The exhibition will feature Vicuña’s raw wool installation and sculpture known as Quipu, mixed-media sculptures referred to as Lo Precario, video, and painting, spanning 1969-2017. La India Contaminada will run concurrent with a solo exhibition exhibition of her Disappeared Quipu at the Brooklyn Museum, opening May 18, with her early performance and photographic work also included in the museum’s iteration of the traveling exhibition, Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985.
Vicuña’s Quipu (translated as “knot” from Quechua) works reinvent the ancient Andean system that recorded statistics and narratives through the knotting of colored thread. Historically, the quipu has been regarded as a simple bureaucratic device, but research demonstrates they represented a complex system of knowledge with symbolic and virtual dimensions of enormous existential and social value that connected communities. Addressing this larger paradigm, Vicuña constructs her Quipus as poems in space. These tactile representations of the expansive interconnection of the cosmological and human realms relate her work to the Quantum Poetics movement that seeks to describe a reality that does not conform to standard perception. For Vicuña, Quantum Poetics are aligned with the indigenous worldview of the Americas.
At its core her work is poetical and philosophical rather than anthropological. Vicuna’s use of dyed, raw and unprocessed wool, coiled in Caracol Azul (Blue Snail) (2017), or suspended as in Quipu Viscera (Visceral Quipu) (2017), creates a visual meditation on the liminal spaces between life and death, humans and nature, the past and the present, represented in the diffuse fibrous strands of wool. With our mutual fate now in question as we venture into the anthropocene, Vicuna’s Quipus serve as a reminder of the hubris that separates humanity from nature, asking us to reconsider our origins and interconnectedness.
This cosmological connection is evident in another sculptural series, Lo Precario, “the precarious.” Each component—found scraps of cloth, shards of plastic, a feather, a leaf, a butterfly, a pencil—is included for its formal and representational potential. This gives each object infinite complexity on its own, a synecdoche of the larger installation as a whole, meant to be interpreted as a constellation. Originally, Vicuña composed these along the ocean’s shores, intended to disintegrate and wash away with high tide right after creation. She continues to perform this ritual in waterways around the world, while also bringing them indoors to display on walls and in vitrines, where the fragility of the composition and materials warns of their precarity.
Vicuña, a noted poet and author, has garnered her reputation as an activist through her multidimensional art, performances, films, and writing that confront the patriarchy, white supremacy, violent totalitarian rule, and ecological plundering. Nowhere is this more visually evident than in her paintings, primarily created during the 1970s. While several are explicitly political in content, such as her Lenin (1972), Vicuña’s most radical act, perhaps, is to embody and depict the undoing of centuries of indoctrination and dogma.
Like her quipus, the paintings refer to Latin American history, in this case the points of first contact between the Spanish and indigenous people when Incan artists were forcibly converted to Catholicism and enlisted to paint and worship European religious icons. They nevertheless found ways to subvert the rulers by incorporating their own cultural iconography and worldviews into the renderings. These early South American, Christian paintings are a tangible visualization of the miscegenation that defined the colonial period, where fusing one’s way of life with the alien form imposed upon them was required for survival. Vicuña similarly adopts this method by using this colonial style of image making, but incorporating revolutionary iconography. Paintings like Leoparda de Ojitos (1976) offer evidence of this “contaminated” mode of thinking—daring to position an indigenous, decolonized woman’s perspective, presented to the viewers throughout La India Contaminada, as emblematic of human history and potential. A return to the past, in order to understand and transform the future.