Claudia Martínez Garay’s practice encompasses painting, sculpture, printmaking, video, and site-specific installation. She is interested in how artefacts, cultural relics, and propaganda communicate the history and social-political memory of cultures. Multiple interpretations of historical figures and artefacts are incorporated into her work, supplanting institutional narratives and notions of stewardship. Claudia seeks to challenge the persistence of colonialist frameworks and official narratives informing our understanding of pre-Columbian cultures. The fractured forms in her practice signal stories and identities that have been obscured by colonizing forces, through a process of erosion.
In this conversation for Living Content, we discuss how she reanimates existing fragments of lost histories, and how she underscores the connections between that which can be salvaged and continued. We talk about her complicated relationship with Peru and how moving away gave her clarity on political, social and personal matters, whilst also offering her the inspiration to tackle these concerns with fresh eyes. She explains how specific works look at the meaning of time, technology, and nature, through Indigenous perspectives. We also touch upon why it is important for her to alternate between using traditional materials and methods of making (like clay or tufting), with new technologies (like CGI).
Claudia Martínez Garay (b. 1983 in Ayacucho, Peru) lives and works in Amsterdam and Lima. She studied at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, and did residencies at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam (NL), Cité des Arts in Paris (FR), and ARTPACE San Antonio, Texas (US). She has presented her work at: Denver Art Museum, CO (US); Artpace, San Antonio, TX (US); basis e.v., Frankfurt (DE); Museum Arnhem, Arnhem (NL); B.A.K., basis voor actuele kunst, Utrech (NL); Akzo Nobel Art Foundation, Amsterdam (NL); Harn Museum of Art, Gainesville, FL (US); SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin (DE); Sifang Art Museum, Nanjing (CN); El Museo del Barrio, New York, NY (US); Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau, Dresden (DE); Kunstverein, Braunschweig (DE); 21st Contemporary Art Biennial Sesc_ Videobrasil, São Paulo (BR); 16th Istanbul Biennal: the Seventh Continent, curated by Nicolas Bourriaud, Istanbul (TR); Taning Y/Our Passion, Aichi Triennale, Aichi (JP) and Triennial: Songs for Sabotage, New Museum, New York, NY (US).
Adriana Blidaru: Hi Claudia! What is the backstory of you becoming an artist?
Claudia Martínez Garay: I was born in Ayacucho and I grew up during the time of the internal conflict between the terrorist group Shining Path and the military and state forces in Peru. The Andean people, including my family, were right in the middle of this, so during this time many towns disappeared, as people fled for survival. There were many human casualties and a lot of abuse. A huge migration to the cities took place, and I also ended up in the city. Besides this, my parents are Mestizos so I grew up following strict Christian traditions interconnected with the Andean festivities, some guided by the agricultural calendar of the Andes.
In university, I was initially going to study music but my family didn't agree with that, so I started my studies with industrial design and then I changed to printmaking. It was difficult because as an artist, the situation in Peru is very tricky. Even more so, for brown mestizos and brown artists, it seems impossible to make a living. To move forward with my interests, I also studied a bit of Visual Anthropology. I’ve always been interested in propaganda and in understanding how to read and interpret images and archives that fix our multicultural history. Finally, I moved to the Netherlands to do the Rijksakademie residency.
AB: Interesting that you studied Anthropology. That becomes obvious when one knows that you are using a lot of found images and propaganda materials in your work. I’m thinking about your videos and about the series Pacha, in particular. Can you tell me more about your research process?
CMG: You can tell how my practice evolved over time. If you look at video works that I made a bit earlier on (like I WILL OUTLIVE YOU, from 2017), I had a different approach to art-making. I was using more of the template that I learned from the university, where everything had to have a conceptual reasoning behind it. When I moved to the Netherlands for the Rijksakademie, I never even imagined that the question “how does this make you feel?” when looking at art would be valid. That was totally strange and different for me. So I started to re-learn how to approach making artwork. And now, I make work that is less controlled, that follows less of “a familiar methodology.”
With the Pacha series for instance (like Qanchis Pacha and Isqun Pacha, from 2021), I envisioned them as windows or portals, that allow you to focus on different things. They are like snapshots for understanding our relationship with the world, temporality, nature, and the many gods. It’s not something that can be identified from one specific time or geographical territory; it is more like a constelation of symbols and ideas that I cannot fully explained verbally. I learned a lot about Andean concepts through this works: specifically about Cosmovision.
AB: What made you want to delve into that, to begin with?
CMG: I realized that I could only do that by having some distance from Peru. Coming from the Andes, as a brown person, in Lima, you are considered a second class citizen. Abroad, I didn’t feel the direct racism. I was finally able to talk as a regular citizen and this allowed me to understand more objectively how the Spanish colonization has been so deeply assimilated in Peru. Mainly, in Lima, everyone feels much closer culturally to being white or Spanish than to being Andean. Even the closest provinces feel very far away from Lima because of the cultural differences and the discrimination. It’s ridiculous: even in its context of origins, in Peru and other southamerican countries, being Andean or from the Amazon feels much more exotic. Yet, the capital centers are predominantly white. This is a kind of indoctrination that you receive growing up and living in a city like Lima. So, unexpectedly maybe, I started to better understand myself and the different nuances of what it means to be indigenous in different contexts, outside of Peru.
With the Pacha series - when I started looking into it - I read interpretations by many researchers but it was never clear to me what the concept meant. It is something that goes beyond time, space, and the environment. It was difficult for me to decipher how to talk about a topic like “time” and to show how it’s depicted in Aymara and Quechua cultures as being embedded in one singular concept. What made it even more complicated was the difficulty to fully understand Quechua gramatic. I’m just learning this. Interestingly, I also discovered that in some indigenous Hawaiian cultures, there is the same similarity on time understanding. What you see is what you know, and you can only think through the things that you are exposed to. So - in that sense - the future is always behind us because we cannot see it: it is what we don’t know. While the past, you know it, it is always in front of us: it is what we have already experienced.
In the Pacha series, there are many other elements: you can see a lot of colors inspired by Andean culture and Chicha music albums; elements that are meant for good luck, but also references to many indigenous technologies that are not only related to ceramic, textiles, or art-making, but also to medicine, engineering, and astronomy.
AB: You must have noticed that, more recently, there has been a prevailing championing of Indigeneity - especially when it comes to its connection to nature and the idea of the Anthropocene. Tell me, as you have been in Amsterdam for over seven years now, how do you perceive this?
CMG: We didn’t grow up talking about concepts like the “Anthropocene” but this has been at the heart of Indigenous communities all along, for thousands of years. It is as important to pray to God, as it is to worship the rivers and the lakes that you drink from, or the earth that brings food, or the peaks that give water, and so on.
I think it’s great that in Europe people are discussing the concept of the Anthropocene but it’d be better to look at how other cultures - more ancient perhaps - have had that already embedded in how they define themselves. It is intrisic to the way of life of indigenous communities. Even in language the distinction between nature and human, sometimes is equal, and contrary to the western extractivist and dominant culture approach.
On a global scale, it’s obvious that “the world” wouldn’t have the same reaction to a massive flood that would happen in Frankfurt, as it would to a flood that would happen in Pakistan (like the one that happened this past Summer because of the climate crisis). The browner you are, the more dehumanized you are.
Also, ideas of decolonization have just started circulating in Peru, as there are more urgent matters that distract from this lingering discussion in politics. It was a small group of people, including Aníbal Quijano, that have made them more popular worldwide in the academic field. Yet, if these views are not aligned with the government and the interests of power groups, then - on a practical scale - it doesn't really matter because in Peru power groups and companies have a monopoly over policies. It is structurally corrupt and it’s been like this for decades. Almost all our former presidents are in prison. When a country is ran like this, it is easy to understand why companies have more rights than nature.
I think that unless something uncomfortable happens, there will not be a global shift. Climate change disasters are proof of how - more or less - governments are willing to change only when hitting a limit. It is also about the process of learning other concepts and about other ancient - closer to nature - cultures, that can give hints on how to improve our relationship with nature.
AB: I want to ask you about the materiality of your work. You have made a series of paintings Caminos de Liberación (Pathways of Liberation) that contain acrylic, casein on linen, and unexpectedly... clay.
CMG: This was a super important moment for me in my practice because it was the first time I started working with ceramic, and this is such an important part of history, culture, and everyday life of Peruvian cultures. Many civilizations from Peru built their entire architecture with clay, so when the raining seasons came, they would destroy everything and they would have to start from scratch. When archeologists discovered these civilizations, they found them as complex but fragile clay architectural structures with several sedimented layers and reliefs. I always loved that.
Yet this painting series was a very complicated body of work because it deals with religion and the influence that religion has had in Peru. Many of the photos that inspired the works are either found photos or from family archives taken during religious holidays. The religious and agricultural celebrations are so mixed together: it's very hard to detangle the narratives around them, but also the effects that these narratives have had on brown bodies. The process of assimilation of religion for survival, and its effects on politics, is very complicated in Peru. In many ways, this series was a reflection on that and on my personal history. There is something so simple about using clay in both painting and sculptures; it connects me with the ancient times and artists who could only use this material to tell their stories.
AB: You also address the destruction of ancient civilizations by rainy seasons in a video work that we already mentioned: I WILL OUTLIVE YOU, from 2017. Can you can talk me through that a bit?
CMG: The painting series was made shortly after the video, so they are connected. The video describes the “journey” through a Moche ceramic vase that represents a prisoner. I was in the Netherlands when I was reading that the museum in Lima was trying to purchase some colonial illustrations from a very important and beautiful manuscript about Peru, called The Codex Martínez Compañón. The museum won the bid but the auction house determined that the Spanish Government would have the final word in this sale. And, of course, the Spanish Government did not agree for the illustrations to go to Lima. Everyone in Peru was outraged. This made me so angry and made me think of how most of the artifacts that I see are in Western museums. I did some research and in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, they have over 8000 artifacts from Peru: super nice, complex ones, and very relevant for Peruvian history, but also less important and banal things.
I wrote to the curators to visit the collection, and when I saw their digital database, I noticed they had a large collection of representations of prisoners. The Mochicas were masters in ceramic - they used it both ritualistically and in everyday life, but these portraits actually represent individual women and men at that time. This specific vase that I chose - is a depiction of a prisoner before being sacrificed. Individual people are depicted in different parts of the ritual: you can recognize the same face in different stages, that’s how archeologists realized that these were portraits of real people. Usually, the prisoners are modeled naked, they have a rope-snake on the neck that sometimes bites their penis, and their hands are tied. I chose this one out of many because it had a very human expression: sad and thoughtful, almost showing despair.
I used photogrametry and 3d technology in order to have transform the vase in a digital model and, technically speaking, I to be able to “travel” inside of this 1200 years old artifact. I wanted the viewer to feel the story of the object as the camera traveled through it, as if exploring a landscape. The landscape itself reminded me of the north desert coast, where this object comes from. I was thinking a lot about this person’s life: of him as a child, growing up in that society. How they would pick up shells and leave them in the lagoons as an offering, to bring rain; about his community and neighbors; about the hardships and challenges that they faced together, living in that harsh enviroment with constant floods and droughts; about his thoughts when he was preparing to be sacrificed; and about his burial. The narrative then becomes about his passing on and his afterlife captured by this vase, preserved in the German museum. It’s a special work, and using CGI to create this narrative was very exciting to me because as a predominantly white media this technology is not often used for brown or andean narratives.
AB: What excites you about the near future? What are you looking forward to?
CMG: Well, one of the things is working with new technologies and learning more about using CGI and 3d modeling. Another thing I’m excited about is continuing working with sound and music, which is something that I feel is important as companion for video and storytelling. I’m also continuing the Pacha series - it feels like this work is not going to end with just 5 or 10 pieces - it will take some more time, work and research to be able to reach closer to the different understandings and interpretations of this new words and terminologies. And, as I learn about this myself, I hope to share more.
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