Cohen-Aponte Uncovers Hidden Images of Andean Insurrection

By Maya Weeks - How can lost objects and images help us to understand resistance to colonialism? In a talk titled "Visual Cultures of Insurgency in the Colonial Andes" on January 16, 2018, Ananda Cohen-Aponte, assistant professor of history of art at Cornell University, let a packed room in on some obscured narratives.

From the late 1740s to the nineteenth century, a series of social reforms, a slew of messianic and millenarian predictions, and the emergence of Enlightenment thought in Latin America led to a “time of protracted social strife.” This became known as the Age of Andean Insurrections. While these insurrections altered the social fabric of the Andes, few depictions of them—or of figures such as Tupac Amaru and Tupac Katari, who led them—exist.

In a talk hosted by the Hemispheric Institute on the Americas, Ananda Cohen-Aponte suggested that this “visual void” formed as a result of colonial censorship. She then went on to articulate some ways in which depictions of rebellion were produced.

Intimate material culture

In the post-rebellion era, censorship campaigns attempted to destroy any images that could be deemed subversive. As a result, a palimpsest was produced through “the layering of one image over the other.” As Cohen-Aponte explained, these layered paintings served as visual platforms for the agendas of users at different distinct historical moments, both displaying and envisioning claims to power. The corpus of artworks altered within the context of insurgency denoted “the portrait’s submission to a new social order.” Paintings were constantly being modified to align with the historical reality of the day.

Cohen-Aponte also discussed ephemera and talismanic objects from the period, such as wooden medallions, engravings, and new monedas (coins) bearing images from the rebellions. These, she argued, are artifacts of “intimate material culture”—small things “held close to the body.” Their cultural significance was thus doubled: meaning existed both in the depictions on the objects, as well as in bearing the objects close to one’s body.

Information through objects

Cohen-Aponte thinks of these artworks as multi-temporal, and as constituting certain social realities. “Mining the vast documentary record for objects that were lost,” she said, undoes “the privileging of that which can be seen,” creating a more expansive sample of objects from the era and a more comprehensive idea of what it was like to live in the Age of Andean Insurrections.

Driving questions in Cohen-Aponte’s work include, “How do we tell a history of objects that no longer exist?” and “How did information travel through objects?” If information has traveled through objects that were not supposed to exist, perhaps paintings are still being modified to align with the current reality of the day. Perhaps Cohen-Aponte’s work can help us think through current cultural artifacts as well as historical ones. 

Learn more about Ananda Cohen-Aponte.