After experiencing your MCA Artbar work, I asked if you were Amerindian? You said that you don’t claim this status but are of mixed descent (mestizo). In Australia the term half-caste is taken as an insult. Can you explain how being mestizo works in Colombia?
Most of Hispanic Latin America is populated by a mestizo race and it is a mestizo culture, which is a mixture of Spanish, Indigenous and African races and cultures. The three cultures mixed in different ratios in different regions of the continent, which has generated great cultural and racial diversity. Colombia, where I am from, is one of the most culturally diverse places I know. We have many unique Indigenous communities, black communities, and an incredible array of all other mestizo mixtures, each with their own regional idiosyncrasies that have produced their own character, music, food, differences in speech patterns, even different personality traits and values.
That mixture of cultures and races is what makes our culture vibrant. There is pain and violence in that history, but there are great strengths too. There is a lot of ingenuity in cultures that survive and adapt to change. This is expressed in daily life, which is intensely rich and textured. I have in me without doubt Indigenous blood, even though the direct memory of it has been lost. Our colonisation started much earlier than yours here in Australia, so we have had over 500 years to mix and remix cultures and races. In Colombia I have never met anyone who has claimed to be of pure Spanish descent. At school, we were told that we (all of us) came from the Indigenous people who cultivated corn and potatoes, made beautiful gold artworks and invented pottery.
These artworks, displayed at the Gold Museum or Archaeological Museums, were part of our heritage and our collective identity. But there are also living Indigenous traditions that go back to a pre-Hispanic past. For example, we still use totumas (gourds) in our homes to pour water, or to hold candy or salt. That’s pre-Columbian tradition, and it’s a practice still alive, even though few have made that connection to our Indigenous past, as it is so ubiquitous. That’s my identity. I have always found it curious that, in general, Colombians think of ourselves as being there before the Spanish came and conquered us. Mestizaje is a form of survival, a way for a race and culture to stay alive despite colonisation. It is a profoundly subversive and positive thing.
Your former work on insect voices (in copulation, calling, and seducing) had an almost totemic familiarity. Does this background explain the references in your art to natural species, their sex lives and other interesting ‘‘action features’’?
Yes, definitely. For the MCA ArtBar I commissioned Gary Warner to make a three-channel soundscape, which consisted of mating calls from land animals, air animals, and water animals. I am very aware that we humans have evolved with many other species and that it is only in the last couple of hundreds of years that we have separated ourselves from them. I am aware that silence doesn’t exist where there is life, and I wanted to make audible many different animal ‘‘conversations’’ that surround us. Any Indigenous community in the world knows their environment very well.
Indigenous peoples have observed animals and plants over so long that myths and stories that are told describe them as natural and cultural phenomena, mixing human, plant and animal cultures, as it should be. I grew up reading a lot of indigenous myths connected to the local landscape and to the local creatures. Those mythical animals were my friends, and were also represented in the art of all the Indigenous cultures that previously inhabited the area where I grew up. I feel very connected to my homeland and to the Indigenous cultures that used to inhabit it.
Have you interacted with Australian Aboriginal artists and have you been influenced by these relationships? Do you feel any affinity with them?
Not enough! Australian Aboriginal art has fascinated me since I came to Australia, even if I don’t understand it. It is so unique. I can deduct a few things from their art, like the intimacy they have with their landscape and animals. For example, in skeleton paintings, they describe animals from within. I have never seen that done anywhere else. I see the knowledge of the hunter: they ate the animals they described, and that’s why they know their insides; but they also respected them and had a richly complex relationship with them.
As in all Indigenous cultures, animals are part of human culture. I would love to one day learn more about the representation of genitalia in Australian Aboriginal art, which would complement and add to my project the Museum of Copulatory Organs (ongoing). Some years ago, I had the opportunity to go camping with a group of Aboriginal women artists, the Tjanpi Desert Weavers. We went from sacred site to sacred site and stories were remembered and told and danced.
I also had the privilege to attend a Law and Culture gathering with them. I have never seen anything so raw and ancient. It was a profound experience. The outcome of that experience was a show which toured under the name Kuru Alala, organised by Virginia Rigney from the Gold Coast City Gallery and by Jo Foster from Tjanpi Weavers. I still miss that experience and wonder if I will ever be able to do something like that again. I know how exceptional it was to have had a direct glimpse into such an ancient culture.
Do you think that, within the international art scene, there is an idea of an international Indigeneity?
A little, but it’s very limited. There are a few great examples that might be exhibited in mainstream institutions, but not enough of them. Making matters worse, as you suggested, world cultures are so diverse that how do you define aboriginality in the context of globalisation? Is it similar? Is it different? How does the public arena get shared between so many societies?
Maria Fernanda Cardoso was born in Colombia and currently lives in Sydney. She represented Colombia at the Venice Biennale in 2003 and is included in the forthcoming exhibition, Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America, opening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 20 November 2015