In Peru, young artists are exploring their roots – while trying to change the way the Latin American country regards itself.
Mural by Entes&Pésimo. Foto: Heriberto Paredes.
Mural by Entes&Pésimo. Foto: Entes&Pésimo.
“I felt like a black guy from New York trapped in Peru.” With these words, graffiti artist Entes opens a gathering in his Lima studio to talk about one of the issues still under construction in the Latin American country: Afro-Peruvian identity. His forthcoming manner belongs to the man behind the alias, Lima native Joan Jiménez, a person you can speak with upfront, an artist who, through each painting and mural, maintains a process of self-analysis, a search for identity as well as for a reaction from a multicultural society that doesn’t consider itself as such.
The history of African descendants in Peru and throughout Latin America, is the story of a trans-African people, the story of the lives of those who were brought from the coasts of Africa to the “New World” as slaves. They lost the vestiges of their hometowns, but not their traditions or history, nor, of course, the features and color pointing them towards the Mother Continent.
While the “black” or “mulatto” population was at one point the most representative ethnic group in Lima, after a long period of statistical silence, Afro-Peruvians today represent around 2.5 percent of the population. This may explain their invisibility on an official level, despite their cultural weight. African slaves were transported to the most important regions of the Pacific coast, Lima among them, and mainly to the Chincha or the Ica region of modern Peru. The heterogeneous characteristic of Lima and racial ambiguity in the country are ingredients which may help understand the limbo in which some Afro-Peruvians find themselves. What occurred in order for a young man like Joan Jiménez, alias Entes, to feel like someone from another country, trapped in a Peruvian reality?
Since the age of fifteen, the aerosol can has been an instrument for Entes to develop his artistic preoccupations and to create murals as answers to his identity, undeterred by his parents looking down on their son’s desire to dedicate himself to painting: “Since they didn’t much like the idea of me being a painter, I decided on a format that they wouldn’t understand and therefore wouldn’t worry about what I was doing… My parents never realized, I hid the bag of cans in the tree outside my house. All my friends knew it was there, and that whoever touched it was dead. I suffered a lot to obtain one can, so getting it was a massive effort.”
Mural by Entes&Pésimo. Photo: Entes&Pésimo.
Born in a humble neighborhood in Lima and with the experience of knowing what it means to work hard since childhood and build brick by brick at home, at school he began to develop a feeling of being uprooted. After moving with his family from the Comas neighborhood to Chorillos and attending a school outside his old area, they started to be “neither here nor there,” he explains. “It was like being in limbo, and what filled this void was rap music.” After dropping out of architectural studies, in which he had enrolled on his father’s initiative, he began to paint more and more, until gradually receiving recognition from the community. However, it was in Chile, around 2002, that the Entes name was forged and his view on Latin-American graffiti changed. “I decided to change my name to Entes,” he explains, “since that was what I painted: these entities, beings that, little by little, started taking on a personality, and they continued confronting, as I did, many social challenges, such as being black in a white artistic class, and experiencing my first encounters with discrimination in shopping malls, nightclubs, as well as being detained by the police for no reason, all things which started to define me.”
Listening to African-American rappers like Dead Prez or Talib Kweli, reading Malcolm X, Martin Luther King or even hearing communiqés by the Black Panthers and seeing the art developed by Emory Douglas, were essential sources of inspiration for the graffiti artist. “It’s like hip-hop has the purpose, like the Black Panther movement, to nourish people with culture,” he explains. Nevertheless, his “third root” doesn’t escape him. Despite having been a loyal follower of rap from the United States, in the bosom of the family he was nurtured on other rhythms: “In my grandmother’s house, I was super entertained, seeing all my aunts and uncles together, listening to creole music, dancing, conversing. My uncle would pick up the guitar and sing while my cousin would grab the cajón and play.”
After living in Manhattan for a period of time, painting in the Bronx and, in a certain way, demystifying prejudices that he had brought with him from Lima, in 2006 he started studying at an art school and, little by little, began to accept “the white man.” He began to understand the richness of working together. This was also reflected in his art: “I wanted to integrate those two worlds within a painting and, I decided to paint these people. They changed from being black to being thousands of colors within one person, because when it comes down to it, that is what we are,” says Entes, as the opaque light coming through Lima’s panza de burro (the sea of clouds stuck over the city leaving no space for the blue sky) dull everything around him.
Although Emory’s Panthers were always a passion of his, Entes felt that something was missing, that he needed to update his representations: “In one way or another, I feel that it falls on me. I feel I have the power to construct that graphic.” His graffiti not only retrieves the black roots, but also includes other roots that make up a multicultural Peru.
It is no coincidence that his work contains recurrent elements like the mixed faces: thick lips, brown skin, faces of multiple colors, slanted eyes – everything on one wall. “Entes&Pésimo” is the combination of two graffiti artists. Pésimo is of Japanese descent, and in a way, the joint work with Entes invents a new race. “There are places where we’ve painted totems made up of one head after the other; in others we’ve just made the head, like the protector, the one that’s brought us here”, explains Entes. “It’s a mystical side of us, and this fusion of two races creates a third, which is a deity”. In their work, we can appreciate the maternal figure, men and women with diverse features, and festive motifs, which allude to the diverse cultures that make up twenty-first century Peru.
Currently, Entes finds himself immersed in a project on “neo-indigenousness”, through which he tries to break with yesterday’s Peruvian cliché and create an updated image of Peru. He positions an African character in a painting or composition from the nineteenth century in 2017, where he plays with diverse cultures in landscapes with strong distinctive features, like the Andes mountain ranges. “And then people say, ‘oh, but right there is a Chinese, a Black and a Mestizo’. This generates all the stories I hear in Afro-Peruvian music. The mix makes of the Peruvian what it is today, that a Chinese came and made that ceviche cut, that a black man came along and fried a cow’s heart and called it anticucho, that there is a purple Christ, a black Christ, who is the Lord of Miracles and deity for all black people here. And not just for blacks,” he explains.
Entes&Pésimo held their first exhibition in 2004 and also participated with a graffiti in Calle 13’s music video for the song “Latinoamerica”. As a result of this work, they created the festival Latido Americano, that seeks to unite all Latin-American graffiti artists and muralists. Latin America, says Entes, means sharing common problems, sharing, in fact, the “third root” and the constant search for identity – “and I believe” he says, “that together we can discover it.”
Sonia Håkansson is a Spanish journalist, photographer and film-maker. Heriberto Paredes is a Mexican journalist and photographer. They both report about resistance histories.
Translated from the Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen