The Traveling Word: Cecilia Vicuña on AMAzone Palabrarmas
Discover how words and images came alive for the artist, and joined together in one explosive dance.
May 10, 2022
In the last three years, Cecilia Vicuña has earned sudden and impressive international recognition, culminating in the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 59th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennial this spring.
The seeds of Vicuña’s multifaceted artistic personality emerged in the 1960s, when she was still based in Chile. There, she started writing poetry in conjunction with painting, drawing, sculpture, textile work, and performance. Weaving together autobiography, the recuperation of ancient Indigenous knowledges, and a strong political conviction, her work has always anticipated current discussions about feminism and ecological thinking.
A group of drawings belonging to her series Palabrarmas, which was begun in the ’70s, were recently acquired by MoMA, and are currently on view in Gallery 205: An Inward Turn, along with other examples of Latin American works that address heritage as a source of forward-looking inspiration.
Palabrarmas proposes an entangled connection between words and images, synthesizing Vicuña’s emancipatory ideas. The title of the series is a portmanteau of the artist’s invention that combines the Spanish-language words palabra (word) and armas (weapons). Military dictatorships gripped Latin America at the time Vicuña produced this series, and she imagined that these nonviolent, linguistic tools might combat the brutality of that era. The artist’s poetic proposition of “words as weapons,” remains relevant today, offering a language for collective renewal that seems more necessary than ever.
In the account that follows, Vicuña shares the almost magical history of this work, as well as its multiple references and resonances.
—Inés Katzenstein, Director, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America, and Curator of Latin American Art
Words contain an image and this is what allows a word to continue.
If we were able to change our destructive ways and get back to loving the earth, everything would change so fast.
People often ask if I have a favorite drawing. That is true and untrue at the same time. I love, for example, a drawing that in Spanish says siembra, which can be interpreted as a command or as a plea. It means “plant” or “please plant.” But if you open it up and you see it from the perspective of the word herself, meaning from a palabrarma perspective, it means sí hembra. Yes, woman. Yes, to the female.
So to plant is to say yes to womanness, to the feminine, to the life force of this earth that has always been perceived as the mother of life by ancient Indigenous cultures all over the world. And as you know, now we’re losing soil. Soil is so devoid of life that we will soon be hungry. Soil is dying and the one thing that could return life to soil, could be to say yes to the femaleness of the soil, to love the earth and soil itself.
Cecilia Vicuña. Siembra: decirle sí a la hembra (Sowing Is Yes to Female) from the series AMAzone Palabrarmas. 1978
When I first came and crossed the Amazon by land and boat, I felt it was the most beautiful, majestic place on earth. And now, billions and billions of dollars by corporations and banks are investing in the destruction of this incredible life force and really dooming the earth to not being fit for humans anymore. Because if the forest disappears, moisture and humidity disappear. There will be infinite drought, infinite lack of fertility, of fecundity.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Amazon had this extraordinary smart civilization that had created a kind of soil that regenerates its own fertility. The forest itself was created as a garden, as a magnificent participation and collaboration between our species and many other species throughout millennia. It took thousands and thousands of years for this forest to be created, and now in just a couple of decades, we are destroying it.
I’m very glad that this work is coming to this exhibition, for people to reflect on how we’re all complicit and taking part in this destruction, and how, if we were able to change our destructive ways and get back to loving the earth, everything would change so fast.
So whatever was happening in the inner vision of that girl in 1977, it’s still completely current, the need to see and give sight, the need to create the culture of solidarity, the need to see planting as an act of love. All those things are even more urgent now than they were in the ’70s.
—As told to Arlette Hernandez
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