For OAF 2020, Brett Littman, director of the Noguchi Museum, and the Shipibo Conibo Center NYC co-curate a special exhibition of the work of Sara Flores and Celia Vasquez Yui, who live and work in a region of the Peruvian Amazon, where the indigenous people are struggling for their cultural and social survival as deforestation, oil and palm oil interests brutally encroach on their land and way of life.
Sara Flores was born in 1950 in the native community of Tanbo Mayo. At fourteen she started her apprenticeship in the arts under the guidance of her mother, and her artistic practice is distinguished by intricate design and astonishing exactitude.
The kené through which Sara projects and recasts her own universe is a complex genre whose almost cybernetic codified system taps into and represents the substrate of existence. The variations motifs in the —hand-drawn and free form motifs —reveal the mind-bending way in which these patterns are stored mnemonically then mapped onto the canvas through an embodied practice, almost like neuronal mapping—an exercise in connectomics. Often referencing the visual and musical patterns of ayahuasca shamanism, in which the shaman and acolyte take a psychotropic, the kené is also thought of as a healing design, or a kind of design medicine. Sara utilizes a variety of polychrome natural dyes that she prepares from autochthone flora: the leaves of the Amí for purple; the fruit of Achiote for red; the bark of the Yacushapana for black; the root of the Guisador for yellow.
Sara often works alongside her daughter, adding an expansive dimension to the work as the two bodies and two minds merge to finish each other’s patterns.
Celia Vasquez Yui is an artist, indigenous rights activist and political representative of the Shipibo People of Peru. Born in 1960, as a young girl she began creating alongside her mother, an eminent ceramicist and descendant of the polychrome horizon cultures, whose artistic record throughout the Amazon dates backs thousands of years.
In Celia’s discipline, the ecosystem along with the supernatural, ritual, aesthetic, and social mores are melded into a powerful, multifaceted cultural whole. The artist conceives and carries out her work as shaman, preparing ritually for several days, much like a healer would do, by fasting, abstaining from sex and specific foods, chanting and blowing tobacco to propitiate the firing. She incorporates the repetitive patterns of the Shipibo on her figurative hand-formed animal sculptures and vases. These zoomorphic sculptures allude to a spiritual understanding of ecology, according to which the compilation of a bestiary is not just a compendium of endangered animals, but also an invocation of their spirits, a call for them to come and hold space, and a lament against their vanishing.
The clay she works with is very plastic and must be mixed with the ashes of the bark of a specific tree alongside fragments of anterior ceramics, often of archeological origin, reduced to dust. This material doesn’t act only technologically, as anti-plastic, but also symbolically: the making and the breaking of the vessels become both part of a circular cycle, intertwining the past and present together.
Brett Littman is the director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City, New York. He was the executive director of The Drawing Center from 2007-2018; the deputy director of MOMA PS1 from 2003 – 2007; the co-director of Dieu Donné Papermill from 2001-2003; and associate director of UrbanGlass from 1996 - 2001. His interests are multi-disciplinary. Over the last decade, he has overseen more than seventy-five and curated more than twenty exhibitions dealing with visual art, craft, design, architecture, poetry, music, science, and literature. Littman is also an art critic and lecturer and an essayist for museum and gallery catalogs. He has written articles for a wide range of American and international art, fashion, and design magazines.
The Shipibo Conibo Center in West Harlem, New York City, is a broad experiment in art, culture, politics, and the afterlife— an art project in the form of a 501(c)3 nonprofit cultural organization. Within its contemporary art and knowledge production, the Center promotes, benefits, and perpetuates the creative traditions of the Shipibo People of the Peruvian Amazon.
With a focus on indigenous self-determination and territorial sovereignty as well as visual arts, music, and ethnobotanical research— which for the Shipibo are inseparable realms— the organization’s mission is motivated by its conviction that indigenous identity does not belong to a romanticized ancient age, but to a technologically-anchored and sustainable future.