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INDIGENOUS COSMOPOLITANISM. SEBASTIÁN CALFUQUEO INTERVIEW WITH PABLO JOSÉ RAMÍREZ

Visual artist of Mapuche origin Sebastián Calfuqueo interviews Pablo José Ramírez, Adjunct Curator of First Nations and Indigenous Art at the Tate Modern in London, to inquire about his institutional and independent work, specifically, about his project Infrasónica, a digital platform on non-western sound cultures. Ramírez talks here about the complicity between coloniality and translation as a method to observe temporalizations in the discursive formations of the indigenous from a counter-ethnographic perspective, about what he has defined as “Indigenous Cosmopolitanisms”, and about the risky impulse in some sectors of the art world in relation to the indigenous, as it continues to be anchored in superficial questions about representation and identity.

Sebastián Calfuqueo, Mapu Kufüll (Mariscos de tierra [hongos]), video, 1920×1080, FULL HD, 5:33 min. 3D design by Valentina Riquelme. Courtesy of the artist

Translated from Spanish by Sam Simon

Sebastián Calfuqueo: I’d like to begin this conversation thinking about your work as a curator, which you defined earlier in your relationship with nomadism as a fundamental concept. Could you tell us about your curatorial process?

Pablo José Ramírez: Nomadism allows us to meet and find ourselves in others. Nomadism allows you and I to be talking right now and I’m not only talking about nomadism as travel or geographic displacement but also as a type of psychological self-exile. You need to move, and during that journey be seduced by a world that is open and full of potentialities. So, if any enterprise is urgent in curatorial practice, it’s precisely to sabotage the normative categories through which the limits of truth and false, the normal and abnormal, the permitted and prohibited, the legible and the enigmatic are established and regulated. That space, that bridge between the indefinable and the defined (and disciplined) is a powerful place to consider the political and its relation to art.

SC: It seems to me that this idea of institution has to do with entering and leaving permanently. We live in a world where art is a precarious space, which makes the in-between” quite a powerful space. This relationship lies in context: when a curator goes to a territory they dont know or one in which they dont have much proximity, things start to occur that intervene in the curatorial narrative.

PJR: Yes, in that sense curators and artists are similar. There is something that happens with an artist who leaves their place of enunciation, their village, their story; they move away to get closer. Artists from non-urban communities who, for example, travel to the city to study art may find that something unexpected happens with the work, that something distinct is articulated. That meeting of worlds generates agency that is articulated in art in an explosive way as in no other space. This riding between languages and between worlds produces forms of the contemporary, which are not a hybrid like the ideologists of neoliberalism proclaim; they’re indigeneities that have been articulated from within movement.

Werken, de Bernardo Oyarzún, 2017. Vista del Pabellón de Chile en la 57° Bienal de Venecia. Foto: Daniela Aravena Jordán
Bernardo Oyarzún, Weken, 2017. Installation view of the Chilean Pavillion at the 57° Venice Biennale. Photo: Daniela Aravena Jordán

Discourse and the discursivity in the art world has been converted into a form of contemporary colonization, which under the logic of inclusion hides perverse forms of coloniality


SC: In relation to Indigenous Art, you talk about translation, but you also talk about those vibrational silences as potencies or resistances. Im very interested in the concept of potency,” Can you tell us more about that and its implications? What relation exists between coloniality and translation?

PJR: Everything is gained and lost with translation, and in this sense, it is a creative act. Now, speaking about colonial translation is another thing. My work with Contemporary Indigenous Art has forced me to think about the complicity between coloniality and translation as a method of observing the temporalizations in the discursive formations of the indigenous from a counter-ethnographic viewpoint. In this sense, the colonial invasion in our ancestral territories is the “original sin” of translation, to put it in a manner of speaking. There is no colonialism without translation. The colonial mind is unable to listen, and it can’t make sense of the ancestral without putting it through a process of translation that is articulated as domination, as semantic virus. However, understanding the relationship between translation and multicultural neoliberalism requires an ample critical vocabulary. The cultural critic, Naoki Sakai, considers this problem from what he calls plurilingual translation as a way of articulating a kind of cultural intersectionality that isn’t dictated by the coloniality of knowledge. This is proposed as a form of encounter and collective, transnational and radical intercultural agency. From that logic, translation is articulated as an anti-colonial political tool because it represents the dismantling of Western logocentrism. How do we communicate between cultures? What language does a Purépecha artist use to converse with a Cree artist? How do we make translation a space of political agency and not of loss?

Why, for example, is the indigenous always understood in racialized terms as local and vernacular, while the white Western patriarchal mind is the one that claims the right of translation, universality and explanation? As indigenous people, we need to invert this logic. Translation as an encounter with our others is a right that we should reclaim. Now, in relation to your question about silence, yes, it has been fundamental in my practice. In the past few years, I have been working on articulating thoughts on the relationship between sonic and indigenous worlds. There is an obsession in Western culture and in curatorial practice with the idea of voice and explanation -everything must be articulated from discourse and manifested from an “identitarian materiality”, everything must be subjected to scrutiny and explanation in order to be represented. I think that has a lot to do with a sort of colonial guilt as with the liberal logic of the discourse of representative democracy -the ontological centrality of the universal Western subject. Discourse and the discursivity in the art world has been converted into a form of contemporary colonization, which under the logic of inclusion hides perverse forms of coloniality. In this sense, vibrational silence as I think of it and search for a way to articulate it in my writing, should work with, within and beyond discourse, but that does not mean that silence lacks meaning or expressivity. Vibrational silence is the untranslatable political residue. And that is something that I believe indigenous artists know and articulate very well. They have taught me that. Contemporary Indigenous Art articulates a silence that vibrates in different sensitive frequencies and cognitive resonances. It’s a force that resists the totalization of institutional explanation and of colonial translation.

SC: Id like to delve into exoticization and translation, for example, what would happen in that sense with the concept of exoticization and Indigenous Art?

PJR: Exoticization is in the eye of the beholder. Besides, exoticization, if it’s used as an artistic strategy, seems to me a very powerful place to dismantle all those prejudices and commonplaces of multiculturalism. It’s no coincidence that a considerable number of indigenous artists utilize irony and humor in their language. The exotic is articulated from a regiment of colonial translation, and it isn’t deposited in the artistic practice per se but in the gaze and infrastructure of art. 

Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910–1996), Untitled (Alhalkere), 1989, acrylic on canvas, 120 × 89 cm. Tate Collection

Sound allows me forms of poetic agency that are not registered by the regimes of visuality, in addition to being essential in indigenous cosmovisions.


SC: Talk about your project Infrasónica, a digital platform about non-Western sonic cultures; a space where you can find diverse collaborations between visual artists, sound artists, musicians and art theorists across the soundscape. Could you tell us about the Waves and what you expect for the upcoming editions?

PJR: Infrasónica is a project that I began to visualize right before moving to London and which was formed through long conversations in a pub in New Cross with the editor Eloisa Travaglini and the writer, translator and editor, Sam Simon. The project was born out of the necessity that I’ve had to maintain a space of independent practice, one which would grant me expressive freedom, formal experimentation, delusions and trial and error. Sound allows me forms of poetic agency that are not registered by the regimes of visuality, in addition to being essential in indigenous cosmovisions. There’s an ocular-centric vortex in the art world that we need to think critically. But responding to your question, Infrasónica is a platform, a live archive that registers and investigates non-Western sonic practices, seeking to privilege the sonic experience and cultivate cognitive and sensitive audibility. Freeing the editorial from an excess of text. We are having a great time and learning a lot. I came to sound from my work with Contemporary Indigenous Art, especially through forms of indigenous abstraction that eventually led me to think of sound and aura as another strategy of abstraction that seeks to keep indigenous knowledge away from western ethnography. That is what makes the sound-indigenous cultures relationship not only organic, but necessary. My work with notions of indigenous silence and vibration is somehow a response to this, to the multicultural neoliberal gaze.

SC: Its interesting that its housed virtually; that its a space that functions as a sound archive that registers distinct geographies, giving it a universal status.

PJR: What you’re mentioning is very important. It’s urgent to deconstruct the cliche that indigenous cultures are understood and studied exclusively from the panopticon of the Western mind that self-assigns the right of universality and enunciation of difference. This unequal relationship has constituted the scaffolding not only of scientific discourse, but also of the discourse of art history and curation. Thinking, for example, of indigenous sounds as planetary cultures is to turn the West on its head. Listening to a sound piece by the Navajo artists Raven Chacon, the progressive reggaeton of Kelman Duran or the bird songs of Don Lorenzo Aillapan is part of the irreducible experience of the indigenous and mestizo as a place of the planetary.

Vista de la exposición "Abuelos", de Antonio Pichillá, en Galería Extra, Ciudad de Guatemala, 2017. Cortesía de la galería
Exhibition view of «Abuelos», by Antonio Pichillá, at Galería Extra, Guatemala City, 2017. Courtesy of Galería Extra, Guatemala

There is an impulse in some sectors of the art world in relation to the indigenous that remain anchored in superficial questions about representation and identity that in this moment can be especially harmful.


SC: Regarding Tate and your role as Adjunct Curator of First Nations and Indigenous Art, Id like you to tell us about the challenges of representing indigenous artists in global collections.

PJR: To speak about that, first there’s a need to analyze this transition between the modern and the contemporary in terms of their relation or distance with Indigenous Art or the poorly named Primitive Art in the first half of the 20th century. The epitome, from my perspective, of that transition happened with the change of decades between the 80s and 90s. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 represented a radical transformation in the geopolitical world order and in the world of art. The way in which they organize collections, the repertoires about which they put on exhibitions and above all, what was registered as art history, is transformed in a vertiginous manner. Before that, the majority of museums explained indigenous cultures or art from the universalizing force of the modern canon. That represented, to put it one way, a sort of totalized matrix from which the exterior was justified as derivative or subalternized. The contemporary then, has to do with this new moment in world history that in a paradoxical manner needs to diversify its collections and its artistic practices to enunciate itself as cannon. It needs to sabotage the centrality of the West to legitimize itself. The boom of biennales and of independent curatorial practice in the 90s isn’t coincidence, it’s a result of that new moment, of the transition of a bipolar world towards a multipolar (though profoundly homogenized) world.

That somehow lays the groundwork for us to be thinking about the relationship between indigeneity and contemporary art. Right now, I would be surprised to go to an international biennale and not find indigenous artists, which is fundamental and an earned space that must be defended. But it’s not enough and it’s something to be very careful with. There is an impulse in some sectors of the art world in relation to the indigenous that remain anchored in superficial questions about representation and identity that in this moment can be especially harmful.

In Tate’s case, the question that we want to ask is not only linked to themes of representation but rather to promote a process that articulates new questions in terms of the relationship between art and indigeneity. We need to deconstruct the modern taxonomy and articulate critical repertoires to think about race and its relationship to art. Tate has been a pioneering museum in terms of these questions, pushing the decentralization of its collection in rigorous but also bold ways, and the work of several colleagues is certainly breaking exciting new ground.

Venuca Evanán Vivanco, Aula MALI, 2019. Colored sand, acrylic on wood and textile frame, 18 x 36 cm. Courtesy: Ginsberg Galería, Lima

Contemporaneity is then a multiple and paradoxical time where on the one hand, art history, collecting and exhibition practices are decentralized, but on the other hand, the discourses tends to be homogenized and universalized (from where the West dictates the rules of the game).


SC: Im also thinking about how the collected works can contaminate, link and strengthen other works within the collection, generating other readings. We know of a history of modern art based on the appropriation and extraction of indigenous knowledge that, from colonizing logics, uses iconographies for their mere aesthetic power, without agency or context. I would like to think about the tensions present between the quotas of indigenous representation in collections. What is translated and what is left out?

PJR: The history of art as progress is a history that nullifies the possibility of indigenous time as a maker of history. Modernity, in part, is articulated from the discipline of a time as a reflection of the West––an image that hides the ghost of its own colonial legacy. As artist and curator Brook Andrew once said to me in a conversation, “Where would the West, its culture and its museums be, if it weren’t for all those objects it imprisoned and kept silent?” Contemporaneity is then a multiple and paradoxical time where on the one hand, art history, collecting and exhibition practices are decentralized, but on the other hand, the discourses tends to be homogenized and universalized (from where the West dictates the rules of the game). What it’s about then is working from the paradox, but in directions that point to the inscription of indigenous counter-histories, indigenous anti-primitivist histories, cosmopolitan and communitarian forms of indigeneity, indigenous aesthetic practices that reclaim their place in a history that belongs to us. This is part of the struggle of many indigenous artists right now. Being K’iché, being Mapuche, being Nahua, Alutiiq, Navajo. Wiradjuri, Sapmi, is being indigenous to a place, but also it’s being indigenous to the world and that indigenous ontology vibrates as planetary consciousness and as a collective struggle, in what I call “Indigenous Cosmopolitanism”.

SC: What relationship do you see in the future at the crossroads of new media and indigenous artists? What about new media, 3D, simulation, performance in terms of indigenous practices?

PJR: The so-called new media is one of the most vibrant spaces within indigenous artistic practices and this, I think, is related to its experimental nature on one hand, and on the other, to the relationship between indigenous practices with time (the ancestral and the future). Indigenous practices have a substantial relationship with the ancestral, which is, to put it one way, “contained in the work.” This containment is guarded with care, with wisdom and passion. It’s here where the new media play a fundamental role; performance, lens-based-media, moving image, digital art, sound, they’re all vehicles of the ancestral that don’t only transport, but also, above all, contain and take care of their content. This relationship with new media is shown an instinctive and organic movement towards experimentation.


Pablo José Ramírez is a curator, art writer and cultural theorist. He is the Adjunct Curator of First Nations and Indigenous Art at Tate Modern. His work revisits post-colonial societies to consider non-Western ontologies, indigeneity and forms of racial occlusion. He holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths, University of London. With Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, he curated the 19th Paiz Biennale: Transvisible (Guatemala City, 2015), and was a guest curator at the Parsons School of Design – The New School (New York, 2015) and at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (Glasgow, 2014). In 2019, he received the Independent Curators International/CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean. He is the Chief Editor and co-founder of Infrasónica and is part of the curatorial team for the International 58th Carnegie Biennial in 2022.

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Sebastián Calfuqueo

Santiago de Chile, 1991. Vive y trabaja en Santiago de Chile. Licenciade y Magister en Artes Visuales de la Universidad de Chile. Es parte del colectivo mapuche Rangiñtulewfü y Yene revista. De origen Mapuche, su obra recurre a su herencia cultural como un punto de partida para proponer una reflexión crítica sobre el estatus social, cultural y político del sujete Mapuche al interior de la sociedad chilena actual. Su trabajo incluye la instalación, la cerámica, performance y el video, con el objetivo de explorar tanto las similitudes y las diferencias culturales como los estereotipos que se producen en el cruce entre los modos de pensamiento indígenas y occidentalizados, y también visibilizar las problemáticas en torno al feminismo y disidencias sexuales.

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