“Isichapuitu” lies in Gallery 6 in the Weatherspoon Art Museum. The ceramic figures sit in the middle of the room yet their presence seems to fill the gallery in its entirety. With eloquent intensity, artist Kukuli Velarde presents anyone whose eyes meet the piece with questions concerning the history and consequences between the indigenous Huastec people of Mexico and their imperialistic European conquistadors.
The piece is somber in nature yet powerful in character, depicting struggles of the all native peoples across the Americas while still making any viewer think deeply about their own intimate relationship they may have with life, and with death.
Velarde was born and raised in Peru, an important detail as the relationship with her heritage plays a key part in her work. Although Velarde began “Isichapuitu” in 1997, her journey of historical and cultural analysis of the encounter between the Europeans and the indigenous people of the Americas began in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the America’s. While acknowledging both her indigenous and colonial heritage, she took interest in how we as societies, birthed from European conquest and indigenous struggles, came to respect the past. The fact that pre-1492 archeological artifacts are respected in museums while the descendants of the creators of these pieces – Natives in South and North America – are looked down upon drew her to express her discontent and to give voice to the voiceless.
The art piece is titled after a Peruvian myth about a priest who used human, almost baby-like vessels, to summon the spirit of a dead woman. These humans were called Manchaypuitu (male) and Isichapuitu (female), were known as cantaros de muerte (vessels of death). Velarde, however, considers them cantaros de vida (vessels of life), creating one in such a manner that portrays rebirth and fertility (Huevaditas). But the theme of death is not at all absent.
Most containers are portrayed in the same manner as all the rest, resting with feet planted, hands in the air with eyes looking up. In the low-fired white clay with glaze and oil painted piece, “Mi Padre y Yo” (My Father and Me) portrays a man tightly holding another figure, black and dusty in comparison to the white and powdery surface of what is alluded to be the father. Agony is etched into the face of the father as phrases in Spanish encapsulate the dying son, the connecting point of the two being a heart external of both.
Two pieces behind Mi Padre y Yo sits one of many pieces that sticks out. But in this low-fired brown clay and white piece, Amores Que Matan (Lovers That Kill) deals with heartbreak rather than history. Two angles fly around the container while one has the heart of the man in its mouth, blood slowly creating a trail on his chest and stomach, symbolic of love and its capability to do more damage than good. Coloniality reflects the Catholic Church’s’ attempt to convert and conquer, though not necessarily in that order.
This low-fired red clay piece has a cross standing on the forehead of the man, whose whole head is facing upward rather than just his eyes. With his mouth agape, the aura of this piece elicits a sort of surrender, a surrender that came after a hard-fought battle. While examining this art exhibit, there was another woman there with me who took interest in A Mi Muerto (To My Dead), a low-fired white clay with oil paint and a markers piece that has the whole head removed and turned upside down. The surface of this piece is sleek in contrast to its own actual characteristics which can only be described as gruesome yet telling.
I should note that I translated the titles of each piece mentioned within the art exhibit, but Velarde specifically declined to do so, fearing that the meaning and power of the names given could be lost in translation.
Kukuli Velarde holds a BFA from Hunter College, University of New York and her work has been shown in solo shows in various states and has also been recognized by Creative Time, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, The Pollock Krasner Foundation and the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. The exhibit is organized by Dr. Emily Stamey, Weatherspoon Curator of Exhibitions, and presented in conjunction with UNCG’s School of Art as part of the Falk Visiting Artist Program. Isichapuitu has been up since Oct. 28 2017 and will continue to run until March 4, 2018. The Weatherspoon Art Museum is located on Spring Garden next to Graham on UNCG campus whose hours can be found in their website.