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On Cecelia Vicuña’s “El Quipu Menstrual” (Jeni Rinner)

October 26, 2009

On the whole, I like to think of myself as politically informed, especially about environmental issues. I read newspapers and blogs and listen to NPR; I try to ask the right questions of politicians before I check the square next to their name on the ballot.  But save one brief march just after the Iraq war broke out, that interest has never strayed toward activism.

This month, however, I’ve found the question of “so now what?” is often present and lingering about the edges of the ecological texts we’ve encountered in class.  It’s difficult to read the moving account of Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge without asking myself what I should do to be involved in the issue of nuclear testing or nuclear disarmament.  In attempting to answer this question, I’ve found myself most drawn toward artists who take a political stance in their art – or is it that their art cannot matter unless it reflects their personal politics?

One artist who seems to be answering the question of “so now what?” in an important way is Cecelia Vicuña.  Cecelia is a Chilean performance poet and artist who I was lucky to work with at the University of Denver.  She taught classes on Latin American poetry and art that exhibited that rare combination of love for the subject and a dazzling understanding of it as well.  In her own work she used  many of the traditions of the Mapuche, the indigenous people in Chile, to explore contemporary issues. Many of her more recent art projects have used the quipu, a system of recording and storytelling using knots in rope.

On his blog, Poet Michael Leong has a wonderful survey of an a recent performance by Cecelia called “A Tongue Within Tongues” at Rutgers University, where she is the visiting artist for the year.  His photographs of her exhibit “Water Writing” also seem to capture the range of her visual poetics and exhibition art.  Cecelia is unforgettable to watch in person, a performer with the ability to capture the attention of a room of people and eloquently ask questions of them that matter.

Although much of her art and poetry touches on environmental themes, her most recent exhibit in Chile titled “El Quipu Menstrual” seems to draw together her talent for activism, performance, and poetry.  The piece uses quipu of “blood colored fleece” to assert the Chilean glaciers as the lifeblood – the menstrual blood – of Chile and its people.

In the past century, mining projects in Chile have threatened the country’s massive glaciers, a major source of fresh water and an important water source in the lives of the indigenous people of the region.  In her 2006 letter to Michelle Bachelet, the recently elected president of Chile, Cecelia says “The life of each one of these farmers and shepherds, the well-being of these valleys, our cultural heritage is far more precious than the billions that Barrick Gold promises to pay Chile to extract the gold and destroy the glaciers.”  Although the National Glacier Policy was passed and approved in 2007, a recent report by scientist Alexander Brenning suggests that the current policy is insufficient, according to a Barrick Gold watchdog group.

From "El Quipu Menstrual," Cecelia Vicuña

From "El Quipu Menstrual," Cecelia Vicuña

Please watch the video from the exhibit to see the power of the piece; in it, Cecelia sings and unfurls the red quipu, whispering “gracias” against the sound of the wind hitting the microphone.  The red cords that tie people together during her public street performances are also used to mark the site of the El Plomo glacier with unspun fabric of dripping “menstrual blood.”  These quipu seem to be a warning sign that Cecelia uses to emphasize the connection between people, carrying both celebration of the feminine and a signal of loss.

A Menstrual Quipu,” from the exhibit by Cecelia Vicuña

“(from a letter to Michelle Bachelet)

On election day
I climbed the mountain
to make an offering:

A menstrual quipu.

I climbed the condor’s shadow
spinning a solar thread.


(it said)
The union of water
and blood.”

‘The glacier’s thirst.'”

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