The video above is “Werken”, an installation by Bernardo Oyarzun in the Chilean Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. It consists of 1500 masks made by 40 artisans from the country’s Mapuche indigenous group, Chile’s largest.
If you’re not familiar with the Mapuche, a bit of background:
From the outset of colonization, the Mapuche lead the strongest resistance to the invading Spanish conquistadors. In their native Mapudungun, ‘Mapuche’ means ‘people of the earth’, or of ‘the land’. And they’ve fought for it fiercely.
They and their territory, known as Wallmapu which stretches to both sides of the Andes in Chile and Argentina, weren’t conquered until the 1880s, a conquest –mainly by Chile– which resulted in the loss of their ancestral lands, a mass relocation and a decimation of the population. Some scholars estimate that the Mapuche population shrunk from about half a million in the early 1880s to about 25,000 over the course of a generation.
Resistance continued over the next century as have struggles for land. Their ancestral territory was eventually overtaken by commercial logging and grazing interests. Later, Augusto Pinochet, who was installed as president after a 1973 US-backed coup, privatized the lands and handed them to multi-national forestry companies. During the years of the dictatorship, Mapuche lands, which they had occupied for more than 2000 years, were reduced further from some 10 million hectares to about 400,000.
When the Pinochet dictatorship ended and the transition to democracy began in 1990, the conflict resurfaced, centered primarily on land rights and reform, by far the Mapuche’s key demand. Frustrations with the sluggish pace of reform by the Bachelet government have led to direct action. To deal with some of those conflicts, antiquated anti-terrorism statutes put in place by Pinochet are being used to detain and jail Mapuche activists. The resistance than began nearly 500 years ago won’t be ending any time soon.
Today, about 1.5 million Chileans identify as Mapuche, about 10 percent of the population. About 200,000 live in Argentina.
Back to “Werken”.
In Mapudungun, it means “messenger”; in this case the message that its creator Bernardo Oyarzun is sharing is that the Mapuche, despite their struggles and humiliation, are here to stay. As evidence, the walls surrounding the central installation include LED representations of 6,906 Mapuche surnames which have survived despite efforts, first by the colonizing Spanish and later by the state, to erase them.
In an interview with Chilean curator and art historian Carolina Castro Jorquera in The Miami Rail, Oyarzun explains:
In order to know what it’s about, I think it’s important for me to tell you how Werken began. [Curator] Ticio Escobar extended an invitation to me to do a project specifically for the Chilean Pavilion in the Venice Biennale about “the Mapuche question,” as he called it. After that, he sent me a very beautiful curatorial excerpt that put me in check—I felt I had to accept the invitation. I began to imagine a piece. I started to look for the Mapuche imaginaries with which I’d already worked, for example, with the curator Beatriz Bustos for the project Souvenir, where I made totems of color. In this search I came to the kollong (masks), which have a theatrical and ceremonial use, and I sent Ticio a sketch. At first I proposed to work with Mapuche surnames—this has a very relevant connotation for me, from a territorial perspective. I think that these surnames are bastions of the Mapuche territory as toponymy, even though the erasure of many of them and the transformation of others has led to the survival of around seven thousand surnames of Mapuche origin. But the toponymy has maintained itself almost intact in its indigenous denomination—I find this significant.
In relation to Werken, the visualization of Mapuche surnames has two readings. On the one hand, they are a historical projection of the weichafe (warrior), illustrated for the first time in Ercilla’s [16th Century epic poem] La Araucana, that display the heroes and martyrs of Mapuche history—that are projected even into our own times, above all, if we think about the permanent state of conflict [of the Mapuches] with the Chilean State. In light of this conflict, Mapuche surnames become part of an imaginary of resistance and struggle. The second reading is more literary, more like a fable; It refers to the werken, or messenger, the one who can change things with poetry and who travels with the word, wisdom, memory, and patience.
These two visions of the Mapuche subject are the key to the masks; they open a path for the work that finally becomes Werken. Superficially, and with a bit of irony, it’s interesting to imagine these indigenous masks in the dance of the Venetian masks, which represents something quite different.
It’s a fascinating, wide-ranging interview in which Oyarzun, himself a Mapuche, also explains the horizontal –as opposed to hierarchical — nature of Mapuche social organization. And why he came to find out about his Mapuche heritage much later in life:
There is a great tendency here, in Chile, to talk about the European colonizer-ancestors, but not about the indigenous ancestors. The mechanisms used by the State in all of Latin America to make invisible the indigenous world have been relegating the matter to the margin, making it something undesirable and disconnected from the cultural processes; there is no access from any direction, and so it doesn’t exist, just as it didn’t exist in my family for a long time.
I’m familiar enough with the way the Mapuche “issue” is being addressed in Chile to have been at least a little surprised when I saw it as the country’s official entry for the Biennale. Oyarzun seems to agree. In the interview, he concludes:
I think that, today, there is an opening move in the western world to understand and open itself to indigenous knowledge. I think that it has to do with the times we live in, with a certain urgency. In some way in my work, in some more than others, I am taking on the existence of a cultural reality, a different relation to the universe, and the need to bring to light that knowledge and share it. As you say, Werken is a work that has surprised people by addressing those issues, and to me it seems a sign that it’s been chosen to represent Chile, considering the complexity involved in taking on these issues nationally; it is also surprising the way in which, nowadays, this will be shown at the Venice Biennale. Everything seems to me a great innovation with positive outcomes for the image of Chile and, even, Latin America.
At the Venice Biennale’s Arsenale venue through 26 November.