Grant Watson< Hi Cecilia, how are you?
Cecilia Vicuña< Hi, how are you?
GW< Very good. Is that your studio in NY?
CV< No, this is my home, which is also my studio—you haven’t been here yet?
GW< No, whereabout is it?
CV< In Tribeca.
GW< Tribeca, OK, I used to live in NY in the 1990s, maybe you were there.
CV< Yes, I’ve been here in this loft for forty years.
GW< One of the lucky ones!
CV< Yes, well of course when I came into this neighborhood there were only rats, the streets didn’t have light bulbs, it was abandoned territory. Artists and rats were the only colonizers here.
GW< How’s it going there? It must be cold. Are you in lockdown?
CV< It’s very cold and the scariest thing is that Americans are walking about without masks! Where are you?
GW< I am in East London, in my house, which is also my studio/work room.
CV< Oh, I used to live in East London when I was a Londoner you know?
GW< Where abouts?
CV< I was in Stepney Green.
GW< Thanks so much for agreeing to do the interview; I’m so happy you’ll take part. Do you have a particular textile that you have thought of?
CW< It occurs to me that the last big textile that I did before this COVID thing came was a very large quipu that I called Disappeared Quipu (2018). I did it at the Brooklyn Museum and it was actually two quipus that ran concurrently, one at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the other at the Brooklyn Museum. And so perhaps it’s the most appropriate for you because it was a sort of mourning of the loss of the entire textile tradition. It was not just about the quipu. Because you probably know that the pre-Columbian textile tradition is the most complex the world has ever produced in terms of techniques, technologies, dyes, I mean in every possible regard it is the most creative and astonishing. And it was completely destroyed. And so, this large quipu is a mourning for that loss.
GW< Maybe we start in biographical terms. You mentioned the richness and complexity of Andean textile culture, which we researched as part of the bauhaus imaginista (which I curated with Marion von Osten) in relation to Annie Albers and others. And I would be curious to know, going back to your early years, what was your exposure to textile culture growing up in Chile?
CV< I was reflecting on the very origins of my connection to textiles. I was born 1948, so by the time I was two or three years old I was already knitting. That was very typical for South American girls of that era, of course not anymore. My mother, who is an Indian, did come from a culture with a textile tradition but her culture had been demolished, extinguished. So my mother never knew that she was an Indian. But she had this love for textiles, she could sew her own clothes, and she could knit our clothes. So, I know that when I was a tiny thing, I was already making miniature textiles for my dolls. And that’s of course a pre-Columbian tradition. So how these pre-Columbian traditions got turned around, mixed up, and adapted by colonization is very interesting because the knitting needles were brought down to the Americas through colonization. As far as we know they originated in Egypt, but became popular in Europe around the fourteenth or fifteenth century. And of course, that’s the time they arrived in the Americas as well. The Indians and the mestizos immediately adopted them.
My first tactile exposure to wool—and I have written many poems about this—is that I am a tiny thing and the threads are gigantic. This is at the root of my idea of seeing the textile from underneath. I am crawling on the floor and my mother is knitting and the threads are above me. This is the picture I have re-created from logic because, you know, it must have been that way. And because the kid, who is me, is crawling and playing with the balls of yarn. That is a physical engagement with the act of knitting. I was born into a family of artists and writers and thinkers and so forth—that was the European side of my family. One of my aunts was a wonderful sculptor, she’s dead now, but her name was Rosa Vicuña. Her work was a sort of cross between, let’s say, Cubist sculpture and pre-Columbian work on clay. She was trained by local Indigenous women to build large clay structures in the ancient mode. And in addition to that, she had a passion for pre-Columbian textiles and she actually owned one little fragment of a Nazca textile.
It was in her house that I became exposed to the reality and beauty of the ancient textiles, via books. I only became aware that she had that textile when I was a grown up; I don’t know if it was hidden or it wasn’t brought to my attention, but my first exposure was clearly through these books. Foreign books. Because in Chile at the time there were no museums, no exhibitions, no mention of pre-Columbian textiles—they were a non-item, they didn’t exist in the culture, never mentioned by artists, by anyone. The extraordinary thing was that when I was very young, let’s say in my teens between six and nine, I would visit her very often because I loved her studio and she was very welcoming and played with me. It was there that I came across the idea of the quipu. I must have seen a quipu in one of her books, because I’ve kept a journal since I was like twelve and in my journal appears this line: “El quipu que no recuerda nada,” which means “the quipu that remembers nothing.” And I have written several times this story of how I believed the entire universe that has evolved in my work comes from that appreciation, the fact that our memory was stolen from us, a seeking of memory, of lost knowledge.
GW< Continuing in this line of thought, in your late teens or early twenties, did that loss of culture and the omission of that cultural practice occur to you at that time as a terrible wrong? Or when did you realize it?
CV< Well, as soon as I learned that this marvelous universe had been erased, and that must have been very early. My parents went to Machu Picchu in 1957, when I was only nine. And so my parents were in total adoration of Machu Picchu and I remember seeing the 8mm films they made and that I still have. So this veneration for a universe that had been destroyed was already culturally possible back then. Of course it was not universally appreciated, or not at all by the Chilean mestizo culture that is always been very racist and ethnocentrist. But my family was an exception, because as a family of artists they regarded art to be the main value of the universe, whether Indigenous, African, or European, it was art. That was my entrance into valuing this. And you can see in my journals, which are very precise and exact, that I was already longing for that when I was eighteen, so the violence of colonization has been apparent to me since my early teens.
GW< Do you remember some of the things you wrote in your journals at that time?
CV<: Yes, of course, I can actually quote to you. A few years ago, my writings from the 1960s were published in Chile and I can read you one that can be very expressive for your interview. [fetches the book] The date of this is 1966 and it says [reads in Spanish first], “I carry on my shoulders the weight of those who cried for their Inka Wasi that was lost.” The Inka Wasi is the sacred house of the Inkas. In 1966 I was eighteen, so this awareness. . . it’s like I cannot remember a time in which I was not aware of this. Here is another fragment that says [reads in Spanish first], “there is an intimate universe that we can call Indigenous because it is so private it has not been civilized and has customs of its own and a culture that is peculiar to itself.”
GW< And did you know at that time that your mother had an Indian background? Did you identify as Indian?
CV< No. I identified as Indian because I looked Indian, you see. And my father had a library in every language—not every language, but those he could read that were the romance languages—and so I had seen in one of those books a picture of an Indian that looked exactly like me. I was probably six or seven years old, and I looked at that picture and then looked at myself in the mirror: “I am an Indian!” And my parents would always say, “why do you think you’re Indian?” until I did my DNA when I was like fifty-eight. In my DNA it showed of course that my father’s line is European and my mother’s line 100% Indian.
GW< And what was your mother’s knowledge of her background?
CV< Zero, zero. When we did our DNA, it pointed to an area in the north of Chile where my great grandmother originated from and where my grandmother originated from. So, everything sort of coincided. And my mother actually doesn’t look Indian, but her sister looks Indian. And she looks exactly like the Indians of that particular area. Not short Indians—they are very tall, gigantic Indians. I mean, of exquisite beauty you know. And I came out short and ugly because on my European, Basque side are short people.
GW< Did you talk to your mother about your heritage?
CV< Yes, it’s famous in my family that when I got the certificate, I actually did it with Oxford University. And when I got the certificate with the DNA results, I went to Chile and we were having the first lunch welcoming Cecilia—the whole family was there—and I brought out the certificate saying: “I have news for all of us, which is we are of Indigenous origins.” And my father said: “Why didn’t I die before I heard this?” Because he discovered then, when he was already an old man, that he’d married an Indian! And my mother was so shocked she said: “Anybody more wine?” to change the subject. But both my parents are still alive and still awake, my father is ninety-nine and my mum is ninety-seven, and I think my mother has learned to become proud in her later years, through the influence of my pride and my devotion to what this can be, you know? Not just as a nostalgia or a longing for what was, but most of all of what it can be for us if we release it, if instead of denying it we acknowledge it, it becomes like a new force emerging.
So, I see her acknowledging more and more her Indigenous ways. Because she didn’t know but she always behaved like an Indian. Look here in this catalogue, Cecilia is naked, see? The picture was taken when I was, I don’t know, let’s say twenty years old. And my mother always wanted for the kids to be naked, because that would make them strong. And several things like that showed us that she had a different connection with the land, with the plants, with the animals. My mother has telepathy with all the animals and the plants. And she can communicate with people who speak the weirdest languages. She has all these kinds of wonderful gifts that show that she’s really from an ancient culture.
GW< But when you had the dinner with your family and showed them the certificate, they were initially falling back into this old European mode of obfuscation, and embarrassment?
CV< Absolutely. And my brother, I have two but only one was present . . [connection lost]
. . .
GW< I got cut off! did you have a phone call?
CV< It was my mother!
GW:<Oh wow, those powers are definitely working!
CV< Exactly, I think she felt we were talking about her! But I was about to tell you what my brother said. He said: “Oxford has to be wrong.” It cannot be we’re Indians you see? Because you know the genes are very funny. I know now that I’ve studied this issue, I know that there are certain features that indicate if a person has Indigenous blood, when you have mixed races like we are. There are three of us, my two brothers and me, and the way this is manifesting is that one is very different one from the other. So, it will be very easy for them not to think they have no Indigenous blood because they don’t know how to read these signs.
GW< But I guess there was a whole culture of denial and suppression. How is that now in Chile?
CV< The ruling class is definitely one of the most racist in the world, I mean, the violence and hatred for Indigenous culture is infinite in Chile. I have made very many films and performances based on things like this. In terms of the most important archaeological remains of ancient, sacred cemeteries, these have always been chosen for construction of oil refineries, to cover over the cemeteries. I mean, if you have a sacred place, you have to have a church on that. And right now, the Indigenous people are engaged in a huge uprising because their lands are given over to corporations, to either mining or forestry companies, so everything has been destroyed: forests, waters, rivers, everything is going. This is all over Latin America, Indigenous people are up in arms. And you see on a regular basis the military police going in there and acting with brutal violence against women and kids, and even torturing little kids you know? So, the level of violence you now see is not only happening in Chile, but in all of Latin America. It’s like war. But culturally the urban young people, I have to say, in the last two years, have demonstrated a respect for Indigenous people that I’ve never seen in Chile before. It’s a new phenomenon that has come with what’s called the “Estallido Social,” the social uprising that began at the end of 2019. So this is a very new phenomenon—you see, they’ve even made the Indigenous flag their flag. This is a huge cultural shift.
GW< Are they managing to form alliances with Indigenous groups or is it more about representation?
CV< So this extraordinary movement was cut short by COVID-19 and the coronavirus pandemic. It began in October 2019 and the pandemic arrived in February 2020. So, it was very short lived, but I think the spirit is still there. For now, it’s mostly about representation but at least politically the potential for the alliances is there. And the movement already had a big impact as it forced Chile to rewrite its Constitution. And Indigenous people are fighting for the right to participate in the rewriting of the Constitution [which they have since won]. That is good news, historic news. I think even if the movement was cut short in terms of the achievements that could have been made, the principal achievement was already manifested in the new writing of the Constitution.
GW< But going back to The quipu that remembers nothing, I was just reading that this is also a work of yours, a conceptual piece from 1966.
CV< It was a thought, and a note in my journal. And along with the note I made a little drawing and I kept it, but it was Julia [Bryan-Wilson] who observed—you are writing in retrospect remembering what it did to you—but the retrospective note is from 1971. That’s why we deduced it must have been in that period, because that’s the period when all these ideas I have been describing to you occurred. I was careful, I kept all these archives, so it’s very easy to trace the date of how certain ideas became part of my life, because I did three things: I did the journals, I did intense correspondence with other friends and poets around the world—and I kept them—and also, I did typescripts. So, you have those three sources. And sometimes, occasionally, rarely, I have pictures. But I do know that this was a thought, in other words, that it was a virtual, mind quipu. And that is very important because without that mind quipu, I could never have understood the Inka world, I could never have understood what the quipu really is: it is not only a physical object, it is not only a tactile structure, that’s just part of it. There are two other quipus you see. And these two other quipus I have learned about as an old woman because now I have access to the scholarship. But in my body and in my work it’s like something in me knew it! Now it’s perhaps difficult to comprehend how a young girl could be thinking in those terms without access to the books, but that shows you that these knowledges are not only transmitted via books and not only via direct contact with someone who is knowledgeable. This knowledge is also transmitted by other means that western culture doesn’t completely acknowledge like dreams, feelings, senses, and the imagination. I know that eventually quantum physics will come to acknowledge this. Someone who has done amazing work on this is Rupert Sheldrake. I don’t know if you’ve read him, he is an English biologist, and he speaks about how these fields carry information and this information is available to everyone, you just have to tune in to it. And that’s how I’ve experienced it throughout my life.
GW< I wonder if that “tuning in” as a young woman was an intentional tuning in or was it a gift to you? Was it receptive or was it active? I don’t know what words to use here.
CV< I understand what you are saying. I think both, because it’s not like I was an innocent girl of the countryside. I was exposed to some of the most sophisticated poetry and art in the world through the libraries of my family. And I was a young reader and even before I knew how to read, I would be spending time with books like a magic universe. So, this is a hypothesis. Most likely the flourishing of the imagination that I encountered in these books must have helped to develop an antenna for this kind of perception.
Also something I have told about and made films about is that I was like eight years old when the first mummy child was found, the Inka mummy child. And it was found at the birth of the river and I was born at the edge of that same river and all little school children were brought to meet this boy across the vitrine in the museum. I was face to face with this boy when I was eight and I could see he was just like me, my size, my looks, everything. So I concluded instantly “oh, I am going to be like that very soon.” It’s like this recognition of this other reality that’s embedded within this reality. I think all children are that way! And I think what was wonderful about me is that I was not under the control of the grownups, because they didn’t care, you know? The grownups in the 1940s and 50s didn’t think that children were in danger like people do now. So, children were not supervised, they would be on their own perpetually. And I think that was fantastic. So I could have the world of the animals, because I lived in the countryside, and the world of those crazy books, and there you have it. I was educated by these two realities.
GW< Were you in art college when you made The quipu that remembers nothing?
CV< It was during that period, but made outside of the context of the art school. I had my own studio, my own independent life as a young artist while at school.
GW< Did you make textile pieces at that time, with threads?
CV< I did begin making pieces with threads, yes. I also made and knitted my own clothes as artworks. Some of the early textile pieces were done between 1966 and 1972, which is when I left Chile. They are precarious objects, they are basuritas (from basura—garbage, detritus, remnants), you know. I interpreted the threads mostly as leftovers, as debris, as something damaged, and destroyed.
GW< Talking about the loss of a culture, did these threads represent an attempt to create a tenuous link to that past?
CV< Not literally, but symbolically yes, because the way I related to the debris from the beginning, whether it is pieces of thread or sticks or bones or plastic or whatever it is, for me the reason I have done all the precarious work is because what I could see in these leftovers is the pain, the suffering of what has been destroyed, what has been now left behind, what has disappeared. And I think from the acknowledgement that I feel not just to think but to think/feel. And the acknowledgement is when rebirth occurs. So, things disappear for something new to be born. If you feel it and act accordingly, something new can really be born. If you just let it disappear and no action is taken to acknowledge, to honor, to mourn the disappearance, there can be no renewal, there can be no rebirth. So, was I thinking these thoughts? Perhaps not in the way I am telling you now, but I was definitely feeling it otherwise I could not have done it regularly for fifty years. The first time I did it, I became completely aware that it was a life changing moment, with a before and after. It was not something casual that I could forget about, not at all. It became like a gift of awareness I had received that needed to be honored constantly, not every now and then. Because it’s fragile, it’s also precarious, it can go away unless you really live it, it has to be lived.
GW< I’m thinking aloud a bit, but this idea of destruction and loss of a culture, and how to think about that. I see a parallel with environmental destruction, with the loss of species and a tragedy that is unbearable. . . but then what you seem to say is that things have to continue, so how are they going to continue, what will be done? What will be next? Do you see it in that way at all?
CV< Absolutely, because you see, talking about books again, my father subscribed me to Enciclopedia Barsa’s Spanish-language series for youth and every year they’d publish a yearbook. I would anxiously wait for it to arrive. And I will never forget that in the year 1965 the first warning was published in this encyclopedia about the destruction of the world by contamination and overexploitation. In 1965, I would have been sixteen or seventeen, so that was before I begun the precarious work. So, the precarious work really comes from that awareness. If I hadn’t known I would probably not have acted like I did, feeling the pain because I already had the awareness of the danger, feeling that life on earth was going to disappear. Basically, if I remember correctly what this text said is that life of earth would maybe finish within thirty years. I didn’t take that lightly—I took it with my entire being and you can see how this breathes through my work. For example one of my first large quipus in an institution here in NYC was devoted to extinction and this was in 1989. It did it for an institution called Art in General. It was a very large weaving that was called Cloud-Net. That piece was reviewed in the New York Times, in Artforum, but none of the reviews talked about the fact that this was about global warming and about the extinction of the pieces. It was completely ignored—you can look, there are probably four reviews of that work, which is very unusual for the art world in NYC and they ignored that. It was so hurtful to me because it was not just about the beauty of the piece, but the language was also an invitation to wake up.