Dante Nava was my great grand-uncle; first generation Peruvian-Italian, the son of a Peruvian woman and an Italian immigrant who left during the Second Industrial Revolution. The couple settled in Puno, a majestic city in Perú on the shore of Lake Titicaca, the place where Dante, who the locals called Gringo Nava due to his fair complexion, became a celebrated indigenous poet.
I never knew him. Dante died before I was born. Over the years, I heard fragmented stories of his life, especially those told by my grandmother who was his niece and was very fond of him. I was told that Dante was a self-taught poet, a bohemian, an outcast, who spent all his money on books and liquor. He was also a social justice advocate, a critic of the system that exploited the indigenous people. He had loved an Aymara woman named María, who worked as a washerwoman, he wrote many poems to her.
In Poet of the Lake, I use images from Dante’s time and from my trip to Puno in 2018. By combining old and new images, I recreate some of the stories Dante tells in his poems. The titles in the series come from his writings and the poems accompanying this project are excerpts from his anthology. The Divine Comedy by another Dante--Dante Alighieri--was one of my great grand-uncle's favorite books. I used concepts from that work, to play with the idea that Dante Nava’s life was divided into three chapters: Paradiso, Inferno and Purgatorio.
That year, when I traveled to Puno, I learned that Dante’s poems had been adopted by local indigenous organizations who are reclaiming their heritage. I asked kids in the streets if they knew who Dante Nava was. “Yes,” they replied, “he is the Poet of the Lake.”
Dante never married or had children. He died poor in a rented room in Puno in 1958. This work is my homage to his memory.