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The Andean Visual Poetics of José María Arguedas

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posted on 2021-03-18, 20:58 authored by Mariam Ramazan Mahalli
José María Arguedas (1911-1969) was one of the most notable Peruvian writers of the 20th century. He was a prose writer, poet, anthropologist and translator who wrote in both Spanish and Quechua, the main Indigenous language spoken in the Andean region where he was born and raised. Throughout his career, he was driven by the desire to defend and diffuse Peruvian Quechua culture and to convince his readers of its extraordinary value for the future of Peru.

Arguedas’s narrative fiction is considered part of a literary tradition known as indigenismo, which developed in Latin American countries with large Indigenous populations. However, because his work overcomes many of the limitations of this tradition by incorporating elements of Quechua culture into the form of his novels and short stories, it has also been categorised as neoindigenismo.

Arguedas’s texts have been a source of inspiration for several Latin American literary and cultural critics. Concerned with the region’s overreliance on Eurocentric theories produced for and from literatures emanating from contexts with distinct socio-cultural and historical particularities, these intellectuals have established critical concepts and frameworks that facilitate the study of literature produced in Latin America. Their concepts, such as narrative transculturation and literary heterogeneity, are particularly useful for examining literatures which, because of a historical event such as the Conquest of America, are embedded in fractured societies in which two or more socio-cultural groups struggle to coexist. These critical frameworks enable the identification and interpretation of the plurality of specificities that underpin narratives such as Arguedas’s, especially those that are associated with Indigenous or popular cultures.

The concerns regarding the transposition of supposedly universal critical apparatuses to the Latin American milieu that motivated these critics are shared by more recent academics who foreground the bypassing of scholarship produced in peripheral regions in favour of that produced in metropolitan academic centres as an issue that occurs across several academic disciplines. These critics stress that in doing so, scholars risk misinterpreting or overlooking the particularities of Latin American literature, as well as denying Latin American institutions their role as producers of knowledge. Indeed, this has been the case in some studies of Arguedian narrative. The approach adopted in this study is a response to these tendencies. It analyses Arguedas visual poetics first and foremost by critically engaging with Latin American or Latin Americanist literary and cultural criticism.

Critics have celebrated Arguedas for his unique writing style and particularly for the way he wove Quechua music, song and lyricism into his texts. Focus on his incorporation of Andean orality has meant that scant critical attention has been paid to his representation of the visual. This study seeks to develop upon the Latin American(ist) scholarship that establishes Andean Indigenous and mestizo culture as a subversive element in Arguedas’s texts by examining the way he draws on visual conceptualisations of Peruvian Quechua culture to construct a transcultural visual poetics that contributes to the counter-hegemonic nature of his socio-political literary project.

Arguably, common understandings of the visual as a predominantly Western mode of perception and of many Indigenous cultures as ‘oral cultures’ have influenced critics’ tendencies to focus on Arguedas’s use of sound as the primary counter-hegemonic force in his narratives. But Indigenous Andean culture has a complex visual tradition that is a fundamental part of its sensory order and worldview. With the invasion of America, many elements of this visual tradition were overridden as the Spanish, and then criollo, colonial project enforced a new visual order. However, there is a considerable amount of scholarship that documents the numerous aspects of Andean visuality. Drawing upon historical accounts, Andean ethnohistory and anthropology of the senses, this study explores the connections between Arguedas’s treatment of the visual, the Andean visual tradition and the Quechua worldview. By taking this approach to Arguedas’s work, the study aims to demonstrate that the visual is not only a Western mode of perception, that there is no universal concept of the visual sense and that, in his endeavour to faithfully represent Quechua culture and to subvert Western writing styles, Arguedas drew upon Andean visuality just as much as he drew upon its orality.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



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Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Languages and Cultures


Arnedo-Gómez, Miguel; Miranda, Carolina