Tamara J. Walker

Portrait of a Man, Portrait of a Woman?

Race, Gender, and Misapprehensions in the Peruvian Photographs Collection at the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

The Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen’s collection includes a small assortment of nineteenth-century photographs from Peru, each featuring a similarly generic catalogue description such as “Portret van een Peruviaanse man in traditioneel kostuum” (“Portrait of a Peruvian Man in Traditional Costume”), or “Portret van een Peruviaanse vrouw” (“Portrait of a Peruvian Woman”). The descriptions impose an anthropological function on the images, as though their value rests in their visual representativeness of local male and female human types. And yet there are differences in the circumstances of the images’ creation that have bearing on their significance. While some were produced by foreign visitors to the region who were interested in cataloguing its human landscape, others were produced by local photographers for local patrons wanting to pose for posterity. Keeping present Peru’s own deeply-entrenched history of African slavery, a fact which makes the “South American” label a subtle – and strange – act of erasure that severed many of the descriptions’ connection between those portraited in the photos and the place of birth of their ancestors, this article probes the implications of removing the images from their local socio-historical contexts and placing them within a new, display-oriented one with its own set of racial and gendered codes. 

We publish these articles as the museums consolidate into one nominal entity, het Wereldmuseum: since the articles were written between 2020 and 2023, they do not yet reflect the March 2023 name change. 

All contributors called into the Un/Engendering research project were asked to think outside their respective specializations. Without their courage, openness, humility, and without the peer reviewers’ generous attention, such an interdisciplinary project could have never taken place.

Images from left to right: Eugenio Courret, Portrait of a Peruvian woman, 1874-1875, Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen. RV-A111-1-33; Courret Hermanos [Eugenio and Aquiles Courret], Portrait of a South American woman, 1895-1905, Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen. RV-A389-3; Courret Hermanos [Eugenio and Aquiles Courret], Portrait of a Peruvian man in a traditional costume, 1874-1875, Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen. RV-A111-1-37; Portrait of a black Peruvian man with a basket on his head, 1988. Photographer unknown, Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen. RV-A122-1-33. This work is licensed under a CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication.

Introduction and initial inquiries.

Author | Tamara J. Walker

Tamara J. Walker is an historian and Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Barnard College of Columbia University who specializes in the history of slavery and gender in Latin America and its legacies in the modern era. She is the author of Exquisite Slaves: Race, Clothing, and Status in Colonial Lima, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017 and won the 2018 Harriet Tubman Prize from the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture. She is currently at work on two new research projects, one focused on the history of slavery and piracy in the Southern Pacific, and the other on race and visual culture in Latin America (which will be published by the University of Texas Press). 

In addition to her scholarly pursuits, Dr. Walker is the co-founder of The Wandering Scholar, a 501c3 nonprofit focused on making international travel accessible to high school students from underrepresented backgrounds. This work has, in turn, shaped additional writing projects: she has written about race, culture, and travel for SlateThe GuardianThe Root, and Columbia Global Reports, and is the author of the forthcoming book, Beyond the Shores: A History of African Americans Abroad (Crown, June 2023).


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