Painting a Sensory Portrait of Peru

With Uku Pacha, Fernando Criollo revisits Peruvian history in a dark poem that navigates the natural and supernatural.

© Fernando Criollo, from the series Uku Pacha

In Quechua cosmovision, light is the entrance to the inner world – a place called Uku Pacha in Incan mythology. In a series of the same name that reads like a dark poem, Peruvian photographer, Fernando Criollo combines abstraction and documentation to depict it. Lightning slits human bodies, as if to let the spirit out, and buildings appear like oppressive giants of power. Violence is omnipresent, though not in its usual representation. Inherent to nature, imprinted in the landscape and in human artefacts, it is a force before all. It’s a vehicle of both death and new life.

“This project was born out of necessity, out of a need to express myself deeply”, Criollo explains. “I consider that I live in a real problematic context.” That is, a harsh topography and a sinister past. “This series is a ritual and a journey inspired by the articulation of our impossible geography and the history of violence in my country”, he writes.

© Fernando Criollo, from the series Uku Pacha

“A visual repertoire of hallucinations”, as he calls them, his photographs are informed with introspection, mysticism and facts. On a monolith both unsettling and inviting, the letters “EP” are a reminder of Peru’s history, when the site was used as a military site to bury the opponents to the government as well as the victims of a weak democracy that needed to establish its power. Yet, the light-filled tower looks like “it can take you to the inner world”, the photographer comments. "What struck me about this place was the fact that it was a furnace inside a military barracks where several bodies were burned without discrimination, in a context of generalized violence, becoming a symbol of the pain of this era."

The light, leitmotiv of the series, is the sign of transition from one state to another, from one purpose to the next. “I am amazed that such places of horror are now standing as monuments. Through the light I can travel to different spaces, times and realities. It allows me to transit to different stages of spirituality and to pull all these feelings out of my context, all the things that I don’t understand but feel intensely”, Criollo explains.

© Fernando Criollo, from the series Uku Pacha

In every picture, light is used in a performative manner, turning the mundane into the monumental. Shot in close-up, a coca leaf takes on a sculptural aspect. Its illuminated veins reproduce the ramifications of a flash of lightning. “In Peruvian culture this plant is used in spiritual rituals. It’s used to read fortune.” With it, Criollo may want the viewer to think about Peru’s future, aware that in Quechua cosmovision time is not circular.

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Fernando Criollo is a Peruvian photographer working on documentary essays that deal with cultural diversity in Peru and non-documentary projects that focus on the landscape, naturalism and the environment. Follow him on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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This article is part of our feature series, Photo Kernel, which aims to give space to the best contemporary practitioners in our community. The word Kernel means the core, centre, or essence of an object, but it also refers to image processing.

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