Claudia Martínez Garay and Arturo Kameya Explore Peruvian History

Arturo Kameya, Terreno en litigio, (2024)

With their new work, artists Claudia Martínez Garay and Arturo Kameya Confront Cultural Identity, Memory, and the Legacy of Coloniality 

This year, Zona Maco celebrated its 20th anniversary, which was held from February 8th to 11th. Among the hundreds of artists and galleries that presented work were artists Claudia Martínez Garay and Arturo Kameya with Grimm Gallery, its first time at the fair. Peruvian-born, Amsterdam-based Garay and Kameya interrogate the socio-political intricacies of Peru, examining their cultural identity and history while referencing Andean iconography.

At the art fair, Martínez Garay presented three paintings that continued her exploration of Peruvian history and its relationship with colonialism, La Nueva Cosecha (The New Harvest) and Encuentros Cercanos del Cuarto Tipo (Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind). The first was created with acrylic and clay on canvas, and the other two are standing acrylic paintings on cutout wood panels displayed on a plinth. In her work, the artist incorporates Peruvian artefacts that convey sentiments like despair and loss while considering issues like belonging, extraction, and brownness. Martínez Garay’s clay work alludes to Peruvian soil, ground that, unfortunately, has fallen victim to climate change and growing deforestation. The artist shares that though the soil is absent La Nueva Cosecha, the abstract depictions of native potatoes, sweet potatoes, mashuas, ollucos (tuber), and beans gesture to the Peruvian clay and the dirt in which they grow. In painting these shapes, she wanted to bring forth memories and emotional connections she and others like her have with them. 

Her use of abstraction and reference to Andean iconography is also incorporated through the hunting presence of an angry human-like face seen in the background in the centre of the painting. The artist describes the face as mesmerizing, an apt descriptor for the way the eyes peer out at the viewer. There’s a mystery to it that’s further highlighted by the surrounding white banners with white text. Martínez Garay explained that the white-on-white text is meant to gesture to the colonizers of Peru, who lacked colour while honouring Andean thinkers like José María Arguedas, Atahualpa Yupanqui, and Mercedes Sosa. 

Claudia Martínez Garay, La Nueva Cosecha / The New Harvest, (2023 – 2024)

In Encuentros Cercanos del Cuarto Tipo, Martínez Garay elicits reminders of the violence of colonialism perpetrated in their confrontations and interactions with other cultures. By setting the lantern-shaped paintings in a sci-fi context, the artist foregrounds the use of abduction and extraction in science fiction films and links them to the stealing of knowledge, artefacts, and people committed by colonizers. Furthermore, it highlights the past while pointing to future possibilities, that is, potential consequences that could continue to impact colonized nations. 

For his contribution at Zona Maco, Kameya presented four acrylic and clay powder-on wood paintings and a standalone piece constructed of a cutout painting of a motorcycle without wheels on a wooden platform. In describing the thematic framework of his work, the artist states that the focus is on the role of the Peruvian state and its relationship with the urban context of Lima, particularly references to aspects of Christian doctrines like guilt and debt. Related to Martínez Garay’s focus on the colonization of Peru, Kameya centres on how a guiding aim of the practice was to “improve” and civilize nations like Peru. The artist shares that the incorporation of guilt underscores the guilt that is perceived by colonized societies as failed projects of modernization and civilization and the financial debt it necessitates. By zeroing in on Lima, Kameya challenges the idea that the geographic site in which production occurs is considered civilization, and anything that exists on the periphery is considered barbarism. He further shares that in this context, belief systems don’t stay in a religious or spiritual realm, but instead, guarantees of development and progress become “a secular distorted version of another belief system, and everything standing against it can be labelled as the fear of choice.”

The artist depicts urban centres in Peru in grey, challenging the idea that modernization is meant to improve and move cities forward. Kameya shares that modernization, as it is defined in textbooks, with the promise of development and progress, hasn’t happened in nations like Peru. What has transpired is that resources and knowledge have been extracted, class and race have fractured, and the country and its people have been exploited. This portrayal is related to Martínez Garay’s use of science fiction to depict the extraction and abduction of culture in Encuentros Cercanos del Cuarto Tipo. 

Though they examine the colonialism and cultural identity of Peru, Martínez Garay and Kameya reside in Amsterdam. The artists were residents at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, and after it ended, they both stayed in the city. When asked about how living in Europe influences her work and how she reconciles the colonialist history of Europe as a Peruvian in Amsterdam, Martínez Garay states that though she is a foreigner, living in the city allows her to explore and question the ideas she has about her native country. She further elaborates that despite her years in Amsterdam, she is still navigating the challenges that come with residing in a place with a colonial history and how the limited understanding of the past reflects on how that history is shaped, fixed, and spread. 

Arturo Kameya, Ascención I, (2024)

“It’s important to understand the invisible connections and powers that have been exported and franchised,” she says. Martínez Garay only started to question colonization and decolonization when she moved to Amsterdam through conversations with Dutch, Indonesian, and Korean friends. Through speaking with them, she has learned about the colonialist history of other European countries, further highlighting the links that can be found worldwide. As she communicates through her work and reiterates in our interview, Western cultures are seemingly obsessed with selling and looting anything that can be sold and stolen, which includes humans., and continues today. Instead of learning from nations like Peru and embracing, as Martínez Garay says, the richness of difference and eliminating ignorance of cultures, the West homogenizes them. 

Martínez Gamay’s work, which is firmly grounded in examining the history and current events of Peru, is a way to illumine a country and culture that is often overlooked and unknown, especially to people in European cities like Amsterdam. She recognizes that the distance between two countries doesn’t negate the interconnections between situations in both countries. The artist says, “We are experiencing similar situations in different ways and other times. When I talk about Peru, it is not just a self-referential bubble. Instead, it serves as a reflection of the world’s diverse situations.” She further elaborates that Peru is a broken and distorted mirror of the world. Martínez Gamay’s work produces the capability to confront issues that are based on identities, like colour, class, and origin. Art allows her to challenge these issues in ways that the written word can’t. 

“My work is intended to provide a glimpse into the essence of Andean identities, especially focused on Peru, taking into account our past, present, and future. The voids created by the violent erasure of colonialism, which is inseparable from modernity and religion,” she says. 

While the geographical separation for Kameya has led to the loss of connections with aspects of the national context, it has also provided the opportunity to notice things that are only possible because of the division. The artist points to the adoption of a Eurocentric global vision in Latin America. He says, “It makes you rethink the role these perspectives have in your mindset. And you question who is not as an individual but as a part of the collective.”

Portrait of Claudia Martínez Garay and Arturo Kameya, Courtsey of Jonathan de Waart

Living in Amsterdam means not only a physical distance from their native country but also a disconnection from cultural aspects, like language. In preparing her work, Martínez Gamay conducts substantial research into Peruvian history and Incan civilization. Considering the history of colonization in the country, the archival material can potentially be available in English, Spanish, or Quechua. When asked how she negotiates linguistic differences in her research, Martínez Gamay shares that though she tries to understand Peru’s history by exploring various sources, the historical writings she’s come across were produced by Europeans from religious, archaeological, and anthropological backgrounds. The archival written material she comes across is primarily in German, Spanish, and other European languages. 

“Understanding a culture requires a deep understanding of its language and customs,” she says. An understanding of Peru’s culture includes a comprehension of Quechua, which, despite being an official language and spoken by a vast majority of people in the country, is not used by the government, that is, the people in power in the capital. For Martínez Gamay, this reflects the racism that is present in the government and the country and the divide between the capital and the rest of the country. This echoes Kameya’s argument that anything located outside the urbanized centre of a country is considered uncivilized and is also an example of the continued impact of colonialism.

While she has resided in Amsterdam for many years, returning to Peru to produce work is a wish of Martínez Gamay, but something she acknowledges may not occur for some time because of the unresolved political situation. She shares that when that move takes place, her work will change, perhaps becoming more personal, but it will be a far richer experience for her. For Kameya, his memories play a significant role in the production of his new work. The artist says, “Memories allow you to incorporate atmospheres and environments so that some part of it can align with the background of a person who does not share the same cultural codes as you.” He elaborates that in paintings, the context of images can sometimes be difficult to grasp and read, but through alternative channels, meaning can be transmitted. 

In Terreno en litigio, Kameya depicts an apparatus resembling the fair ride Zero Gravity that spins, forcing the riders to have to hold on tight. This can be perceived as commentary on the troubling aspect of Peruvian life and distrust toward state institutions. The artist shares that the rapid turnover of presidents in Peru, six in five years, has resulted in political instability that has turned into violence. This instability is assisted by the current attempts by state institutions like Congress to monopolize power while citizens continue to lose jobs, interest rates remain higher than the standard of the region, and the lack of acknowledgement of killings that happened during protests in 2022-2023.

For both artists, their work grants them the space to examine their personal history and its relation to Peru. By looking to the past, they not only construct links to the current events but also foreground how the past continues to reverberate through and shape Peruvian culture. They challenge the archaic belief that the establishment of Western powers in nations like Peru brought about development and advancement that improved the lives of all citizens. In incorporating Andean iconography, they preserve aspects of the past that could have been extracted or erased. 

Both artists also have work in upcoming solo shows. Arturo Kameya’s Opaque Spirits at Marres House Maastricht in Maastricht, Netherlands, opens on March 7th and runs to May 26th. Claudia Martínez Garay will have her first solo exhibition in a UK institution at Nottingham Contemporary in Nottingham, England, opening on May 25th and closing on September 8th. She will also have her first major solo exhibition in Scotland at Dundee Contemporary Arts in Dundee, Scotland, running from August 23rd to November 17th. 

Written by Karla Méndez