BY Catalina Lozano in Opinion | 27 APR 21

The Artists Building an Archive of Indigenous Knowledge

Abel Rodríguez, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe and Elvira Espejo Ayca are creating new visual languages to preserve oral traditions

BY Catalina Lozano in Opinion | 27 APR 21

From the beginning of the twentieth century, the ecological integrity of the Amazon rainforest has been increasingly threatened by aggressive resource extraction. During the ‘rubber boom’ (1879-1945), for instance, thousands of indigenous people in the Putumayo region of what is today the Colombian Amazon were practically enslaved through a system of perpetual debt and brutal violence.

Nonuya-Muinane artist Mogaje Guihu (Spanish name Abel Rodríguez) was born around 1941 between the rivers Cahuinarí and Igara Paraná in the Putumayo. Because of the thorough spiritual and practical training he received from his elders, in the 1980s he became a guide to botanists who were researching the local flora. His profound knowledge of the native Muinane names and properties of plants made him an ideal collaborator for researchers looking to identify and classify species that were unknown to them.

Abel Rodríguez & Wilson Rodríguez, Terraza Inundable, 2018, acrylic on paper 70 × 100ncm. Photograph: Sandra Vargas. Courtesy: the artist and Instituto de vision, Bogotá   

The growth of cocaine plantations and a toxic, US-sponsored fumigation campaign to eradicate them forced Mogaje Guihu and his family to relocate to the outskirts of Bogotá in the 1990s, where Carlos Rodríguez, director of the Colombian branch of Tropenbos International – an NGO tasked with the protection of forests around the world – asked him to draw the rainforest as he remembered it. Although he had never drawn before, he accepted the proposal as a means of supporting his family.

In his drawings, which have expanded in scale and scope over the ensuing three decades, Mogaje Guihu has developed a visual language that encompasses an astounding wealth of Indigenous knowledge, employing a taxonomy that does not correspond to Linnaean classification. His works depict forms of organization by which human communities coexist with other living beings. See, for instance, Territorio de Mito (2017) where the chagra, a cultivated plot of land based on a ritual cycle of seeding, cultivation, harvesting and abandonment, is part of the life cycle of the forest together with the maloca, or communal house.  His drawings contrast markedly with those produced by 18th century European botanists and explorers such as José Celestino Mutis, whose expeditions aimed to identify plants that could enrich the empire. Rather than depict nature as a source of wealth, Mogaje Guihu’s works honours them as a source of life.

Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, 'Puhi Tropao', 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Galería Abra, Caracas

The work of Yanomami artist Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe (Sheroana, Upper Orinoco, Venezuela, 1971) similarly stems from the living practices of his community and the ecology to which they belong and it is motivated by his determination to preserve this rich heritage. Yet unlike Mogaje Guihu’s visual descriptions of Amazonian flora, Hakihiiwe’s drawings synthesize the shapes, trails, and rhythmic movements of animals and plants using a language akin to the motifs  the Yanomami paint on their bodies. After meeting Mexican artist Laura Anderson Barbata in 1992, he became interested in the process of making paper and books from native plants. Hakihiiwe currently works from his studio in Caracas, where he has also adopted printing techniques that allow him to play with repetition and convey the cycle of life. For example, Shitikari (2019), a monotype on a delicate cotton fabric that resides in the collection of the British Museum, shows the rare sight of a starry sky normally covered by the rainforest’s canopy, here abstracted as a constellation of evenly-sized black dots against a gridded field of white.

Indigenous practices reveal the modernist distinction between nature and culture to be an artificial one. During her tenure as director of the Museo Nacional de Etnografía y Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia, Aymara artist, weaver, researcher and poet Elvira Espejo Ayca created a system of classification for the museum’s textile collection based on the chain of practices that begin with the  animals, plants and minerals that provide thread and dye and end with a functional textile, reframing fabric as woven together by many living strands, rather than as an inert, anthropological artefact of Andean culture. When explaining her approach, she has spoken of ‘the rebellion of objects’ against Eurocentric systems of classification and other museological constraints, revealing their origins and uses if one pays enough attention to their qualities. From this perspective, a textile is part of an ecology with the technologies and organisms that make it possible and that, in turn, it helps to preserve.

Elvira Espejo Ayca, Jiwasan amayusa / El pensar de nuestras filosofías, video still, 2020. Courtesy: the artist 

The meaning the Western world gives to art does not make sense for many indigenous cultures that regard crafts such as drawing, weaving and woodcarving as interconnected activities which mediate coexistence with other living beings. The notion of art as part of an ecological cycle is anathema to the teleology of modernism, with its will to divide and compartmentalize. While colonial regimes continue to ravage indigenous lands, these artists have found ways to preserve the knowledge passed down from generation to generation through mostly oral traditions, ensuring that they too will survive.

Main image: Wilson Rodríguez, Orilla del río, 2020, acrylic on paper, 70 × 100 cm. Photograph: Sandra Vargas. Courtesy: the artist and Instituto de vision, Bogotá   


Catalina Lozano is an independent curator and researcher based in Mexico City and Director of Programs in Latin America at KADIST.