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Quipus and the art of preserving indigenous identity

The precarity of nature in the art of Cecilia Vicuña Ramírez

The "Milk of Dreams" was recently awarded with the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. The work, which moves between poetry and art installations, represents the precariousness of our times. The creator, a Chilean artist, is now globally recognized among a select group of artists who foresaw many of the ecological issues we are currently engaged with, including the damaged state of our ecosystems.

Credit: Getty Images/Thomas Lohnes

Cecilia Vicuña Ramírez (Santiago de Chile, 1960) has had a long-standing career as defender of the rights of women in her country and as a fervent activist in support of Indigenous cultures. Ramírez has been working to preserve native culture in the face of the escalating restrictions, that are pushing these minority groups into increasing obscurity.

To combat the marginalisation of her native people, Cecilia has sought to amplify her voice: She has authored more than 25 books of poetry, most of which have been completely censored up until very recently. Whilst pursuing her poetry, she has endeavoured to create art, many critics have suggested her artistic techniques anticipated well-known movements such as land art and the Italian Arte Povera. The visual language of the latter can be seen, if one glances over the monumental Quipu or over some of the smaller sculptures. The artist's use of waste debris underlines the precarious position of our natural world.

What is fascinating, though, is the fact that this artist had been incorporating waste products into her art since the end of the 60s. Back then, there wasn't that much concern about the breakdown of our ecosystems due to human activity. This is one of the factors which renders this artist so particularly fascinating and still relevant to our contemporary perspective. Furthermore, the artist coined, before escaping from the dictatorship in 1973 Chile, Arte precario. Arte precario [precarious art] can be defined by its lack of form, it carries a message of uncertainty and vulnerability. Ramírez describes her art,

"My art is based on the idea that Beauty and Justice of interchange can make a significant impact to shape reality''.

This impact was felt by critics and audiences during Documenta 14, the Kassel-based art event. During the even, Cecilia presented a large Quipu, a knotted textile device that has been used by the natives of the Andes to convey their stories. Many of their stories and traditions were systematically erased by the conquest of their land by the Spanish conquistadores.

In Quipu, more specifically, conveys the Andine population's unity between their bodies and the universe. In this sense, Quipus has to be recognized as art with a real message about nature and our connection to it.

CECILIA VICUÑA, (2021) Quipu Menstrual

During her exile, Cecilia didn't stop practicing art, finding in discarded objects a new poetry, a one which clearly anticipates the development of emerging movements such as Arte Povera focusing its visual poetry on second-hand, waste materials. In this sense, Cecilia, earlier than her male counterparts working since the mid of the 60s, created with unwanted objects delicate pieces such as Guardian. Precarity, in this sense, doesn't necessarily relate only to the typology of material employed but is mostly a reference to the life of the artist living in a precarious exile due to a dictatorial government.

Her art, along with her poetry was ahead of its time. The poems engaged with injustices of her population and, particularly, the condition of women like herself, denied the chance to advance and assume important positions.

Cecilia Vicuña, (1967)Guardián Mixed media. Con cón, Chile.

Los siete poemas, is an example of her inquiries and cultural interests, most of her writing relates to her position as a renegade in Chile, with themes such as decay, memory, or, as suggested by the art historian Roberto Tejada, Cecilia's works are "ways of remembering as if exile and recall joined to unravel an autobiography in debris' as one personal story within a larger narrative.”

Cecilia Vicuña, (1969) Siete Poemas

Despite her late recognition, Cecilia through her immersion into the ancestral tradition of her nation reminds us of the necessity of being aware of the status of minorities, and the urgent action one must take in order to preserve what already has been damaged: our inestimable ecosystems. Art is her method to cope with the innumerable injustices in our society. What will be our method? Certainly, the art of Cecilia Vicuña calls on us to understand the precariousness of life and embrace a new path.


Vicuña C., official website:, Vicuña C.:


Ramírez N., Vicuña C. in Poetry Foundation:


Author Photo

Martina Loiarro

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