Silhouettes often have a decorative context in art – think cameos, and family portraits cut from paper in the 18th century. But Raquel Esquives’ colourful life-sized silhouettes, which she has been working on during her time as artist in residence at New Pacific Studio, have a darker side.
“For Latin Americans, the silhouette has another meaning because it reminds us of the ‘disappeared’ people we lost during military rule.”
Her homeland of Peru was rocked by years of instability and guerrilla fighting in the 1980s and 90s. The civillian population was caught in the middle of appalling violence as the Maoist group ‘The Shining Path’ and government forces clashed.
There were forced disappearances, massacres and other human rights violations on both sides, which are still under investigation.
Growing up against this background had a profound impact on Raquel. Her uncle, a marine, was shot in the street by The Shining Path, and many other friends and family members were tragically affected.
“I didn’t realise until I travelled outside Peru that it wasn’t normal to have armed police and shootings everyday, and that was shocking,” she says. Her silhouette works echo the chalk outlines drawn on the pavement by The Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, a group formed in Buenes Aires in 1977 to protest the disappearances of family members imprisoned during Argentina's military dictatorship, including the removal of children born in jail from their parents. The group continues to meet every Thursday afternoon in the Plaza.
“Making something beautiful and colourful on the silhouette is my way of honouring and celebrating the lost people of my country,” she says. The works also use embroidery and sequinning skills, an important part of Peruvian culture. “Every town has its own saints and versions of Maria and Jesus, and on saints days we have huge parties with music and dancing in the streets,” she says.
“Each year, one family takes on the job of hand sewing the costumes for the religious statues, which are very elaborate and expensive.” Raquel’s mother, who died when the artist was four, was learning these embellishing skills and it was finding some fragments of her work that inspired Raquel her to work with textiles in this way.
She is also working on a series of embroideries called ‘28 Days’, also incorporating beads, sequins and embroidery, which explores menstruation and female identity. Raquel will display her textile work at Aratoi from 28 July, before she leaves Wairarapa at the end of this month. She is currently showing a series of cloud paintings based on Wairarapa skies, alongside an installation by American artist Laura Amtower, who shared the residency with her last month.
Currently showing at Aratoi: Laura Amtower and Raquel Esquives: New Pacific Studio, until 12 July; R M Fairweather, until 28 July; Square & Compasses – Freemasonry in New Zealand, until 8 September; In association with Robert Heald Gallery: Bill Hammond, Hokey Pokey(1998) and Contemporaries, until 4 August.