Syncretism and Missed Encounters in Peru


By Patrick Hajovsky and Omar Rivera

This text is a reflection by Patrick Hajovsky and Omar Rivera about their experiences in Cusco as tourists and scholars. It is intended here as an introduction to the work of Edwin Quispecuro Nina and Richard Peralta, two contemporary artists from Cusco. Their work is currently featured in the exhibit The Cuzco Revolution in Painting at the Georgetown Art Center, in Georgetown, Texas. The exhibit is sponsored by Southwestern University’s Brown Symposium and Paideia program. It is curated by Hajovsky and Rivera.

Walking around Cusco and its environs, it is common to hear the word “syncretism” (“sincretismo”) applied not only to colonial religious buildings and paintings, but also to continuing religious practices, in order to capture them as the expression of converging cultures. This labeling is too often taken to constitute a full encounter with artworks and rituals. We will examine the scholarly critique of the term syncretism, as either a productive or unproductive mode of aesthetic engagement. We will also show senses of syncretism as they relate to Cusco’s complex culture through encounters and missed encounters between scholars, tourists, and contemporary cusqueño artists.

Syncretism has been under scholarly critique in recent years, yet it continues to be used to describe colonial-period artworks. Recently, for instance, Jaime Lara defined it as “a coming-together or convergence of two very different (but in some ways similar) religious traditions.” Though Lara is speaking of religious convergences in Mexico, this academic definition readily transfers into an aesthetic, even touristic, assessment of the Coricancha in Cusco, for example. At the curved wall, conjoined with the apse of the church, two very disjunctive orders of architecture can be readily observed, Inka and European, forming a “syncretic” place for Andean-Christian worship. In this sense, syncretism can imply a mode of aesthetic experience that is triggered by formal characteristics of two kinds of architecture emerging from different cultural contexts, one that takes itself to be fully engaged with a syncretic work, even subsuming its historical specificity. Yet Lara also points out that syncretism names the historical processes in which indigenous peoples “accepted Christianity and made it their own, on their own terms, and with what they saw of value in it”. In this way, Lara turns our attention away from a formal aesthetic appreciation of syncretism toward the historical processes that fuse together religious practices, spaces and objects. Such historical processes further inform our encounter with the Coricancha, for we are reminded that it is not only an amalgamation of architectural styles, but also the result of complex and historically specific processes of appropriation and valuation in contexts of colonialism.

Syncretism, however, can be reclaimed by scholars prompting us to reflect upon the historical processes and lineages through which objects and practices unfold and acquire new, specific meanings and identities.

Similarly, regarding religious acts that continue today in the Andes, we might be tempted to identify elements that are Andean, on the one hand, and Spanish Catholic, on the other, forming a “syncretic” whole. Josef Estermann, however, suggests that this differentiation assumes a notion of purity, as it posits a convergence of ‘pure’ cultures that are judged to be different, if not even contradictory, to one another. From this perspective, Estermann argues that the convergence implicit in the term syncretism may trigger a sense of “impurity” and “heterodoxy.” He implies that such concerns with purity conjure an arbitrary division of a form (whether it be an artifact or a ritual) that, he argues, should be considered indivisible and whole. Estermann states that anything considered syncretic “is first and foremost a historical fact [that] has to do with an extremely complex history of imposition, resistance and interpenetration.” One poignant example of this is the chakana--the Andean-Christian cross--as a symbolic bridge, a place of transition between different cosmic regions. When Christ is understood as a bridge, the resulting theology and religious practices constitute a new form of religiosity rather than a ‘mixed’ or ‘impure’ one. Estermann states that this Andean religiosity is a historical fact and has a “sui generis” identity that is not unlike medieval Christian theology.

Both authors challenge the label “syncretism” when it is applied to the formal characteristics of an object or practice in order to determine it as a convergence of styles, which can then be parsed out and identified in an abstract aesthetic experience that can be informed by both uncritical academic and touristic perspectives. Syncretism, however, can be reclaimed by scholars prompting us to reflect upon the historical processes and lineages through which objects and practices unfold and acquire new, specific meanings and identities. Labeling works of art as “syncretic” in terms of their formal attributes may have the potential to de-historicize them by, for example, ignoring the plight of the oppressed or the colonial politics of domination that are invested in them. Yet, reclaiming syncretism as reflecting complex historical processes across colonial differences should acknowledge the difficulty of encountering artifacts and rituals in their proper historical contexts, a difficulty that critical academic scholarship can seek to overcome.

Carolyn Dean and Dana Leibsohn suggest that the term “hybridity” may be preferred over syncretism because it has come to connote the history and power dynamics of colonial oppression. Nonetheless, as they acknowledge, the term hybridity misses the mark of understanding the historical context of certain colonial artworks. They present the portrait of Don Marcos Chiguan Topa in the Museo Inka as a case in point. It was produced in an era when noble Inka families participated in festivals, most notably the Corpus Christi celebrations, which marked their noble standing in the colonial order. The combination of Spanish and indigenous clothing may make this portrait appear to the modern viewer to be intentionally hybrid (that is, presenting a specific politically charged historical context), but as the authors point out, the idea of “hybridity” was never invested in the portrait. Hybridity in its political encoding is, in fact, a retroactive imposition on the artwork. This and similar portraits became politicized in the late eighteenth century, when indigenous rebellions mobilized an idea of Inka hegemony. It is through such historical change and re-contextualizations that we, as modern viewers, are able to see such artworks as hybrid. From Dean and Leibsohn, we learn that it is impossible to encounter artworks in their historical contexts, and also that we become invested in their misrecognition through time. This examination of “hybridity,” then, reveals a misrecognition of artifacts and rituals precisely due to the scholarly concern with encountering them in their historical contexts. This constitutes another kind of missed encounter, now revealed within scholarship.

The positive aspect of these examinations of syncretism and hybridity is that they encourage us to be critical of our judgments about colonial-period artwork in view of the multiplicity of its historical and cultural lineages. While Lara’s and Estermann’s examinations bring our attention to the historicity of objects and rituals, Dean’s and Leibsohn’s reveal that our encounter with them is always mediated through historical processes that affect their continued presentation and reception, undermining any pretension of scholarly objectivity toward them. Syncretism and hybridity can be, then, ways of covering up the historical contexts and significance of objects and rituals, while creating a false sense of an objective appreciation of them. In the case of Dean and Leibsohn’s argument, the terms syncretism and hybridity are vulnerable to critique not because they disallow a pure historical encounter with objects. Rather, they are vulnerable to critique because they can conceal the ways in which they themselves impose layers of newer meanings over older meanings. At the same time, a critique of these terms can make apparent the limitations and assumptions of attempts at re-representing historical artifacts within the intertwinement and dissemination of diverse lineages in colonial and postcolonial contexts. 

Richard Peralta.  En casa de herrero.

Richard Peralta. En casa de herrero.

Syncretism, in the sense of a de-historicized, formal appreciation of things as convergences, is deeply connected to being a tourist in Cusco. When the tourist arrives in Cusco she is not only encouraged to label things as syncretic, but she is also immersed in a total ‘syncretic’ experience, in which she accepts at face value the coming together of different cultures, different historical periods, different religiosities from around the world. Such ‘syncretic’ experience becomes the dominant interpretive mode among tourists, and it has many as yet unforeseen consequences for contemporary Cusco. The act of labeling something “syncretic” can allow tourists to “collect cultures” (such as in photographs and stories) in ways that are depoliticized, dehistoricized, and therefore comfortable for their own touristic perspectives. The touristic rendering of the already mentioned Coricancha is a good example of this.

In contrast, the scholarly use of syncretism can address historical contexts of artworks or rituals along with the conditions by which they are recognized and given significance. This kind of syncretism implies the impossibility of encountering an artwork or ritual in its original historical context, without denying the value of scholarly work that self-critically seeks such an encounter. The scholar, therefore, must find solace in this impossible pursuit by being aware of the fact that her attempts to encounter artworks and rituals may impose layers of meaning that distance her from the object. It is precisely this self-critique that reveals the limits of hybridity discussed above.

Contemporary cuzqueño artists, on the other hand, are working from this new syncretic identity and are articulating it in a way that reclaims the city from both scholars and tourists, while participating, through the medium of painting, in this particular globalism.

Yet, this scholarly practice is at work in the creation of museums and the restoration of sites for the sake of tourist consumption. In these sites, tourists and scholars are complicit in mis-recognitions in different ways, while letting the labels “syncretism” or “hybridity” inform their encounter with artifacts or rituals. On the one hand both tourists and scholars claim to recognize artifacts or rituals as “syncretic” or “hybrid”, a judgement that can give a sense of resolution, and therefore lead to an ahistorical and decontextualized disengagement. On the other hand, there is a complex history of artifacts, rituals, and of scholarship about them, parts of which may or may not be operative in those very acts of recognition. This history is shifting and discontinuous, as it involves momentary inflections of objects or rituals as politically, religiously or even aesthetically significant. It makes possible engagements that can be contemporaneous with the artifacts or rituals at issue, or separated from them by definitive historical processes that may either reveal or occlude their significance.

Complicating things further, such engagements may even entail a “double mistaken identity” at play across cultural and colonial differences that determine different experiential and interpretive positions. This is a term that James Lockhart coined to mean that “[e]ach side takes it that a given form or concept is essentially one already known to it, operating in much the same manner as in its own tradition, and hardly takes cognizance of the other side’s interpretation.” Such a case of “double mistaken identity” is revealed in Inka portraits such as that of don Marcos introduced earlier. They were produced under the watchful eye of colonial authorities and, from that dominant position, perceived to stand in for deceased ancestors, conjuring a perception of Inka nobility as in the past of the Spanish colonial regime. From the position of the Inka nobility, perhaps under the influence of Inka non-linear temporalities, the accumulation of such portraits constituted a lineage of Inka nobles alongside and counter to colonial Spanish authority. Moreover, the above mentioned fact that they were retroactively understood as subversive to colonial power underscores the complex processes of images and their recognitions.

Tourists and scholars can recognize syncretism in different ways. However, encounters with objects and rituals happen in spaces that bring them together, making each complicit in the production of cultural meanings. Machu Picchu stands out in that it fosters the collusion between scholarship and tourism. Despite the self-reflection of scholarship, the site of Machu Picchu imposes a kind of authenticity upon the site for the consumption of tourists. Tourists, in their ‘syncretic’ mode, are encouraged to interpret the site as it is offered to them by scholars, in terms of convergent frames of reference that may or may not have anything to do with the Inka site, and perhaps more to do with the global scope in which the tourist is invested. The reconstructed archaeological site is ready for the foot traffic and “hands-on” experiences of tourists who, for example, seek to absorb the numinous power of Inka rocks. The supposed ‘authenticity’ of the scholarly presentation of the site allows for the tourist (and tour guide) to conjure their own meaning from it. Another “double mistaken identity” is at hand, now one that determines the dynamic between scholars and tourists. Yet, this activity of scholars and tourists is generating a global culture that brings together the old and the new, the local and the foreign, into a new identity, in ways that recall Estermann’s analysis of Andean religious syncretism.

The unintended complicity between scholars and tourists constructs new global, cultural forms that are not fully apparent from the perspective of one or the other. Contemporary cuzqueño artists, on the other hand, are working from this new syncretic identity and are articulating it in a way that reclaims the city from both scholars and tourists, while participating, through the medium of painting, in this particular globalism. In his paintings, Edwin Jesus Quispecuro Nina reclaims feminine identity through photographic collage of contemporary Andean women as conflated with iconic Virgin Mary. Quispecuro also reclaims the iconicity of sacred Christian images in paintings of Andean children as angels, a project that he shares with Richard Peralta. In yet another turn, Peralta bridges our distance to the divine in Santo Domingo through the use of photographic realism to depict the Passion of Christ in a way that is not commonly found in religious spaces, presenting the events of two thousand years ago as a series of contemporary “snapshots”. These Cusqueño paintings may at first appear to be imitations of colonial-period painting styles, which have been a central aspect of syncretism for scholar and tourist alike.  Yet they engage with the global identity of Cusco, configured in the complicity between tourists and scholars but also beyond them, by presenting it through new images that escape their notions of ‘syncretism.’

The complexity of the divergences at work in these images--the present and the past, the Andean and the Spanish, the Cusqueño and the global--challenges both tourists and scholars in their respective syncretisms. The tourist is vexed in her attempt to parse out of distinguishable elements. The scholar is undermined in her attempt to identify a history for these objects and to find a relative context to receive them. Moreover, these images reflect to tourists and scholars their complicity in the creation of a Cusqueño global identity, which these very images reclaim from them.



Dean, Carolyn and Dana Leibsohn, “Hybridity and Its Discontents: Considering Visual Culture in Colonial Spanish America.” In Colonial Latin American Review 12:1 (2003), 5-35.

Estermann, Josef. “Apu Taytayku.” Studies in World Christianity 4 (1998), 1-20.

Lara, Jaime. “Syncretism: Aztec Christians”.

Lockhart, James. The Nahuas after the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford; Stanford University Press. 1992).