Weaving Memory

Exploring Connections Between: Land, Trauma, and the Re-tracing of Andean Identity

Sarina Antonacci

Sarina Antonacci 

Weaving Memory: Exploring Connections Between: Land, Trauma, and the Re-tracing of Andean Identity 


Despite decolonial efforts within the art world being in vogue, there is little analysis easily accessible from an Indigenous vantage point.i Although it has been argued that the key component of Latin American conceptualism is its ideological dimension (Ramirez, “Tactics”) I would like to expand the parameters of “Latin American conceptualism” to include Quechua and Aymaran ideologies as well. In this research paper I explore the work of several artists who have varying degrees of proximity to their roots in the Central Andes. The artists chosen for this exploration are the Peruvian theatre collective Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani, Chilean artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña, and Peruvian-American textile artist Sarah Zapata. Unifying themes that are immediately evident include the body, textiles, and visual references to Andean culture. These artists have a close relationship to memory, trauma, and the land whether physical or imagined. Utilizing the Aymara concepts of ch’ixi and pachakuti outlined by Bolivian sociologist-historian-feminist-activist Silvia Rivera-Cusicanqui, I highlight the connections that transcend space-time and argue how embarking on this examination through the ideological lens of their Indigenous cultures can help scholars engage with perspectives so often lost in art history and which ultimately reveal dimensions that would be lost through the lens of a Western analysis alone. 

Before examining each artist, I will expand on the conceptual framework mentioned above and relevant historical context. The two concepts I focus on for this analysis are ch’ixi and pachakuti. Ch’ixi is the Aymaran dialectic embodiment of two opposites existing in one simultaneously. This creates a contentious third space, that is made of the mutually contaminating first two elements yet is neither of them (Rivera-Cusicanqui, “Ch’ixinakax Utxiwa”, 105-106). This is much like how from a distance a black and white woven textile can appear grey despite not being made of grey threads. In the context of this paper, ch’ixi works as an alternative and equalizing perspective of the colonial “mestizaje.”ii This ideological distinction is essential for the political act of resistance and as a decolonial gesture that can signify agency and cultural germination through language (Rivera, 76-79). Embracing this dialectical nature allows for the acknowledgment of colonialism without clinging to the past for a sense of indigeneity. This Indigenous ideology freely traverses space-time and enables agency to survive any attempt of colonization of the imaginary or mind (Rivera-Cusicanqui “Ch’ixinakax utxiwa”, 106). This is a sense of being, no amount of cultural erasure can prevent. It lives in the individual, and collectively in the form of ch’ixi subjectivity; and can lead to a centralized confrontational space, or taypi, that can facilitate difficult discussions without the need to end in a harmonious resolution (Rivera-Cusicanqui, “The Potosi Principle”). I will examine the effects of the visual embodiments of ch’ixi that can be seen in the works of the selected artists. 

The other Aymaran concept that is important to keep in mind when considering the selected work is pachakuti, a term referring to the subversion and transformation of world order within cyclical time. As Rivera-Cusicanqui describes, 

The Indigenous world does not conceive of history as linear; the past-future is contained in the present. The regression or progression, the repetition or overcoming of the past is at play in each conjuncture and is dependent more on our acts than on our words. . . The contemporary experience commits us to the present—aka pacha—which in turn contains within it the seeds of the future that emerge from the depths of the past. The present is the setting for simultaneously modernizing and archaic impulses, strategies to preserve the status quo and others that signify revolt and renewal of the world: Pachakuti. (Rivera-Cusicanqui,” Ch’ixinakax utxiwa” 96) 

Perhaps the most essential notion of pachakuti is the responsibility of the individual and society to wade through the knowledge and experience of the past and determine what is useful to bring into the future and what to discard. This is not an indiscriminate process, but one that reveres wisdom (Nourani Rinaldi). Pachakuti is evident in the consideration each artist has for social and environmental issues that will be unpacked throughout this paper. To have a better understanding of the circumstances and motivations of these artists, the last piece of contextual framework to consider is the historical one. 

Like most of Latin America, the countries of the Central Andes are well acquainted with government corruption, violence, and civil conflict. In Peru, the inner conflict between Maoist opposition group The Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso)iii and the Peruvian military dictatorship began in May of 1980. It lasted about 20 years, resulting in the death of approximately 70,000 civilians and displacement of thousands more.iv Despite the Shining Path advocating for Indigenous rights, racial equality, and the dissemination of social classes, most of the casualties of the conflict were of the poor Indigenous members of the population. The indiscrimination of the interpreted Maoist ideology implemented by Sendero of using violence and any means necessary to accomplish their goals (Navarro 154), and the military dictatorship enacting a “dirty war” against the Shining Path, resulted in a society steeped in fear (A’ness, 396). The military dictatorship used perceived collusion with the Shining Path as reason for imprisonment, torture, disappearance or death to individuals and their loved ones, and the Shining Path bombed cities and carried out violent acts resulting in the death of many innocent people. The inner conflict was not successful in addressing the inequalities of Peruvian society and the string of corrupt and unpredictable governments that came into power afterward did nothing to solidify the trust of Peruvian citizens (Stern 2). A reluctance to talk about the violent history of Peru’s inner conflict, resulting trauma, and unresolved stigma around the perception and treatment of its indigenous facet of identity is still pervasive.v It is important to keep this violent history and trauma in mind when analyzing the work of theatre group Yuyachkani as the formation of Yuyachkani runs parallel and in dialogue to the duration of the Shining Path. (A’ness, 399-400)  

Similarly in Chile, where Cecilia Vicuña was born, one of the most brutally violent dictators came into power in 1973 when Vicuña was abroad (Vicuna, ceciliavicuna.com/biography). General Augusto Pinochet seized power after forming a coup with the help of the C.I.A. to oust Salvador Allende’s socialist-leaning government. When Pinochet came to power, he refused to allow a people’s government and instead institutionalized torture, repression, and censorship (Ramirez, “Blue Print Circuits”, 158). Realizing what life would mean if she returned to Chile, Vicuña decided to remain displaced from her home country (Diaz, 174). Pinochet’s authoritarian military dictatorship lasted 17 years. His regime showed how Chile, like their Central Andean neighbors, had greater interest in solidifying neo-liberal connections with North America than the welfare of its own citizens. Some of Vicuña’s works stand in contention to capitalist extractivism and mediate human and land displacement. Vicuña’s life and work can also give insight into how a sense of Indigenous diaspora can manifest in art and identity.  

However, it is Sarah Zapata, the furthest displaced from the Central Andes, that inspires the exploration of how cultural connection can manifest across space-time without the first-hand experience of having lived there. Is pachakuti recognizable in this level of displacement? How does a relationship to indigeneity manifest itself in the work of an individual whose memory of the Central Andes is primarily imagined? Before diving into these questions situated in the imaginary, it is important to start with a sense of concrete experience to follow the complex patterns of this woven identity more easily.  

Beginning the analysis with Peruvian theatre collective Yuyachkani, whose proximity to the Central Andes is the closest, themes of memory are immediately discernable, as  “Yuyachkani” is a Quechua word meaning, “I am thinking, I am remembering” (Yuyachkani, yuyachkani.org/historia/). Comprised of 30 members, this collective began forming in 1971, around the time the Shining Path started enacting their violent rebellion. Racism toward Indigenous Peruvians was (and still is) pervasive,vi  and like the Shining Path, Yuyachkani believed in fighting for equality. However, the theater group chose to create a space of reflection through their performances rather than employ violent tactics. They achieved this by first referencing connections Peru has to its pre-colonial past that are still active. The use of costumes, props, song, dance, and festival elements served as a celebration of Andean culture (Yuyachkani,yuyachkani.org/historia/). Although many of these references are not obvious, utilizing the lens of ch’ixi enables an understanding of the layered dimensions. Masks for example, have been a longstanding vehicle for a physical embodiment of ch’ixi traditionally used in festivals and pilgrimages (Bell, 177-178). The belief is that by wearing the mask of another, whether it be another species, gender, race, or ethnicity, the individual puts themself into a state of ch’ixi where they are simultaneously the other, themselves and neither. By opting to experience festivities this way they transcend power dynamics because they contain the power of both identities (Wilson-Sanchez). This is similar to Oswald de Andrade’s concept of anthropofagia, which also originated in Latin America as a tool of resistance; but differs in its inability to discard what is not wanted. Acknowledgment for a contentious identity as a tool to address social issues can be seen in Yuyachkani’s reference of masks in their plays. (See Fig. 1 & 2).  


Fig 1. Yuyachkani’s mask room 


Fig 2. Yuyachkani. 1983. Los Músicos Ambulantes . Performance. Multiple locations.  

In his article “A Procession that Travels Inside: Santiago,” Miguel Rubio Zapata, director, and theater researcher of the Yuyachkani, outlines some of ch‘ixi’s double meanings in the play. One such example is the procession of Apostle Santiago himself. In this way multiple layers of memory become visible. The use of Santiago as a stand in for the Quechua god of lightning Illapa is a visual example of ch’ixi in practice (M. Zapata 310, 313). Santiago signifies the carrying of Andean beliefs of wa’kas and apusvii into the present through the procession of the body of Catholic Apostle James. Additionally, through Bernadina’s relationship to Illapa/Santiago, we see a more recent past being lamented through the hope she instills in him to bring back her twin babies who were killed during the inner conflict. She reasons, paying her respects to Santiago through his procession will surely be enough for Illapa to grant her wish (see Fig. 3). Yuyachkani’s plays create a space of reflection in which the audience can see their trauma represented. Prioritizing mental health through healing, cathartic storytelling is a form of memory that is future-minded and activist. 


Fig 3. Yuyachkani. 2000. Santiago. Performance. Multiple locations, Lima.  

Yuyachkani’s contributions to the healing of society were recognized in 2000 when the group won Peru’s National Human Rights Award.viii On their website they state,  

Yuyachkani has oriented its action around a main objective: to contribute to the development and strengthening of citizen memory. In this sense, the recurring themes revolve around marginality, violence, justice, corruption, authoritarianism, and other evils that threaten the development of a life with rights for all.  

Their commitment to social justice is clear and their implementation of ch’ixi through signifiers such as masks and pilgrimage enacted by Peruvian characters creates a strong resonance with Peruvian audiences. After watching several recordings of their performances available on YouTube, I decided to read the comment sections to gain insight into first-hand accounts of audience reception. A google translation of one such comment whose sentiments were often recurring is “(...)Today I saw them together with my daughters and they moved me to tears, the actors-musicians-singers are great, and the message of integration is the most beautiful. It is a world-class play and a pride of Peruvian theater.” This comment was made by username: oxa01 for the video “Yuyachkani - Los Músicos ambulantes”  and exemplifies a sentiment shared by many, the desire for family-viewing. This points to a larger desire for intergenerational conversation around these often-avoided topics. In this regard Yuyachkani’s work can be seen as a tool for both the development of Andean identity throughout pachakuti and a means to heal.  

A more abstract manifestation of pachakuti can be seen through the artistic exploration of Cecilia Vicuña’s work. Although there are many disciplines where Vicuña explores the relationship to her indigeneity and the flow of pachakuti and taypi, (such as in the oral storytelling of poetry or symbolism in figurative painting) I would like to focus on the two facets of her oeuvre: los precario and quipus. The origins of her series Los Precario was the spark for the artistic direction of her practice still ongoing today. In the video “Cecilia Vicuña: Decolonizing myself” on video platform vimeo, she tells of the moment when she first felt her position in the cosmos. Walking on the beach at 17, she suddenly became aware of the vitality of the elements around her. The ocean was alive, as was the earth, the sun, the air. Gathering sticks from the beach and placing them on the shoreline, she wanted them to bear witness to the ephemeral relationship she initiated with the ocean, knowing the water would only allow them to stand for a limited time. This act opened an ongoing mediation she has with the world and encourages in others. Vicuña’s creation of memory with the land and found objects as witnesses, shows the pervasiveness of these themes to traverse pachakuti and transcend a diasporic displacement. How important is proximity when viewing your home as a place in the cosmos? Instead of focusing on her sense of displacement, Vicuña pivots into a protective mindset, that manifests in an environmental consciousness.ix Los Precario can demonstrate ecological advocacy through their future-mindedness born from a memory of the cosmos and reverence toward the land.  

Her relationship with the land is also explored through her quipu performances, which can be understood as physical, ephemeral enactments of memory-making in conjunction with the body. Where Los Precario originated from an intuitive mediation of personal understanding, Vicuña’s series of Quipus are rooted in research. After reading about the history of quipus in the Central Andes,x Vicuña was left to consider what bringing back the disappeared quipu could mean.xi In an act of pachakuti she brought them back into the present.xii Even the materiality of unspun wool as delicate, raw, and precarious underscores a sense of impermanence and movement through human interaction and alteration. Intuitively drawn to colours red and white, it was through conversation with scholar Paulina Bernoulli that Vicuña realized the Andean sacred significance of choosing these colors. In Quechua symbolism red is the color of women and mothers as well as menstrual blood, and white was used in rituals to symbolize semen. In tandem, these colors signified birth and regeneration (Museum of Fine Arts, 39:33-40:21) (see Fig 4). Acknowledging this Quechua symbolism adds another dimension to Vicuña’s red and white quipus that can be seen in their sculptural/installation manifestations as well as ones that are more performance-based.  


Fig 4. Cecilia Vicuña. 2006/2021. Quipu Menstrual (Shanghai). Site-specific installation with unspun wool & video. 

Another way we can see the red symbolism of the quipu permeate space-time is during the group performances of the quipu forming in nature. If red is symbolic of regeneration and blood, a connection between the group, the earth and the disappeared is given life. The revivification of each person’s physical connection with earth can be seen as a collective way of remembering and practicing environmental activism while also remembering the bodies buried underneath the land. In one of these performances, Vicuña weaves the people into the quipu, so each person is a collective knot (see Fig 5).xiii Partaking in quipu formation as a group activity fosters a sense of community. The construction of a safe space could demonstrate a desire to grow communities which could then combat feelings of isolation within displacement. The conception of land becoming more abstracted and manifesting itself in imagined spaces appears to develop further the proximity from the Central Andes; and is particularly evident in Sarah Zapata’s work as well.  


Fig 5. Cecilia Vicuña. 2020. Quipu de Lava. Live Sculpture/Performance. Mexico. 

The final artist undergoing examination in this paper is Peruvian-American Sarah Zapata. As the youngest artist in this analysis, with the least amount of work created or published, source material explaining her practice was significantly more limited than the other two artists. What is known of her work can be found primarily in interviews and videos online. Most of her life has been spent in America, as she was born in Texas, and eventually moved to New York. Zapata’s connection to her Peruvian Indigeneity was first evoked by the introduction of textiles from her paternal grandmother. Inspired by the practice of sewing and crochet passed down from her grandmother, Zapata later learned to weave while studying fibers and textiles in college. As the curiosity surrounding the displaced aspect of her identity grew, so did the research into Andean culture.xiv To gain insight into her changing processes and overarching themes, it would be helpful to examine her installation A Famine of Hearing, 2019, in contrast with her most recent installation A Resilience of Things Not Seen 2022. 

Zapata’s installation A Famine of Hearing opened in Performance Space in New York in 2019. The installation space was highly active as it facilitated performances, community meetings and a lesbian Halloween party.xv The “ruins”xvi of the installation were often used as seating with the overall regard of the piece leaning away from a sense of preciousness and toward a lived in and used space. By this time in her practice, she had already established the visual vocabulary of her free-standing ruins and began to mediate on the meaning behind a focused color palette.xvii Zapata explains how the ugliest color palette she could conceive of (the Christmas signifying red and green) grew into an inspiration for research. The origins of the cherry red were traced back to a specific Coca-Cola ad of the 1930’s that continued a conversation with medieval churches that used the same red and green to delineate power structures between the worshippers and the priest earlier on (see Fig 6). This revealed a cultural history where spirituality was “hijacked with capitalism.”xviii Other dialectical relationships surfaced in the forms of striped rugs with images of underlying facesxix (see Fig 7), as well as in the materiality and process of rug-making itself.xx If the resulting "in-between” feeling Zapata uses as a metaphor for larger societal constructs can also be considered a metaphor for ch’ixi, the ideas she explores could have further-reaching implications and understandings. 


Fig 6. Sarah Zapata. 2019. A Famine of Hearing. Installation. Performance Space, New York. 


Fig 7. Sarah Zapata. 2019. A Famine of Hearing (close up). Installation. Performance Space, New York. 

Ending with a brief analysis of Zapata’s largest installation to date, A Resilience of Things Not Seen, currently on exhibition at the John Michael Kohler Art’s Center, shows the expanse of her imagined world growing. Referencing Lenore Tawneyxxi through her use of hanging ruins as homage to Tawney’s clouds, Zapata is interested in an inbetweenness articulated in the mirroring of the ruins on the ground and ones on the ceilingxxii (see Fig 8). There persists a preoccupation with things not seen. Conceptually she wanted to work through her fear associated with the biblical text of Revelations which came to mind amid the fearful ethos of the pandemic. This is expressed through the colors mentioned in Revelations serving as the installation’s color palette.xxiii However, using her installation to work through questions of cultural signifiers was not her only intention. Always present in her work is the investigation of the documentation of spirituality and human existence through textiles, and the textiles’ ability to articulate social concerns through humble, accessible means. In multiple interviews Zapata has cited the call of José Esteban Muñozxxiv to imagine ways of creating a better future. It is important to Muñoz and Zapata as members of the queer community, to always push toward a better future. The abstracted fantasy worlds she constructs are important tools and access points toward this imagined future. They can serve as visual language for intermediation between dialectic facets of identity, safe spaces for marginalized communities, or simply as places to rest among the plasticity of textiles.  


Fig 8. Sarah Zapata. 2021. A Resilience of Things Not Seen. Installation. John Michael Kohler Art’s Center, Wisconsin.  

Through the visual and conceptual analysis of Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani, Cecilia Vicuña, and Sarah Zapata, themes of memory, the body and textiles are clear. Additionally, through using the Aymaran concepts of ch’ixi and pachakuti the dimensions of each artist’s manifestation of the land, trauma and memory have been revealed to culminate in a sense of social consciousness and activism. Whether it is fighting for racial equality, environmental causes, or 2SLGBTQ+ rights, there is an intention in this art that transcends the needs of the individual. While the understanding of ch’ixi and pachakuti can affect people on a personal level, it is their link to cosmology that situates a dialogical focus with the collective. This transient positionality also enables a connection to indigeneity regardless of physical proximity to the Central Andes. These ways of understanding and relating to the world exist in the mind. So, what is the significance of this investigation? I have demonstrated the use of these terms as political tools of resistance, sources of strength and effective means to broaden one’s perspective. If Western academia can understand and value these terms as rich modes of interpretation to bring to Indigenous art that cannot be understood adequately through a colonial lens alone, it would not only give insight into additional dimensions of life that have historically been subalternized;xxv but might also keep minds open to other ways of knowing and understanding that have been discounted from localities around the world. If an essential element of our jobs as artists and historians is to discover new ways of communicating, expressing, and understanding life, what reason is there beyond internalized superiority, to not include this as a method of perception?  













Sarina Antonacci

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