María Isabel Rueda: Is it very hard to be an artist and survive in Colombia’s La Guajira province? How did you manage it?
Eusebio Siosi: It’s not hard. I think being an artist is a profession that lets me have contact with an “outside” world through constant training. I can posit different issues when it comes to the social, the cultural or the political. I had an advantage in that respect. In addition to my architecture studies, I was part of an artistic movement called the Taller libre de la Ciudad in Barranquilla. I received training there on putting up shows and artists’ forums. Over time some of those artists became good friends with whom I’ve been able work and collaborate, just like you and I are doing now by talking.
I was born in Riohacha, the capital of La Guajira province. I belong to the Wayuu indigenous ethnicity, specifically from the Ipuana clan. To the degree that my age and possibilities allow, my role in the community is that of empowerment; I act as a knowledge and traditions transmitter when it comes to Wayuu culture and our region. I support making artists’ production processes visible through exhibitions and exchanges with other regions. In my role as cultural agent, I identify with the “make and do/think and act” strategy. I’m looking to foster dialogue between art and the general public. These are tools that help me with the language and uses of certain perceptive routes (i.e., strategies for disrupting perceptive routines) that I’ve developed alongside a number of training processes. It’s been a long-term endeavor. I’ve been an artist for twenty-six years. I like collective work and collaborating with different kinds of people and leaders; it’s a way for me to help transform thought and improve quality of life in society. At the Autonomous University of Barranquilla’s Caribbean Academy of Art and Gymnastics I did body-expression modules in 1991. In 1999 I took up live art at performance workshops and in 2004, I began doing the research I call Barreras visuales, where I stop to analyze and observe the Wayuu cosmogony in light of acculturation from the Western world. I supported performance work more through the organizational arm of the Laboratorios de Investigación en Artes in the Caribbean region, from 2005 to 2015. Personally, I think it’s been very important to undertake different kinds of artistic training. I’ve moved through different levels of the material and the supernatural worlds.
MIR: Los sueños de la Ouutsü, (The Dreams of the Ouutsü), your latest video, produced on two channels, is the outcome of personal research on Wayuu traditions and ancestral roots, around which you’ve been working in a very specific way. In this performance, you connect a corpus of wisdom and ritual that comes from your ethnic group, such as the yonna dance and the ritual of the soñadoras (i.e., “women dreamers”). For those of us who are unaware of that dance’s particulars, explain a little something about all its varied dimensions and tell us how you’re able to relate it to your performance in the role of the Ouutsü in your community.
ES: The Yonna is a dance and/or rite with various symbolic connotations that survives in the Guajira culture. It features three attributes I consider essential: the search for social equilibrium, collective solidarity and the man-cosmos relationship. Basically, we Wayuu regroup through this dance that consolidates and perpetuates our traditions.
In the Yonna dance, women wear colorful tunics, shawls, necklaces and bracelets at the wrist and ankles; the men wear guayuco-style loin-cloths, a Wayuu hat and dance to the rhythm of a drum called the Kasha. We do this dance for considerations that are special to Wayuu material and spiritual life, such as offerings, revelations, healing or for a girl’s “coming out” to society as a woman. The dance (or indeed ceremony) takes place in a circular space called a Piui, by order of the Aseyuu (the spirit) of the Lania (i.e. an amulet or charm the Wayuu wear on their bodies for protection). The dance serves to exhibit and view the walaa (a figure in gold with both human and animal characteristics that some Wayuu families own). Wealth is guaranteed to those who possess them.
I conserve identity-related elements from the Ouutsü ritual, to be used in actions, such as red fabric, a revitalizing element and energy connector between the material, the spiritual and sound. There is a one-maraca movement that signals the ritual’s commencement, featuring circular movements spiraling out, an intermezzo with movement in different, perpendicular directions, then the end of the spiral movement as it moves inward. Sound is very important within my proposal since it demarcates timed movements and actions from one space to another.
In Wayuu tradition, the importance women have had within the community’s social and religious life is particularly notable. Woman is the protecting image of the social and cultural component. Her particularity is based on the traditional knowledge she possesses about nature itself. In communities, it is thought that woman is the repository of traditional wisdom, through which she oversees the proper use of medicinal plants and determines a universe that implies mastery over medical-religious practices. Her special status in social life is instituted based on her faculty for establishing communication with a certain principal of her nature, considered her incorporated through dream manifestations or voluntarily induced trances. It is believed that through feminine faculties these spirits are charged with revealing the origins of diseases as well as their categories and the sundry treatments to be followed to assure the future of an ailing patient.
A female religious expert is distinguished with the name of Ouutsü. As a religious healer, an Ouutsü woman constitutes a central image in the community, given that she possesses virtues and special attributes that allow her to communicate with the natural and supernatural realms. Her figure constitutes a spiritual authority around which revolve matters both human and divine. Her vocation as an intermediary between the Wayuu and the supernatural world allows her to remedy disasters the spirits of illness inflict. In essence, it is woman who possesses the power of healing words and who pronounces the voice that dialogues with supernatural forces. From its religious context, the Wayuu world comes to us linked to rhythm and to the devotion of woman as the mystic unit associated with the land, as well as values of life-protection, renovation and permanence. In the family unit, the Ouutsü woman safeguards the meaning of motherhood and transmits knowledge through ritual and artistic practices, in which she experiences maximum supernatural contact with life.
MIR: Is this faculty of the Ouutsü exclusive to women? Or can men with such a sensibility also be dreamers among your people?
ES: It is a role more related to women because of their degree of sensibility when it comes to entering trances. This is not common in men, but if it were the case a man would be just as respected for the work he was doing and the recognition he gained.
MIR: How does anyone know she or he is a soñador, a dreamer? Or is it a faculty that is passed down from generation to generation?
ES: An Ouutsü is identified through widespread recognition of her faculties, which serve to solidify her name through the works she performs. Such recommendations are spread by oral tradition, an important communication element among the Wayuu. Knowledge is handed down from generation to generation, and consists of the Ouutsü, by means of dreams, choosing whom should be called to prepare herself. It starts with isolation, flour-based foods, beverages and recognizing medicinal plants. That said, I’m sorry to report that the Ouutsü is disappearing from our culture. Lots of Wayuu girls are put into boarding schools that distance them from their traditional customs; they take on another kind of life. Today, the women-dreamers are disappearing.
MIR: A world that could prevent conflicts through dreams, yet with no spiritual entities that must be consulted… It’s so sad! The voice of the woman who dialogues is no longer heard. So why bother with the consultations?
ES: Dreams help us prevent things, make decisions, act as the Ouutsü instructs; they are highly helpful allies, since it is through this process you learn to develop intuition. You have to know how to distinguish when a dream is normal and when it’s different. When a dream is recurrent and elicits some sense of tension, you have to look for a response. That’s when you consult an Ouutsü, to see how a conflict can be resolved; that’s why they’re also called mediators. In my case, when I dream of something out of the ordinary, I know I shouldn’t speak of it so that, because it’s at the top of my mind, the dream will come true. But sometimes you have to know how to speak of it, as a way of looking for an answer. It can be related to premonitions. Asking about a dream depends on whether or not you believe. That’s the starting point.
MIR: What does the community do so that something as individual as a dream can become a collective work involving everyone?
ES: We Wayuu believe and recognize this activity as a generator of change and answers. Being aware of how the act of telling experiences and events, orally, contributes to collective work creates a commitment to undertake this kind of ritual. To do it, you need to involve a great deal of the population, from the people who slaughter cattle to the ones who make the food. A lot bring food, depending on how long the isolation is going to be, determined by the type of work you’re trying to perform.
The isolation could be in a rural hamlet where it becomes a social action, where food is shared for as long as needed and to which anyone can come, according to what the Ouutsü decides. The Yonna dance is performed non-stop, at all times. The dancers spin around and there must be food offerings such as fiche with bread or arepa; coffee or chicha; goat stew or rice with guajiro beans, lots of food, an order from the Ouutsü. That way you keep the spirits contented—which is necessary for the ritual to have its effect.
MIR: So as a Wayuu, do you believe someone can ask for help, or fight, from the supernatural realm, to solve specific problems in the everyday world?
ES: Naturally. You can ask the supernatural for help or to steer situations of conflict. That’s what happens with feuds between clans, family groups like the Ipuana in my case. If we want to know what’s the best way to act, we arrange a consultation and keep the interpretation in mind as a way to move forward. You can also get “antidotes,” that serve to drive problems away. There are lots of ways to do things.
MIR: Who are your allies in the supernatural world? What natural or supernatural forces do you trust, or from which do you ask for support, in the realm of the unseen?
ES: My spirits, who somehow send signs through dreams or circumstances. I’ve learned to watch out for disturbances and to put a bit of red fabric beneath my pillow to ward them away. To take certain precautions against the uncommon. I believe a thread or a red scrap is a transmitter of energies. I’ve had uncommon experiences. Knowing my grandmother was a dreamer and understanding that because of that, this faculty can be handed down, has allowed me to interpret this in my own manner as a way of knowing how to act. Presenting this experience through art contributes to the land and strengthens Wayuu customs in the various spaces where I can share experiences. It means I can be consulted and can offer guidance.
MIR: Why do the Wayuu believe we inhabit such different worlds? Put another way, why does it seem like we don’t understand you or your problems or that we can’t help you?
ES: You do understand us and it’s very common for you to seek us out to solve some problem. But what happens is that most of the time the consultation is made in secret. It’s an act of respect and recognition of our qualities; it spreads to other areas because it’s so effective. That’s why the Ouutsü are sought after for the kinds of works that have had a repercussion in the region. Collective benefit can be achieved, through the satisfaction that lies in the solution that falls to a family or clan, or the resolution of a conflict. This gives rise to the peace and tranquility needed to move through the world without problems. Wayuu people have their own ways of surviving. The problem is the influence of the Western world and the way changes are brought about. I recognize Christian religion is having a disappearing effect on a figure as im- portant to the Wayuu culture as the Ouutsü, just as it does on the dancers, without realizing it’s destroying a cultural process.
MIR: What do the Wayuu see in society as it is today that we are unable to understand?
ES: We see the destruction of the land, where the monetary interests of the government and of politicians comes first, with no awareness of how it affects the ecosystem and degrades it, with no measure of the causes and effects. Sadly, the influence of arijunas—cultural outsiders—affects us greatly, as does our education in institutions that distance us from our traditions. This leads some Wayuu to think to some degree that because they’re educated, they can exert a greater amount of influence and therefore start to make decisions above those of traditional Wayuu authorities. There are other cases where, for instance, a highway can bring changes or subjection when arijunas get involved with Wayuu, so the “more civilized” one ends up influencing. It’s important to armor yourself so it won’t happen. A Wayuu evinces solidarity and is faithful. But he can change if the dynamic is altered in the negative.
MIR: The Wayuu see values in society we don’t. What are they?
ES: Respect for the value that lies in conservation. Asking permission from nature, from the land, from plants as a way to guide your actions.