Skip to navigation Skip to main content

Cecilia Vicuña
Sonoran Quipu

27 January–1 October 2023
MOCA, Tucson, AZ, USA

External link

MOCA Tucson presents two major commissions from internationally celebrated artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña: a new, site-specific exhibition and an original artist’s book. The artist’s immersive exhibition Sonoran Quipu is a collectively-generated installation composed of hundreds of hanging knotted fibers that evoke ancient quipus, which are Indigenous Andean recording devices. Debuting alongside the installation is El Libro Venado, an artist’s book that holds over thirty years of reflections, translations, and original writing about the deer across belief systems. Both the exhibition and the publication are rooted in the ecology and cosmologies of the Sonoran Desert region, as seen from Vicuña’s Andean perspective, while addressing the preservation of Indigenous knowledge and the protection of the natural world.

For more than fifty years, Vicuña has built a tremendous lifework across visual media, poetry, performance, and activism, and her visionary artistic contributions are being celebrated internationally with accolades like the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2022 Venice Biennale and the Premio Velázquez de Artes Plásticas award in 2019. Born in 1948 and raised in Santiago, Chile, the artist was exiled from her home country after the violent coup against President Salvador Allende in the 1970s. Vicuña’s art is often ephemeral and always poetic and political, influenced by the seismic events of our time such as Chile’s military dictatorship and the global environmental crisis, as well as her own Indigenous mestizo Chilean heritage. Her monumental quipus illustrate complex social and ecological realities, and her sculptural “precarios” render improvisational assemblages from found materials. Of her own practice, Vicuña says:

“My work dwells in the not yet, the future potential of the unformed, where sound, weaving, and language interact to create new meanings.

In 1966 I began creating precarios (precarious), installations and basuritas, objects composed of debris, structures that disappear, along with quipus and other weaving metaphors. I called these works “Arte Precario”, creating a new category, a non-colonized name for them… The fluid, multi-dimensional quality of these works allowed them to exist in many media and languages at once. Created in and for the moment, they reflect ancient spiritual technologies—a knowledge of the power of individual and communal intention to heal us and the earth.”

Vicuña’s Sonoran Quipu combines the artist’s signature sculpture forms––the monumental quipu and the precario––to create a large-scale installation that connects cultural memory, place-based materiality, and participatory practices. Vicuña is in dialogue with the ancient Indigenous technology of the quipu, which was banned by the Spanish during the colonization of the Americas, by enlarging the form and incorporating contemporary materials. In the months leading up to the exhibition at MOCA, the artist invites participants in Tucson to responsibly collect plant matter and found debris from their surroundings for inclusion in the quipu. These items will be carefully composed and hand-knotted by Vicuña and her collaborators to float in space, joining hundreds of fibers and small hanging sculptures in MOCA’s Great Hall. Sonoran Quipu is a poem in space, weaving together plants and urban debris in a delicate constellation that invites viewers to consider our interconnected and precarious relationship to the environment and to each other.

Just as Vicuña’s quipu creates a poem in space, her book El Libro Venado is woven like one of her installations––poems, translations, drawings, and original writings are carefully arranged into a shimmering meditation on the sacred deer. This artist’s book is a life project for Vicuña, and was originally inspired by the beauty and power of the Yoeme (also referred to as Yaqui) Deer Songs. She first encountered these ceremonial songs in 1985 in Jerome Rothenberg’s book 15 Flower World Variations, which prompted her to research other translations of the Yoeme Songs and eventually led her to visit Old Pascua, a Pascua Yaqui Tribal community in Tucson, during a 2012 residency with the University of Arizona Poetry Center. The resulting publication is comprised of excerpts from several different translations and important texts on the Deer Songs, as well as Vicuña’s own highly personal “poethical” Spanish translations, including original drawings and extensive writings by the artist that reflect decades of thinking about the impossibility of translation, communication across eras and distant lands, and shared symbols within Indigenous spiritualities. The volume is realized by MOCA and the non-profit art book publisher Radius Books, and debuts alongside the exhibition with readings and performances by the artist and her collaborators.

Together, Sonoran Quipu and El Libro Venado expand on the ecological and cosmic themes at the center of Vicuña’s life practice while making connections to the Southwest. The project will be supported by public programs that reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the exhibition and publication, situating the installation as a living site for contemplation, knowledge sharing, and communal gathering.

The artist wishes to acknowledge that the concepts of “Flower World” and “Quipu” were created by our Mesoamerican and Andean ancestors respectively, and that this exhibition is devoted to honoring their gift to us. Out of respect for the Yoeme (Yaqui) community, the project will avoid making use of their cultural images and artifacts.