Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2021/22 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, and the second of three posts by the author, the third of which will be an email-only exhibition sent to all Hyperallergic subscribers.
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Something strange has been happening since Ramón Castillo, my friend and travel companion, and I arrived in the Chilean island of Chiloé by boat a few days ago, and I’m convinced it relates to the almost continual references here to warlocks, spirits, and the various mythological entities that are integral to the island’s identity — as vivid for outsiders like myself as for those who live here year round. What makes it even more fascinating in an anthropological sense is that there’s just enough touristic shtick attached to the bigger picture — take photos of your head atop the body of a pincoya (mermaid) or trauco (don’t ask!) — to muddy the waters, and validate visitors who don’t take this kind of thing very seriously.
But the thing is, I do take it very seriously, or at least I feel I have to while I’m here, engaged with the work of local artists. We spent our first night on the trip in a lakeside town on mainland Chile called Puerto Varas, where Esteban Pérez, Ramón’s former student, shared his fantastic handmade animations as well as his ongoing research into Chiloé’s spiritual dimension. So far, we’ve had quite memorable visits with four more artists: genre painter Anelys Wolf, who sometimes merges frames from Raul Ruíz’s more obscure films with glimpses of Chilote seascapes; collagist/painter Guillermo Grez, whose mystical works crackle with animism; photographer Pablo Carvacho, who abandoned a high-pressure professional life in Santiago and moved to a semi-remote corner of Chiloé with his family; and printmaker/instructor Rafael Lara, whose work is charged with powerful symbolism derived from his Mapuche ancestry. While their work doesn’t overlap stylistically, what all five artists share is that when the conversation inevitably turns to the mystique of Chiloé, nobody treats it as a joke.
Perhaps deep down I’m fascinated with the paradox of the social scientist who embeds himself in a society to study it more closely, only to find that he’s unable to separate himself from the phenomenon he’s studying. After four previous visits, the complex discourse surrounding the traditional beliefs of Chilote culture isn’t news to me, but I’ve found that I can no longer easily distinguish between the visionary dimension that attracts me to the art created here and the endlessly evocative storytelling that undergirds so much of the local culture. At the same time, as a white gringo with all the associated privilege, I can too easily convince myself that my efforts have been rewarded by a full immersion in an island culture that appears to call out to some, while turning its back on others.
Maybe that’s why I’ve decided to cap this trip with a project that will give back to Chiloé in a more concrete form, and I think we’ve found it in an abandoned wooden chapel built by the Jesuits in the late 18th century and preserved by Pablo Carvacho and his family. Painted in various shades of blue, it currently sits waiting to become an exhibition/meeting space for rural schools and artists in the region. This is the sort of project that’s very hard to fund using available Chilean resources. Instead of believing I’m helping local artists by bringing international art to Chiloé, the best contribution I can make may be to help provide a venue where local artists and artisans can show their art for the benefit of each other.