Karina Aguilera Svirsky

María Rosa Palacios’s Dangerous Journey and The Railway Workers

About the project
Eugenio Courret
Courret Archive
France / Peru
Eugenio Courret

Courret Archive

About the project

Karina Aguilera Skvirsky, United States / Ecuador

María Rosa Palacios’s Dangerous Journey is a multimedia project that involves performance, video, and visual art. It establishes parallels between the journey that a black teenaged girl undertakes through the highlands of Ecuador and the journey made by indigenous and Jamaican workers who built the zigzagging tracks of the Trans-Andean Railway.

María Rosa Palacios was my great-grandmother, an Afro-Ecuadorian descendant of enslaved Africans who, in 1905, at the age of fifteen, migrated from her native village in the Valle del Chota to the city of Guayaquil. She faced the considerable challenges of traveling a long way through a rugged landscape in order to go work for a wealthy family. More than a hundred years later, I collected all the information I could about her journey and her experiences, in order to recreate her difficult endeavor. This takes the form of a video that is a hybrid between documentary and fiction, involving performance and improvisation and featuring interviews conducted with historians and relatives, as well as research about means of transportation in the early twentieth century. In addition to being a tribute to María Rosa, this project expresses concerns that arise when dealing with issues of race and social class.

The Railway Workers series consists of photomontages based on the official history of the construction of Ecuador’s railways from 1890 to 1908. The process begins with then-president Eloy Alfaro’s visionary idea of connecting Ecuador’s incredibly varied topography, creating a route between the country’s coast and highlands to improve communications and trade between the two regions. At the end of the nineteenth century, Alfaro hired a team of American engineers to overcome the problems of building in mountainous areas, such as the one known as the Nariz del diablo (Devil’s Nose). The railway was built by a workforce of indigenous people and Jamaican migrants.

This project links official history ―represented in archival images― to recent photographs of the cordillera, where workers seem to have been sculpted into the landscape.

This is a first approach leading to a series of projects focusing on the figure of María Rosa. In them, I hope to examine more closely the cultural transformations of the period and the implications of the Liberal Revolution of 1895, as well as the arrival of modernity and the new relationships it proposed, in contrast with the intertwined aspirations and frustrations exemplified by people’s private lives at the time.

Karina Skvirsky

(b. 1969) Rhode Island, United States/ Guayaquil, Ecuador, and New York, United States

Through photography, video art, and performance, Karina Aguilera Skvirsky examines the way the image operates in art and the communications media, while at the same time exploring Latin American memory and culture, with a focus on the banal, everyday aspects of inhabited spaces. She received a grant from the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture in 2018 and a Fulbright-García Robles Scholarship in 2015. Her work can be found in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Aguilera Skvirsky is represented by Ponce + Robles Gallery. She received a Creative Capital Award in 2019 for her project How to build a wall and other ruins. She is currently adjunct professor of art at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.


In 1863, the Frenchmen Eugenio and Aquiles Courret set up their photo studio, named Fotografía Central, on Jirón de la Unión, the epicenter of social life in Lima at the time. Given the Courret family’s congenial relationships with Peruvian politicians and aristocrats, the studio was frequented by Lima’s most affluent families and it became one of the most important of its kind in South America.

The pictures from the Courret Archive displayed here are portraits of women of African descent who were wet nurses, selected to care for the infants of Lima’s elite in the nineteenth century. Aristocratic customs inherited from the period of slavery meant these women were made to work as nannies, whose duties included breastfeeding the newborns of affluent families.

Part of the Courret Archive was purchased by Peru’s National Library in 1999 and can be accessed on line.