Primitivo Evanán, the master craftsman of the Sarhua boards, has practiced this art for almost 50 years. His work had been in exhibitions worldwide, and he had been awarded and recognized in different events. However, his art was not really known in Lima, where he has lived for many years. Yet, in 2017 this completely changed. The Sarhua tables became nationally famous. Although his fame was given for the wrong reasons, Primitivo knew how to make this uncomfortable moment an opportunity to tell the world what millions of Peruvians had to suffer in the 1980s, a time when the country was severely affected by the actions of terrorist movements.
Evanán was born in 1944 in the small town of Sarhua, in the Andean department of Ayacucho in southern Peru. Throughout his childhood, he lived with his family until 14, when he decided that he wanted to be a priest. He told his parents about it and explained that he would have to pay more than USD 100 a month to achieve it. His mother was excited and wanted to help him. Still, his father thought it was an unnecessary expense for a farming family with few resources. Primitivo remembers to this day that he woke up that night and, hearing the fight his parents were having, put on a poncho, took what little money he had and started his trip to Lima.
He had several jobs while living in the capital of the country. It was only years after that Primitivo remembered the advice of a friend who told him to paint Sarhua boards and sell them so that he could own his workshop, travel, and work.
In 1973 he painted his first board. Since he was little, he had seen how adult men in his town dominated the art, but at that time, it was not allowed for children or women to practice it. Primitivo was taught by the master Víctor Yucra, and he learned so well that he became one of the best Sarhua board painters in the country. Although it was pretty difficult to sell boards in Lima, where few people knew about them, Primitivo continued with his art, exhibiting it in museums and galleries.
Primitivo never imagined that the boards would become famous overnight. But, unfortunately, neither would their fame be given in such an unpleasant way. In 2017, the DIRCOTE (Directorate Against Terrorism of the National Police of Peru) and the Public Ministry seized 31 Sarhua boards sent from the United States to Peru as part of a donation to the Lima Art Museum. Shortly after, an investigation was opened, as they claimed that the content of the tables was an apology for terrorism. Basically, they were accusing the authors of the works of terrorists. The police, the prosecution, and the Public Ministry didn’t seem to understand that this art had been born in the small town of Sarhua in Ayacucho hundreds of years before the terrorist movements struck this region.
There are records of Sarhua boards from the 1600s. At that time, the tables had a very particular purpose. They were a gift that the compadre gave to those who built and moved into a house. The board, decorated with images that represented the family’s daily life, was used as a beam on the roof of the house. At present, this tradition is still maintained, although, in other regions of the country (especially in tourist areas), the artistic style has been adopted to make practical and decorative pieces.
The seizure was a scandal and appeared in different media in the country. Indeed, the works of art featured scenes in which the Shining Path, the most bloodthirsty terrorist group in the history of Peru, gave talks to community members. The hammer and sickle, the ultimate symbol of the movement, was also represented. Primitivo explains that it is logical that these images were represented in the Sarhua boards since that is what the tables are about, representing reality. “They are photographs from the time, in which the terrorist group had kidnapped a large part of the Ayacucho region, one of the worst-hit nationwide.”
Finally, the true background of the tables was explained. The Lima Art Museum reported that “These pieces are works of art and do not constitute an apology for terrorism: they reflect real events experienced by Ayacucho communities. The Piraq Causa Series contains legends that narrate the suffering of the people of Sarhua, record the rejection of the Shining Path ideology and condemn terrorism”. Primitivo, far from being upset, managed to see this event as an opportunity. Together with the anthropologist and historian Ramón Mujica, he wrote the book Piraq Causa Kaykunapaq (which in Quechua means “Who is the culprit?”), Published in 2019, a compilation of pictorial memoirs on the internal armed conflict in Sarhua.
In November 2018, the Ministry of Culture declared Sarhua’s traditional painting a Cultural Heritage of the Nation. In 2021, the master Primitivo Evanan received the distinction of “Meritorious Personality of Culture” by the same institution. This story reminds Peruvians of the importance of knowing the different artistic expressions that have been developed and are still alive to this day in the country.