Born in Chile, Cecilia Vicuna is an interdisciplinary artist and poet who confronts the erasure of historical cultural narratives in paintings; fabric installations; works on paper; palabrarmas, works that combine words and drawings; and performance art that incorporates gesture, sound, and string. Her work includes her interpretation of the quipu, the complex system of communication and record keeping introduced by the Wari people (600 -900 A.D.) and used by Andean societies before Spanish colonization. They were fiber works, which recorded information through knots and colors, and were an integral part of the Inca tradition.
When Vicuna was growing up, she knew nothing about the quipu. It had been erased from museums, books, schools, and universities. However, she learned about the quipu when she was a teenager through her aunt, an artist who had foreign books about it. Its knotted cords were once a form of knowledge which recorded quantitative information about population size, goods, crops, births, and deaths. But it had been forgotten because of the Spanish conquest of the Andes.
Vicuna received her M.F.A. from the National School of Fine Arts, University of Chile in 1971. She continued her postgraduate studies at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London from 1972-1973. In 1973, the Chilean military coup deposed the elected president, Salvador Allende, and brought into rule the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. This caused Vicuna to flee to London and then to Bogota in 1975. In 1980, she moved to New York City.
In 1966, Vicuna began creating precarios, made from natural materials such as sticks, leaves, stones, shells, or feathers and balanced against each other in an outdoor landscape. Her first outdoor precario was made in the sand on a Chilean beach and was soon washed away and merged back into the landscape. Other precarios were placed outside on city streets and left to deteriorate.
Her surreal figurative paintings of the 1970s were both personal and political, created in response to the political unrest in Chile. Influenced by artist Carmen Herrera, Vicuna’s paintings at this time had bright colors and large, irregular shapes. Vicuna developed this style as a “decolonizing act to subvert the oil tradition imposed on Indigenous culture by the European conquest” where artists were forced to paint angels and saints for the Catholic church. In her paintings, religious icons were replaced by personal, political, and literary figures as she constructed Surrealistic visions of nature and human interaction.
Weaving, associated with women’s work, is critical to Vicuna’s art as she aligns herself with the Indigenous people of the Andes even though she is of Spanish and Basque descent. Her large ‘quipu’ installations are made from skeins of raw wool and often hang loosely from the ceiling. They form frameworks that show the process of their own creation. Each is a seemingly solid floating mass of an ephemeral quality.
Vicuna’s first New York retrospective will be at the Guggenheim Museum and will run through September 5, 2022. This three-month exhibition will show her aesthetic that her artworks are poems in space. “I come from a mind-set where an image takes the form – whether in language, in sound, in drawing, in painting – of its own accord.” There was a one-time performance by Vicuna on August 31, 2022 which was a healing ceremony for the Earth. People could work with her to construct a quipu by “integrating the spiral form of the Guggenheim with the quipu form.”
Vicuna showed at the 59th Venice Biennale, for which she received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Vicuna’s work is in the permanent collections of dozens of museums and public collections, including the Berkeley Art Museum, San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Miami’s Perez Art Museum, New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and Tate London, among others.