The icy winds on the peaks, the solitude and immensity of the Andean plateau of Bolivia and Peru fascinated her as much as the pre-Hispanic ruins and the people she photographed there in 1941. The trip was “short, too short”, but the photographer Elena Hosmann (Buenos Aires 1887- Illinois 1966), returned to Buenos Aires with that world in her camera and a wish: “To awaken the interest of the public, so that they know it and collaborate in preserving its values, before it is too late . The means of transport will bring him closer and closer to us ”. So he put it in the introduction to Altiplano environment, a book that the old Peuser publishing house made with 148 of his photos and the foreword to one of the greatest Bolivian pens of the 20th century: Oscar Cerruto.
A field of daisies on the shores of Titicaca; a potato field at 4,500 m high, a girl of the ethnic group chipaya; orna woman mamaota. Also the smile of a cholita [mestiza]; a violinist beggar; a man chewing coca leaves or locals dancing the huayño. A terrace in Ollantai-Tambo; a window in Potosí, a threshold in Tihuanacu and bridges, cemeteries, balconies, markets, crafts and ornaments made of wool, silver and clay. All this reflects the book, which came out in 1945 and was immediately reviewed by the Journal of Dialectology and Popular Traditions (the first in Spain on social anthropology): “He who takes it in his hands cannot stop contemplating him.” “A magnificent collection of photographs in sheets on good paper.” Each black and white image has a foot, “but where they do not speak of dominators and oppressors, but of carriers of culture and art,” he praised.
Hosmann’s gaze was a window to the area before grand tourism (for example, trips to Machu-Picchu, today among the seven wonders of the modern world). “Protected by the isolation, the height, the altiplano has preserved its character. Indigenous cities buried under the layer of earth accumulated for centuries will still be discovered, or the dense vegetation that in the lower valleys weaves its dense mantle over oblivion ”, writes Hosmann. It was also a contribution to fields such as ethnography and architecture. Cerruto, then cultural attaché to the Bolivian embassy in Buenos Aires, highlights that his photos reflect the “duel to the death between natives and foreigners,” the “clash of two opposing souls.” He speaks of the pumas and parrots, the snakes and exotic flowers, the condors or bunches of bananas with which “America spills on the fronts of the colonial temples”.
“The creative powers of the American man were not broken by the conquest. And after the first paralyzing blow, they were reborn with greater vigor. Thousands of anonymous sculptors, painters, carvers, craftsmen and musicians continue to work their humble work in villages of the Altiplano ”, says Cerruto, in the manner of a manifesto. Its prologue, almost another photo, exalts the vitality of an art made under the pressure of that history and also that of nature: “It is a lifeless and cursed world; sadness made earth; leagues and leagues in which no other plants grow than wild straw and silence ”.
For the deep America
Hosmann had lived in Capri with her husband, the writer and engineer Edwin Cerio. In the 1940s, again in Argentina, he made reports for the newspaper The Press and accompanied the ethnomusicologist Isabel Aretz in an extensive field work —for the University of Tucumán— destined to document musical instruments, lyrics and anonymous melodies that sounded between valleys and ravines of the northwest (as the composers Leda Valladares and María Elena Walsh would later do. ). The result was the book Traditional Argentine music (1946), a jewel of South American folklore, which bears his photos.
In those years, a climate of revaluation of the so-called “invisible Argentina” (as opposed to the “visible”: that of the Río de la Plata) pushed artists and intellectuals to this region. Many went to discover its landscapes and inhabitants (miners, peasants, axmen, sugar mill laborers, indigenous people), and nurtured a golden moment of telluric folklore, art and literature. “Elena and Isabel, attentive to this period temperature, toured the Calchaquíes valleys [Salta y Tucumán], then Bolivia and Peru, in search of those authentic and dignified faces, and of the guardians of ancient songs and romances, bagualas, vidalas, couplets and strings of Hispanic roots ”, says the writer Liliana Bellone. Your book In search of Elena tells that, like the Austrian Gertrudis Chale or the Buenos Aires Carybé, who went there “to paint the yuchanes and the sun, the spinners and the palliri (mining women), Elena went to eternalize with her photos the gauchos of Tucumán and the silver and gold churches of Peru and Bolivia ”.
For Bellone, “she was a precursor of what we could understand today by feminism and pacifism, and a student of Andean geography, geology, ethnology and archeology.” 80 years ago, with the available technology, she left valuable photos and videos of a world that had moved her and that years later would be the focus of anthropology and sociology. How Aretz (1909-2005), who town by town, in a 1935 Ford, with a tape recorder, camcorder and microphones, made a dazzling rescue of ancestral South American music (the Pre-Columbian Art Museum de Chile dedicates a collection to him).
Bellone is one of the most edited current Argentine authors in Spain and Italy. He came to Hosmann after presenting in Capri a novel about another woman, Eva Perón (Eva Perón, allieva di Nervo, Oèdipus). And just published in Madrid Letizia’s book. Capri novel (Verbum), where Elena’s story continues in that of her daughter, Letizia Cerio de Álvarez de Toledo, to whom Jorge Luis Borges dedicated the poem The night that they watched him in the South. With this work, the Salta-born author won the international award for exemplary novels 2020 from the University of Castilla-La Mancha and Verbum.
Subscribe here to the newsletter from EL PAÍS América and receive all the informative keys of the current situation of the region.