Your desires haunt me
There is something haunting about the image: the inscription at the top, written by Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala (ca. 1535–1615), refers to the “INDIO, ASTROLOGO, POETA QUE SABE” [INDIAN, ASTROLOGER, POET WHO KNOWS], and continues, “del ruedo del sol y de la luna, eclipse, estrellas, cometas y hora, domingo, mes y año y de los cuatro vientos para sembrar la comida, desde antiguo” [of the journey of the sun, the moon, eclipse, stars, comets and hour, Sunday, month and year and the four winds to sow the food, since old]. To read the stars, to read the land, to read the air, to cultivate, to be a poet, an astrologer, an artist: slightly bent over, gaze on the land, the figure in the image advances with the aid of a cane, perhaps a digging stick; in the other hand, they carry a quipu (or khipu), fingers feeling the knotted cords. Descalzos [barefoot], the feet feel and know the land too, as they traverse it. Steep and rugged mountains with vein-like lines, perhaps fingers of ancient ice or the tunnels, el abra, that the waters carved through their journeys downwards, embrace the figure and provide a horizon line. Above, watching, knowing, attentive, are the sun and moon. Thus, beyond the Spanish words we find another language, the one the Indigenous-astrologer-poet reads and senses in the land and the breeze, in the sky, the cosmos. A poetry rewritten in textiles and knotted threads, as much as those mumbled words. Sun and moon accompany, us, each other, and the labors below, the future being sown.
“In ancient Peru diviners trace lines of dust in the earth, as a way of divining, or letting the divine speak through them;
“…they invoked the spirits through an incantation and tracing lines on the ground.””
When sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui reflects on archaeological khipus and the most common interpretation of these textiles, “an accountability system of the Inka,” she is quick to add: that is only partially true. For what they also involve is a propitiatory form of counting, “una traducción contable del deseo” [a countable translation of desire], a translation into numerical, perhaps accountable, forms of desire. The poet, she says, carries a kipu whose knots materialize knowledge of the land, the relations between productive spaces created and conjured through ritual celebration.
Rivera Cusicanqui begins by referring to their description as mnemonic devices, a system of record keeping made out of colored wool and knots used in the Andean region before the Spanish invasion to register, count, and communicate. They were “a knotted–cord medium in use since at least the Middle Horizon (ca. 600–1000 C.E.) and widespread in Inka times,” writes anthropologist Frank Salomon. For a long time, it was believed that khipus were an Andean abacus based on the decimal system, a statistical and quantitative system employed to count taxes and census in the Inka empire. Each cord and its characteristics—its color, length, the orientation of its fibers, the position it occupied in the whole (whether primary horizontal or hanging verticals and secondary cords), the patterns they created, the types of knots and their directions and shapes—would all contain information that was visually and haptically gathered in a tactile manner, recalled and spoken by the creators and readers of khipus, the quipucamayoc. Though they continued to be made and used, the settlers and their colonizing institutions, including the Catholic Church, ordered their destruction and replacement with written alphabetic systems, imposing a new script and language, a whole grammar and its subtending epistemology onto the land and bodies. As their voices were quieted, their making and practice forbidden, and a colonial order superimposed, the meanings of those khipus, their form of code-making, seems to have faded. Like other pre-Hispanic textile traditions of which we have fragmented knowledge, this too seems to have been broken, or perhaps lies dormant, submerged. Yet hundreds of khipus remained, were preserved, found, and collected; fragile yet resistant threads and knots, opaque to modern eyes. Until recently, others continued to be made and employed, stories told with them, though few would listen to what they had to say.
As Rivera Cusicanqui points out, this is only part of the story. Khipus also give material presence to cosmic wisdom. They are a translation into knotted counted forms of lifeways, of “promises and deliveries” that involve not only human interactions, transactions, and exchanges, but also a dialogue with the divine. A system “of rigorously counted reciprocity” that was, that still is, embedded in the earth, in the waterways, in the wak’as, that sacred topography that organizes life. Reinscribed by and through moving bodies, in pilgrimage, in dance, in celebration, in storytelling, in song, in commercial and ritual exchange. And yet, deprived of their symbolism, when exhibited or stored in museums, or analyzed through artificial intelligence, they become “codes without message, abstract serial mathematics.” Indeed, anthropologists like Gary Urton have proposed that there are two kinds of khipus, some statistical and based on the decimal system and others that narrate stories, not in an iconographical manner, but through their colors and knots. To understand khipus in this manner requires that we think of time and history in more complex, non-linear ways. To engage with another form of consciousness, not just epistemologies, as art historian Carolina Castro Jorquera has also suggested.
To think of quipus through desire, through actions that seek to move, to offer, to enter into relations with the sacred, with the land and waters, with each other, with “a life in common” on both a local and a planetary scale. How might desire change the messages that scholars, anthropologists, archaeologists, scientists, and that hybrid body that is artificial intelligence, are trying to decode? What do they propitiate? How might it transform our relations to reconnect to these life-ways, these ancestral and changing threads? To the invisible, even within?
The strings that haunt us, those invisible umbilical cords. To recognize these threads, to be Indigenous, poet, astrologer.
This is not your chiaroscuro
In the darkness of a room, light filters through the doorway, amasses and cracks open at the fire. A string twinkles as it traverses the space. It is tied to the mother’s waist, who is absorbed in her labors. That other thread, of sound, alerts her to movement at the other end of the cord. There, the newborn lies in a makeshift hammock made of folded fabric, tied to the mother through the cord. A simple twist, a movement of the hip, knots them together. An umbilical cord, a lifeline, a sacred chord. A knowledge so intimate, so ancient, that it joins past and present. Not all is lost.
Cecilia Vicuña’s quipus embody loss. Their forms dissolve. Their knots threaten to be undone as they hang, the wool’s unspun fibers mutating as gravity pulls them, as fingers and bodies run through them. Impossible gestures, she calls them. If they offer a translation of thoughts and stories we might never know, it is because they pick up the threads of a colonial history of violent uprooting, genocide, prohibitions, acts of erasure of ancestral knowledge, of marginalization and discrimination. The destruction of languages, whether oral, written, or woven; sometimes using language itself as a weapon of obliteration. The destruction of webs of relations, including those that remind us that we are ecological bodies, moving microcosmos intimately tied to each other. “Now, because of the destruction of the forest, storms are gathering such violent energy that you get events like Hurricane Mitch in Central America, where thousands of people die. To weave clouds at a moment like this is an attempt to change the pattern of destruction, as if this impossible gesture (you cannot “weave” with unspun wool—it falls apart as you touch it) had the power to affect the climate and move people to thought.”
But also, Vicuña’s works in wool, with detritus, gestures, and poetry, sustain and embody histories of resistance, of life. Vicuña has said of her knotted quipus: “solo los sostiene el deseo” [only desire sustains them]. Precarious, yes, on the border of collapse, yes, impending death, yes, fragile reminders of our own ecocide, our terricidio, yes. And then?
And then, maybe from within that breath of nonconforming wool, in the opaque recesses of its fibers, when everything, including language and thought, seems to disintegrate, to dissolve, when what clings loosens and lets go, then, suddenly, a sound. Perhaps it is just a rumor, a beat that can barely, that cannot, be heard. Infinitesimal vibrations, virtual yet present. Strings that undulate, that connect bodies in a virtual and concrete weaving. Communication without words, other forms of semiosis and germinating consciousness.
“Quipus were burnt, but the vision of interconnectivity, a poetic resistance endures underground.” The poetic resistance of desire.
Vicuña insists on remembering this other form of weaving, the ceque system, as if it were the complementary opposite of the khipu, its invisible underside. The ceque were imaginary lines that joined the Inka omphalos, the city of Cuzco, navel of the world, spiritual and political center, with the four corners of the Tawantinsuyu in a large weaving. Each radiating line linked a trajectory of powerful and sacred sites, wak’as, natural sanctuaries and human-made, creating a different horizon of signs in the landscape. The ceque system thus inscribed a cosmic and ritual calendar on earth, like a khipu of glittering inscriptions, a vision of watery threads. “The ceque is not a line, it is an instant, a gaze,” says Vicuña. In Andean weaving, what is within and invisible is necessary to sustain what is manifest; ukhu in Quechua refers to the power of the concealed, the influence exerted by the internal or that which remains unseen over what is perceivable on the surface. This is another form of the ayni, the “dual balance” or reciprocal relations that take manifold forms, beyond the strictures of binaries. This darkness shines with light.
The gap that the archaeological khipus make evident as we strive to understand them, this absence, speaks of a radical reordering of meaning and relations in these lands, in others too. Rivera Cusicanqui and many others have referred to this as pachakuti, that great upheaval from an Andean perspective. Yet she reminds us that, “Even though the colonial deed drastically reordered these relations, it did not completely obliterate their alter-native background; it did not undo the internal logics or the rooted syntax that had been created over the centuries by the populations that were now subjugated.”
Vicuña restores and remembers this upheaval, and recalls that her own art began as an act of disappearance, understood as a sacrifice and an offer. “I was on a beach in Con-cón, when I felt the wind and the sea feeling me. I knew I had to respond to the Earth in a language that the tide would erase. I arranged the litter I saw strewn about. I called it arte precario knowing that art had begun in me.” While her gift was minor, a gesture even, it resonates with the reciprocity and complementary duality imbued in Andean thought, as much as a form of webbed consciousness, of sensing bodies. In the Andean highlands, the most precious objects are buried, burnt, expended, elaborate woven mantles, ceramics, dolls, silver and golden ornaments. Life itself was sacrificed to propitiate more life. This is a different aesthetic and ethic order from that imposed by the colonial system, another reasoning and complementary way of thinking, where high and low are not part of a hierarchy. Where nature and culture are part of a continuum and communication, even communion, happens across different forms of being.
“¿Cantan de noche las piedras?
Yo te diría,
[“Do stones sing at night?
-It is possible.”
I would say,
Vicuña evokes in her poetry, her quipus, her whole arte precario [precarious art], subtly, painfully, a history of loss and violence on multiple scales and forms, a palimpsest of erasures, tenuously joining past and present. One word, or a tender and rough material, can resonate deeply and carry varying associations rooted in, seeping, and moving through specific bodies-territories, transforming them: disappeared, displaced, abused, menaced, persecuted, quipus, bodies, languages, waters, lands. Her ritual gestures can weave the local and the common, from the tip of a mountain in Aconcagua and its treasures buried in ice, to colonial extractions at the coast in the present; from past removals to contemporary deterritorializations; from political disappearance in Chile during the military-civic dictatorship to apparently sudden catastrophe. They evoke, too, the pliable forms of weaving traditions and peoples that persist as they transform, especially “the force of violence with which they have been treated into spiritual energy.” Her spatial weavings are reminders to remain tender to these words, to these matters, to what they cannot tell. To listen with the fingers, to attend corporally to the material and narrative gaps, to different forms of memory. The earth also remembers.
What memories do we carry in our hands? What memories in our limbs, our bones, our skin? Our wombs, our entrails? The deep waters of our ears? Their miniature drumming membranes? Memories that might be aural yet get transmitted through touch. Chords of bone, muscle, fiber, air, water, particles. My body rings.
The body knows, even though it also forgets. When looking again at the image by Guamán Poma de Ayala described in the beginning of this text, do we hear the sounds too? The lines and dots and openings traced by the stick on the earth, the creeping cool breeze, the sparks of cosmic dust connecting clouds and bone, the mumbled chants and invisible voices rising from the lines of dust, the counting and divining that creates its own dermal and mental furrows, warm sweet sweat slowly mixing with llama’s wool, the crackling of leaves as the hand reaches for them in the darkness of the chuspa, the mastication of coca leaves and the flavors, the thick saliva passing bitter like medicine through the gut. The smell of spoken words. I crack open and we spit.
Khipus are oral narratives and much more woven into material form. An embodied form of language, threads and knots tying information and relations together. Fibers speak in Andean textiles, and they continue to do so. Weaving hands create and read traditional textiles, even if their meanings and forms have changed, even if our understanding of some ancient textile construction methods is partial, as is our grasp of their intentions. These hands and waists and minds weave stories, chant, and share through them, in them, with them. Embedded in bodies-territories and also stretching beyond them, through other forms of extending desires, whether global and tourist markets, or expressions of locals needs, imaginations, resilient consciousness, ancestral voices and silences. Andean textiles are moving resonant bodies, three dimensional and complex, engaged in many dances, visible and unseen, present, waiting to be perceived.
To see with the eyes at the tips of our fingers, “not as an intellectual memory, but as a sensorial memory.” To listen to what those in/visible vibrations have to say. To germinate other forms of consciousness so that we may hear “an ancient silence waiting to be heard.”
“Erasing memory, we erase the moral compass of our cells.”
Bodies that are archives, archives of pain and of collective memory. An art of memory is an art of resonance: reverberations, echoes, vibrations, something moves within and between. Vicuña recalls:
“To record in the sense of touching the strings of emotion.
To record comes from cor, the core of the heart.”
To remember might be to become again a member of a larger body. To recognize the home I am to others, the others I carry with me, the others that carry me. Do you remember the sea, that oceanic feeling, being suspended in her fluids? She sensed me, we sensed each other, I responded with a gift, she took it, they gave me back: “Yes, you can say it is an attempt to speak to the elements, to that instant of all potential, all creation, when we could take a new evolutionary leap, although I prefer to say a leap of the imagination, equivalent to that first moment when a hand noticed that fleece could be spun into yarn.”
The hand notices. She senses me. I am wool, water, you make me spin, we become threaded, we yearn, we yarn.
Carla Macchiavello Cornejo is an art historian and educator who has published on contemporary Chilean and Latin American art with an emphasis in video art, performance, networks of solidarity and resistance, and artistic practices aimed at social change. She is Associate Professor in Art History at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY, NY, and received her PhD from Stony Brook University. She has curated exhibitions on contemporary Latin American art and is co-editor of Más allá del fin/Beyond the End, a publication of the collective research practice Ensayos, which joins artists, scientists, and local agents to reflect on matters connected to the political ecology of Tierra del Fuego. Macchiavello Cornejo lives and works in New York City.