Post-Colonial Gastromancy in the work of Adán Vallecillo
By Ian Deleón, November 2015
An expanded Caribbeanist, my term for someone who embraces the multiplicities and parallels between the people of all the Americas — from the Atlantic islands to the Pacific coasts of South America and beyond, would find much to happily digest visiting Lima in the next few weeks.
« Earthworks » is a solo exhibition curated by Carla Acevedo-Yates at 80m2 Livia Benavides in the Barranco area of Lima, Peru featuring the sociological-conceptual work of artist Adán Vallecillo, hailing from Honduras and having studied in Puerto Rico.
Walking into Adán’s exhibition at 80m2, I felt like I was cautiously stepping into an archaeological dig or an educational diorama at a natural history museum. « Earthworks » is the result of an extensive field research project by Adán investigating the community of Hinche in Haiti, not too far from the border with the Dominican Republic. Adán’s focus is less monumental than the show’s title might suggest to readers familiar with land artists such as Goldsworthy or Heizer. He takes viewers on a material investigation behind the Hinche community’s process of creating bonbons terres––sweet biscuits literally made from earth.
The exhibition is sparse, permeating the space confidently and intimately, allowing viewers time and space to properly gauge the weight of these objects and ideas the artist has arranged for us. There are material explorations that attest to Adán’s fine art background: canvases elegantly painted with the bright green soil from Hinche that is separated during the biscuit-making process and lines rendered in Pepto Bismol. One of these, titled Geofagia, describes the name for what we are encountering in « Earthworks », the actual eating of earth or soil.
Eating soil is more directly to the point in terms of what Adán is showing us happening in Hinche, but the conceptual inquiry does not end there. Several pieces begin to subtly address the socio-political issues that may underpin the need for such a practice in the Western world through the inclusion of antacid tablets, anti-flatulents, and the aforementioned digestive aid of Pepto. For me, these ingredients in the context of the show made me think of the more figurative reading of geophagy, that of the earth-eater, the über-consumer. I began to imagine a large and menacing mechanized presence devouring land, flora, fauna and humans with total disregard, something perhaps resembling the Hexxus monster from the film FernGully.
From this perspective, we can begin to see how the works on view tackle the juggernaut of globalization with a special emphasis dedicated to considering how the Western world has been punishing Haiti since its independence. This reminds me of a pair of phrases my Cuban father would often utter in times of extreme public displeasure with an offensive image or careless comment: « me dan ganas de cagar » o « me dan ganas de vomitar » (« it makes me want to shit » or « it makes me want to vomit »). The sentiment I’m sure is not particular to Latin America––however, I have always been fond of the way ingesting and defecating are connoted as potentially revolutionary actions in the Southern Hemisphere. Brazil’s modernist praxis, the Manifesto Antropófago, of cultural cannibalism, is a clear example of this.
Returning to « Earthworks », the piece simply titled África, is for me the most powerful in the show and the most evocative of the metaphorical allusions I’ve been describing above. A ruffled blanket is laid unassumingly on the floor of the gallery. Raw, crushed fragments of the bonbons lie within the blanket, along with the tablet rolls of chewable digestive aids. The materials look so natural together you almost believe this could be just some ethnographic specimen taken right from a Hinche processing site, but their juxtaposition is highly intentional, especially when one considers its title. It is as if Adán has managed to condense the fraught history of Haiti––the slavery, the internal schism, the exclusion, the poverty, the suffering––all in a very neat visual poetic.
But a viewer/reader should not leave « Earthworks » satisfied that they have witnessed only a clever reprimand of global capitalism metaphorically wrapped in the package of an engorged financial beast, a bloated land-eater with appropriately severe digestive troubles. The exhibition also brings to mind the loss in most of the Western world of a real, intimate relationship with one’s land. As Camille Paglia develops in Sexual Personae, Western civilization following Egyptian antiquity and later Christianity shifted from being an earth-cult to a sky-cult. Spiritual worship became an exteriorizing conceptual projection, an embrace of the intangible, immaterial, and abstract. In many ways this understanding can be applied to the current prevailing global economic model, evermore based on illusory goods, wealth, and services.
Carla Acevedo-Yates’s curatorial statement informs us of geophagia’s appearance as a practice found throughout the world for different sacred rites, not solely for a people’s lack of nutritive options. She mentions the widespread religious belief that we are all of the earth, and to the earth we shall one day return before concluding the thought with a chilling reminder: « one way or another, we all eat dirt ».
It is a nice mental image to have had before stepping into the exhibition and it is something I have tried to reproduce here as well. For me, that last line drives home the point that this has not been a study of human « specimens », reinforcing the paternalistic disidentification of us and them, which has been central to the West’s exacerbation of Haiti’s troubles. It is rather a philosophical positioning from which to consider the many ways humans have and continue to mold and ingest the many fruits of this planet, with varying degrees of success and nausea along the way.
About Ian Deleón
RECENT, CURRENT & UPCOMING
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September 8 – December 18, 2015 | Artist in residence at the Boston Center for the Arts
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