In the dawn of time, when animals, trees, rocks and other elements of our world were still non-existent, gods took upon themselves to create life, and together with it, humans. The first humans though weren’t considered worthy of them as they lacked substance, and so they created ever improved versions until they could properly think and speak. So begins the Popol Vuh, a sacred text narrating the creation myth of the K’iche people, one of the Maya communities inhabiting Guatemala. But more than a mere founding myth, the Popol Vuh is–to this day–one of the sole remnants of Pre-columbian literature, a somewhat untold story giving us a glimpse of Maya K’iche’s worldview: their past, present and to an extent, even their future.
Contemporary artist Edgar Calel is a Maya Kaqchikel from San Juan Comalapa in Guatemala, he wields his artistic practice as a tool to travel across time and space furthering our understanding of the Kaqchikel people’s beliefs and traditions. His prolific body of work– ranging from photography, to performance, textile, drawing and more–delves on transmission, collective memory, the powers of language and resistance against systemic violence. Namely, Calel’s work B’atz weaving constellation of knowledge shows him wearing a blue sweater with inscriptions that read Itza or Ixil, names of different Mayan languages. In total, the piece contains the name of the 23 languages spoken in Guatemala and stands as a celebration of diversity, putting center stage indigenous languages. By wearing a sweater with the names of some of the languages spoken in the region, Calel reinforces the bond between Maya communities whilst considering them as essential components sustaining life: “knowledge comes from languages, it comes from our ancestor’s collective memory and by speaking them we keep our community’s memory alive”. In Donna Haraway’s words, “it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what concepts we think to think other concepts with.”
But for the artist, memory can be preserved and celebrated through manifold actions like his performance and installation Ru k’ox k’ob’el jun ojer etemab’el (The echo of an ancient form of knowledge). This work revolves around the idea of building a shrine connecting him with his ancestors. For this purpose, he invited people from his village to participate in a ceremony, each invitee brought fruits, liquor, pine and some instruments to play music. The fruits were laid on top of stones that were carried from a nearby river by Calel’s grandparents. These stones thus represent the strength of his ancestors and foster the memory of other times: “at some point in their lives, they felt the weight of each stone, the stones have the memory of my grandparents’ bodies but also the memory from other beings that used these same stones as shelter or other.” The stones, fruits, liquor and pine are objects enabling him to communicate with other worlds, and through this very performance, he reaches his forebears while giving shape to an intangible world. The piece revisits the past and connects the attendees to a timeless territory where temporalities collide.
The shrines and installations he builds have different functions: to communicate with his ancestors and as a means to create art. For him there’s no difference between a ritual and “art”, all is combined together and follows the same principle, that of creating a dialogue with a given audience via different devices. His definition of art defies western postulates where the artist, an individual, holds the position of power while the work of collaborators is completely neglected. In fact, collaboration is key to understand Calel’s artistic practice as his work is frequently a collective process involving either his community or other peers. For example, his work Uelf-Tzamiy-Jjichan/tierra-cabello del maíz tierno-peine which shows him holding a comb for afro hair, was conceived with a guaraní artist from Brazil. By holding the comb, putting corn silk and holding it in front of a field located between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, Calel urges us to think about three cultures–the African symbolized through the comb, the guaraní signified through the land and the Kaqchikel through corn silk and Calel’s hand–and the connexions between them. Even though the work’s ownership comes to Calel, he likes to emphasize its collaborative genesis.
However, collectivization also allows him and his community to resist and organize against post-colonial powers. His work B’atz weaving constellation of knowledge is a clear effort towards reclaiming his own image: “oftentimes, we see photographs of indigenous people taken by foreigners. In this photograph I wanted to reverse that trend and condemn such practices as well as the systems supporting them.” Calel uses his work as a tool to decry colonial techniques consisting on exoticizing indigenous bodies which recall racist anthropologic photographs from previous centuries. Even though he affirms he has witnessed positive changes, systemic violence has a tendency to regenerate itself, ceaselessly adjusting to the shifting of the tides. One of his most recent works Ru raxalh ri Rua Ch’ ulew (The Greenness of the Land) portrays some of Calel’s family members in a red truck surrounded by nature; the car seems damaged but while some of the men are busy fixing it, the rest pose for the painting. The canvas is a contemporary account of Calel and his community’s daily life; it ultimately enables him to assert his identity through his own terms.
None of Calel’s artworks are intended to be perceived as anthropological descriptions of Kaqchikel people’s lives but rather as stories, carrier bags “that can help remake history (..) and hold worlds”. His works are speculative tales permeated with poetry raising language to new heights and showing us other possible worlds, other ways of co-existing. And yet, his artworks are profoundly rooted in current topics, his artistic practice serves him as a platform to denounce the abuses his community has suffered over the centuries. But even so, Calel has often opted to centre on the nurturing and healing powers of art, for his work gathers people together. Like in a founding myth, he intends to build community around his installations and performances, leaving records of our passage on earth and giving the opportunity to his people to project themselves into a fertile future.
K. LE GUIN Ursula and HARAWAY Donna, The Carrier Bag Theory, Ignota, 2019
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