Lima is difficult to love at first sight. Half the year, the Peruvian capital is shrouded by unceasing cloud cover. The population, approaching 10 million, sprawls over disjointed neighborhoods and unplanned districts. Traffic clogs roads at all hours; reliable rapid transit was nonexistent until just a few years ago. To many foreign visitors, Lima is a necessary evil, a brief detour on the way to Machu Picchu and other wonders of pre-conquistador Peru.
In recent years, however, the city has witnessed unprecedented growth in its arts and culture sector, stimulated in part by the economic boom Peru has undergone since 2002. Lima has become the culinary capital of South America, with dining establishments topping best-of lists and celebrity chefs exporting their restaurants around the world. At the time of this writing, five Peruvian films were playing across the nation in commercial theaters that usually screen imports from Hollywood, a historic record for Peru’s nascent film industry. Large-scale international art fairs, such as Art Lima, Perú Arte Contemporáneo (ParC) and Lima Photo are drawing crowds. This year also marked the first time Peru has mounted its own national pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
At the center of Lima, where one of the city’s major highways gives way to the congested streets of the historic district, is the Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI), the only museum in the country dedicated to Peruvian art created from prehistory to the present. In September, MALI reopened its second-floor permanent collection galleries after seven years of extensive renovations. With this milestone, the museum promises to be at the center of the city’s cultural transformation.
MALI is located in the Parque de la Exposición, one of the city’s few large public parks. Inaugurated in 1872 to celebrate 50 years of Peruvian independence, the park initially hosted a world’s-fair-like exposition that showcased everything from industrial equipment to archaeological findings. The neo-Renaissance style Palacio de la Exposición, erected as the main venue for the fair, is now home to the museum. A group of intellectuals and businessmen founded MALI in 1954 with the goal of promoting the art and culture of Peru, and the institution welcomed its first visitors in 1961.
“Until then,” Natalia Majluf, director of the museum, told me, “there had been no national collection of art from Peru.” In fact, what constituted Peruvian art—or whether a distinctly Peruvian art existed at all—was highly contested. Ancient Andean art dominated collectors’ and scholars’ attention, while works made after the Spanish conquest were regarded as second-rate in comparison to their European counterparts. A donation from the family of the late Peruvian leader and intellectual Javier Prado y Ugarteche formed MALI’s initial collection, an eclectic group of objects ranging from pre-Columbian artifacts to 20th-century paintings, sculptures and pieces of decorative art. Since MALI closed its galleries for renovations in 2008, Majluf and her team have undertaken a systematic series of acquisitions, coupled with a rigorous research program, aimed at filling gaps in the collection.
Deciding which gaps to fill became an exercise in writing a cultural record. “We don’t propose that [Peruvian art] is a linear history, but rather one of layers,” Majluf explained. As colonizers and indigenous groups intermingled, as various waves of migrant groups began to arrive from Europe, Africa and East Asia, new styles, motifs and themes emerged in the local art, even as older indigenous traditions were revisited.
But if MALI’s curatorial team argues that the history of Peruvian art defies linearity, the museum’s second floor suggests otherwise. When I first entered the galleries shortly after the reopening, a guard directed me to start in the pre-Columbian section and work my way clockwise through the Colonial, Republican and Modern sections. Climate-controlled rooms organized by medium—textiles, drawings, silver and photography—punctuate the path, but even these displays, which feature artworks and artifacts spanning centuries, tend to follow the same basic chronology.
The archaeological objects in the first galleries are textbook examples of ancient indigenous works from the coast and the Andes. The jump from the geometry of pre-Columbian ceramics to dreary religious oil paintings of the colonial era (1533-1820) is jarring, a visual reminder of the conquistadors’ swift and ruthless occupation. The earliest pieces in this section were not made in Peru, but rather originated in Italy and Spain and circulated through the colonies. Eventually, however, Peruvian artists developed distinctive styles and incorporated local motifs, culminating in the sumptuous religious paintings by indigenous artists of the 17th-century Cusco School. In the Republican era (1821-1918), Peru’s newfound independence was reflected in increasingly secular artworks including portraits of elite sitters and depictions of day-to-day urban life. Modernism in Peru (1919-1965), presented in the final galleries, becomes a constant struggle between looking inward and outward, a pendulum swinging from indigenismo—the representation and celebration of Andean life—at one extreme, to the desire to be universal at the expense of a local past at the other.
If the collection’s growth is an accomplishment, the renovations are also impressive. The gallery walls slickly frame the building’s original iron columns, designed by the studio of Gustave Eiffel. A brand overhaul a few years back updated the museum’s graphic identity with a bold, edgy sans serif font. MALI has even made its first forays into digital media within the galleries: an oversize touchscreen provides access to close-up details and supplemental information on the museum’s largest and highest profile holding, Luis Montero’s Los funerales de Atahualpa (1868), a history painting showing the vanquished Incan emperor with native women writhing in anguish as they confront Spanish conquistadors and clergymen.
In every aspect of its design, the museum is polished, which is precisely what I find unnerving. The new MALI hews closely to North American and European models. In displaying its collection chronologically, the curatorial team signals—intentionally or not—the presence of a single overarching art historical narrative encompassing all national and regional developments. While the museum’s progression may be useful for examining sweeping trends, it fails to account for the nuances that define Peruvian art. Peruvian artists constantly looked backward and forward, and borrowed thematically and stylistically from various cultures. It would be fantastic, for instance, to see Elena Izcue’s modernist wallpaper designs next to the pre-Columbian pieces that inspired them. Even Majluf’s relatively daring curatorial decision to invite a handful of contemporary artists to reflect on the role of the museum—Edi Hirose’s photographs of the galleries-as-ghost-town during the permanent collection’s years of closure are particularly poignant—is in line with practices that have become standard in museums around the world.
In a segment on América Televisión, Peru’s most watched network, a producer asked Majluf, “What’s the Mona Lisa of MALI?” This question is indicative: there’s always an eye toward the West, toward the colonizers who still today, despite almost 200 years of independence, continue to set the standards. On the one hand, it’s difficult to blame Peruvians for desiring a museum on a par with those in Europe and North America. After years of civil war and terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s, the new MALI is surely a sign of Peru’s newfound success. On the other hand, in a developing country that was still defining its national collection, MALI had a blank slate: a chance to break away from the criteria of the West, to create a museum experience that is uniquely Peruvian.
Over the next years, MALI plans to continue expanding physically while aiming to bolster its international reputation. The museum is preparing to put out a call for architects to propose designs for its contemporary collection, to be housed on the building’s basement level. Additionally, with the reopening of the galleries, the museum positions itself as a major player in a culture renaissance in Lima, albeit one that could be criticized for focusing more on tourists than the city’s own residents. Majluf is currently partnering with the national ministries of culture and tourism to convert a highly trafficked area—reaching from the colonial plazas, churches and palaces in the Rimac district to the Parque de la Exposición—into a pedestrian-friendly cultural zone. Moreover, this transformation will coincide with the construction of two elevated train lines that will converge adjacent to MALI, thus situating the museum at the center of the city’s transit network and cultural attractions. I hope that, as MALI continues to grow, it looks not only outward for its model but also inward to the local publics it serves.
Atlas is a rotating series of columns by writers from Dallas, Moscow and Lima.