BOSTON (September 12, 2018)—For millennia, ancient peoples of the Andes created quipus—complex record-keeping devices that served as a medium for reading and writing, recording and remembering, all through an intricate system of knot-making. Banned by the Spanish during their colonization of South America, quipus contain a wealth of information that scholars today are still attempting to decipher. New York-based artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña (born 1948, Chile) has devoted a significant part of her artistic practice to studying, interpreting and reactivating the quipu. Drawing on her indigenous heritage, she channels this ancient, sensorial mode of communication into immersive installations and participatory performances. Cecilia Vicuña: Disappeared Quipu, on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), from October 20, 2018 through January 21, 2019, presents a newly commissioned, site-specific installation by the artist, displayed alongside five historical quipus on loan from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. The exhibition’s central work, Quipu desaparecido (Disappeared Quipu) (2018), combines monumental strands of knotted wool with projected images of textiles that Vicuña chose from the world-renowned Andean collections of the MFA and the Brooklyn Museum—the co-organizers of the exhibition. In Boston, participatory performances by Vicuña will weave audiences together with thick strands of raw wool, incorporating poetry and song into a multi-sensory experience. The first performance will take place during the next event in the MFA Late Nites series on October 19, offering a sneak preview of the exhibition alongside other late-night programming that connects visitors to art, culture and community. The second performance will be held on January 9, 2019. “Cecilia Vicuña: Disappeared Quipu” is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Brooklyn Museum. Generously supported by the Museum Council Artist in Residency Program Fund.
The MFA’s presentation was co-organized by Liz Munsell, Lorraine and Alan Bressler Curator of Contemporary Art and Special Initiatives, and Dennis Carr, Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture. Renowned Harvard professor and anthropologist Gary Urton, winner of a MacArthur “Genius” fellowship for his innovative scholarship on quipus, worked as a collaborative consultant to the project.
Quipus, used by the Inka and earlier Andean cultures, were vital to the functioning of the Inka Empire (1400–1532 A.D.), which stretched for some 3,000 miles along the western Andes from modern-day Ecuador to central Chile and thrived without a formal written language. Specially trained record-keepers—called khipukamayuq in Quechua (“knot-makers” or “knot-keepers”)—constructed, maintained and read the quipus. After the Spanish conquest, quipus were banned by the Roman Catholic Church as idolatrous objects. Their destruction by the Spanish colonial authorities was also politically and economically motivated, guided by the desire to control all record-keeping, especially of genealogies and land ownership. While quipus are still made by select indigenous communities in modern-day Peru, the original information embodied by the ancient knots has been to largely lost to history. Today, scholars are still working to unravel the mysteries of these complex objects and to recover their meanings. Brought together in this exhibition, the quipus of the past and Vicuña’s “quipu for the future” explore the nature of language and memory, the resilience of native people in the face of colonial oppression, and the artist’s own experiences of living in exile from her native Chile.
Vicuña’s site-specific installation, Quipu desaparecido (Disappeared Quipu), serves as a memorial to ancient people and their ways of life. Textiles were integral to the daily activities and spirituality of Pre-Colombian Andean cultures. Through their systems of weaving and the knot-making language of their quipus, they conveyed a belief in the sacred threads that interconnected all beings in the cosmos. In Vicuña’s installation, the projections of ancient textiles stand in for the bodies of the indigenous people who wore them. A few of the actual garments, selected by the artist from the MFA’s collection, are also on view in the gallery, illustrating the remarkable weaving traditions of the Paracas (800 B.C.–A.D. 200) and Wari (600–1000 A.D.) cultures of Peru’s South Coast. Highly skilled weavers used the silken hair of alpacas and vicuñas to make functional yet stunning fabrics and developed complex weaving techniques to produce culturally distinctive designs. The textiles’ vibrant colors attest to the weavers’ skills at extracting natural dyes from plants, minerals, shells and the cochineal beetle.
The ancient quipus on view in the exhibition range from a large example with more than 400 individual pendant cords to a group of seven distinct quipus tied together in a ring. Most are administrative quipus, which were used to record statistical information such as tax records and storehouse inventories. Few surviving examples remain of narrative quipus, which preserved historical and literary stories such as the reigns of Inka rulers, military victories, cosmological events, and creation stories, poems and songs—although today scholars are still working to understand how this information was conveyed.
About Cecilia Vicuña
Cecilia Vicuña is a visual artist, poet, filmmaker and activist who was born in Chile and now lives in New York. After receiving her Master of Fine Arts degree from the National School of Fine Arts, University of Chile, in 1972, she moved to London to continue her studies. Following the violent military coup in Chile against President Salvador Allende in 1973, she co-founded the artist-activist movement Artists for Democracy. During the ensuing dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973–90), Vicuña remained in exile, leaving London for Bogotá, Colombia, in 1975 before settling in New York City in 1980. While living in Chile during the mid-1960s, Vicuña began an ongoing series of small sculptures called Precarios—tiny, fragile sculptures (composed of feathers, stone, plastic, wood, wire, shells, cloth and other detritus), initially created at the seashore, to disappear with the high tide. She also began to study the history of ancient quipus, and in the early 1970s began to craft her own quipus from unspun wool. Her ephemeral, site-specific installations combine the tactile ritual of weaving and spinning with the arts of assemblage, poetry and performance.
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