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May 24, 2022
Natalia Majluf Inventing Indigenism: Francisco Laso's Image of Modern Peru Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021. 288 pp. Cloth $50.00 (9781477324080)

In recent decades scholars of Latin American cultures have extensively examined the complexities of nation building from multiple disciplinary viewpoints. Natalia Majluf’s Inventing Indigenism: Francisco Laso’s Image of Modern Peru expands this discussion, focusing on Peru as an emerging nation tangled within the development of Indigeneity. She establishes a core premise of the book with the opening statement: “Throughout this book the term Indian refers fundamentally to the object of indigenist discourse, an abstraction that must be distinguished from the indigenous populations that the term purportedly designates” (n.p.). Subsequent pages present a broad range of information and theoretical perspectives on the development of Peru as an independent nation as considered through the visual and written works of Francisco Laso (1823–1869).

In the introduction the reader is presented with Inhabitant of the Cordilleras of Peru, an 1855 painting by Laso (2). The Inhabitant portrays a standing male figure dressed in what appears to be Indigenous clothing and holding a pre-Columbian Peruvian ceramic vessel. Majluf identifies this work as a key image that supports her broader argument “that the rise of modern indigenism marks a major rupture, one that affects and radically transforms the very notion of indigeneity” (3). She provides an overview of Laso’s biography, describing his elite Creole background and travels through Europe in the mid-1800s, and situating his artistic work in complex and entangled discursive fields that would shape emblematic images of the nation and materialize modern Indigenism (17–19). A section titled “Precedents” follows and synthesizes the history of the concept and image of “Indian,” beginning the discussion with the 1604 engraving Allegory of America (21) and continuing with examples from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The first chapter expands on the discussion of the Inhabitant, which was exhibited in the Paris Universal Exposition of 1855. Presenting visual and iconographic analyses, the author also examines varied understandings of the image’s history and significance for Laso’s envisioning of Peru as a nation-state. In the mid-nineteenth century, there was a shifting and consolidation of the understanding of culture from the singular idea of “cultivation to a plural and relativistic concept of diversity” in visual arts, intellectual debates, and literature (63). Consequently, the classification of peoples “based on the ideas of racial purity and cultural priority” framed ethnoracial concepts (65). Within this framing, Laso formed a new construct of the Indian as representing Peruvian national imagery by “fixing into visual form a multifaceted array of ideas that had until then circulated mostly in textual form” (78). The foundation of the nation and nationalism would transform from a political to cultural definition of the Indian.

The second chapter focuses on the formation of Creole nationalist narratives and invention of the Andean world. Majluf asserts that the Indian would be stereotyped in antithetical constructs as an idealized symbol of the nation marked by victimization and sadness, and, at the same time, distanced as the “other” to be assimilated. She suggests that this was an early form of ethnography. Explaining that the master trope of modern indigenism interwove “literary, musical, and pictorial strands of indigenous melancholy,” she merges these strands into an understanding of the formation of this stereotype (84). For example, the author examines divergent literary works by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers who wrote about yaraví, Indigenous lamenting songs of the Andes. Some associated this music with sorrow and melancholy resulting in defining Peruvian character and Creole identity, while others challenged the Creole appropriation of this stereotype of Indian melancholy (84–88).

The visual dimension of this written discourse appears in Laso’s Pascana series produced between 1860 and 1869. Consisting of three paintings, Majluf continues with multiple analyses of their historical, literary, and visual sources. The Haravicu (The Storyteller) (90), the first in the series, depicts four seated individuals who face a standing male person whose back is to the viewer. All are portrayed in Indigenous clothing and appear to be in an intense verbal exchange. The Pascana in the Cordillera (Resting Place in the Cordillera) (91) depicts three seated individuals dressed in clothing similar to that worn by the Haravicu group and also in an exchange. A ceramic vessel like that pictured in the Inhabitant is noted as signaling the “contrast between the Indian’s present dejection and a glorious past” as well as defining “nostalgia and melancholy as a marker of ethnoracial character, evoking the notions of cultural authenticity” (92). Burial of the Priest (98–99), the series’ final image, ostensibly continues the themes of sadness, mourning, and loss. Here, a priest, who appears to be carried on a catafalque, is followed by a procession of monks and Indians led by two angels wielding flaming swords. The participants march toward a large group of indistinct figures identified as devils dancing around an open grave or possibly the mouth of hell. Acknowledging that nothing is known with certainty about this painting, the author uses various written and visual references to assert that the image is “key for understanding the consistency of the discourses of melancholy and approximation that dominated the Creole imagination at midcentury” (97–100).

In Chapter Three, Majluf introduces multiple analyses of the complex reception of Laso’s works. Laso’s Inhabitant and the Pascana series are assumed to represent Indians and, specifically, Indigeneity. In the twentieth century, however, the enthnoracial status of the figures that appear in these images was intensely contested and questioned around two opposing views. One mid-century opinion asserted that Laso’s works stylized the Indian image to an extent that nullified its accuracy; subsequently, another claimed that Laso’s intention was to depict Mestizos, not Indians (127). For Majluf, the resulting dichotomous designations show not only how race could be perceived but also “how its visual definitions have changed and evolved” (128). Continuing with a highly condensed discussion of the role of the viewer of Laso’s works, she speculatively offers various theoretical perspectives, referencing writers such as W. J. T Mitchell, Frantz Fanon, and Stuart Hall (130–35). She determines that this history of reception “reveals the radical instability, the contradictions and the complexities, of racial picturing” (135).

For Majluf, the embodiment of indigeneity would also become conflated with lineage and culture in other visual imagery and media (136). For example, through carte-de-visite productions beginning in the late 1850s, images of Peruvian Indians became a new medium for racial depictions that circulated broadly and illustrated the concept of an Indian and the “tangible materiality of racial categories as measurable embodied essences” (138–40). The author proposes that such imagery would later transform into taxonomic and biological discourses ultimately associated with “scientific” theories (141). Majluf continues her argument, moving to a discussion of the indeterminacy and instability of ethnoracial designations in the Andean region citing numerous variables of identification (such as dress, phenotype, language) that are also “processual, relational, and situational” and subject to viewers’ experiences (143). She concludes that “Indigenist discourses of authenticity and realism construct an unattainable object so that its figures of otherness are conceived and subsequently exposed as representations” (151).

The book closes with an Epilogue, which provides additional perspectives on Francisco Laso’s public and personal struggles in the shaping of nation. Embedded in his Creole background, Majluf suggests that his writings and paintings are in contradictory relation. Introducing paintings and essays not previously discussed, she states that on the public side, Laso used his visual works to validate the nature of Indianess and its culture to the nation; yet, privately, he wavered (159–61). She purports that in an 1859 essay, for example, Laso suggests that “equality can be achieved only through assimilation” (163).

Inventing Indigenism winds through the dense and entangled evolution of nationalist concepts and emblematic racial envisionings of the Peruvian Indian, Indigeneity, and Indigenism. Majluf recognizes that there can be no conclusiveness or definitive statement about race or racism as it is an unfixed social construct. She writes, “The fact is that racial terms and taxonomies attempt to create a degree of consistency for a system that has none” (143). Her narratives are compelling, however, and advance important information and insights through intricate and multifaceted analyses that view the notion of nation as unstable, existing at the nexus of complex, contradictory and inconsistent understandings, and discourses. The author demonstrates this instability as evident in Francisco Laso’s paintings and the construction of Creole identity, which are positioned in these crosscurrents of numerous and differing discourses and theoretical perspectives that would shape the nation.

For scholars of Latin American cultures, Inventing Indigenism is valuable for research and graduate-level teaching purposes. Requiring some knowledge of Peru’s national history, the more general reader may find Majluf’s critical discussions and theoretical viewpoints difficult to follow, as they examine a maze of intertwining notions that demonstrate the discrepancy and inconsistency of race. Inventing Indigenism is a multilayered examination of nation building. At the same time, the book asks all readers to consider how racial stereotypes and perspectives of the past, embedded in complex political and cultural viewpoints, continue as present day unfixed social constructs that still function in assessing the identity of self as well as others.

Magali Carrera
Department of Art History, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth