One could compare Peruvian artist Nicario Jimenez’s retablos to dioramas. Like dioramas, retablos are portable, open boxes filled with figures in a narrative scene. But unlike young students who fill shoeboxes with rudimentary paper cutouts, Jimenez relays social and political themes through carefully sculpted, intricately painted figures in vibrantly flowered wooden boxes.
In his first retrospective exhibit in the United States, Jimenez displayed his aesthetic and thematic evolution through a comprehensive collection of his works.
Jimenez, who learned the art of retablo from his father and grandfather, makes the centuries-old art form his own by taking experiences that impact his daily life and expressing them through his work. Retablos, which traditionally depict religious or folkloric scenes, resemble unusually decorative, free-standing medicine cabinets filled with figurines arranged to depict a scene.
While some of Jimenez’s retablos illustrate traditional themes, many have become vehicles for messages of social change in his hands. “He is an artist who interacts with where he lives,” said Stein, UM’s Director of Latin American Studies and a longtime friend of Jimenez.
In the 1980s, when Jimenez lived in Peru, his works largely reflected the civil war among the Shining Path guerilla movement, the government, and peasants. Later, when Jimenez moved to the United States, he began to chronicle the plight of undocumented immigrants and the turbulence of the civil rights movement.
“I see what happens in life and I also look at photographs to see what has happened before, and I find a message,” Jimenez said. “It’s not just Mexicans, Cubans, or Europeans. I find stories in many people.”
The exhibit as a whole provides a unique opportunity to see Jimenez’s development as an artist. The progression from the simple, doll-like figures of his older pieces to the more realistic, individually painted fingers and light-reflecting eyes of recent works show the artist’s growing skill level through the years.
“If we look at what he’s been doing in the last five years, he has expressed real complexities and emotions,” Stein said. “He transforms the artisanship of the retablo into art with quality and a unique focus.”
Stein, who recently co-authored a scholarly volume, Popular Art and Social Change in the Retablo Art of Nicario Jimenez Quiste, with Damian and LaRosa, discovered Jimenez’s work while on an exchange program in Peru in 1986. “I found his work much better and of higher quality than other retablistas’. He is the foremost practitioner of the art of retablo in the world,” Stein said.
While Jimenez fills most of his retablos with figures only several inches high, he captures humanity in the faces of his sculptures and sets poignant scenes through background paintings. In one of the oldest retablos on display, “Huelga (On Strike)” Jimenez captures the conviction of picketers in gaping mouths, flushed cheeks, and outstretched arms. A more recent piece, the multi-tiered “El Norte: Suenos y Realidades (The North: Dreams and Realities)” holds figures of Haitian, Mexican, and Cuban immigrants sculpted to convey desperation through their expressive eyebrows and body positioning.
Jimenez’s ability to convey such a high level of emotion and strong narrative is doubly impressive when viewers consider his process. Like traditional retablistas, Jimenez molds his figures and scenery from a mixture of boiled potatoes and plaster of Paris using only a knife and toothpick-like tool. More impressive is the fact that, Jimenez has only in the past two years begun to use magnifying glasses for painting minute details due to his aging eyesight.
As a past professor and lecturer at several universities, including UM, with works in prestigious collections such as the Smithsonian Institution, Jimenez remains humble about his work despite his world renown.
“I never finish a retablo and think, ‘This is my best.’ My work is never complete,” he said.
Hannah Bae can be contacted at email@example.com.