En la energía de la memoria
la Tierra vive
y en ella la sangre de los
por qué –dice
aún deseo soñar en este Valle?
Elicura Chihuailaf, Aún deseo soñar en este valle
For the Mapuche people, blue is a sacred color signifying endless skies, water flows, powerful cascades, the vigor of the sea, but also intangible forces, the things we cannot see and which lurk in the afterlife. It is not surprising thus that such a color is ever-present in Seba Calfuqueo’s body of work, a Mapuche artist positioning their people’s culture at the center of their artistic practice. Working with a myriad of mediums that go from video, photography, 3D rendering, to installation and performance, Calfuqueo uses these means of expression to tell Mapuche tales and account their people’s efforts to persist.
Their work celebrates their people’s memory and struggles over the past centuries. For example, in one of their videos titled, Tray Tray Ko (2022), Calfuqueo is seen descending towards a cascade. They carries a shimmering blue mantle through the woods, the sound of bells–which hang from their hair– punctuates each of their movements giving rhythm to the scene. The landscape is lush and verdant and while they approaches the waterfall, their body merges with the cascade creating a unified entity. So in the artist’s vision and by extension the Mapuche as well, nature and humanity are not to be separated but rather considered as an intertwined organism, a web of entanglements connected between one another. Territories, landscapes and nature are breathing entities escaping rigid categories, they move and change over the course of time contradicting outdated conceptions such as natural selection or competitiveness within the “natural” sphere. Another of their works, Spores (2021) shows the artist in the middle of the forest surrounded by trees, rivers and stones emphasizing the synergy between ecosystems and human bodies.
Furthering this idea, their video Kowkülen, Liquid Being (2020), shows Calfuqueo lying on a water stream in the middle of a forest wearing nothing but a blue rope attached in the shibari style. The water flows and the current rocks their body, leading it to an unknown destination. As we watch the dance, we become aware of the status of water in Chile. Since 1981–when the current constitution was written and during Augusto Pinochet dictatorship–private ownership of water has been protected, making it the only country in the world where water rights are treated as private property. Regarded as both a sacred element and a spirit, water is referred to several times in the artist’s work, for its state as a non-binary force compels the artist. But that’s not all, its condition of commodity is also questioned, manifesting the artist’s political view on the matter. For Calfuqueo, water and landscape at large are not merely aesthetic subjects or categories to be copied, they are “territories in dispute” like non-binary and female bodies and as such, they are part of an intrinsically political scheme stripping Mapuche from their territory. In his book The time of the landscape: on the origins of the aesthetic revolution French philosopher Jacques Rancière affirms that a landscape always reflects a political and social order, even something as innocent as a garden conveys a political view. He gives the example of the French garden: with its geometric shapes and perfect hedges, its layout attests and copies France’s absolute monarchy system, creating hierarchy within so-called natural settings.
In the same manner, Calfuqueo’s portrayal of nature reveals a vision of the world inhabited by outer forces, scrutinizing binarisms or fixed categories that call into question colonial notions of nature and gender. A testament to this is their video The Quilas (2021) where we see the artist’s body during the night melding with the quila, an endogenous plant that is hermaphrodite and bisexual. According to the video, this plant impeded the complete colonization of the forest by creating natural barriers; their strength and resilience is analogous to the Mapuche’s resistance to comply with Western morals and mores, and their ability to survive makes them more akin to their people’s history. Following the same vein, Calfuqueo’s work Kangechi (2019) voices their relation to hair and gender. Having been enrolled in a military school, the artist suffered the hardships of a strict and highly patriarchal education throughout their youth. Hair was often a space of dispute representing their social status, their belonging to a specific gender and their fight to thrive in a hostile environment. Kangechi, which translates as the other or queer in Mapudungun, embodies the artist’s attempt to counter their education by displaying hair as a record of their indigenous heritage denoting strength, tenderness and power. Therefore hair is a transgressive space of reflection, a political statement giving room to non-heterosexual identities to exist. Their performance, Bodies in resistance (2020) extends this idea and considers gender as an imaginary notion inherited by the Spanish and used to silence autochthonous populations. Stressing nature’s fluctuant essence, Calfuqueo’s work examines the status quo offering “open-ended gatherings” with alternative rhythms, soliciting their viewership senses. Pieces like La Funga (2021) are built around smell and not our sight escaping the latter’s hegemonic rule as Calfuqueo considers images highly influenced by colonial standards.
These alternative rhythms are evinced in another video called Mapu Kufüll (2020) which delves on the “pacification of Auracanía”, a series of military campaigns and agreements by the Chilean army and settlers into Mapuche territory resulting in the incorporation of Araucania to Chilean territory. During this trying period, mushrooms became an important source of food for Mapuche and subsequently they incorporated them into their cosmological vision. The video follows the footsteps of a forager looking for mushrooms, while the character teaches us their anatomy and the proper way to cut them, we learn about other ways to relate to nature. Therefore, in every piece by the artist, everything is calculated. For instance, the use of 3D for the video is charged with meaning. Indeed, indigenous art is expected to be chiefly textiles, ceramics and other crafts like jewelry; by using technology Calfuqueo reformulates their own aesthetic offering to Mapuche art the possibility to exist in the present day. Through artworks like this or their piece Ngürü Ka Williñ (Fox and Otter) (2022) the artist envisions a future for their people projecting them into times ahead.
Seba Calfuqueo’s work enables us to dive into the Mapuche worldview and shift our perspective towards a wholesome relationship to nature and otherness. Taking myths into their own hands, they joins together politics, fiction, Mapuche tales and nonfiction, giving birth to new narratives where the collective becomes the predominant force. Working in community with their multiple projects Rangiñtulewfü or espacio 218, Calfuqueo pictures art as a realm of possibilities allowing their circle to weave projects going beyond borders, reaching new audiences outside of the contemporary art circuit.
Ultimately, their work revisits ancient myths and relocates them into our current time. What we learn along the way is that we are still mythical creatures, we still use mythology and tales to explain ourselves. Myths continue to give meaning to our existence; the world has yet to unveil epic narratives.
Brand New Ancients, Kae Tempest, Picador, 2013
De sueños azules y contrasueños, Elicura Chihuailaf, Editorial universitaria, 2018
Habiter en oiseau, Vinciane Despret, Actes Sud, 2019
Le temps du paysage, Jacques Rancière, La fabrique éditions, 2020
The mushroom at the end of the world. On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Princeton University Press, 2017
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