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Mamita Candelaria

Víctor Neira Quispe, Uriel Montúfar Butrón, and Carlos Álvarez Apucusi present three distinct views –mythical, communal, intimate– of the festivities surrounding the mestizo Virgin, opening a new window onto one of the most important celebrations of indigenous identity in America.

By Sol Astrid Giraldo E.
Photos : I Concurso Regional de Fotografía Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores – Puno. Cortesía Consulado Perú (Medellín)

Every year the Virgin must be taken out of her temple so that creation can begin again: the rains and the sun, the darkness and the light, the harvest, and life in general.  With a single gesture she can heal the cosmic cycle. And every year her body must be newly adorned with flowers, mantles, silver threads, arabesques… This rebirth of the universe and its effigy mixes pain and incense, historical trauma and folklore, colorful dances and silent dawns, over and over again.

The war of the worlds that created the Peruvian Andes also took its toll on the skin of the Virgin, which was marked by violent clashes during the Conquest and daily colonial frictions. And although her face is that of Sweet Mary, her womb is the powerful, vernacular womb of the Pachamama; the Catholic candles placed in her fists form a zigzagging Inca lightning bolt. These contrasts, which separate her both from the sacred figure imported by the Spaniards and the indigenous deity, are at the heart of the strategy and power of Puno’s Virgin of the Candelaria.

But her domains must be reaffirmed yearly by placing them at the heart of a uniquely sumptuous celebration that takes place in early February. No effort is spared and everyone is expected to participate; Aymarás, Quechuas, and mestizos all flock to the high Andean plain to mix with urban and rural people, salesmen and laborers, the powerful and the meek. They come from miles around, descending 13,000-foot high mountains, freshly bathed in petals with their hair braided, wearing colorful skirts and hats, playing quena flutes and banging cymbals, weaving carpets from flowers, and donning black masks or white wings. They dress the Mamita anew so that she may redress the world and they accompany her during the burning of qhapos (bushes), at vespers and early-morning mass, and through offerings. Everyone participates in innumerable choreographies, parades, and dances: close 70,000 dancers perform numbers featuring “morenadas” and “diabladas” in costumes imprinted with age-old mythical dreams.

UNESCO declared these lavish celebrations part of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2014. Each year, they draw a large number of anthropologists and tourists from around the world. The temptation to capture and record the spectacle before it vanishes is powerful and images and documentaries by foreign specialists and amateurs abound. In 2017, however, attention turned to understanding how locals experience the festivities. How do they view this celebration? The result was a local contest that crowned three separate winners.

The incense from the processions, the smoke from the burning bushes, the early morning mist, and the blurred bodies of the dancers are especially interesting to Víctor Neira Quispe. In the midst of all the movement and revelry, he looks for silence and forsakes the literality of a journalistic report for the indeterminate, the blurred, the insinuated. He remains on the edges to avoid interrupting the magic of the mythical moment. His photos remake the world through the use of two fiery images: The Virgin of the Candelas and the locals’ pagan pyres.

Uriel Montúfar Butrón does not always focus on faces. His work also explores the backs of bodies, the backs of the monumental Manco Cápac, presiding over Puno from the Huajsapata peak, and the backs of spectators hypnotized by pyrotechnic games. And of course, that of the Virgin, whose powerful, sumptuous mantle is the focus. His camera seeks out the hidden drama and is drawn to its very fabric, the crowds flying their colors and creating their idols, the communal moment.

Carlos Álvarez Apucusi, meanwhile, translates this unusually colorful celebration into an ascetic black and white, thus enhancing the symbolism of light.

Instead of wide shots of the vibrant crowds, he explores the stillness and intimacy of close-ups, focusing on the individual instead the masses: a farmer carrying his offering; a believer lighting mystical candles; a child musician who looks straight at us, the curious spectators in his world. In these images, each becomes an icon as powerful as the Virgin herself.

Three perspectives –the mythical, the communal, and the intimate– emerging from within, through the eyes of the place itself, and opening an unprecedented window into one of the most important celebrations of indigenous identity in America: that of the mestizo Virgin, which every year reinforces the harmony between this community and Lake Titicaca, the underground devils, and history’s cataclysms.