Unveiling Secrets of War in the Peruvian Andes. Olga M. González. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Article first published online: 29 MAY 2012
© 2012 by the American Anthropological Association
Visual Anthropology Review
Volume 28, Issue 1, pages 78–79, Spring 2012
How to Cite
Henrici, J. (2012), Unveiling Secrets of War in the Peruvian Andes. Olga M. González. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Visual Anthropology Review, 28: 78–79. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-7458.2012.01115.x
- Issue published online: 29 MAY 2012
- Article first published online: 29 MAY 2012
Unveiling Secrets of War in the Peruvian Andes describes research conducted during the mid- to late 1990s on political and economic events of the early to mid-1980s. The study is based on the responses from Peruvian villagers in the south-central highlands to a set of 24 paintings on boards produced in Lima during the early 1990s. The title of the book suggests that it will reveal certain information that has been hidden; the text convinces that the villagers know this information but they will neither paint nor discuss it.
The 1980s for Peru were years in which violence spread across the country and inflation grew so large that it added to the terror. The decade started with the Maoist group referred to as Sendero Luminoso [Shining Path] launching its bloody campaign in the south-central highlands, and it ended with that campaign fully extended to the coastal capital. During the same period, military and paramilitary actions declared as countering the Sendero created their own virulent campaign. The nation's economic situation worsened mid-decade until hyperinflation ballooned to composite percentage rates between six and seven figures during 1988–89. The decade's political and economic unrest continued into the 1990s, while the effects have gone on for much longer.
Efforts to cope with trauma and shock at every level of activity became normalized for many of the Peruvians who did not leave the country and, to an extent, for those of us who worked on projects in Peru during the 1980s and early 1990s. A key coping strategy included the use of an obfuscating rhetoric, a verbal camouflage that was put on for self-protection and which can remain difficult to shed. In Unveiling, Olga M. González seeks to get at the historical background to those times and the responses—perhaps including a cover-up—by indigenous people of the Peruvian highlands, as well as current relations among these villagers.
The method González employed in her field research was to show a specific type of painting on wood, a tabla pintada [painted board], to villagers of Sarhua and ask them questions about the content of the artwork and their reactions to it. These particular tablas formed a set of artworks painted between 1991 and 1992 by members of a cooperative made up of villagers who had moved to Lima, almost all of whom were men. The paintings portray the violence experienced within Sarhua in the early 1980s, with certain notable gaps and with chronological inconsistency in the enumeration of each set of images in the series.
González traces the literature and history about tablas pintadas and their painting style as descended from centuries-long traditions in the Andean mountains. She describes how these paintings in recent decades have come to be used by villagers who no longer rely primarily on herding and farming in their efforts both to commercialize the painted boards as an income source and employ visual media to broadcast the horrors that happened in Sarhua (or, as the author emphasizes, a selection from among the horrors).
Using her analysis of her ethnographic interviews conducted in the Sarhua in the political unit of Ayacucho 1996–97, González presents a situation in which a shared silence about a selection of the occurrences of the 1980s seems to maintain something of the initial impact on the villagers who were there or who feel connected to those who were present. The two dozen paintings, along with their captions and villager conversations with González, all openly portray many of the most egregious events in and near the village from the 1980s. However, a few key moments out of the known history of Sarhua during that period are missing from both the paintings and, as González learns, from direct statements among Sarhuinos. González finds the most significant gap to lie within the invisibility and silence about the disappearance of a man who had become known for being greedy for land; personally violent against those who were unwilling to sell or give up their claims; and, with his accusations against fellow villagers of being Sendero, willing to use the vicious responses of the paramilitary to get his own way.
González can only speculate on whether villagers are unable or are reluctant to speak, or whether they might be consciously resisting the sharing of what they know. Sarhuino exegesis of the paintings nevertheless does show that violent acts perpetrated by Sendero, by Peruvian paramilitary, and by other villagers affected individuals in a heterogeneous manner. In their interviews with González, the Quechua-speaking Sarhuinos describe seeing the images of themselves and their neighbors in terms of their actions, their experiences, and even their physical placement when events took place—within view, or only within earshot, or perhaps only hearing stories told months and years later. Differences in their relationships to events among villagers lead to a situation in which the silence and invisibility also affect them distinctly. Their reactions to the paintings no doubt vary also: while some persons in Sarhua might be calculated in their caution as they helpfully describe to the anthropologist what they say they find within each of the paintings she shows them, others might be still unable to speak about those events.
González makes every effort to discuss the methods and background of the paintings as well as the responses they elicited with her questions during her stay in Sarhua. She goes into detail about her own confusions and her studious efforts not to push those she interviewed even when they seemed to see, or not see, what she did as she looked at the art. What González seems to “unveil” are multiple ways to perceive, and share perceptions about, art that is considered to be part of a communal heritage, a tool for outreach to those who might not have shared in the suffering being shown, and even a method of communicating accusations against perpetrators to those who might bring justice.
The author also makes an effort to tell a somewhat dramatic mystery story with a hint toward the end that readers should take a guess at solving it. This perhaps is a less convincing aspect of the ethnography, at least in terms of her analysis, since in some ways presenting the gap in the paintings and villager silence about it as a mystery undermines her argument that it is, in fact, not a mystery (at least to the villagers) but rather a piece of information that is known but kept hidden. In addition, if it is not a mystery to the villagers and something they refuse or are unable to talk about, then perhaps it should remain “veiled” or risk becoming gossip—another topic of the book—rather than a puzzle to be solved. Another concern with the book that is less thematic and more stylistic has to do with the defining of certain terms throughout the text and in the glossary. An inconsistency appears in that some terms considered worth a fuller definition appear with that explanation in the text but not the glossary while others show up in both.
The strength of Unveiled comes through in its unwrapping descriptions of Sarhuinos and their efforts to supply González with information about past events, revealing what the villagers could and would say about what they had viewed and heard previously and saw in the paintings she showed them. Each villager comes across with an individual personality as well as a sense of community: commonly, scholarly portrayals either show one or the other and the combination is much harder to accomplish.
This is a book that could be put to use in teaching some of the strengths and limits of ethnographic research, both that using visual media and in general. A methods class would employ the book well in a discussion of the use of an art as a source of ethnographic material as well as a means to elicit and help tie together more. This book is also of educational as well as empirical value among those focused on the experiences of indigenous cultures and communities with different forms of Communism; in particular, the description in Unveiled of Andean kin and labor units, ayllus, and the treatment by Sendero of their strategically stored surplus as if it were the same as privately hoarded profits calls to mind Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence, and Place in Southwest China (Erik Meuggler, University of California Press, 2001) and Tenacity of Ethnicity: A Siberian Saga in Global Perspective (Marjorie Balzar, Princeton University Press, 1999). Finally, Unveiled also should be taught in classes about the anthropology of Peru with the contribution the book provides to our understanding of the experiences and reactions of Quechua-speaking communities of both the Andean mountains and the Pacific coast to the disastrous events of the 1980s in that nation.