Thinking inside the box
Victor Huáman Gutiérrez’s exhibit Retablos: A New Voice
When a woman in the Peruvian town of Ayacucho commissioned Victor Huáman Gutierrez’s father to construct boxes for her family retablos, nine-yearold Victor came along for the journey to Peru’s central highlands. Huáman Gutiérrez remained for three months, helping make the boxes, and was inspired by the retablos he saw — so different from those of his own village, where retablo figures were made from molds. “They impressed me a lot,” Huáman Gutiérrez, who does not speak English, told Pasatiempo through a translator. “For the first time I felt an incomparable happiness. I wanted to be better than this guy. My idea at nine years old was to be the best in the world.”
You may have seen Huáman Gutiérrez’s works for sale at this year’s International Folk Art Market, and his contemporary-themed retablos are on view in the exhibit Retablos: A New Voice at William Siegal Gallery through Tuesday, July 28. This is the first time his work has been represented by a U.S. gallery, and the market was his first experience selling his wares in such a venue. “I met him nine years ago in Peru,” said Santa Fe resident and Folk Art Market volunteer Shelly Batt. “He was about to stop working because he couldn’t make any money. He used to participate in national contests, but they’re kind of like a scam, because whoever promotes the contests keeps the works, and the winners get very little pay in exchange. The last contest he participated in — for which he created a brilliant piece of art about the wars in Peru, with 15 retablos depicting the Incas up to the present day — they gave him money, but it was nothing near what he deserved, so he stopped doing that. He couldn’t support himself.” Batt, who hosted Huáman Gutiérrez while he was in Santa Fe, is also his benefactor. “I started buying his stuff so he could keep working,” she said.
Unlike the santero tradition in New Mexico, in which artists create religious- and contemporary-themed bultos and retablos, carved from wood by hand, Huáman Gutiérrez crafts the multitudinous figures that inhabit his pieces from a traditional mixture of flour, gypsum, and water. The works depict elaborately detailed scenes of life in modern Peru. Peruvian retablos typically have three tiers built into boxes with hinged, hand-painted doors, often displaying floral designs. Huáman Gutiérrez uses this structure for satirical commentary on the differences between urban and rural life. “I’m making cultural comparisons between the small town where I live, which is about 5,000 people; to a town the size of Santa Fe, which is like Cusco, which is a 40-minute bus ride; and to the capital, Lima, which has millions of people,” he said. A piece titled Markets, which can be seen at William Siegal, underscores the differences. The bottom tier shows a rural, mountainous landscape, where villagers in traditional dress and burros laden with packs carry their produce. It’s a sharp contrast to the top section of the piece, showing a typical supermarket with produce neatly stacked on shelves and signage announcing its cost. In all three sections, a dog appears among the crowds of people, but only in the top section is the dog collared and leashed.
Among Batt’s collection, a smaller retablo called The Myth of the Indigenous People depicts tourists in Cusco at a dance, where paid dancers stomp and twirl,
beautifully dressed in full costume. Above, the scene is starkly different: Dancers in a village off the beaten track for most visitors to the region are dressed in ragged, dirty clothing, underscoring the poverty in which they live. But if you ask Huáman Gutiérrez why they smile despite being poor, he answers, “Even though we’re poor, we’re happy in our hearts.” A work called The Invasion of China: From Slaves to Owners is a narrative piece in which the poor work the mines, exploited by bureaucrats who line their pockets with money made off the former’s toil and sweat.
At first, Huáman Gutiérrez was impressed by the retablos made by his brother. “My brother stopped going to school to work on his retablos,” he said. Huáman Gutiérrez is primarily self-taught, with a natural eye for anatomy and visual representation. “I didn’t have materials, so I made my own.” Today Huáman Gutiérrez still manufactures his own brushes and tools. He made his first brush using the hair of a burro after the Ayacucho retablista told him it was a good source for bristles. “We didn’t have a burro, so I went to my neighbor and asked if I could buy the hair of his burro,” he said. Other tools used to shape and form the figures are also made from natural materials, gathered by hand, such as cypress wood. He hand-colors each figure with a water-based tempera, the same type of children’s paint he started using when he first decided to become a retablista.
Huáman Gutiérrez lives with his elderly parents in the town of Quinua, never leaving for more than a few days at a time. He has left Peru only once — and that was during his visit to Santa Fe. But most of the works at William Siegal have already sold. You might see him again at the Folk Art Market, where interest in his work outshone that for other Peruvian artists working in the retablista tradition. “I would love to come back,” he said. “I hope that life will permit me to come back.”
Victor Huáman Gutiérrez: The Invasion of China: From Slaves to Owners, 2015; top right, Markets,
2013; opposite page, top left (detail), The Shining Path, 2013; all wood, flour, water, and tempera