Magical Realism

Retablos — ornately carved, three dimensional display cases — were originally transported on the shoulders of Spanish priests who used them as portable altars in the Andes. After the Catholic Church withdrew from the mountains in the face of the Peruvian independence movement, the impoverished residents of Ayacucho began to create native versions, adding their own religious symbology to these traditional missionary artworks.

“They took a Spanish magic religious object and converted it into an object with double magic,” explains Steve Stein, the leading expert in the field. If the retablistas of Ayacucho made double magic, then contemporary folk artist Nicario Jiménez has created quadruple magic. By using a traditionally religious handicraft to make powerful personal and political statements, he has taken the retablo from a quirky souvenir item to groundbreaking artwork, earning a well deserved place in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.

“I am from a tiny, tiny town. I was very poor. In the Seventies I started to incorporate themes of Peruvian life. My best pieces are about the guerrillas, the terrorists ... political themes,” says Jiménez. “Now I am living full time in North America; I am making many pieces about immigration.” Jiménez’s native tongue is an Andean language called Quechua, but he speaks in beautifully accented English. He still works with traditional tools, carving a curious mixture of boiled potatoes and plaster of Paris with a toothpicklike instrument to bring scenes of warfare, tradition, and the timely conflicts of migration vividly to life. This week Jiménez will meet art lovers at his first retrospective. The exhibition opens Thursday, April 13, with a roundtable discussion led by Steve Stein and Carol Damian, co-authors of Popular Art and Social Change in the Retablos of Nicario Jiménez Quispe. It will continue today from 4:30 to 8:00 p.m. at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami. Call 305-284-2792, or visit
Thu., April 13


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