The Andes of Pablo Corral
BY MARIO VARGAS LLOSA, PHOTOS BY PABLO CORRAL
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers-Peden
Every work of genuine art is a refutation of stereotypes, a rejection of false and prejudiced visions of human reality. The great merit of Pablo Corral’s documentary photographs of the massive mountain chain of the Andes, which slashes South America north to south for a distance of 8,500 kilometers, is that in images of great originality and beauty they portray the profound truths of a world whose complexity and diversity often are lost behind unilateral visions and clichés
When we close our eyes and think of the distant Andes, the first image that usually comes to mind is that of a panorama devoid of human life. Cordilleras with jutting, snowy peaks, dizzying abysses, and vast solitudes where occasionally a condor may soar, or deep valleys where we see the timid faces, the large frightened eyes, of flocks of llamas, alpacas, and delicate vicuñas organized in family groups in which each male is surrounded by his three or four concubines. The second image is that of a historical, pre-Hispanic land presided over by the ruins of vanished civilizations and cultures whose temples, forts, roads, cities, and gods we must try to reconstruct in our imaginations, beginning with the archeological remnants of their cultures that have survived the ravages of time.
In the Andean photographs of Pablo Corral, the protagonist is never nature or the historical past but, rather, the human being and his current reality: history in the making. Nature is present, of course, in all its spectacular majesty, along with the stalwart ancestors who hundreds of years ago, overcoming indescribable obstacles, succeeded in developing agriculture, establishing empires, and organizing societies in one of the harshest geographies on the planet. But nature and history are important to Corral’s lens only as they relate to contemporary life, as elements that allow us to understand fully the social problems of today’s Andes. For him, photography is an art, of course, but an art that allows us to come closer to human beings and to better understand them.
In one of the most impressive images in this book, we see the formidable granite mass of mount Fitz Roy, in Argentina, emerging like a great whale breasting the waves of the heavens, its ocher and snow-covered back thrusting from among the clouds. The sun’s rays gild its heights, but night has already fallen on the lower level of the mountain, seen in the foreground. What charges the image with drama and meaning is not the staggering power of this natural world, but how fragile and insignificant, in comparison, human beings are, those unseen inhabitants of the tiny, nearly evanescent, village at the foot of the colossal cordillera: a trickle of barely visible dwellings resembling snowflakes swirled from on high. The contrast creates a stunning artistic effect, but at the same time it is a splendid depiction of the indomitable spirit, the iron will, and the quiet heroism that was needed for humans to sink their roots in the Andes. And a proof of how, despite the advances of modernity, living in certain regions of the cordillera continues to be a daily battle.
Embellishment can be a subtle way of falsifying reality, if it is used as a mask to conceal scars and blemishes. In Andean societies, as elsewhere in the world, the beautiful, the ugly, and the horrible blend together, and to suppress any of those aspects of life is to create a caricature or a non-existent reality. There is, however, a way to approach truth in all its most painful, repulsive, and violent aspects without rejecting the desire for beauty that moves the artist’s heart. Pablo Corral’s vision of the Andes does not pull a veil over poverty, marginalization, or the discrimination and neglect that pervade the lives of millions of men and women who live there, nor diminish the intolerable injustice that signifies. However, in his images, even those in which the primitivism and abandonment in which certain Andean towns languish is crystal clear, there is never that complacency, that pleasure in exhibiting social ills—misery for the sake of misery—that turns a certain type of committed art into propaganda, or worse, into a formalism that is both unethical and demogagic: exhibitionism at the expense of others.
In Pablo Corral’s photographs there is always hope, an affirmation of life, a will for survival in even the worst adversity, that is seen in the most humble and mistreated–whether by their fellows or by natural catastrophes. And perhaps the images depicting the ability to survive, to withstand the elemental and terrible conditions in which life is lived, are the most persuasive and forceful of the collection. These photographs introduce us to beings weighed down by the oppression of centuries, people who have been exploited and then forgotten, people condemned to live amid precarious conditions and the constant awareness of death. And yet, nothing has dimmed the joy for life, for celebrating fiestas, for dressing in costumes and dancing to the stirring music of village bands, for parading saints and virgins in sumptuous processions. In these mountain villages, the camera of Pablo Corral, steeped in sympathy and solidarity for what he photographs, always detects the secret little flame that flickers in the darkest gloom and represents the philosophy expressed in a popular saying: that hope is the last thing to die in the human being. Which is why Corral’s images, even when they present the viewer with evidence of painful and cruel events, are never pessimistic. Something stubbornly defiant and strong is always visible in his subjects, the quiet affirmation that, even bowed by adversity and injustice, they never will feel they are conquered. This endurance is evident, for example in the images that document the joy and exhilaration of the celebration of the challa (the blessings of the harvests) in the small village of Toledo, high on the Bolivian altiplano, and of the two women in Chiquipata, colorful in their derbies and ponchos, sitting on the bare ground, happily gossiping.
One of the most widespread stereotypes regarding Andean society is that it is predominantly Indian, and that anything not indigenous is inauthentic, foreign, assigned a minority role. This was true five hundred years ago, but today it is absolutely false. Indian, White, Black, along with other races, are actually minority groups. Mestizos compose the majority today, and they have left a powerful stamp on the cities and towns of the sierra, a potent personality clearly different from both native tradition and European influences. This mestizaje, this mixing of bloods and cultures, must not be thought of in exclusively racial terms. In areas relating to rituals and beliefs, clothing and language, there are visible traces of the pre-Hispanic legacy–especially in the indigenous communities of the Atlantic slopes and in important social entities where habits and customs were virtually untouched by Europeans (one thinks of Patagonia, for example). However, the fact is that mestizaje is the commanding influence in cities and, in large measure, in rural communities. Its impact is also dominant in the practice of religion, in entertainment, music, clothing, everyday mythology, and in the ways sexuality is regarded.
All this is delicately documented by the tireless, peripatetic camera of Pablo Corral, who immerses himself in the crowded processions of Holy Week to drown in incense; help carry the platforms of the patron saint of the brothers of the Society of San Cristóbal; explore the small whorehouse bars with their infernal glow, where toasts are drunk with ice cold beer, frenetic salsas danced, and love negotiated for a price; meet at dawn and parade through the streets with the costumed societies celebrating carnival; and go inside dwellings still shaken by a nearby volcano that waked in a bad humor and decided to gift the city spread at its feet with an earthquake. In businesses, factories, cane fields, churches, markets, and on neighborhood street corners, that camera registers the multiple expressions of Andean social life. What especially stands out in this testimonial is the extraordinary vigor of the world in which criollo men and women of the Andes, the mestizos, counter the enormous difficulties in the fight for survival with a stamina that is accompanied by a touch of salty wit, cleverness, and generous doses of good humor. The criollos always have a smile, because for them life—any life—is always worth living. That is what the fishermen of Santa Marta, Colombia, seem to be telling us, as the red breath of the setting sun inflames them; the couple locked in a tight embrace in Barrio Triste in Medellín; or the solitary horseman in white peasant pants and straw hat who pauses on the shores of the Caribbean to gaze into the heat of empty space, lost in nostalgia and memory.
One of the lessons learned from Pablo Corral’s photographic passage through the America of the Andes is the unity that underlies absurd national boundaries. Although by political definition the Andes are divided into nations, the differences among them are minimal and artificial; what prevails of the whole, assuming an objective and dispassionate appraisal, is the indestructible unity deriving from dramatic geography, common history, multi-ethnicity, and shared problems. That is the essence, not borders traced centuries ago on imperfect maps by self-interest and ignorance, boundaries irrationally separating what reason and common sense demand be united. Naturally, there are differences in the Andean world: social, economic, cultural, and ethnic. But these differences do not correspond to discrete nations, they cut vertically through sovereign states and establish identities and similarities underlying and superceding the political demarcations that turn South America into an archipelago of countries and destroy its unity—the kind of political unity maintained amid linguistic and cultural diversity developed in the United States.
What is homogeneous and heterogeneous in the Andean world appears in the images in this book in true perspective: not what boundaries would pretend, but what is determined by natural order, culture, and history. Although Andean society seems to be a bubbling source of diverse modes of life, of contrasting traditions, races and ethnicities, the common denominator that unites this variety is made unequivocally apparent in the photographs in this book. And perhaps the fundamental bond is the Andes themselves, that formidable chain of mountains that forms the backbone of the continent, a geography that has determined ways of life—from the way the land is worked to the relations among its peoples—to which all the inhabitants of the sierra have had to bend, converging into a common model despite the attributes of each native, colonizer, conquistador, and immigrant.
During the first half of the twentieth century, throughout Latin America and inspired initially by the Mexican revolution, a movement developed in literature and the plastic arts called indigenismo, an exaltation of the Indian and the natural world. In the novels, murals, and paintings of indigenist writers and artists, nature nearly always appeared as a destructive and fearsome force against which human enterprise had little effect. The jungle, the mountain, the raging river, swallowed up human beings, swept aside their plans of domination, destroyed their dreams. The natural world was the enemy. That image of the Andes is very different from the one presented in the photographs of Pablo Corral. The power of the mountain is recognized, naturally, along with its inherent dangers—foremost among them, the volcanoes. But the natural world shown in these images is at the same time intimately integrated into the everyday life of human beings, as a ferment and incentive that has shaped the customs, determined the direction, and defined the characteristics, of a society. The Andes are not the enemy now, they are a difficult companion, an unpredictable ally, and a severe, although affectionate and paternal, teacher.
Paris, March, 2001