Out of the Archives and Into the Street

This past month, passers-by in the streets of Cuzco, Peru, saw double. For the city-wide exhibit El Cusco de Martín Chambi, 32 images of the city taken by world-renowned indigenous photographer Martín Chambi early in the 20th century were enlarged and set up around the city—“in the very spaces and whenever possible from the very angles where Martín Chambi took them,” says Silvia Spitta, a professor of Spanish and of comparative literature and the Robert E. Maxwell 1923 Professor of Arts and Sciences.

Spitta’s work with the Chambi archive was supported by an award from the Office of the Dean of the Faculty’s Scholarly Innovation Fund, and involved preserving and cataloging the archive’s holdings. At the same time Spitta “intervened” in the archive to make its holdings accessible to the public at large.

For the city-wide exhibit, Spitta and Teo Allain Chambi, the photographer’s grandson and archivist, selected photographs to enlarge and display, juxtaposing the century-old images with the here-and-now. The idea, she says, “was to confront Cuzco’s inhabitants with the city as it had been before it became a World Heritage Site in 1983, before the devastating 1950 earthquake, and before it grew from a city of 50,000 to one of nearly 500,000.”

The exhibit revealed radical change in Cuzco, but not, says Spitta, precisely what she and her collaborators expected. “We started out expecting that the photographs would show the devastation effected on the city by the arrival of mass tourism.”

In fact, they found, monuments and Inca structures had been substantially preserved. The changes brought about by increased tourism, she says, were actually manifested in the emergence of an “Incan” style of architecture still prevalent today. Now, however, “the city is divided into the World Heritage site—often financially inaccessible to many of the city’s inhabitants—and the growth of rings of urbanization around the historical core which have been built with little to no city planning.”

The greatest catalyst for change, Spitta says, was the ripping out of the tram rails to make room for cars, which closed many streets to pedestrian traffic, “gutted entire areas,” and today contribute to pollute the already too-thin air of this city at over 10,000 feet.

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