In his projects, José Luis Macas examines the ethical principle of reciprocity in communes that are based on collective and natural rights. In an interview with C&AL, the artist talks about exposing the inherent contradictions of Western logic rooted in the colonial civilizing project, and the historical legacy of indigenous peoples.
Manos que dan reciben (Hands that Give Receive, 2021), inkjet on cotton paper, 20 x 35 cm. Photo credit: Julio César Gonzáles and Kiryl Synkov.
Acción de Trueque - Ayni con la hierbatera Pamela Alanoca (The Action of Bartering - Ayni with herbalist Pamela Alanoca), El Alto Market, 10th SIART Biennial, La Paz, Bolivia, 2018.
Serie Cromotopos (Recorrido Equinoccial) (Cromotopos Series, Equinoctial Path, 2018), 14th International Cuenca Biennial, Ecuador.
C& América Latina: In your artwork Ranti Ranti /Acuerdo de Trueque (Ranti Ranti / Bartering Agreement), you worked with the Tola Chica and Toglla communities located in the Ilaló volcano on the outskirts of Quito. Could you tell us about that collaboration in relation to your work?
José Luis Macas: Ranti Ranti is an ethical principle of reciprocity and correspondence that translates in various ways in the work. I began the ethical dimension in Bolivia in a project called Ayni. This word is understood as the principle of complementary reciprocity. I participated in the Textile Collective in the framework of the 10th SIARTE Art Biennial in Bolivia. Since I did not come from textile art, my participation in the collective was aimed at creating relationship strategies, a sort of relationship fabric.
I applied these ideas to the context of Ecuador. I began bartering with other people to connect areas that share a common element. In Bolivia, it was the cochineal, an American pigment. In Ecuador, I focused on the land. For the Ilaló volcano project, my inspiration came from the earth and its materiality as a binding element to establish relationships with the Tola Chica and Toglla communes. Both communes are based on collective and natural rights. They also refer to themselves as indigenous ancestral communes. Despite the tensions this entails, this declaration validates their collective rights over the territory to resist the commercial logic of land privatization.
Ilaló is a protected territory currently involved in a real estate dispute. Land is being sold illegally and buildings are being constructed outside of municipal regulations. There is also a contamination problem because waste is being thrown into the ravines of the volcano. So, the work attempts to interweave this complex set of elements. For example, we held a minga (1) to plant trees for a community tourism project. We also held some discussions and walks that were organized by the leadership of the communes. All of it under the logic of bargaining. In contrast, the artistic resolutions focused on combining the image and materiality of the land. There is an implicit expressiveness and power in the material, and I was interested in the tension generated by the mixture of representation and presentation of the land. The work was part of the exhibit “Dispossessions in the Americas: The Extraction of Bodies, Land, and Heritage from La Conquista to the Present” at the Contemporary Art Center of Quito in 2021.
C&AL: Something one appreciates in your works is a local and collaborative thinking that is related to an urban, rural, or natural place. Tell us about this interconnection between territoriality and poetics.
JLM: It comes from a predisposition to allow one’s body to be affected by geography’s presence. In other words, understanding geography and the landscape as living entities to observe, in their reciprocity and correspondence, the creative flow that emanates from them. The growing tension between the encroachment of urban space and the natural landscape is precisely due to the lack of sensitivity about the interconnection of the evolution of life and its constant transmutation.
My works have focused on showing these tensions. For instance, my Borradores (Erasers) project (2014-2019), where I created a drawing by erasing the smog-impregnated walls of Quito, Cuenca, and Bogotá. I try to expose the inherent contradictions of Western logic rooted in the colonial, civilizing project. On the other hand, my aim is to expose the historical legacy of indigenous peoples, who have resisted to maintain their epistemologies of reciprocity between human beings and nature. Unlike the Western view that bifurcates the human experience from the non-human. I am also aware of the idealization and romanticization to which indigenous cultures are subjected, and I believe that is precisely where the challenge lies. In other words, going beyond colonial projections on indigenous people and opening up to a symbiotic-synergistic encounter that proposes thought from that space and legacy.
Often, art that is critical and political, and focused on deconstruction, is merely a very intelligent creative exercise, but it offers no proposal or possibility for the future. This is precisely what motivates me to get involved with forms of autopoietic thought that promote and position care as a central axis. Poetics as poiesis is aligned with a sense of creation and life. I am interested in knowing the extent to which these proposals could be possible. I think about the possibilities of art and its dissemination from my perspective as a professor. From the space of the classroom, I propose possible futures to my students, considering the present situation of crisis.
C&AL: Let’s talk about Cromotopos y Luminancias; one could say that in these works you are in collaboration with a non-human entity, the sun. Where does this relationship come from and what would be the motivation behind this gesture?
JLM: It comes from recognizing a belonging to an Andean culture that is based on solar calendars with an agricultural-festival function. Although those calendars currently embody multiple meanings from touristic and folkloric points of view, at the same time, the relationship between agriculture and astronomy continues to exist. Ecuadorian Andean land remains largely agricultural.
It is born out of a desire to interweave discourse with an artistic proposal where I use elements from ethnohistory and archeoastronomy. The solar festivities of the Andean world reflect how the land was thought about in pre-colonial times, that is, based on the movements of the sun and connecting it to the mountains as a fixed visual axis. I started walking around the city of Quito during the dates of the solstices and equinoxes to try to translate the poetics of the duration of the sun on those dates and the atmosphere that light generates in space. I was interested in walking those lines, known in the Andean world as Ceques, betwee various Apus and tutelary mountains from the eastern to the western range. The area where the sun operates in Quito is between the Pichincha, Cayambe, and Antisana volcanoes. It is a kind of solar dance through the geography where I attempt to translate this poetics into an actual experience.
The solar festivities on Andean land have a long history, and their own logic, temporalities, and landscapes. I, on the other hand, work in contemporary art and I approach it through sculpture, expanded painting and site-specific work. I believe that the specificity of the white cube is overwhelmed by the Andean epistemic density, which includes cosmic, geographical elements and multiple life forms. The indigenous is an important reference for me, though I always position it beyond the iconographic. In Cromotopos, I am inspired by archaeological pieces that evoke the sun and I reconfigure them into acrylic pieces installed in the urban landscape that are activated by light. The space-time known as Pacha is related to the multisensory. In the work, I try to replicate that experience where multiple temporalities coexist, an idea that is aligned with ritual.
Luminancias (Luminances, 2022), exhibition view at the N24 Gallery, Quito.
C&AL: What are you working on now?
JLM: Now I’m working on an exhibition for the Metropolitan Cultural Center of Quito that is focused on ten years of collaboration with the sun. It’s a pursuit that encompasses the spiritual, power plants, fasting, and treks. All of it to achieve a comprehensive and synchronous experience with the sun. It’s been my attempt to give value to the sun and highlight its power to synchronize us with its inherent layers of light and materiality.
I am also working on another exhibition that deals with power plants, specifically the history of the coco plant in Ecuador. In that, I use the trek across the Coca River to delve into the cultural validity of the coca plant and talk about the cultural dispossession of the state towards this plant, which is a colonial inheritance.
1. Minga (from Quechua mink’a) 1. A gathering of friends and neighbors to do some unpaid work together. 2. Collective, unpaid agricultural work for the purpose of social utility. (RAE)
José Luis Macas is a visual artist, professor and researcher at the Catholic University of Ecuador and coordinator of Chawpi, a creative lab, workshop, and cultural space in Quito.
Esteban Pérez is a visual artist interested in historical revisionism and asymmetric power structures. His research findings take the form of sound, video, painting, and installation.
Translation: Sara Hanaburgh