Rebecca Jarman, Lecturer of Latin American Cultural Studies at The University of Leeds explores Alvaro Delgado Aparicio’s Retablo, screening as part of ¡Viva! Festival 2019.
What is a Retablo?
The term comes from the Latin retaulus – it is a composite of retro (return, backwards) and tabula (table, writing tablet, legal record, frontal). It speaks of an attempt to resurrect the past with the process of carving, shaping or engraving a durable material. It reveals a desire for the preservation of stories that are beyond the scope of a single lifespan. It conveys the marvel of freezing time, to gaze upon myth and history in the present moment. In the form of a hand-held wooden box, the retablo is a palpable memory and an object of devotion. It is adorned with miniature shutters and painted with bright, bold colours and cheerful symbols. Look inside, and you’ll find tiny figurines that have been lovingly created from potato-flour plaster. You might be invited to a religious festival, or to an intimate viewing of a scene from the Bible. You may be offered a glimpse of history, or be allowed to peep into a private household. The expressions of your new companions span the entire spectrum of human emotions. Their actions tell of stories ended only by your imagination. They live in an enchanted world, and perhaps get up to mischief while no one is watching. They are a reminder that our world is replete with magic, mystery and intrigue. Our reality is animated by people long gone, places long lost and days long concluded. The retablo is also known affectionately as cajas de imaginario (imagination boxes).
A Brief History
The most emblematic style of the retablo originates in Ayacucho, in the south-central Peruvian highlands. This provides the setting for the film, and also its style, form and structure. Written studies of the retablo are sparse, although commentators tend to agree that it arrived in the Andes with the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s. The Iberians, in turn, inherited the tradition from the Christian crusaders of Northern Europe. Errant knights would carry religious icons as forms of protection on long and perilous journeys. In the Americas, the retablos had multiple purposes and functions: they were used as portable altars, to ward off enemies and to allow for mobile worship. Later, they were used as teaching devices on missions to evangelize indigenous peoples. Boxes depicted the myth of origin and varied accounts from the Gospel. Although drawn from Catholic narratives, these portrayals are adorned with Andean imagery. Dining tables groan under the weight of corn, fish and potatoes. Trees hang heavy with flowers and fruits found only at tropical altitudes. Birds native to Andean skies perch on the frames of the wooden shutters. For many years, the retablo was conceived as a naïve form of folkloric practice, despite the exquisite craftsmanship that went into their making. They took pride of place in homes and churches, especially in rural towns and villages. But the retablos were seldom seen at the prestigious art fairs, galleries or museums of the Peruvian capital. Rather, these were dominated by the work of artists from Lima that was deemed more sophisticated and more cosmopolitan.
Of late, the retablo has received increasing attention from the Peruvian art world. Retablos from early twentieth-century workshops are currently on display in the permanent collection of the Museo de Arte de Lima (Lima Art Museum). A portrait of Joaquín López Antay, the most renowned maestro (master) of retablos, features on the front cover of the catalogue for their current exhibition, ‘Otras historias posibles’ (‘Other Possible Stories’). The show casts a critical gaze on the definitions of art as delimited in Peruvian art history. It seeks to embrace artefacts and visions once excluded by urban curators. This renewed interest in the Andean experience forms part of a nation-wide turn to the region, following two decades of armed conflict that devastated large parts of the Peruvian countryside. Ayacucho was among the areas most gravely affected by the violence of the 1980s and 1990s, when the Peruvian military and Maoist organization Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) struggled for power in remote towns and villages. Indeed, parts of this history have found their way into contemporary retablos. Some depict the crisis points that led up to the eruption of the violence. Others portray the horrors of war and its consequences that remain unspeakable. And it is this, in part, that informs the new wave of Peruvian cinema. Filmmakers have sought to tackle the taboos of civil conflict. Claudia Llosa’s La Teta asustada (The Milk of Sorrow) (2009) tells a tale of intergenerational trauma. Óscar Caracora’s Aymara film, Wiñaypacha (Eternity) (2018), reflects on loss, exile and abandonment. Retablo probes paternal love, estrangement and justice. These cinematic forays into the legacy of war coincide with state-led reconciliation projects. But these are still at an incipient stage of detangling social issues that are extremely sensitive and highly complex.
In his first feature-length production, Delgado Aparicio approaches some of the most polemical aspects of the conflict. From the outset, the tone of the film is saturated by a fear of strangers and of strangeness. In the Andes, mistrust is a legacy of colonialism and the threat represented by outsiders. Here, it is felt acutely by a community vulnerable to more recent episodes of violence. At a critical juncture in the film, the viewer bears witness to mob justice. For the most part, though, these elements are supressed, and are pushed towards the background. Brought up front are Segundo, an artist-in-the-making, and his father, Noé, a much revered maestro. Like the beholder of a retablo, we are granted exclusive insight into their relationship. This is framed by Segundo with his father, examining the family scene that they will immortalize in their workshop. So begins a series of sequences that open onto key moments in Segundo’s adolescence. We spy through windows and peer through door frames into this fictionalized realm of Ayacucho. It is a not only a place that is haunted by decades of military warfare, although this legacy is not forgotten. It is also a delightful world of song and dance, of celebration, of folklore and of talent. In close-up shots of painstaking work, the director emphasizes the technical demands of making the retablo. This is given life by the immersive acting of Junior Bejar Roca and Amiel Cayo, both native speakers of Quechua. Their on-screen interactions are set against the iconic backdrop of Ayacucho and its mountains. The director has gone all out to make his film unmistakably Peruvian. But, like the best retablos, he also tells a story of love and anguish that is universal.
Written by Rebecca Jarman, University of Leeds
¡Viva! Spanish & Latin American Festival 2019 runs from Fri 22 Mar 2019 – Sat 13 Apr 2019. Find out more and book tickets here.