Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Through the Looking Glass of Ayacucho's Past: An Exhibition and Recently Published Book of Portraits by Photographer Baldomero Alejos Bautista Have Provided Residents of This Andean City a Mirror to Their Identity and Missing Links in Family Histories

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Through the Looking Glass of Ayacucho's Past: An Exhibition and Recently Published Book of Portraits by Photographer Baldomero Alejos Bautista Have Provided Residents of This Andean City a Mirror to Their Identity and Missing Links in Family Histories

Article excerpt

Sarah Aymar Vargas never imagined that she would discover the identity of her great-grandfather at a seminar in Lima at the end of 2001. The daughter of a provincial family that had settled in the capital many decades earlier, Aymar Vargas one day read an article that announced the first retrospective of the work of a deceased and apparently unknown photographer, Baldomero Alejos Bautista, a portraitist who had lived much of his life in Ayacucho, an Andean city located some 340 miles southeast of Lima.

The identity of Aymar Vargas's great-grandfather had been a family mystery for many years. But it was about to be resolved.

"It was my aunt Rosario Elias Aymar, who visited Ayacucho in 2001 and attended an exhibition of Baldomero Alejos's work," recalls Aymar Vargas. "When she returned, she said to me, `I'm sure that he is your great-grandfather.'"

"To discover people who laugh like my father almost made me cry," she says. "But my happiness was greater when my new family, the Alejos, received us with open arms. Knowing that Baldomero Alejos was an illustrious person fills me with pride, all because he contributed to shaping through photographs the history of Ayacucho."

The exhibition that Aymar Vargas's aunt had attended was the brainchild of Mayu Mohanna, a Lima photographer and researcher who had first seen Alejos's work on a visit to Ayacucho in 1994.

Ayacucho, located at an altitude of nine thousand feet, is called Huamanga in Quechua, "corner of the dead." That name inevitably evokes the horrors suffered by its residents, victims of the atrocities committed both by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorists and by military and police forces during the 1980s and early 1990s, something that Alejos did not live to see.

"I went to photograph Holy Week, a tradition that became a symbolic act during and after the years of terrorist violence," Mohanna writes in an essay to the exhibition catalog. But it was a portrait by Alejos that would be the highlight of that trip.

"Impressed by the architecture of the colonial houses, on Holy Thursday afternoon I found myself ringing an old door simply for the pleasure of seeing what was inside," Mohanna recalls. "A man of white complexion and of some seventy years opened the door and had me enter a house of high ceilings where everything seemed lost in time. In a corner of the room was his mother, an old woman of almost a hundred years who was being attended to by two old servants. The man repeated their name, and, after introducing himself in the same way many times, invited me to take a tour of the imposing house. It was then, on an old white wall, that I saw for the first time a photograph taken by Baldomero Alejos.

"That old image hanging on the wall was one of the most beautiful and at the same time tragic photographs I had ever seen," Mohanna says.

Mohanna was already immersed in rescuing the work of several other unknown Peruvian photographers, and six years would elapse before she met Alejos's son, Walter, the fifth of the photographer's seven children, a chemical engineer and currently congressman for the department of Ayacucho. Mohanna discovered that he was in possession of an impressive archive that had belonged to his father.

"From the age of nine, I worked with my father, brightening photographs and washing and drying negatives," he recalls.

The vast archive, kept at that time by Walter and his sister Nelly, constituted an exhaustive visual record: 434 glass and 16,153 film negatives, 42,380 passport-size negatives, and 4,675 reproductions of photographs and documents compiled by Alejos between 1924 and 1975, a year before his death.

When the first enlargements of the photographs to be exhibited were made, many people in Ayacucho recognized themselves and identified friends and acquaintances in the solemn black and white pictures. Alejos had recorded a broad range of individuals for posterity. …

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