A glimpse into the Archive of Martín Chambi

Photos from the Andes of Peru (1927-1944) in Mudec collection

Chicha carrier (1940) by Martín ChambiMudec - Museum of Cultures

Chambi is one of the most important peruan photographers

of the 20th century, and maybe the most celebrated.
Mudec acquired a small selection of modern prints from the Martin Chambi Archive in 2014, concentrating on images which can be connected in a significant way to the museum's collection of andean artifacts.

Before delving into this small selection of photos, it can be useful to learn a bit more about Martin Chambi.

The de Ezequiel Arce family with their potato harvest (1934) by Martín ChambiMudec - Museum of Cultures

A short biography

Chambi was born in 1891 in Coaza, a farming village of mud-brick and thatched houses in the district of Puno, one of the poorest of Peru. In the 90s he moved with the family to the Carabaya area, where his parents started working in a mine for a British company.

Camera used by Teenie Harris (mid 20th century) by Graflex Inc., 1887 - 1973Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The fortuitous encounter with photography

Not being able to go to school anymore, he spent his days in the mines helping the workers. It was here that he got to know photography, coming into contact with the company's photographers Angus and Ferrin, from whom he learned the bases of the technique.

In 1908 he decided to become a professional photographer and moved to Arequipa, a city in economic and artistic ferment, where he worked as assistant of the famous photographer Max T. Vargas for nine years. He also became involved in the city's artistic and cultural circles and won his first prizes.

Having mastered the technique, he decided to become independent by opening his own studio, first in the Andean town of Sichuani (1917 - the year he also published his first postcard) and finally in Cusco (1923).

Feast in the hacienda "La Angostura" (1929) by Martín ChambiMudec - Museum of Cultures

The starts in Cusco

In the city, which was experiencing a moment of demographic and economic expansion as well as cultural ferment, Chambi became the favourite portraitist of the upper middle class, continued publicating postcards (a genre he pioneered in Peru) and collaborated with newspapers.

For these he photographed different aspects and classes of the local society, as well as the andean landscape and the precolombian ruins - object of a growing interest.

Ladies at the chicheria, Martín Chambi, 1927, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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A campesino (peasant) at work in the fields while chewing coca, Martín Chambi, 1939, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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The de Ezequiel Arce family with their potato harvest, Martín Chambi, 1934, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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Wall of the Five Windows of Winay Wayna, Martín Chambi, 1941, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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Afterall, the years during which Chambi got set in Cusco were the years of the peak of foreign archaeological missions and of the embryonic emergence of tourism, but also of indigenism: a movement that advocated reconnection with the native culture to change the fortunes of the country - corrupted and divided - and denounced the exploitation and marginalisation of the 'indios'. 

Panel or cloack with fringes Panel or cloack with fringes (12th-15th century) by Ica –Inca CultureMudec - Museum of Cultures

An indigenist photographer?

Chambi's studio was one of the main meeting points of the movement in Cusco. Even though he was never a militant, Chambi gave a fundamental contribution to indigenism by revolutionising the imagery concerning the Peruvian Sierra and its inhabitants.

Many mantain that, being indigenous and coming from a poor family himself, he had an unpreceded connection with the population and particulary with the 'indios', often poorly known and understood by photographers. They certainly emerge from his photos with great dignity and a certain solemnity.

Chicha carrier, Martín Chambi, 1940, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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On a more practical note, Chambi's photographs are interesting because they show how typical clothes and objects present in museal collections were used and the style at the time, and in which contexts. 

Campesino of Calca / An indigenous man chewing coca, Martín Chambi, around 1930, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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Poncho, Cultures of the Southern Andean area (Cusco), 19th century, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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Woman drinking chicha, Martín Chambi, 1931, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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Cape or Lliclla, Cultures of Southern Andes (Cusco), 20th century, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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A group of campesinos from Tinta, Martín Chambi, 1930, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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The 'traditional' clothes of the inhabitants of the Andes seen in so many of Chambi's photographs are not native but derive from colonial times, when the locals were required to dress Spanish-style. In fact, Inca clothing included tunics (uncu) and capes, not skirts, trousers and shirts. The tupu (see below) has an emblematic history in this context. However, Spanish clothing was hybridised, adapting it to local taste and materials.

Folk musicians, Martín Chambi, 1934, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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This photograph shows some of the most popular instruments of folk music at the time, and is also an example of how in Chambi's studio members of the upper classes were posing alternating with members of the popular classes.

Combapata folkloric group, Martín Chambi, 1929, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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Active until the earthquake that hit Cusco in 1950, Chambi then gradually stopped photographing and almost got forgotten in his country. He died in 1973. 
Thanks to the determination of his family and the interest of some researcher, his work has then received great international recognition.

Q'orillasos of Chumbivilcas (1944) by Martín ChambiMudec - Museum of Cultures

An unvaluable legacy

Chambi documented the complex social mosaic of both Cusco and its region. He visited the cities, villages and rural communities documenting the most important festivities, the habits and the material culture of the inhabitants.
The social dynamics at work also emerge vividly.

Q'orillasos of Chumbivilcas, Martín Chambi, 1944, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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Photographs such as this and the following plastically show the relations of power holding in the portrayed groups. This image in particular also speaks well to the spirit of q'orilasos, the 'cowboys' of Southern Andes.

Feast in the hacienda "La Angostura", Martín Chambi, 1929, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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This photograph is also interesting for the costumes and objects which can be observed in the foreground.

Feast in the hacienda "La Angostura", Martín Chambi, 1929, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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The peasants of the hacienda infact wear typical costumes of characters called "Ukuku" (left) and "Qapac Qolla" (right), linked to the dances held for the Corpus Christi procession, a festivity where christian liturgy and native traditions meet and fuse together.

Chambi was presumbaly interested in the festival also as an indigenist. It is because of the movement attention to the native culture, infact, that the celebration regained strenght and is now proudly attended by many locals. 
In the Mudec's little collection of prints we indeed find a photograph Chambi took at the Corpus Christi celebrations in a nearby city, Andahuaylillas. 

Corpus Christi procession in the village of Andahuaylillas, 1932, Martín Chambi, 1932, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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Interesting costumes and dances can be observed in this image too.

Pilgrims at Qoyllurit'i, Martín Chambi, 1931, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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This other precious silver salt print acquired by the museum shows at least three different kinds of costumes, linked in this case to the pilgrimage to Qoyllurit'i, another sincretic celebration very popular in the region of Cusco.

Pilgrims at Qoyllurit'i, Martín Chambi, 1931, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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A different kind of interest holds this image, providing a concrete testimony to the spirit of indigenism. Here Chambi indeed depicts the company of Luis Ochoa, protagonist of the season of theatre in quechua language in the 20s and 30s. Keeping with the indigenist revival of Inca culture, the actors are dressed in a inca-inspired way.

Theatre company with its director, Luis Ochoa, Martín Chambi, 1930, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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Theatre company with its director, Luis Ochoa (1930) by Martín ChambiMudec - Museum of Cultures

While many accessories are faithful to the originals, such as the tupus, tunics and headwares, some others are not: the sandals look more greek then inca, and the prehistoric-looking clubs are definitely fanciful.

Tupu (Brooch), Quechua Peoples of Central-Southern Andes, 18th-19th century, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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Combapata folkloric group (1929) by Martín ChambiMudec - Museum of Cultures

Chambi's work, even in this limited selection of images, emerges as a very valuable legacy for the study of the Andean cultures, as a well as a powerful artistic corpus and a loving testament to the Peruvian Sierra and its people.

Credits: Story

Elena Ricetti

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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