Colombian artist Eliana Muchachasoy spoke with Contemporary And América Latina (C&AL) about neo-Amazonian art, the need for creating artistic spaces in indigenous territories – and the problems with cultural appropriation in the world of arts or, as she calls it, “colonization through color”.
Eli M. Muchachasoy Chindoy, Tbatsanamamá be saná (Nourishment from Mother Earth). Courtesy of the artist.
Eli M. Muchachasoy Chindoy, Bayá tigr endetëjan bëngbe uaman luare (Tiger travelling through our territory). Mixed technique. Courtesy of the artist.
Eli M. Muchachasoy Chindoy, bëtsësananëg tmojëbseboshjon (Ancestral Heritage). Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
Eliana Muchachasoy is an artist from the Camëntŝa community in the Sibundoy Valley, located in the department of Putumayo in the Colombian Amazon. From this abode, the artist uses painting and photography to reflect on the struggles for territory and the vindication of indigenous peoples. In 2018, she went to Australia to participate in an artistic residency. Her work has been exhibited in Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador and the United States.
C&AL: What led you to become an artist and how has your birth territory influenced your work?
Eliana Muchachasoy: The beginning of my artistic path can be traced back to my mother, who provided me with art supplies. Since childhood, I was very interested in painting and colors, and later I went on to study plastic arts at the National University of Colombia. At the time, I did not feel comfortable with the technique of painting and I put it aside. When I finished my degree, I returned to my native territory in Putumayo where I worked as an arts teacher. There, I took up painting again and began to make different proposals from the community based on the colors native to the territory as well as the medicine and the vindication of the indigenous struggles.
C&AL: What topics and issues do you address in your artwork?
EM: In my work I have examined issues such as mega-mining and the construction of the San Francisco bypass in Mocoa. This is a road that would cross much of the indigenous reservation and cause significant environmental impact and displacement of the community. There has been talk of carbon trading, the construction of a hydroelectric plant and of the intention to establish a military base in this area. In my paintings, I also speak of the indigenous woman, as a way of representing myself. With my work, I want to make a call to strengthen our identity and defend our territory. Especially children and young people have lost a part of our cultural values, which in turn has prevented the community from uniting to defend their land.
C&AL: On several occasions, you have said that your work is part of “Neo-Amazonian” art. How do you define this artistic trend and in what way does your work belong to this movement?
EM: Neo-Amazonian art originated at the School of Art in Pucallpa, in the Peruvian Amazon. A group of artists, engaging with the medicine of yagé or ayahuasca [Amazonian hallucinogenic drink of vegetable origin], began to create works that bring together different artistic proposals, such as photography, music, film and painting, and that speak of what is happening within our territories and communities of the Amazon. I place myself in this artistic trend because Sibundoy, Putumayo, is the gateway where the Colombian Amazon begins.
C&AL: What is the Benach Gallery and what is the significance of this artistic space in Putumayo?
EM: The Benach Gallery – the word “benach” means “path” in the Camëntŝa language – is part of the path I have taken as an artist. In my career, I didn’t have the opportunity to exhibit my work in Putumayo, simply because no exhibition space was available. Benach is designed to promote local art and to give this town the opportunity to approach different artistic expressions and encourage education through art. Today, the children and young people receive a lot of information from the media and all this is part of their identity building. Benach is a necessary space which allows them to look at themselves through art.
C&AL: According to your text “Un indio pintado”, or “A Painted Indian”, there is a tendency towards cultural appropriation of indigenous symbols, especially by non-indigenous urban artists. What are the main points of your commentary on cultural appropriation in this text?
EM: The text “A Painted Indian” originates from personal experiences I had on several trips, where I encountered images of the Indian painted on the wall. There is a common expression in Colombia “there she/he is painted on the wall”, which is a way of saying that the person doesn’t really count, doesn’t exist. Many urban artists take up indigenous elements because they want to do an homage or use them as an inspiration. In my opinion however, this should be an opportunity to make a proposal for the vindication of the communities through art.
We should also ask ourselves how non-indigenous artists who do not have a personal approach to the territories can contribute. They take up these elements to paint something beautiful, but I think we should ask ourselves: How can the artist help the communities to continue talking about their problems with the territory?
For example, many people who come to visit our territory take pictures of the community, but we don’t know the intention behind that, whether it is to use them in exhibitions, to replicate them in murals, or to make a profit. There has been appropriation of the symbolic parts of the communities but these are not given credit, nor do the appropriators have any knowledge of what the community represents. Thus, the respect for the sacred is lost and profit becomes the only objective.
Eli M. Muchachasoy Chindoy, viajiybe otjenay (Yagé dream). Mixed technique. Courtesy of the artist.
C&AL: What do you think of artists who seek to consciously celebrate indigenous identity through art?
EM: There is a lot of talk these days about homage and inspiration in relation to indigenous communities. But when you speak with the grandmothers and grandfathers of those communities, they don’t really feel represented through these works, nor do they see the need to receive homage in the first place. What is happening right now in the communities is a colonization through color: some artists have explored traditional techniques in the communities in order to create an artistic intervention or to subtract the image of the territories. The problem with these works is that they are never shared inside the community. In Sibundoy for example, no archive or library exists with these works.
The community does not have access to this information. The same thing happens with museums; the art from the communities is inside the museums, but who has access to the museums? Not the community members, because museums exist outside the territories.
In my text “A Painted Indian” I speak of the need to encounter a point of balance: a reciprocity between the artist and the communities. The artist must weave her- or himself into the community and make a contribution to the territory. An example of this could be when artists participate in the everyday life of the communities: sowing the land, learning the indigenous language and getting to know the indigenous people. Finally, this also implies breaking existing privileges.
Ana Luisa González studied literature and works as a cultural journalist and independent reporter in Bogotá for different US based publications.
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen