What to make of this 19th C. Arab-Chinese-Peruvian portrait?

When traveling in much of the world, it is easy to imagine that some relatively brief period earlier — a couple of decades, perhaps half a century — the place being visited was culturally authentic and undistorted by outside influence, as opposed to the homogenizing jet-age of mass travel we live in today.  But consider these remarkable Peruvian watercolor portraits from the Iklé collection at the Museum of International Folk Art, which were painted in the mid-19th century in a genre known as costumbrismo and are typical of that period’s fascination with the categorization of cultural and ethnic types.  They are in the style of Francisco “Pancho” Fierro, a well-known protraitist in 19th century Lima, and they have a kind of folkloric beauty that even then made them a favorite collectible of the Lima elite and visiting foreigners.  The one above is especially intriguing because it is reminiscent of the veiling still common today among older village women in North Africa and thus suggests a long-distant cultural exchange of Moorish practices carried to Peru by the Spanish.  An echo of this can be seen in this recent photograph by Robert Clark of women in Cuzco in a procession for Inti Raymi, a modern version of a pre-Columbian solstice festival:



Except that in the case of the painting it turns out that it was made in China, as were the others below.  As explained in this revelatory article in El Palacio magazine, the demand for Fierro-style tipos was so great that they were being mass produced in mid-19th century workshops in Canton (now Guangzhou) China contemporaneous with the time Fierro himself was painting them in Lima.  This adds an additional layer of cultural interpretation: it is a Chinese copy of the artistic depiction by a white limeño of the traditional cultural and ethnic types of Peruvian villagers, created for sale to 19th century tourists who saw in them the fulfillment of their own preconceptions of Peruvian life.  The mind reels.


Click here to read my post about Hiram Bingham’s strange claim to have ‘discovered’ Machu Picchu in 1911 by asking directions from a Peruvian Indian who had already visited it.  Or here to see more about Robert Clark’s extraordinary photographs of Peru today.


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