Plunder Me, Baby: A Peruvian Artist’s Look At Indigenous History Through Sculpture
Photo: Courtesy of Pacific Standard Time/Yvette Montoya

Plunder Me, Baby: A Peruvian Artist’s Look At Indigenous History Through Sculpture

“And I live
Engulfed in your nostalgia
And my own”

In the heart of Pomona, California you’ll find an unassuming building on a busy street that houses incredible ceramic art. I’ve been to the bars and clubs that are one street over but I have never actually taken the time to go inside American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA) and see what they’re about. I definitely have to plead ignorance because although I’ve taken ceramics and practiced sculpting I had no idea how versatile ceramics are as an art form. The museum contains all kinds of beautiful mixed media works by local artists, from private collections, as well as traditional pottery and artifacts.

I walked through all sorts of political ceramics then through an old vault. I wandered down a long hallway and finally found myself at the exhibit I came for. There was a screen playing an interview on a loop as well as several seats to view it. An old Peruvian man spoke and then sang over a soft guitar that is eventually folded into harder rock.

Kukuli Velarde’s ceramic series “plunder me, baby” is breathtaking. It is a collection reminiscent of pre-Columbian Peruvian artworks except all of the sculptures feature the artist’s face, referencing the artist’s own indigenous roots. The sculptures are displayed as live animals that are encased and aware of being viewed – some look terrified, some defiant, some confrontational, but all of them appear disjointed, lonely, and out of context. The title of each work is set like a zoo – the type of “animal” with a description of its identifying characteristics.

Photo: Courtesy of Pacific Standard Time/Yvette Montoya

The inscription below a white sculpture of the artist with her feet bent back on her head reads “India Patarrajada – she will do all the acrobacias her master orders, pero no esperes que te quiera mucho.” It’s a powerful statement about the sexualization of indigenous women and the dehumanizing treatment indigenous populations have endured since their conquest. All vessels are fitted with a description that echo the derogatory names reserved for a people who for centuries have been considered primitive prey for white colonizers. It is also an interesting look at the way artifacts are owned, praised and studied for their beauty but are kept out of context and divorced from the people who actually made them.

Photo: Courtesy of Pacific Standard Time/Yvette Montoya

Her other featured works – the Isichapuitu series – are six statues in the style of a Mexican Huastec sculpture from the 6th century B.C. Each one is a self portrait representing internal organs “presented on the floor, next to each other, as a metaphor for wholeness.” They look like chubby children with their arms raised. All gaze forward except for one that gleefully looks away with what looks like stigmata coming from her hands.

The glazes, the vessels, the faces, the lifelike eyes, the tiny words and phrases etched and painted on her works is incredible, it is truly something to behold. All of Velarde’s works are juxtaposed with actual artifacts that are much smaller and encased the same way as her new original works. It’s a look back at history, it recognizes where old attitudes and prejudices came from and defies them. Her work is also looking forward – “pre-columbian” people are still very much alive and very much a part of Peru, Latin America, and the World. She reminds us that indigenous people are not as beloved as their artifacts and that history cannot be kept neatly behind glass – and that maybe it’s time for us to break it.

The exhibit was available for viewing from 9.16.17-02.11.18

Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA is a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles. Led by the Getty, Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA is the latest collaborative effort from arts institutions across Southern California.