Stolen, Contested, Copied, Repatriated

‘I never seriously thought the textiles would be returned to Peru’, says Oscar Lara, who has worked for years on a project involving the Paracas textiles at the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg.

Oscar Lara, Within Heritage Movements, videostill, 2013–2021.

Within Heritage Movements (2013–2021), by artist Oscar Lara, is the story of the prolonged and silenced affair of the so-called Paracas textiles, once part of the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg’s collection, and illegitimately brought to Gothenburg from Peru during the 1930s. The point of departure for Lara’s project is the controversy following the show A Stolen World at the same museum in 2008, which initiated a process of repatriation for the eighty-nine 2000-year-old burial objects in the 2010s.

Lara, born and raised in Lima, Peru, is currently a PhD student in artistic research at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. Part of his research has centred around the Paracas Collection, and together with Swedish artisans he has made two replicas of textiles from the collection. These, in turn, have been involved in a process that led to the return of the two originals to Peru in the summer of 2021, completing the repatriation of the collection.

Oscar Lara. Photo: Carl Johan Eriksson.

“Initially, the exhibition A Stolen World – which I was also invited to participate in – deeply provoked me,” Lara told Kunstkritikk. “My suggestion was to exhibit a project based on stolen objects and how they end up in collections. Then I started to realise more and more precisely how these specific objects from Peru ended up in Sweden – the way in which they were smuggled here by Swedish diplomats.”

The story of the Paracas textiles has been illustrated and debated from various angles, but Lara recounts how it has been proven beyond doubt that the Swedish consul in Peru at the time, Sven Karell (1884-1965), sent bags containing the textiles out from the country without permission. According to Lara, many players were involved in this, including the Swedish customs, but the methods used to transport the textiles remains either partly unknown, or hard to track in detail, despite there being letters which explicitly mention the smuggling.  

“In Peru today there are people claiming Karell payed grave robbers in order to seize artistic objects, but of course there is no direct evidence,” Lara said, stressing that it’s a well-supported fact that grave looting has occurred frequently during Peru’s history, but proving who’s responsible in each specific case is notoriously hard. 

Lara soon commenced his artistic research around copy, original, and who bears responsibility for cultural decolonisation: 

In the beginning, it was all just a kind of absurdist reaction to the repatriation process. I never seriously thought the textiles would ever be returned to Peru, so I wanted to see how this project could push the limits of my role as an artist, and if I could reflect this story by turning Swedish textile artists into some kind of ‘cultural-heritage-fraudsters’ with the intention of forging replicas of the stolen textiles. And correspondingly, to use my diplomatic connections and privileges to ‘smuggle’ them to South America as a commentary on culture politics. 

Lara continued to recount how he contacted the textile artists to examine the possibilities of weaving copies of the original fabrics:

Among others, I met with the weaver Lena Hammarlund and researcher Martin Ciszuk, who put me in contact with a number of textile artists which I soon began working with. In the beginning it was me lecturing and telling them about the project, but pretty soon they also started to enlighten me, who is completely ignorant of these archaic techniques, so the dynamics became quite interesting.

The initial idea was to make a replica of the so-called Calendar Textile, a nearly three dimensional fabric widely considered a masterpiece: 

From the start we wanted to replicate the Calendar Textile, but all experts in the project claimed it would take years and demand a huge budget, so instead we started looking into other parts of the collection. In the end, one the most damaged and restored ones was among those we settled for. That it had been patched up in different periods seemed somehow interesting to me, and that no one knew really when and where. Most probably already in Peru, but also partly in Sweden.

Oscar Lara, Within Heritage Movements, 2013–2021. Installation view from the Museum of World Culture, where the work is exhibited as part of the 11th Gothenburg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (GIBCA). Photo: Hendrik Zeitler.

In an arduous process that took four years, Lara’s team of weavers completed the two copies in the same ancient technique as the originals. In 2018, the copies were exhibited at MALI – Museo de arte de Lima, in a show that recreated the gallery from the 2008 exhibition in Gothenburg. And finally, the two original pieces were repatriated in the summer of 2021. Parallel to that, the two copies returned to the Museum of World Culture where they’ve been shown this fall as part of the 11th Gothenburg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (GIBCA). 

Yet, the repatriation process has not been without its complications:

There are still some issues when it comes to handing over artefacts like these to an ex-colonised country like Peru, where a lot of institutions are still colonial. So when you send these textiles back to Peru, they are not really being sent to Peru. They just end up in the hands of some individuals there, that’s all. At the present moment there’s a dispute around who will benefit the most from these returned objects, based on the different political camps in country.

Lara emphasizes that repatriation is a process with two sides. It’s important for countries like Peru to get their plundered objects back, but it’s also crucial that the plundering nations understand their responsibility:

Something I think ought to be discussed more is the way in which the meaning and use of these pieces have shifted. The Paracas textiles, originally meant to stay in the tombs wherefrom they were plundered, are now being shown at museums and used as parts in building national identity. I think we should ask more questions concerning how we use these objects in our culture.

Currently, Lara is in the middle of preparing a seminar with Natasha Maria Llorens, professor of art and theory at the Royal Institute of Art, about the final part of the project. The talk will take place at the Museum of World Culture this Sunday, which is also the final day of GIBCA.

Oscar Lara, Within Heritage Movements, 2013–2021. Installation view from the Museum of World Culture, where the work is exhibited as part of the 11th Gothenburg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (GIBCA). Photo: Hendrik Zeitler.