Cecilia Vicuña’s Paintings Are About Socialism and Freedom

The Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña’s work binds together Marxism and indigenous Latin American culture. Her paintings and sculptures present an alternative to the dreariness of contemporary capitalism: a socialism founded on anti-imperialism and human pleasure.

Karl Marx (1972) by Cecilia Vicuña. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London. © Cecilia Vicuña

In 1972, Cecilia Vicuña left Chile for London to study fine art. The following year, Augusto Pinochet launched a bloody military coup, transforming the country into a neoliberal dictatorship. In this new political climate, the freedoms celebrated by Salvador Allende’s government came under threat. Fearing for the safety of Vicuña’s work, Nemesio Antúnez, the artist and then director of the Santiago’s Museum of Fine Arts, hid the painting Karl Marx in his home. To protect the work from authorities, he painted over the philosopher’s name and replaced it with that of another radical, Charles Darwin.

Superficially, Antúnez’s decision may seem ironic or playful, given the fact that Darwinism throughout the twentieth century became the worldview of the reactionary right in search of ideological justifications for inequality. But for much of the early communist tradition, Marxism was a science that sought to explain the historical development of human societies. The juxtaposition of the two men is perhaps more fitting than one might think. Nevertheless, Vicuña’s depiction of the author of Capital strayed as far away from any scientific idea of socialism as could be imagined.

“In order to exalt Marx, I wanted to associate him with . . . eroticism, poetics, blues, jazz and rock, female and homosexual liberation,” Vicuña wrote in 1972. Her image of the theorist is set against a psychedelic garden, adorned with trees whose branches extend like intertwined hands and populated by naked figures in the throes of sexual embrace.

Ángel de la menstruación (Angel of Menstruation) (1973). Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London. © Cecilia Vicuña

Clearly, her depiction of Marx tells us more about its maker than its subject. Born in Santiago de Chile in 1948, Cecilia Vicuña was a staunch supporter of Salvador Allende and lived in exile as a young adult following Pinochet’s violent coup. Widely renowned as both a plastic artist and a writer, she published her first collection of poems at nineteen and cofounded Tribú No, an arts collective that engaged in performances, readings, and protests against the social conservatism of the time. In 1971, she wrote a poem playfully titled “Luminosidad de los orificios” (Luminosity of the Orifices), which celebrated the spiritual qualities of bodies and their various holes. Its performance shocked audiences at the time and went on to have a mythical status in Chile’s cultural history.

After living between London and Bogotá during her first years as an émigré, Vicuña settled definitively in New York in 1980. Though the Big Apple has become her home, she has had brief stints in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and certain parts of Chile that maintain a strong indigenous heritage, such as the city of Temuco. These inter-American travels have put her in touch with the indigenous customs and artifacts with which her artwork is often in dialogue.

Central to these encounters has been a recognition that knowledge produced by indigenous people has a value worth preserving and learning from. She has aimed to rescue the quipus, recording devices formed of knotted rope originating in the precolonial Andes, by using them in her art practice. In Quipu del exterminio (Extermination Quipu), the main installation of her recent solo exhibition at the Guggenheim, she repurposes these techniques to produce streams of fabric that hang from the gallery’s ceiling.

As one begins walking up the museum’s ramp and proceeds to the High Gallery, one can notice strings and knots like lightning bolts falling over every visitor’s head. Shells, stones, pieces of wood, and irregular shapes made of wire hang from these threads. There are three: red, white, and black. Dangling, they interrupt the murmurs of the varied faces that look from below.

Installation view, “Cecilia Vicuña: Spin Spin Triangulene,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, May 27–September 5, 2022. (David Heald / Guggenheim Foundation)

The most important register we have of the original use of quipus is in Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala’s The First New Chronicle and Good Government. Accompanied by many drawings, this text by a Quechuan nobleman summarizes the past of the Incas, as well as their anxieties during the early colonial days of Latin America. Whereas the Spanish considered the indigenous communities of Peru to be lesser than their Aztec or Mayan counterparts because they apparently lacked a system of writing, Guamán Poma observed that the series of threads contained notes of calculations, myths, and genealogies of his kingdom.

He insisted that the quipucamayocs, scribes or accountants of the Inca empire, “had such ability that as much as was known on the cords seemed to [him] in letters. With the cords they governed all [the] kingdom.” The Spanish, believing the quipus to be idolatrous, ordered their destruction in the late sixteenth century. While Guamán Poma has given us a good idea of their function, their precise meaning has been lost to time.

This cultural tragedy is taken up and made productive in Vicuña’s work. In her elegantly crafted strands of rubble, we can reflect on both past and present attempts to exterminate traditions and ecosystems, as well as their refusal to completely disappear. By reproducing the technique of the Incas, Vicuña forces us to reflect on technology, the value of progress, and the dismissal of the past it often justifies.

Vicuña’s use of the motif of the quipus is not restricted to sculpture. In the painting Ángel de la menstruación (Angel of Menstruation), a celestial female being seems to spin around, her body girdled by red string. Rejected in this image is any notion of prudence but also splendor, both in the formal style of the artwork and the plainness of its subject.

Not every piece by Vicuña works at the level of a positive recouping of the indigenous past. In Sueño (Los indios matan al papa) (Dream [The Indians Kill the Pope]), a revenge fantasy is enacted. The holy father prays and stares at the viewer, his expression vacant, dispassionate. Around him stand representatives of the Tarahumara, Yahgan, Maya, Aymara, Bororo, Mapuche, and Apache nations with their weapons aimed and ready to fire. On their faces, expressions of joy: to kill the Pope is not a bitter act of resentment but a source of collective happiness. “Maybe this is the moment to try a new revolution; not a violent one but a revolution of love,” Vicuña said in 2017.

Amados (Loved Ones) depicts the artist and her lover adorned by a collection of religious and political icons, each floating against a russet background. Their members include Salvador Allende, Saint Teresa of Jesus, Buddha, and Aretha Franklin. What holds these figures together, more than any ideological affinity, is their recognizability as stand-ins for a particular cultural mood. It is, perhaps, not unhelpful to see Vicuña’s work as a kind of postcolonial pop art playing with social and political memes.

“I am large, I contain multitudes,” Whitman wrote in his Song of Myself. The line has become a cliché, but it reflects the kaleidoscopic intent of Vicuña’s work, which condenses past and present, Global North and Global South, utopia and dystopia. Despite this, the lives she conjures in her fabrics, her paintings, and her poems are anything but whimsical. As she has wandered throughout the Americas, Vicuña has condensed in herself a continent with no concise definition, one that has drunk the waters of rivers so different that it can only grow asymmetrically. Her affinity for the nomadic nature of certain pre-Hispanic nations and her radical yearning for an identity that does not necessarily embrace all aspects of modernity inevitably make her approach dissociative. Alloyed to this, however, is a radical sincerity — a commitment to not betraying herself or the many selves that allowed her into our world.

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Carlos Egaña has two poetry books in print: hacer daño (Oscar Todtmann Editores, 2020) and Los Palos Grandes (dcir ediciones, 2017). He has written about art, politics, and pop culture for various Venezuelan publications.

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