Peru art, revisited — but not at Yale

NEW YORK — In the fall of 2007, when it seemed certain that Yale and Peru would reach an amicable agreement over the ownership of Inca artifacts housed at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, it also seemed certain that a museum would be built in Peru to house the high-quality pieces the University was willing to send back.

Now, as the parties begin to wage a legal battle that could involve years of filing motions and rebuttals, it is unlikely that such a museum will open in time for the 2011 centennial anniversary of Yale explorer Hiram Bingham III’s expedition to Machu Picchu. But one Peruvian artist is in no mood to wait for a resolution to the nearly century-long dispute.

Instead, Sandra Gamarra installed work here in New York earlier this month in what she calls a “fictitious museum.” Gamarra’s museum does not display the artifacts themselves, but rather paintings of pictures of the artifacts that she found in a 2004 exhibition catalog from Yale, “Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas.”

The installation, called “The Second Room of the Rescue,” includes more than 100 small paintings of the artifacts, displayed as a house of cards.

“The house of cards is a direct reference to the state of the Peru-Yale case,” she said by phone from her studio in Spain. “It’s a very unstable situation and at the same time it’s gone on so long that there’s a kind of equilibrium. That’s the idea of a house of cards.”

While Gamarra said in the interview that she hopes the Inca artifacts will be returned to Peru, her art is not explicitly concerned with the fate of the artifacts. Rather, she said she hopes it is seen as a comment on the changing meanings of art.

One aspect of art that Gamarra dwells on is the commercial mechanisms of museums. Her installation includes painted mugs and a poster, meant to mimic the offerings of a gift shop.

Richard Burger, the Yale archaeologist who edited the catalog on which Gamarra based her paintings, said he was unaware of the artist’s work. But he added that the appropriation of the artifacts onto another medium was an “interesting twist” to the complicated history of Yale and Peru.

Gamarra’s installation was on display at the Volta fair, an event that showcases solo projects. Some of her other work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

For now, the work that was on display in New York remains in the United States, albeit not on view. Gamarra said the installation may be shown again, and that one American university — not Yale — has expressed interest in purchasing the work.

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