Reviewed by Christopher Michno
Plunder Me, Baby—sounds like an invitation, but an invitation to what? There’s irony aplenty in that title and it leaves a sickening aftertaste, as it’s meant. Kukuli Velarde’s trenchant and caustically humorous ceramic sculptures fix within their sights the conquest—both cultural and corporeal—of Latin America. This widely exhibited series, now in a PST: LA/LA exhibition at the American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA), is fashioned after traditional pre-Columbian ceramic objects, but Velarde, who brings a distinctive lens to themes of identity and cultural appropriation, creates each object as a kind of self portrait. Each sculpture bears her visage and expresses a reaction to the realities of conquest: defiance, anger, mockery, subversion, and the like.
Alongside Velarde’s ceramic sculpture are three of her videos, a painting and a number of pre-Columbian ceramic objects, which were loaned to AMOCA for this exhibition by an anonymous private collector. The pre-Columbian pieces contextualize Velarde’s ceramic work, providing examples of the forms that Velarde references; Velarde’s work in turn problematizes how the objects from this collection are viewed within the museum context.
Velarde’s inspiration for the Plunder Me, Baby series comes from an incident she recalls from childhood. Observing a band of street performers in the city of Cusco, she asked her nanny to translate. The nanny’s retort, that she didn’t understand Quechua, the indigenous language of the troupe, reflects an internalized self-detachment linked to centuries of colonialism. Velarde’s work here is enriched by the extended narrative contextualizing her art; whether an initial spark that resulted in a body of work or a retrospective elaboration of her own process, it roots her work in personal experience and within a critical framework. As noted in her statement, she envisions her ceramic objects as artifacts that have awakened in captivity, bewildered by their confinement in a (foreign) museum.
These themes of physical, cultural and familial displacements are at the core of her work. Velarde approaches identity as something that is shifting and contingent—though she is adamant in her outrage and defiance in the face of the conquest and the insidious racism based on physical characteristics that are considered “indigenous.” She accompanies this simmering irony with generous portions of mischievous and incisive humor.
The self portraits of Plunder Me, Baby identify Velarde with her indigenous lineage and a language from which she has been displaced. Titles in Quechua and Spanish express a slur and pronounce a patronizing editorial aside spoken from the point of view of the conquering culture: Chola Puteadora, Grabby!! Need to be put on her place… Métale mano, (2007). Velarde, however, gives her objects power to confound this subjection through various means: the figure in Najallota Insolente, Playfully disobedient. Does not believe in hierarchies, la hija de la gran… (2006) insolently sticks out her tongue.
The private collection of pre-Columbian objects on view alongside Velarde’s sculptures aptly demonstrate the inspiration for her work, but they also bring into sharp relief the questions of cultural appropriation posed by Velarde’s Plunder Me, Baby series. While the museum indicates that there are no specific concerns about the collection’s provenance, the exhibition’s curator, AMOCA Executive Director Beth Ann Gerstein, acknowledged that the antiquities trade is difficult to regulate and is marked by private sales, a lack of record-keeping and unverifiable sourcing and ownership history. Velarde’s commentary on the catalogue and display of plunder problematizes how we view the private collection with which her objects are paired. The viewer is left to wonder about its history, which is never confronted in any of the museum’s didactic materials on display. Not to engage in a critical discussion of the issues surrounding the acquisition of ancient objects is a missed opportunity, especially when situated within an exhibit that so explicitly takes up the subject of plunder.
Two of Velarde’s three videos on view in the exhibition explore the artist’s complicated relationship with her parents, addressing how, early in life, personal identity can converge with, and later, diverge from parental aspirations for their children. In La Niña de sus Ojos – The Apple of his Eyes (2003) Velarde reveals that her relationship with her father was fraught with ambivalence. She describes it as encompassing emotions ranging from pity, anguish, fear, contempt, and resentment to love, admiration, gratitude and hope—presumably for a better relationship with her father.
The anguished state of her feelings about her father—our parents being the ones who influence our earliest and some of our deepest sense of self—is matched by his disappointment over her departing Peru (she left for New York in 1988 and now lives in Philadelphia). Various sequences convey the sense that her parents never fully understood her need to be an artist, or later, her choice to leave Peru, as if that choice were a literal and figurative rejection of the motherland.
Eventually, one’s conversation with parents is attenuated by death, and Velarde’s conflicted feelings play out again in her video Sonqollay (2004-2005). Velarde and her sister, Vida, conjure their father’s presence as they smoke his favored brand of cigarettes. Velarde’s historical reference point here appears to be Frida Kahlo, who practiced a kind of painting that was symbolic, personal and intensely feminist and that appealed to the indigenous identities within Mexico. Visually, Sonqollay resembles Kahlo’s 1939 painting, Las dos Fridas. The two sisters sit side by side smoking cigarettes in a darkened room. Their long skirts resemble the ones in Kahlo’s painting, with a white and red floral pattern on the left, and a dark apron covering a light colored skirt on the right. As the room fills with smoke, the video increasingly resembles the cloud filled sky of Las dos Fridas, and her father’s face fades in and out of the smoky atmosphere. Kahlo’s painting has been variously interpreted—by some as representing her European and indigenous heritages, though, whether Velarde intends to invoke this interpretation is ambiguous.
The sole example of Velarde’s painting is Your Turtupilin (2008), which again features Velarde as the central figure. The painting explores a practice, originating in a village along the southern coast of Peru, used by women to attract a lover. It leaves one wishing for more examples of her painting, which like her ceramic work explores the overlap of personal narrative, identity and culture.
Featured Image: “India Patarrajada. She will do all the acrobacies the Master orders, pero no esperes que te quieramucho…”
Christopher Michno is a Los Angeles area art writer and the Associate Editor of Artillery. Mr. Michno’s work has appeared in KCET’s Artbound, the LA Weekly, ICON, and numerous other publications. He is also an editor for DoppelHouse Press, an LA based publisher that specializes in art, architecture and the stories of émigrés.