For Art Licks issue 21 (2017), artist Adriana Ciudad presented the piece, 'Árbol Caído (Fallen Tree)'. We interview Adriana about the work, and consider its new pertinence with recent world events in mind.
Holly Willats, Art Licks: For Art Licks Issue 21, you presented the work Árbol Caído (Fallen Tree) alongside an introductory text, for which you began with the quote "A standing tree is worth more than a fallen tree." Could you tell us where this quote originates from please, and why you chose to focus on it as a reference?
Adriana Ciudad: The quote comes from Shipibo-Conibo thought, an indigenous tribe of the Peruvian Amazon. The power of this phrase resides in that it synthetizes the strength of this way of seeing the world. In the Amazon, trees are seen as living beings, as a fundamental part of the ecosystem that helps maintain the harmony of our planet. For me, this phrase is a form of resistance against neoliberal western thought that conceives trees as possessions, as something they can profit from.
Please could you explain the research of the biologist Dr. Suzanne Simard, whom you mention in the text, and how this has influenced you?
I feel Dr. Suzanne Simard’s research is important because it corroborates what Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon have been saying for centuries: plants and trees are intelligent beings that share an underground network of knowledge that allows them communicate amongst one another and with which they create a community of growth and support among species. “Plants speak to us”, say Amazonian indigenous shamans. Simard’s investigation is significant because it is a serious scientific research that confirms important ideas of Indigenous thought that have been disregarded for very a long time.
I remember when we met in your studio in Bogotá, you talked about the specific colour palette that you work with for your paintings and drawings. Could you explain a little about this, and the colours used in Fallen Tree?
My palette has been influenced primarily by Inca fabrics in which combinations of secondary colors, saturated colors and neons are predominant. I have always been impressed by the mastery with which Incas and their ancestors made such harmonious color combinations, and yet somehow managed to make the colors shine. The key is the subtle and precise mix between shades of color, and primary and secondary colors. For example, you will never find a Pre-Columbian Peruvian fabric that mixes only red, blue and yellow. One of these primary colors is always less prevalent, which gives the combination a far more interesting dynamic. Regarding the colors in Fallen Tree, this piece is a clear result of my education at the University of the Arts in Berlin. Germany tends towards a cleaner, “less is more” aesthetic, which helped me find a balance between a more striking Peruvian aesthetic and German minimalism. In this drawing, for example, with the white and gray of the pencil, I try to create a sense of contrast/balance in relation to the neon yellow, blue and purple of the watercolor.
At first glance, the work appears to depict beautiful, tropical scenes but with further thought and insight you realise there is a darkness here, with the oil-like swells encroaching on the landscape and its people. How do you find this balance so that the viewer is drawn in to discover the underlying truth?
I think that your question encapsulates the challenge artists face. For me, a good work of art allows for different layers of interpretation and leads the viewer to a form of contemplation that becomes an experience of sensations and/or reflections in of itself. I am interested in the challenge of creating beauty, of seducing, while simultaneously reflecting on contemporary social, political and environmental issues. The series, this drawing is part of, reflects on Indigenous thought. My interest in the subject stems from my belief, that now more than ever, we must return to this ancestral way of seeing the world to ensure the survival of our planet – a way of thinking that sees the forest as a living and sacred organism that we must respect and protect.
Is the scene depicted a reference to an actual event?
Yes, this scene, and others in the same series (“A veinte soles de distancia” (20 suns away), 2016), reference the Peruvian oil industry, which was responsible for the spill of three thousand barrels of oil, in the Marañón River – a key Amazon tributary. Taking measures to repair the damage, the company Petroperu offered individuals in the affected areas 20 soles (around 5 dollars) for each bucket of oil they collected and removed from the river. As consequence, dozens of children set out to collect buckets of oil, putting their lives at risk.
The piece has a new pertinence with the world's recent events in mind. How do you feel now, looking back at this piece?
The Shipìbo-Conibo population has been one of the most affected in Peru by Covid-19. Similarly in Brazil, indigenous Amazon tribes are also suffering from the pandemic with a very high number of deaths. How is it possible that these communities, that in my opinion have one of the most accurate conceptions of nature, be the most affected? Why don’t we protect them? As an artist, I feel the obligation to continue to create work regarding this subject matter in order to sensitize others about indigenous cosmology and its contemporary relevance Their cosmovision is a tool to raise awareness about the environment.
During the Coronavirus pandemic—and as a consequence of social discrimination, as well as the neglect of the State—these indigenous communities are at risk of disappearing and with them, all of their wisdom to preserve our Earth’s lungs: the Amazon.
I have taken the liberty to share with you, to the reader who would like to delve more in this topic, the following links from extraordinary women:
Adriana Ciudad Witzel is a Peruvian-German artist based in Bogotá, since 2014. Her most recent work has been exhibited in LA TERTULIA Museum (Cali), La Casa del Lago (Mexico City), Y Gallery (New York), SACO(Antofagasta) and in NC-arte (Bogotá). She was a recipient of the UNDP Grant (United Nations Development Programme) obtained to produce the Alabaos Project; a scholarship from the DAAD Programme (German Academic Exchange Service) obtained to carry out a project in Los Angeles; and the Painter Annual Prize of the Dorothea Konwiarz Foundation in Berlin. She has been Artist in Residence at Lugar a Dudas (Cali), and SACO6 (Antofagasta). Adriana Ciudad's work positions itself in a place where intimacy meets the collective. Using affection as a starting point, her artistic work intimately explores themes such as grief, childbirth, colonialism and ancestral knowledge marginalised by the Western paradigm.