Universal Indigenousness: The Work of Bernardo Oyarzún
Mapuche artist Bernardo Oyarzún is currently considered one of Chile’s most influential artists. His work was catapulted at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Still, his artistic career spans 30 years and an exciting series of creations that address criticisms of racism and colonialism, ethnic claims, and political questioning.
By Marcela Vallejo
“When I was a child, they used to call me Negro Curiche,” says Chilean visual artist Bernardo Oyarzún. Curiche is a Mapuche word that means black people; saying Negro Curiche was a redundancy. That was the most repeated nickname. But there were others, and the reference to Bernardo’s skin color or features was constant. As he grew older, it manifested itself in other ways. He was regularly stopped by the police and searched. When he entered university, no one believed he was a student. Some thought he had forged his transportation pass to pay less.
Racism, which underlies these stories, has marked his life. He grew up in a poor neighborhood of Santiago from a mixed-race family; his grandmother was Mapuche, and his parents grew up in the countryside. He studied plastic arts with everything against him: his origin, skin color, and “scarce” cultural capital. He graduated thinking he was not suitable for art, and for several years he worked in graphics and as an assistant to Gonzalo Diaz, a significant artist.
When he was 35 years old, he experienced another racist event: some policemen arrested him on suspicion of a crime. Although quickly acquitted, the event marked him: it generated panic, led him to psychological therapy, and started a path of artistic creation that never stopped. After what happened, he made Bajo Sospecha, which put him on Chile’s contemporary art map.
After almost 30 years of artistic career, Bernardo Oyarzun is considered one of the essential artists in Chile. His work is critical. He questions the colonial system in which we live. He does it from the most obvious, which is how he looks, but also from relationships that we establish with the environment that seem less explicit. It reaffirms the universality of indigenous and mestizo bodies. It vindicates the Mapuche history, its effervescent presence throughout the country, and the indigenous future that could allow us to live well in this world.
Bajo Sospecha (1998)
Your recognition as an artist came with the work Bajo Sospecha (1998), which was born from a very shocking event but simultaneously a catalyst for creation.
Yes, in 1997, something very relevant happened, and the police arrested me. It was not something rare, it occurred to me many times when I was a teenager, but at that time, I was already 35 years old or something like that. I was on some errands at work, and I was arrested as a suspect in a crime that had been committed nearby. That situation triggered several biological phenomena because it activated a panic crisis in me. I was in psychological therapy. That was very conclusive because, in the treatment with psychologists, I began to put together the play Bajo Sospecha, which was the initiation, let’s say, into the authorial world and the beginning of a body of work.
After that, I never stopped, always involved in many projects. That event had to happen to encourage or break with a circle of work that kept me quiet. I come from a very poor popular background, and my cultural capital was deficient, so my time at the university was also traumatic. I graduated with the feeling that I wasn’t suitable for this. I felt I didn’t have enough training.
So Bajo Sospecha also has another relevant thing: it was an act of rebellion against the Academy. I left the university half frustrated, thinking that I was a guy with no intellectual skills. When I studied, it was a super theoretical time in every sense, they translated a lot of theoreticians, and when I read them, I didn’t understand anything. Under suspicion was a rebellion because I developed a straightforward work without any theoretical fuss, no metaphors, and no analogical displacements. There were attempts to label it as pamphletary, but you can’t say that when you see it.
Bajo Sospecha has an implicit questioning of racism. The event with the police was racist. Do you think the work was uncomfortable for mainstream art at that time?
Yes, it generated discomfort because the work was also next to me. It is a bizarre analogy what I am going to say. Still, it is a very biological work because it is very pressured by my biography, with everything that happens to me. It is not dramatic either; it is somewhat complex and direct. When I exhibited it, there were 15 people at the opening, and it went unnoticed for several years until it exploded. Its moment of glory was even until now when I went to Venice in 2017 when it was bought by the Fine Arts Museum, which is like the temple of Chilean hegemonic art.
That silence was intentional because the scene tried to crush and displace me. It was with direct insults; for example, in 2002, an art personage said I was “spicy” -ordinary, popular- but with good taste. Deep down, he saw the intention of insulting me, but at the same time, he saw that I had made a good analysis of the work because, if you want to look at it in a classist way, I was indeed a “spicy,” but I installed a work, as he said, with style.
Territorio Mapuche (2009).
The theme of racism, which begins in Bajo Sospecha, continues to appear in works such as Cosmética (2008). How did you think of that work?
That work is similar to Bajo Sospecha because it also starts from an anecdote; I wouldn’t define it as traumatic but as a shameful event.
In 2006 I was invited to the First Biennial of Indigenous Art. It gave me a bad feeling because there were a lot of colorful flags and a lot of paraphernalia, I don’t know, all very superficial. There were a lot of handicrafts, of what you can get at a craft fair, but you could not see the forcefulness of the indigenous world. In territorial terms, it was not well done either, there were only Chilean artists, and I told them there are Mapuches in Argentina and Aymaras in Bolivia; you can’t fail to invite the Guarani. Well, everything was badly done, and in the middle of the setup, a girl told me you are the ugliest, so you are Bernardo Oyarzun, she told me just like that, and I was with two other friends riding. I thought it was disrespectful, and I withdrew from the Biennial.
Then I decided to make Cosmética, where I have become a sort of model from this matrix of the undesirable, of the ugly. So I worked from photos from blogs of models, and beautiful men, where they were sold as a kind of product, and I copied those same poses of the body and replicated that idea of the product in the background. Obviously, with Photoshop, I put on blue eyes, white skin, and blond hair, and I tried to talk about that fantasy that denial has and how absurd it can be. That is to say; many analyses can be made that all go through the denial of identity.
“In Chile, the denial of skin, hair, face, and body is brutal and is reinforced by all media systems. Chile must be the most denied country; they sell you an advertisement aimed at the most popular population, indigenous and mestizo, yet, the ad is full of blond guys. What is projected is shameful: to think that this is a whiter country than or less indigenous than it is.”
But there’s a denial and a reaffirmation there simultaneously, right?
No, I saw it more as a critical exercise. I always tell the anecdote as part of the story to emphasize issues that go even through natural language and that do not escape any context, in this case, not even an artistic context.
In Chile, for example, the denial of skin, hair, face, features, and body is brutal and is reinforced by all media systems. Chile must be perhaps the most denied country because they sell you an advertisement directed to the most popular population, indigenous and mestizo, and yet, the ad is full of blond guys. It looks like we are in a Nordic country. What is ultimately projected by the media is something shameful, and that is to think that this is a whiter country than it is or less indigenous than it is.
That brings me to work Proporciones del Cuerpo (2002); in that work, you play at being the universal by becoming the Vitruvian man. Your body as universal.
You are asking me about pretty iconographic works. That work, for example, is the beginning of a series of works that question the colonizing canon. I did many pieces and continue to do it with the idea of asking the canon. I started precisely with the vindication of the indigenous body, or the mestizo body in my case, because I was the canon of that body. Of course, one was curious; I wanted to know if my body fit perfectly within the square and the circle.
So that’s what it is for me: on the one hand, to question the canon, and on the other, to install a new canon. Besides, this work is presented as a diptych; on one side, that Vitruvian man, but indigenous, and on the other side, there are a lot of nicknames that I was called when I was a child, and that had to do with this indigenous aspect. Some are very creative, some make me laugh, and others remind me of the feeling they generate in me. It was bullying.
Together they have that bizarre thing of the mestizo population, which sometimes denies itself, as we have been talking about, and in a very cruel way. The play plays with those two components to propose a new canon. That is to say, that we are indeed from here and that this is valid, and on the other hand, all the denials that exist concerning that. In other words, there are two things: what prevents you from understanding this and the proof that it is possible and real. This diptych is called Negro Curiche and is part of a larger project called Proporciones de Cuerpo.
Negro Curiche (2002).
After those works, you didn’t do anything else that included your body?
There is another photo performance, Tierra del Fuego (2001), in which I appear naked, shooting an arrow. This work talks about anthropological photomontages. It speaks of the historical lie, of the falsehood that this discourse can have. Something that is commonly denied is that, in many cases, these studies have a performative character to raise a particular discourse. The original photo is by Martín Gusinde. He and De Agostini were two Salesian priests with anthropological knowledge. They were also photographers and filmmakers. They were sent to Chilean Patagonia and tried to rescue the last Selk’nam, who were exterminated by the great colonizers of Tierra del Fuego.
These two priests tried to save the survivors and took them to an island, where they finally died from diseases that the same priests transmitted to them. Gusinde arrived practically in the Apocalypse of that town, but he wanted images and records in a desperate attempt at cultural rescue. What he did was to ask them to undress and recreate scenes of their daily life before the extermination. Paradoxically, the only images we have of them are those performances that we read as accurate.
That’s what I’m talking about, this lie that is raised in many aspects at historical and cultural levels. In the end, what they generate is contamination on the one hand, and on the other hand, we are once again questioning reality. Reality is less than what seems true or what we think is genuine.
They are narratives that create specific imaginaries. The cruelest, perhaps, is the idea of the inevitability of history.
Of course. The concept is much broader. The Chilean state created the imagination of the indigenous people and continues to do so. Today, for example, the image it raises is even coarser because, at a political level, Chile has been in an eternal war with the Mapuche people. So, for example, with actual deaths and fiction raised in the last decades, the idea that “the Mapuche are terrorists and that they burn trucks and forests” is maintained. It is an arrogant lie. This year we were full of fires in the center-south zone of Chile; they no longer dare to say that they are intentional and terrorist fires, but nobody talks, for example, that the atmospheric relative humidity and the relative humidity of the soil have changed due to monocultures, this is full of pine and eucalyptus, that is, Chile in the center-south zone has dried up.
Tierra del Fuego (2000)
There is in your works a search to question hegemonic and colonial models but also to reaffirm an identity. You began to talk about your Mapuche roots several years ago and to vindicate that heritage. Why did you choose art to do so?
I would say that the ultimate goal is to try to somehow undermine the system. Art does fundamentally revolutionize society. Obviously, there will be no more evolution if there is no more cultural activity. One also has those lofty dreams, if you will, but one has the dream of trying to produce changes, of creating a small revolution. I am talking about avant-garde contemporary art, which is constantly questioning the systems, which are questioning its institutionality.
The road is not easy. In the beginning, I didn’t have such a clear idea, but I did have a conviction that was closely linked to my social and ethnic context. I always had it because society made me aware of it, and I was convinced to try to fight against all those aggressions, against everything that was unfair. I lived all the time in that context. I lived the injustice of the pension system with my father. I saw how my father was worn out biologically and noticed the decadence of fundamental issues at the cultural level; I saw how migrants in Santiago faded from their origin and were getting into the production machine.
I was motivated to have that awareness and that ability to analyze the context, to live in a geographical space. And then to be convinced that I could do it against everything. Because when you do this kind of art, they don’t buy your work; you have to have other jobs to be able to survive.
“In the indigenous world, the community is everything that surrounds us: the water, the trees, the wind, the insects, the birds, the people, everything is part of the community. The Mapuche world has two fundamental axes: the first axis is toponymic, that is, naturally, the whole landscape; and the other axis is the ancestors, the lineage.”
Something you have mentioned that helped position your work, and your career in your own country has been participating in festivals and biennials abroad. Undoubtedly, the most famous of those participations was at the Venice Biennale in 2017. The work you presented was Werken, an installation of 1000 Kollong, ritual masks surrounded by a series of Mapuche surnames that surround the building. It is a different work from the ones we discussed and much more representative of what you are doing now. What is Werken about?
With Ticio Escobar, the great Paraguayan theoretician who has worked on indigenous and popular art, we won the competition to represent Chile in the Biennial. The work was a big gamble in a country that has historically rejected its indigenous past and present and denies the Mapuche. Well, against all that we went, we competed and won.
Werken is formally a very analogical displacement of Mapuche rituality. I was inspired by Mapuche rituals where there is dance, where they tend to make a geometric shape, so they dance around the Rewe, which is like the altar as the pure place where offerings are placed to the earth. Werken is a character of the Mapuche community, which has many political capacities: he is a herald, he is the envoy of the chief of the community, he is the one who carries the message and has the gift of the word, is a great political analyst, and is the advisor of the lonko, the chief of the community.
The work has in the center 1000 Kollong, which is the name of a mystical entity that protects the shaman in the rituals. In ancient times no one knew who this person was, but he appeared in the ritual with a mask. They are very expressive and powerful masks that provoke a little fear. Their function is essential because they protect the shaman when he is in a trance in the metaphysical world and the material world. In work, the role of the masks is as the community, but at the same time, they are the protectors of the work itself. On the walls surrounding the masks, there is a led ribbon on which appear all the surnames that exist today, which have passed through the civil registry and are therefore ratified by the state. These surnames move perimetrically, at the same speed as in the ritual dance, and each one is a community character. So you see the community dancing around itself.
How was the work done?
The work was commissioned to Mapuche artists between Santiago and Puerto Montt, extending more or less a thousand kilometers. I collected these masks and took them to Venice to assemble the work. I visited around 20 communities.
The work is like a great snapshot of what has happened in Chile, especially in the big cities and Santiago. Many of Santiago’s peripheral populations are made up of indigenous migrants who have built up their communities. Although they are very different from the original ones because they unite people from many places, they have organized themselves to activate their ancestral rituals. You arrive, and there are communities with their Ruca, an indigenous house, and I participated in one of those communities. The lonko of that community came from the south and contacted me with several communities in the south. He gave me a passport, an indigenous visa with the power of the word, to visit them.
You say Werken was a great snapshot of the situation of the Mapuche people. Migration to the cities and life in them is one of the situations, but what else do you mean?
I also refer to what we saw in the social explosion when the Mapuche flag appeared. That has to do with a cultural explosion, a kind of Mapuche cultural revolution in the cities. That is to say, many young people identify themselves with the Mapuche and make it visible.
But also what happened there was a fascinating phenomenon. The grandchildren of these first migrants, those who created the slums for five decades in the last century, awakened a dormant memory. Their grandparents went to work as builders and domestic servants. The grandchildren of these people activated that memory and began to strengthen these communities. Santiago is complete. I estimate that at least 200 communities in Santiago meet, celebrate rituals and festivities, and speak their language.
Pájaros en la cabeza (2022)
Pájaros en la cabeza (2022)
This work shows the relationship you are talking about with the environment. And there is another one that I think is important to mention: Pájaros en la Cabeza (2022), another installation.
This work is based on something I saw in New Zealand in 2016. I was in residence, and one day, in a newspaper, I noticed that the Maori were carrying birds in an ancient boat, in the middle of a ritual, in a cage, to inhabit with birds some islands of the archipelago that had no birds. It seemed to me something very poetic and beautiful, but at the same time, it made me uncomfortable, and I began to ask myself many questions. It seemed to me that there was a great paradox because birds are like inhabitants of the whole planet; they are great migrators and make continental trips. In other words, going to an island a few kilometers away didn’t cost them anything.
I began to relate all this to these initiatives that humanity is doing to try to correct some ecological disasters, but which, in most cases, produce more problems than solutions. For me, it was another paradox that occurs with these ecological repairs or when trying to manipulate nature.
All this generated an immediate image for me, and I made a model. I worked more on the idea and came up with this proposal, a journey in harmony with the birds. It is like a promising horizon, with some hope rooted in the indigenous world. That comes from conversations I have had with a shaman friend. One day we were talking about what a community is. In the indigenous world, the community is everything that surrounds us: the water, the trees, the wind, the insects, the birds, the people, everything is part of the community. In the Mapuche world, it has two fundamental axes: the first axis is toponymic, that is, nature, the whole landscape; and the other axis is the ancestors, the lineage.
I intended to project it as a kind of formula thinking of a journey into the future. We are subjected to colonial ideologies. But there are, there are, there have been other ways of organizing. What is in Pájaros en la Cabeza is a pleasant journey with nature based on this concept of community. Saying: watch out, you travel in this way where you are horizontally linked with everything else; you are not the owner of nature.