturbing effects of mass tourism
that convert its ancient culture
into a thematic park.
A once small, semirural community,
with outstanding Inka origins, and monuments,
transfigured by the tantalizing bounties
derived from its transformation into the most important outpost
on route to the dreamlands of Machu Picchu.
Driven by complex personal reasons
Kiara Kulisic moved from Lima to the fringes
of that now cosmopolitan village,
intent on establishing a home-grown production
of high-quality wigs
manually made, by native hands, with natural hair.
With motivations of her own, but similarly painful
Leslie Osterling accompanied that project
through a sequence of photographic forays
that gradually procured
the enticing set of images now in exhibition.
— II —
Exposed in their narrative, as well as in their artistry.
There is something liberating in these pictures.
Inscribed in them we can ponder the emancipatory potential
of such innovative enterprises.
Particularly for rural women:
the insertion they thus attain in a different market economy
permits them to acquire not just a trade but a certain autonomy.
And, above all, a sense of agency that loosens their entrapment
within the twin constraints of their disrupted community.
Ollantaytambo’s (post)modern weavers
manage to elude some (some) of the archaic burdens
placed on the feminine condition by peasant societies.
But they do so without falling prey to the bastardizing demands
of turning their real selves into the congealed simulacra
of an essentialized identity paraded as a banal commodity
for quick tourist consumption.
These women do not perform their identity.
They metabolize it.
They are not spoken by the past,
although the past undeniably inhabits them.
They translate it into their present, actual, existences.
In a plural sense that recognizes, and enhances,
their contemporary singularities.
Each one of them has a name.
A proper, individual name.
Written into the very title of each photograph.
And thus, subtly but incisively,
into the semiotic texture woven around the pictures.
Through the images themselves.
— III —
Through the images and their context:
their at times dramatic settings,
that might seem staged,
but are also part of the factual surroundings
of their everyday lives.
The homes, the workshop, the land, the landscape.
The intricate knitting of it all in photographs
that are as exact as they are tender.
And poignant. Or surreal.
As in that picture of one of the weaver’s spontaneous breastfeeding
under the watchful gaze of the mannequin heads,
with their sewn hairdos halfway into the making.
And the cell phones casually lying on the worktable.
Or those solo portraits of her companions
silently handling their weaving.
Some of them
— Juanabel Pillco Solís, Flor de María Coronel Quispe —
almost Vermeer like under the light that flows upon them
from the windows hinted at their side.
Next to an orchid.
Or by a glaring and yet mute vessel
made of plastic and glass.
But how their eyes confront us.
— IV —
Placidly. Or enigmatically.
There is a hieratic ambivalence in such semblances.
To the point of becoming allegorical
in the two more ambitious portraits.
Maritza Baca Espinoza and Claudia Ccahua Huaman,
statically posed in front of an imposing lithic formation,
or next to the trapezoidal niche of a crumbling Inka ruin.
But that architectural detail,
so suffused with ancestral connotations
—nearly a shrine—,
surrenders its recesses to the display
of a startlingly blonde wig.
Or not quite:
the visibly dark roots of those transformed hairs
betray their dyed nature.
Their nature betrayed, and redeemed,
through the paradoxical arts of artifice.
Of reverse appropriation, of empowerment even:
what in other contexts would suggest a commercial exhibit
in this placement evokes
the phantom image of a trophy head.
Reembodied by the very attributes of these models
enhancing their own loose hairs entwined with hair extensions
of surprising hues.
Gray, or grayish, with a hint of blue.
Or redundantly black.
Claudia has been photographed here deliberately barefoot.
And almost bundled in native garbs.
But sportsy trousers seem to lurk
from beneath her lavishly woven poncho.
And in the other portrait Maritza’s entire attire
is of cheap synthetic manufacture…
…save for the indigenous mantle in which she holds,
and exhibits, and hides,
the treasure of her child protected from our gaze
by that native fabric.
And by the artificial hair
that prolongs her own natural capillary threads,
interlaced by the lens into the very texture and design
of the traditional garment cloaking her heir.
Her heir, her hair, her heirloom.
Not an inheritance but a heritage.
A legacy, no matter how awkwardly assumed as such.
In yet another elaborated solo portrait,
Luzmarina Silva, Claudia’s pubescent daughter,
contemplates her own unfocused image
vaguely reflected on a mirror in the background.
But what hits our sight, in full close-up detail,
is the dashing cascade
of her gorgeously black, glimmering hair.
A precious token of primordial beauty,
underscored by the typical design motifs in her lliklla,
the traditional Andean shawl.
And yet, the animal figure hanging from the glass
—the looking glass—
is in fact a cheap trinket.
A llama key chain,
massively produced for the tourist trade,
and here blurred by the same effect
that blurs the girl’s semblance as well.
The mirage of identity.
— VI —
Identity as phantasm, as fantasy, as fantasia.
With sometimes spiritual undertones,
brought to the surface in two almost religious photographs:
the aura of those open hands
holding the hairs recently cropped, or dyed.
The longing, the lingering, of an atemporal existence,
duly queried in the remaining photographs
by the real-time of really lived lives.
In all their complexity and contradiction.
A keen response to the tautology
of so many conventional images
content to re-produce a static, essentialist image of identity
as a primeval and eternal given. Softly kitsch.
by subtle but crucial inclusions
in Leslie’s constructed images.
Or in her intuitive captures of what is already present.
As in the large, tired poster
adorning a bright blue wall of the only bedroom
at Juanabels’s home:
a native girl in smiling native attire,
accompanied by an endearing llama,
with the high hills as their inevitable backdrop.
that Leslie’s broader capture
registers in its close proximity
to the thoroughly westernized school trappings
—Captain America and all—
accompanying the portrait of Juanabel’s own son.
While traditional religious images
lie somewhat hidden on a sidewall.
A mise en abyme
of the fetching counterpoints prodding our eyes
throughout the exhibition.
A revelation inscribed not just in the photographer’s gaze
but in the actual home-made aesthetics of its subjects.
And literally painted onto the façades of their community’s houses,
enclosed by majestic Andean landmarks
but identified with English signs
(“Claudia House”, “Elizabeth House”)
courtesy of the Australian ONG responsible
for the reconstruction of the village
after its obliteration by an avalanche.
These are such stuff that dreams are made on.
The very mortar of a culture
inevitably impure and contaminated,
reinventing itself despite all essentialist demands.
Beyond the appeasing gratifications of a naturalized origin.
— VII —
And willing to confront the inescapable challenges
of their subject’s hybrid existences.
Maritza’s daughter, for example.
Lizete Adriana Avilés,
the girl with a makeshift cosmopolitan outfit
flaunting her golden wig while standing tall
on an ancestral boulder. And next to the remnants
of an ancient house built out of mud bricks
with still intricate geometric designs…
…in jarring rhyme with the industrial patterns
adorning her modish pants and glaring footwear.
That glare might well be the decisive moment
in some of Leslie’s more disquieting images.
The contrived neon glitters that pervasively infiltrate
the domestic attributes of the weavers’ true lifestyles.
The sneakers, some jackets, every plastic clothespin
and even the synthetic chord that holds these last,
in the posed portrait of Juanabel,
and her children, and her dog,
in front of their cement house.
In the midst of an exuberant countryside
nowhere to be found
in this particular take.
But everywhere breathable.
Their yet unpainted house of cement.
What colours shall bring life to those surfaces?
Are they expectant or are they deprived?
It is tempting to perceive
in these pictures’ continuous counterpoints and intrusions
something akin to what Roland Barthes
famously denominated the punctum of the photograph.
But the punctum, as Barthes would have it, is non-deliberate.
It belongs to the realm of the unconscious of the image.
It is not demonstrated by the photograph
by the wounded personal gaze of the beholder.
My gaze, for example, pricked above all
by the sense of lack in that last picture.
The unpainted wall, the missing husband,
the absent father,
the nature known to surround it all
but cloistered out of the camera’s frame.
Only to overwhelm us
in a single, major, photograph,
conceived as an almost telluric abstraction
of the utter, the solemn silence, of the apu:
the grand sacred mountain,
freckled with nearly imperceptible archaeological remains.
Cultura fused into natura
in an animistic cosmos
over the weaver’s homes and their fields.
Soon to be radically transformed.
— IX —
Perhaps that suspense is the latent tension
that so energizes these images.
An expectancy in some point ominous,
and yet gravid with a certain
element of hope.
A force to be glimpsed even in those apparently warm
photographs that picture together all the weavers
displaying their assortment of wigs
while horizontally lined up under the goal
of a football field in Huayronccoyoc Pampa.
Or randomly strewn in a bright but hidden garden.
With the mild flowers and the quiet greenery
somehow unsettled by the entangled mixture
of hairs, of fabrics, of skins.
The secret gardens of identity.
Their conundrums, their cryptic rhymes.
Delicately inserted into the images,
by the images’ own structural paradox.
—and the friction—
that relates the orderly line-up of weavers
with the irregular profile of the mountain range.
Looming over the horizon.
— Coda —
It is (melo)dramatically appropriate for this text
to find closure in pointing out the also textile connotations
of that highly charged term.
And its free association with the subverted notion of legacy,
linguistically woven here into its very subject.
Its very anatomy.