By Juan G. Sánchez Martínez
Translated from Spanish by Lorrie Jayne
A few weeks ago, we shared words with Edinson Quiñones, an artist of Nasa ancestry, from Cauca Colombia. Edinson spoke with us from his Nasa territory, where he is currently “unlearning” at the Universidad Autónoma Indígena Intercultural (UAIIN) and leading the trans-indigenous project, “Popayork.” Through the earpiece of my cell phone in Tokiyasdi/Asheville (Cherokee territory, the United States), I can hear the clucking of chickens and the hustle and bustle of the Andean countryside. Edinson holds a degree in Visual Arts from the University of Cauca and a Master’s degree in Integrated Arts with the Environment from the same institution. He has held twelve individual exhibits and participated in more than fifty collective exhibitions. He is a member of the Collective 83 with whom he has curated and maintained the Salón Internacional Indígena Manuel Quintín Lame (2014-2020). Currently, Edinson is studying the series, “The Rehabilitation of Mother Earth,” where his first objective is to unlearn the colonial notions that isolate art from the community and create the false idea of a “select public.”
Anyone who has attended his performances and workshops, knows that, since 2003, Edinson has been recovering the steps of his elders through a visceral creative process that includes not only identity, but also the faces of the war. “I was a spirit without a guide, Brother”, he says to me, “carrying out rebellious projects to heal myself.” In 2012, after multiple trips and exhibitions, Edinson’s grandmother, a midwife and traditional Nasa medicine woman, died. While he and his mother processed this loss, Edinson began to approach, in a deeper way, the coca leaf, and the wounds from narcotraffic in the territory of his own ancestors. His umbilicus and placenta, as is the custom of many of the ancestral peoples of Abya-Yala, were buried by his grandmother, healer and pulse reader in the community. Edison’s art blossoms at the crossroads of coca, death and territory.
For Edinson, using the wood and pigment of coca looks into the poetics of nature. But to do so also means confronting global misinformation regarding the plant, the twisted reality that surrounds the consumption of cocaine (0.5 gm of alkaloid from 100 gm of the leaf), as well as the trafficking, and violence that radiates from this imbalance. Those who have visited the Gold Museum in Bakata/ Bogota (Colombia) or the Casa del Alabado Museum in Quito, are aware that many of the ancient pieces, from more than 2000 years ago, represent the poporo and the zocalo (instruments still used today for the ingestion of coca among the peoples of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta), and the faces and bodies of the elders seated, cheeks stuffed with coca.
For Edison, as for millions of native people from the south of Abya- Yala, coca (ayu, mambe, kintu) has been and continues to be the key to composing themselves, in order to find and share the right word, to analyze and weave communally, and to show gratitude for the abundance of the Earth Mother. To call coca, “a drug” is a form of disorienting, uprooting, and distancing ourselves from ourselves. The responsibility of the European pharmaceutical industry in the decontextualization of the ancestral sense of the sacred leaf is revealed in the installation, If it’s Bayer, it’s good. This art teaches the importance of returning to ourselves.
When I asked Edinson which project he would like for us to highlight in Siwar Mayu, he responded that, curiously, he always returns to the year 2006 at the VI Festival de Performance de Cali (Colombia), where, after tattooing the image of a god jaguar/Spirit Lord of coca on his right shoulder blade, he performed the removal of the image by scarification. It seems that what remains of the performance is a photograph of an event. But what happens to the artist’s body? And what happens in the collective body? Talking with Edison, I learn what happened next: nine months healing and dialoguing with his mother, a painful process through which he had to re-learn every aspect of daily life (how to sleep, how to bathe himself), and later, the constant remembering in his own body of the primary intention. A memory to last a lifetime. Those works around the God of Coca forcefully break into the physical body to destabilize the Western epistemology. “You have to uproot the past from behind in order to see it in front of you,” he tells me, and I think about the Andean nayrapacha, “My mother, also a healer, didn’t understand why I harmed myself.”
This is what’s hard for a public that lacks care and respect to process. How to do a performance with bullets? Quitexa is the name of this work of Edinson’s. It means, “to bloom” in the Nasa Yuwe language. How to do a performance with a “coca” (the word carries a double meaning: it names the leaf, but also a wooden toy) made with the bones of victims of the war? This work is called, Violent Games. Not Everything Is a Game. “The community calls me crazy,” Edinson says laughing. “Mine is an autobiographical work that goes through distinct phases: trauma, healing, and positive transformation.”
Edison believes that this is a strategy for persisting in a society as conservative as Popayán. After centuries of internalized racism in Cauca and throughout Colombia, when words such as ‘Indian’ or ‘paez’ were used to shame those who were native to the place, today is a new day, when Edison can say, laughing, “I was searching in the air and not in the earth.” Now is the time to build from the collective, with the permission of the elders, making offerings before beginning projects, chewing coca and taking the yajé medicine, in order to inquire into the deep questions that arise from the ceremony itself. “From the law of origins there are secrets that should not be taken out of the community; it is the struggle of the artist to understand how they should share,” he explains.
This is why, in this bridge between spirituality, art, and academia, there are pieces that are not for exhibit, and words that are to be shared only at the exact moment, since “the intention begins in the seed,” as he tells me. The richness of the Cauca territory is now in the eye of extractive and private industries. Manuel Quintin Lame was one of the Nasa leaders who put up a fight against the wealthy sugarcane landowners. “Freeing the land”, Edison explains, “is to free her from the monoculture of sugar-to recover sovereignty over our food.”
“That’s why Popayork is my dream,” says Edinson, “Five years ago I began this vision and today the fruit trees are flowering, we have 30 chickens, and the bunnies have been born!” Popawork is more than a space for artist’s residencies- it is a life project that became clear to Edinson while taking yajé medicine. The way Edinson tells it, he intended to take a long trip outside of Colombia, but during the yajé ceremony he saw the place where he is now as if it were already his, that is to say, he saw the need to concentrate upon his own territory and to continue the spiritual processes that he had already been taking. Edinson invites me to reflect upon the figures that underpin the Colombian reality: out of 104.2 million hectares of territory, 48% is currently devoted to the extensive cattle ranching. That is only one clear example of the socio-economic imbalances brought about by the large landowners and the absence of an agrarian policy that would provide incentives for the farmworkers and Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities.
Today, after five years weaving Popayork together, Edinson is in the process of raising the maloca (ceremonial house) and seeding the sacred tulpa (fire pit). “And we must stoke the fire and never let it burn out,” he tells me. The elders come to Popayork and offer their medicines- Yanakuna, Misak, and Nasa communities pass through, and nothing leaves Popayork without permission and guidance. The materials that Edinson has used in the past, such as those in his work, Violent Games have been through a purging process, since bullets and bones need to be cleansed also. Before closing our conversation, he from the Andes (my territory as well), and I from the Appalachian Mountains, I ask Edison about the project he is currently working on. He answers: “seeing a garden in bloom is pure collective magic, Brother. That’s how it goes these days…” At the publication of this text, the indigenous guard of Cauca is leading the national Minga (community work) in Colombia, demanding that the government of Ivan Duque assumes the responsibilities of the state and protect the lives of social leaders besieged by armed outlaw groups.
¡Jayaya Jayaya Jayaya!
For more about Edinson Quiñones
For more about the Manuel Quintín Lame Exhibition / Collective 83
Curators, mingadores (collaborative workers), philosophers, and elders like Taita Lorenzo, are all welcome in this living, portable exhibition, which includes video, audio, poetry, copy, photography, and conversation. The objective of this effort is not only to make indigenous art visible, but to create a trans-indigenous dialogue that addresses the territory. In 2019, sixty-seven artists from twelve indigenous communities participated in the Salon which was held at the Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá, Colombia).