Nunca fuimos modernas

Carolina Caycedo and Catalina Lozano reflect on healing and decolonization processes as possible solutions to the dominant authoritarian charm.


We Were Never Modern

Artist Carolina Caycedo and myself, Catalina Lozano, have followed different paths to reach similar goals. These goals are linked to understanding the ubiquitous and naturalized effects of coloniality in order to counter them through our artistic and curatorial practices respectively. In this conversation, we review our recent projects and reflect on possible ways of understanding healing as an integral process of decolonization, one in which the human and the nonhuman begin to be undifferentiated.

Catalina Lozano: The history of colonization produced a racialized and patriarchal regime, a regime of oppression. This is what defines coloniality. The conceptualization of “Nature” as (white) man’s external reality is the first way in which the right of exploitation is exerted upon it within the modern colonial system. Capitalism organizes this exploitation as part of its hegemonic logic. Historically, in the Americas, native peoples were classified alongside nature so that their exploitation and extermination could be justified. I have tackled these issues from different perspectives in a number of curatorial projects.

In “The Cure,” [1] I strung together a series of ideas that had been going around in my head, in large part related to the modern division between nature and culture, and to how this division could be problematized through healing. Healing—or what I am calling healing here, as opposed to Western medicine—constitutes a negotiation between different domains that invokes forces that do not belong to the realm of that which can be visually verified—a regime which, paradoxically, has left us blind. The need to “see in order to believe” has closed us off to the possibility of reaching invisible and sensitive knowledge.

Another area I find interesting, because of what it stands for in the history of Western knowledge, are natural history museums. Certain implications of the modern Western colonial episteme are violently encapsulated in these museums. The idea of conquest dominates their rhetoric, and taxidermy is the “conservation” resource that presents life through death.

I have the feeling that all these themes or preoccupations have to do with your practice in a more or less direct way.

Carolina Caycedo: The classification of nature that we find in natural history museums is a process related to the westernization of the female body—the classification/stigmatization of our body, our emotions, and our labor. Under patriarchal parameters and restrictions, we [2] have lost previously held knowledge about and control over our bodies, forgetting processes for self-healing, for the prevention of pregnancies, for the consumption of wholesome food, and for sexuality. In this sense, it is important to underline the relationship between scientific and religious institutions as the two agents that rule over this process of colonization and patriarchalization of the body.

CL: María Ovidia Palenchor Anacona, leader of the Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca (CRIC) [Regional Indigenous Council of the Cauca Region] in Colombia, explains that the fight against the patriarchal model is absolutely necessary for the current indigenous movement because the former is a model that has been imposed upon the latter through colonization. This model is thoroughly embedded in coloniality, and it is one of the most arduous fights of decolonization—indeed, I believe this to be true even among the most radical struggles of decolonization. Palenchor talks about the imbalance caused by masculine domination as a radical imbalance that affects relationships between all beings that share the same territory. She says: “The millennial woman has a fundamental task in restoring this origin, in restoring the practice of the law of origins, but also in transforming practices adopted from the outside for patriarchalism.” Importantly, she mentions that “witches for us [indigenous peoples] are wise, thinkers, [which is why] it is not in the interest of the patriarchal and individualistic capitalist to incorporate the wisdom of women.” [3]

CC: An important part of my healing-decolonization process has been the re-appropriation of a sexuality stripped of guilt or fears. The stories of Kochininako (the Yellow Woman) presented by Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo writer, have been of great help. In the worldview of the Laguna Pueblo people [4],  the creator is female—a spider-woman or thought-woman, a female character who is also heroic and who makes possible the construction of a mythology in which the status of women is equal to that of men. Kochininako’s power is located in her bravery and in her uninhibited sexuality. Despite the fact that she is a married mother, Kochininako tends to leave her village at certain periods with different lovers. In one of the stories, her village suffers from drought and scarcity of food. Each day, Kochininako has to walk further and further in search for water. One day, she arrives at a very remote freshwater spring, where she meets a beautiful creature that is half man, half buffalo. The creature seduces her and gallops away with her on his back. Because of the love between Kochininako and Buffalo Man, the Buffalo people agree to give their bodies to the hunters to feed the starving Laguna Pueblo. Thus Kochininako’s vibrant sexuality and female wisdom saves her people.

CL: This makes me think of how the “social sciences” have relegated the “laws of origins” to which Palenchor refers to the category of “myths,” thereby delegitimizing this knowledge as fantasy, invention, and “irrational.” In this way, other epistemes get erased in order to ensure the hegemony of a Western rationality that has nevertheless proved utterly irrational. In its neoliberal stage, capitalism is one more criminal endeavor, the spearhead for the current ecocide and genocide. Colombia is a perfect example. Look at what is going on currently: in this post-conflict moment, after the signing of the peace process with the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], more than 250 social, local, and indigenous leaders have been murdered, and the political Right continues to earn votes.

CC: Do you remember the Embrujo autoritario [Authoritarian Bewitching]? This was the title of a report published in 2003 by the Plataforma de Derechos Humanos, Democracia y Desarrollo [Platform for Human Rights, Democracy, and Development] during Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s first year in office. In the wake of presidential elections in Colombia, it is obvious some of us have remained bewitched, while others are threatened by a murderous and extractivist structure which has very specific visual components rooted in notions of development, progress, growth, and technology, all filtered through narco-paraca faith and culture. [5] Look at the tweet Uribe pinned on his profile: a mix of fascism, racism and spirituality. [6]

Iván Duque and Marta Lucía Ramírez are chemically pure beings,
they allow the guarantee for Colombians to reach the soul, to the heart,
For thousand Comités Voluntarios de Base
Iván Duque, President
Marta Lucía Ramirez, Vice President

I am convinced that art and language can create visual and linguistic counterpositions to this authoritarian bewitching through collective hallucinations such as those facilitated by the healer Pachita, who you speak about in “The Cure.” We can basically create counterpositions from any discipline, but it gives better results if you work in tandem.

CL: What you say is important—about how art can act as something that appeals to the sensible, but that can also work beyond that. A form of activism through art. You have the possibility to work at a specific local level, but also to think in a very integral way, which allows for this work to travel and for its implications to expand.

CC: Since 2012, I have been developing a body of work about how dams as infrastructure affect bio-cultural diversity. I began by looking at the territory that has been impacted by the Proyecto Hidroeléctrico El Quimbo on the Yuma (Magdalena) River in Huila, Colombia. This is the first Colombian hydroelectric facility built with transnational capital. My trips resulted in the development of the geocoreografías process, which we organized with Jonathan Luna in various municipalities in the South of Huila. The project is carried out with young people and girls affected by the Quimbo project, and explores the possibilities of the body and of everyday gestures as political tools. Through this, I began to get involved with organization processes for the defense of local territories with Jaguos por el Territorio, AsoquimboAsonaret, Defensores del Macizo Colombiano, and the Colectivo Cultural Yaguilga as well as, on a national and international level, the Movimiento Social Ríos Vivos Colombia, Movimento de Atingidos por Barragens in Brazil, and the Tribu Yaqui in Mexico. I have always introduced myself as a visual artist in the different communities that have received me. I always make clear that I am there to help with the construction and deconstruction of images that are produced by their political agendas, agendas that in that moment become my own. To me, the struggle for water, land, and life is a long-term commitment that enlivens my practice and forces me to avoid artistic or academic “extractivism.” [7] The idea is also to understand what I can offer to the work of environmental justice through my art, and how I can reclaim spaces within the art circuit to question the capitalist model of mining energy and advocate for fair energy transition.

An important part of my project is to visit what I call “the front lines of environmental injustice,” more specifically, places where hydropower plants have been or are being built, where environmental crimes related to both hydroelectric dams or mining waste pollution have been committed, or wherever there is a social organization or movement for the defense of land and water. It is a spiritual fieldwork: rather than using scientific methodology to gather information and keep objective distance, I follow my intuition based on what needs the region has, on existing emotional networks, and on chance or luck. In other words, I blend into the local and regional agendas, keeping aesthetic intention and art production in the background. I proceed to visit, record, collect objects, and create friendships with people who live and work there, sharing the intimacy of homes, places of work, and spaces dedicated to direct action, learning, and collective celebration. I also carry out research in libraries, archives, and databases, and I interview specific personalities. In 2012, I interviewed Mamo Pedro Juan, spiritual leader of the Kogui of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia (Mamo Pedro Juan left this world last year). When I asked him what the El Cercado [8] dam on River Ranchería meant for his community, he said the dam was like having a knot in the anus. Ay! His phrase worked so vividly on my mind and my body that I still tighten my ass every time I repeat it. I began to understand the impact of extractivism and its mega-structures not only on a territorial level, but also on a bodily level—the human body, the animal body, or the river’s body. In 2016, I was able to finally illustrate the Mamo’s words in the hope that I could trigger a similar reaction in others, and that this physical response, this feeling of being tight, inhibited, could provoke sympathy, and, why not, even solidarity with these entities, both human and nonhuman, who are risking their lives for all of us on the front lines of environmental struggles.

CL: That image is very powerful. Its (literal) viscerality makes it very effective. It immediately triggers a corporal reaction. I believe that healing happens through images as well. On the other hand, it is a comprehensive process. As Tobie Nathan says, what is healed are “disorders,” [9] not illnesses located in one organ or another. What is healed is embedded in a community, an ecosystem, a network of relationships that involve the human and the nonhuman. This is where the division between nature and culture clearly reaches a crisis.

CC: I have also explored this feeling of being constricted in Más Allá del Control (2015-2017), an action designed for a gallery or an interior space, where the public is pushed towards a corner and kept there for as long as possible. When the people begin to try to break free, two cases of recent murders of environmental fighters are mentioned aloud: their name, their age, their location, their struggle, the place and manner in which they were murdered, and the perpetrators, if they are known. Immediately, the feeling of being cornered and the ensuing indignation vanish, and a collective body forms from the anger and pain of hearing about these injustices. Every year, the number of murdered activist rises. Environmentalists have become capitalism’s main enemies. This violence has deeply affected the Ríos Vivos movement and other movements for the protection of water in Latin America. The threats are real and there have already been several losses. It is this colonial landscape of death that continues to unfold around women, indigenous peoples, farmers, refugees, and others.

CL: Around a year ago I attended a symposium in Norway called “Museums on Fire.” There where pretty heated debates about indigenous art and how it enters and lives in museums. When decolonization was mentioned, certain people understood it as a return to the period before colonization. There was also a point when someone said that the Inuit’s access to master’s and PhD programs should be facilitated so that they could speak at symposia such as this one. To me, the answer was there: what needed to be decolonized or radically changed was the symposium so that not only people validated by Western educational institutions could have the floor. Decolonization means transforming institutions until they can no longer be recognized as the tools of hegemonic and homogenizing power.

CC: Many people think of decolonization as a process that has already taken place. But colonization remains a monstrous and changing wound. This is why it is so important to discuss the conditions, the development, and the consequences of socio-environmental issues linked to armed conflicts. In this sense, nature—both land and the bodies of men and women—has been made more and more visible as the scene, booty, and victim of the war. In Ríos Vivos, we work on constructing a popular historical environmental memory, collected and recounted by those who have been affected. The aim is to strengthen the defense of these territories and to acquire knowledge about the Colombian conflict and how it impacts human and nonhuman nature. The aim is also to develop documentation of facts that render the truth visible; this is a fundamental condition to avoid repeated destruction and to create a debate in order to think about the future as part of the biodiversity that we are. [10] We urgently need to find other genealogies of thought and action, without forgetting the input of people like Colombian indigenous leader Kimy Pernía Domicó, Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres, or environmentalist Sandra Viviana Cuellar, who went missing in 2011. It would be incredible to be able to include a genealogy of resistance in education programs. This would be one of many possible starting points for the decolonization and the transformation of institutions.

[1] Catalina Lozano, The Cure (Askeaton: A.C.A. Public, 2018).

[2] When I say “we,” I am referring here to the westernized bodies that we recognize as mestizo, POC (people of color, brown bodies).

[3] Maria Ovidia Palenchor Anacona, interviewed by Antonio Morales Riveira in Nación Indígena, directed by Antonio Morales Riveira, INCODER-Corporación Latinoamericana Misión Rural, 2014.

[4] The Laguna Pueblo is a tribe of Native American Pueblo people located in west-central New Mexico.

[5] Narco-paraca refers to a combination of drug-trafficking and paramilitary culture.

[6] Tweet retrieved on March 31, 2018.

[7] I was introduced to the concept of art extractivism by a friend at Ríos Vivos. In the art world, this practice is also called being a helicopter artist: the artist who lands in a community-territory, extracts images and information, and leaves without giving anything in return or ever coming back. One of the things I am reflecting upon is how to distribute the money raised by the Cosmotarrayas series. I do not want to repeat the formula in which companies compensate only certain families (those who provide the network) with money, because this often creates tensions within the community. For now, we are paying for the transportation of around 80 members of Ríos Vivos to the Encuentro Nacional de Afectados por Represas [National Meeting for People Affected by Dams], which will take place in June 2018 in Barrancabermeja, Colombia.

[8] For more information on the El Cercado dam, see Margarita Granados, Enyel Rodríguez, Luisa Rodríguez, and Sandra Teheran, “Represa del río Ranchería: falsas promesas de desarrollo” CINEP/PPP, no. 75 (2012), 32-35.

[9] Tobie Nathan, “Les bienfaits des thérapies sauvages,” in Médecins et sorcieries, eds. Tobie Nathan & Isabelle Stengers (Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2012).

[10] Presentation of the Foro de Memoria Histórica Ambiental Popular [Forum for Popular Historical Environmental Memory], which took place in Bucaramanga on September 28 and 29, 2017. Consulted on April 10, 2018: http://censat.org/es/noticias/foro-memoria-historica-ambiental-popular


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