Forced into exile, she turned to art

The best way to find out about great artists is through other artists. Although I had heard of the Chilean artist, poet and activist Cecilia Vicuña before I visited the Philadelphia studio of Alex Da Corte, I had never seen more than a few examples of her work. When Da Corte, a brilliant artist who is more than three decades Vicuña’s junior, advised me not to miss her solo show at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art before I departed that evening, I knew to take him seriously. So I took a taxi to the show and was duly blown away.

Since then, Vicuña, 76, has seemingly been everywhere, including at the 2022 Venice Biennale, where she played a major role in the central exhibition: “The Milk of Dreams.”

Born in Chile and based in New York and Santiago, Chile, she is best known for two ongoing series of sculptural works, which she calls, respectively, “Precarios” and “Quipus.” The “Precarios,” made from discarded refuse, are delicate and small. They teeter on the edge of being nothing, but their effect is surprising and they have a sort of redemptive beauty. The “Quipus” are inspired by ancient Andean methods of using knots for record keeping and storytelling, and they, like the “Precarios,” have a subtle political dimension.

The third major strand of Vicuña’s art-making is painting. She creates boldly colored figurative paintings in a faux-naïf, dreamlike and allegorical style. This work, in the collection of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, is a terrific example.

It’s called “La Vicuña,” and it features the artist’s own naked body almost erotically entwined with her namesake animal, a rare, South American camelid. As a stylized self-portrait charged with autobiographical and political meanings, the picture recalls the self-portraits of Frida Kahlo.

The creature is seen in profile, while Vicuña’s own face — half of it obscured by the animal’s long neck — is shown frontally. Her one, gravely concerned eye lines up beside the animal’s sidelong eye in a way that recalls Pablo Picasso’s heads with their playfully combined perspectives.

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Billowing behind Vicuña is a cloth on which colorful scenes of lovemaking, music-playing and political protest are painted. These scenes represent life in Chile before Vicuña departed in 1972 to study in London.

Very soon after she left, a violent coup — led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet and supported by the U.S. government — ousted President Salvador Allende. Separated from her family and forced to seek asylum in England, Vicuña became active in the dissident movement.

This painting was made four years after the coup, when Vicuña was living in exile in Bogotá, Colombia. The comparatively drab, grayscale scroll Vicuña draws on with her right hand depicts life as she imagines it back home under dictatorship.

Artists tend to see things holistically, and Vicuña is no exception. She has always seen dictatorship as a threat not just to democracy and freedom but also to Indigenous people, whom she has long championed, and the environment.

Her magically vibrant and simultaneously mournful and vulnerable painting expresses the dualism at the heart of her vision — and perhaps at the heart of existence itself. If I were a painter, I wouldn’t want my work hung anywhere near Vicuña’s. It wouldn’t stand a chance.

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