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Where you read it first | Tuesday, June 25, 2024

'Cecilia Vicuña: Disappeared Quipu' reclaims ancient culture of the Andes

Cecilia-vicuna
Artist Cecilia Vicuña poses at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Chile on Jan. 14, 2014.

Over the past 50 years, Cecilia Vicuña has been fascinated by the quipu, an ancient Incan device used by the aboriginal people of the Andes to record both history and narratives, as well as the various transactions of everyday life. The centerpiece of Vicuña’s latest show, from Oct. 20 to Jan. 21, 2019 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is her work “Quipu desaparecido" (Disappeared Quipu), from which the show gets its name. Vicuña often crafts large-scale interactions of the quipu, and “Quipu desparecido" is yet another extraordinary example of Vicuña’s oeuvre.

Quipus consist of one long string with multiple knotted strings attached to the initial string, and some also looped together, similar to how one might staple papers together. Quipus were a forbidden form of communication under colonization, and many were violently destroyed by Spanish colonizers. Vicuña’s artist statement says, “Quipus are a metaphor for the union of all. / They were forbidden in 1583, yet they went on / undercover, still weaving our breath. My first quipu was The quipu that remembers nothing. / I was offering my desire for memory.Vicuña’s work is a testament to the resilience of the indigenous people of the Andes -- how despite colonial rule and violence, they continued to subvert the laws of imperial rule. The poetic tone of Vicuña’s artist statement is no coincidence; she also writes poetry and creates her own films.

The wall text of the exhibition states, Quipu desaparecidois a multisensory memorial to ancient people and to their ways of life, which the Spanish attempted to eradicate during their conquest and colonization of the Americas … Their systems of weaving, combined with the knot-making language of the quipu, conveyed their understanding of the sacred threads that interconnected all beings in the cosmos.” The installation takes the viewer back into a different time, as the audio of an ancient Andean song plays while various textile patterns are projected unto the enlarged quipu.

At a recent screening of Vicuña’s films at the Harvard Film Archive, Vicuña said, “A quipu is a thread that turns around and sees itself. If you can make a knot in a single thread, you will experience the weirdness of the thread, looking at itself. And to me that is the ancient poetry, and so I have always understood the quipu to be a poem, the knot to be a metaphor for our own awareness becoming aware of itself. If we are [taking] away all rights, the right to be people, the right to be mad, the right to be any way we are, the one right that we must never ever give up is the right to be aware of our awareness. And from that turning around, from the quipu insistence and quipu-tition I think we can turn around this world.” The artist’s powerful statement reflects how the thought processes of the ancient world can and should be rediscovered and revitalized to change our modern realities.

Vicuña is no idealist -- she is more than aware of our current political climate and how distorted the world has become. By reclaiming a lost language and theory of the world, she undermines histories written by imperialists, which are described in the most absolute terms as the truth. Her works are a powerful political vehicle, similarly to the illegal quipus which continued to be created under colonial rule.

Vicuña also said at the screening event, “I called that installation 'Disappeared Quipu' not only to honor the disappeared from Latin America, the prisoners that were kidnapped and made to disappear by the dictatorships in South America. Thousands of thousands of people were made to disappear ... But, even before that … when the Europeans arrived in Latin America, they made to disappear a world that consisted in thinking of itself in a completely different way, and to me that’s the hurt that is the most powerful hurt: the hurt of not being able to think of yourself and the world in the manner that you have as your life.”

Several ancient quipu and Andean textiles on loan from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University surround “Disappearing Quipu.” This familiarizes viewers with the form that Vicuña’s work enlarges and brings to light and attention. Viewers will be amazed with the detail of the works, similar to how we might view a journal in a foreign language, full of information we are unable to decipher. Vicuña’s work is so important exactly for the reason she highlights about the quipu -- they exemplify a way of thinking that colonists sought to destroy. Vicuña reclaims the power of the quipu, reminds us of their existence and forces us to recognize how something so everyday would draw such violent destruction and the political implications of that destruction.

Summary "Cecilia Vicuña: Disappeared Quipu" honors Andean culture and resistance under colonialism.
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