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By Phil Hall | May 9, 2010

Ann Kanenko’s documentary focuses on a quartet of Peruvian visual artists whose careers and creative output has been shaped by the military and political tumult that violently reshaped their country for the past three decades.

Claudio Jimenez Quispe, whose uncle was a leader in the Maoist Shining Path movement, uses retablos (wooden display boxes used for religious art) to depict the struggle between the government and the insurgency. Alfredo Marquez was tapped as a Shining Path supporter following the creation of a 1989 silk screen featuring Mao Zedong with lush ruby lips – he wound up being incarcerated for four years. Natalia Iguiniz has been censored by the acutely conservative Archdiocese of Lima for using poster art to challenge the Peruvian discomfort with feminist politics. And Eduardo Tokeshi, the non-political son of Japanese immigrants, found himself under harsh racist-inspired criticism due to his shared heritage with the repressive President Alberto Fujimori.

During a time when mass media was heavily censored and online media had not taken root, it appeared that the only creative tools left for making social statements in Peru came in through painting, folk art and posters.  However, Kanenko never openly acknowledges the obvious: the artists had no serious impact in shaping Peruvian society during the years of oppression and turmoil, and the ultimate effects of their work could easily be dismissed as gadfly buzzing around matters of life and death.

The film is also not clear on how these artists can actually supported themselves during the rough years and in today’s relative calm – the film details the poverty that has challenged Peru for decades, and it doesn’t appear there is a local market that would support high-priced works of modern art.

And perhaps it is strictly a matter of personal taste, but I can’t say that I was particularly impressed with much of the art on display in the film.  Jimenez Quispe’s retablos toy with inventive blasphemy in their reconfiguring of the Crucifixion to meet the horrors of Peru’s civil war years, but a great deal of the artist’s imagery is dull and predictable. Iguiniz and Tokeshi appear to be decades behind the U.S. art scene in terms of style and substance, while the notorious Mao picture that put Marquez behind bars seems like a second rate Andy Warhol ripoff.

Still, the film offers value to anyone interested in modern Latin American culture and history. And not counting documentaries on the Incas and Machu Picchu, when was the last time we got to see contemporary Peru in a film?

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