Amaru Runa exhibition at the 2019 Intercontinental Biennale of the Indigenous Arts in Lima, Peru (courtesy of Jorge Iván Cevellos)

Since its official opening in Quito, Ecuador in October 2004, the Intercontinental Biennale of Indigenous Arts (BIAI) has grown in size and breadth. This past edition, hosted in Lima, Peru in 2018, included the work from over 300 artists from 22 countries and facilitated extensive additional programming throughout Southern Peru municipalities of Ica, Palpa, and Nazca.

This pioneering, worldwide cultural program is the product of a group of artists and organizers who have dedicated themselves to its maturation over the past two decades. Now operating as the Indigenous School for the Arts, Community of Learning and Foundation (based in Quito, Ecuador) these artists have relentlessly championed the BIAI’s autonomy on a shoestring budget by creatively navigating the world of politics, local art scenes, and Indigenous cultures around the globe.

Traveling Gallery of the Intercontinental Biennial of Indigenous Art exhibition at UNAM in Chicago, 2018 (courtesy of Jorge Iván Cevellos)

In addition to the BIAI, members of the Indigenous School for the Arts, Community of Learning and Foundation personally execute a seemingly endless tour of curated exhibitions from the BIAI called the Traveling Gallery. The Intercontinental Bienniale of Indigenous Arts exhibition opened at Chicago’s Cervantes Institute on May 22. The works presented in Chicago are a small survey of the works present at the biennial, but does well to capture the breadth of interests and visual diversity of the artists. At the Cervantes Institute, a large constructivist painting by NYC based artist Amaru Chiza hangs across the gallery from the atmospheric, gold-leafed portraiture of Fabian Anton Navarro, and diagonal to a display table at the entrance offering copies of The Story of the Wolf, a children’s book written and illustrated by social protest painter Gustavo Toaquiza. On each page of the book, artist Martha Tigasi has translated the text into Kichwa, Spanish, English, and German.

Spending time with this exhibition, I’m struck with the continuity of subtext underlying the diversity of artistic expressions. Each work illustrates or exemplifies through social intervention, that the world we experience is fundamentally plastic and mutable. The cohesion of the dialogue between the pieces rests on the grammar of this global protest language.

Jorge Iván Cevallos (courtesy of Jorge Iván Cevallos)

Putting this grammar into practice defines the BIAI, its history, operations, personalities, and goals.  It makes the group of artists producing the BIAI adaptable and tenacious. It also makes the scope and meaning of their project difficult to articulate, and apropos references to other organizations difficult to find. To better understand the BIAI’s unique position to contribute to art and culture, I sat down with Jorge Iván Cevallos (Crazy Horse), general director and producer of the Intercontinental Biennale of Indigenous Arts, for a series of interviews to begin documenting a history of the BIAI.

The following transcript is an exquisite corpse of three conversations we had over the past month. The new structure of this interview has been agreed upon to accurately reflect the content of those conversations and to better address the scope of Mr. Cevallo’s work.

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2019 Traveling Gallery Exhibition at the Cervantes Institute in Chicago (all following photos by the author)

Hyperallergic: Can you tell me what the Festival for the Indigenous Arts was?

Jorge Cevallos: As far as we considered it, it was a little bit of a risky project to call it a biennale. So we called it a Festival of the Arts, but we knew it was a preview to see if the format we created could succeed. It was very successful. So we decided to put up the next edition, in 2004, as the first official BIAI in Quito.

H: When you say it was a risky project, it made me think of the story about the security guard you told at an event the other night. I think that’s a good jumping off point. Would you mind telling it again?

JC: Qith, a fellow artist, and I went to deliver one of his paintings, to participate in an international exhibition organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Quito.  Walking to drop it off, the main guard at the entrance, who was supposed to take care of the security of the building, ask us, “What is this?”

I said, “This is painting.”

“Shit kind of a painting, it’s not a real kind of painting,” he said. “It’s not art.  Go, go, go away.” So he just dismisses us. He wasn’t even the secretary or the curator. So we could not even cross the door. It was incredible. You have to begin to deal with the lower place of the commanding chain, so can you imagine how many years it would take you to reach the manager?  You just will never succeed, there’s no way.

What I mentioned was that the reason for creating the biennial, because the artists of the popular neighborhoods of Ecuador or those of the indigenous communities (very talented people), didn’t have a chance to get into art galleries or any official spaces for the art. The establishment in Ecuador considers the art of the Native Americans to be craft. They said that craft has its own space on the streets and in the markets, in the plazas. There’s no reason why art galleries would be interested in the work since they don’t consider us as artists. Even the guard at the door has this bad habit from the establishment. It was kind of a test at that point, not a deterrent. We know the value of our artwork and we know the quality of the aesthetic, and its cultural significance.

That’s why it was so important, the quality of the work that we showed, the balance of colors, and the composition. It is something that is common to human experience. The BIAI would show the establishment how talented our people are. That was the first goal.

The second was in recognition that, as people who had been consistently marginalized outside of the establishment, the Native Americans, even the few popular artists, hadn’t had the chance to have the specialized training. Twenty years ago when we began this project, many of the artists did not even have a high school degree. So how can we expect any higher education levels? There is no way for us to justify that. So we decided to create this biennale space as a training space. It was a very basic idea to get training ourselves. In all communities and in all groups, there are too many talented great masters, so we decided to invite them to hold workshops at the BIAI. So it was very successful because we discovered a huge need all over the world.

2019 Traveling Gallery Exhibition at the Cervantes Institute in Chicago

H: So when did you realize that this was a global project?

JC: All the time. The BIAI came out of a music-recording project that I led in 1991. It was a workshop of musicians named TAMU, integrated initially by only three people: David West, Luis Lema and me. We moved a high quality, portable recording studio into small communities in Ecuador. We worked with bands of Native American musicians such as the Tsachila, Julián Tucumbi and the Tucumbi, and the Yumbos Chaguamandos to record, produce and publish their music. After that experience we took the project to Indigenous communities in several countries of Latin America where we would spend six months to a year helping to produce their awesome creations, also giving a fresh touch of modernity, adding a wide range of modern instruments like piano, percussion, bass, electric or acoustic guitars … inviting just the best musicians around the area we worked in.

H: Was TAMU the starter of the BIAI?

JC: Yes. The very first project was that workshop. Then we created the BIAI. Now we’ve created the Indigenous School of the Arts, Community of Learning and Foundation, to support the BIAI.

H: How does the foundation support the BIAI?

JC:  We launched the foundation in 2012 when the BIAI and the Traveling Gallery were growing to the point where there were a number of large institutional and government partners involved in both projects. This foundation was a way to make sure we maintained autonomy, so we could be on top of the art and also the administration. Before, we had to work through other people who had the legal frameworks required for handling these transactions. We would build the partnership and contracts, then they would file our report. It was so much more work, and we didn’t have full control of how we administered our budget. So we found problems there; we said: “no way we are leaving the administration of our project to another institution.” If we cannot maintain control of 100%, then it´s no good.

I was mentioning an example of Chile and Mexico. The government in Chile created the Biennial of Chilean Indigenous Art, and the government owns the idea and the government founds the idea and gives the money, organizes the payments, everything. So when the president changed, and the next president didn’t give a shit about culture, he put the money into sports, for example. So the Chilean Biennial is gone. The idea just disappeared. The biennale is dead. Mexico is the same example. I don’t think it ran more than twice. Three times at the most … and then disappeared.

2019 Traveling Gallery Exhibition at the Cervantes Institute in Chicago

H: You mentioned this phenomenon was something you saw when Quito was transitioning away from being a center of culture.

JC: Yeah. The ’60s and ’70s were a blast. Beautiful paintings, great writers and musicians.  After the ’90s, the cultural movement began to disappear because the establishment didn’t like the art at all. Before that, they would use it as a PR corrective if they needed to. Occasionally art and cultural production even aligned with their agendas. But after the ’90s the establishment began to just kill it. They made it into finances, cheapened the art, undercutting some beautiful projects until they just disappeared. Movies, dance, theater, and music festivals just vanished. After five, six, seven years they’re totally gone. We just had to keep moving ahead. So we had to make the Traveling Gallery.

H: And how did you make the Traveling Gallery?

JC: We contacted people who come to the biennale and who happen to be part of a larger team. So some of them come as individuals to the biennale, but then they are part of another group. In every community of people, we find this possibility and we get together with them. So it’s just growing. Take St. Ignace (the next city to host the Traveling Gallery). We just began with a partnership with a Native American Organization named Rendezvous at the Straits Powwow, whose leader is artist Daryl Brown (Barking Dog). After that first connection, we just began to grow thanks to our portfolio and the compromise and credibility of Barking Dog. Now he has extended our relations to institutions such as The St. Ignace Visitors Bureau, The Michilimackinac Historical Society, and the Mackinac Arts Council.

2019 Traveling Gallery Exhibition at the Cervantes Institute in Chicago

H: You’ve talked about St. Ignace being exceptionally supportive.

JC:  It is exceptionally supportive in the way that the institutions around this audience have a passion to serve their community and have clear objectives, which we integrate into ours. St. Ignace loves art and loves to have visitors. They have a good number of institutions that are on top of making sure that good things happen.

It’s part of the paradigm of this society to be an individualist. It’s in the brain of many people, even artists. It’s an attitude that is hard to recover from. You don’t do that with speech. Maybe we’re not such good philosophers. But we learn while doing the things that we have to do. We are doing the paradigm of working cooperatively, so everyone can gain something, everyone can learn something. To this point, we have to learn from the things that our elders did, and by actually doing the work.

2019 Traveling Gallery Exhibition at the Cervantes Institute in Chicago

The Traveling Gallery of the Intercontinental Bienniale of the Indigenous Arts is on view at the Cervantes Institute (31 W Ohio St, Chicago, IL) through June 24. It will travel to St. Ignace, Mackinac Island, and Mackinaw City, Michigan from August 17–September 3.

Graham Livingston is an American media artist based in Chicago. He writes, teaches, and curates for various venues, and is a founding member of Satellite, a co-operatively run artist space.