Indigeneity and Decolonial Seeing in Contemporary Art of Guatemala


Fernando Poyón, Contra la Pared, 2006. Digital video still. Image courtesy of the artist.

By Kency Cornejo

The following text is excerpted from FUSE Magazine 36-4  (September 2013). 

In the early twentieth-century modernist art of Latin America, Indigeneity became a popular theme with which to strengthen nationalist discourse, one that relegated Indigenous being to a romantic past. With the emergence of a Latin American modernism, artists who had recently arrived from studies in Europe introduced avant-garde trends reminiscent of an Indigenous aesthetics and style from centuries ago: flat spaces, decentering of linear perspective, use of saturated bold colours, anatomically abstracted bodies and overlapping representations of space. While these stylistic choices echoed preconquest modes of representation that were forcefully prohibited during colonization, they were now credited to European artists and labeled cubism, expressionism, fauvism, surrealism and other European modernist styles supposedly inspired by non-European cultures.

Simultaneously, while such artists celebrated and elevated an imagined Indigenous identity, the brutal repression of Indigenous peoples residing in Central America was taking place under various government-led military campaigns. In depictions of these brutal periods — such as La Matanza, the massacre of 1932 led by General Hernández Martínez which left 30,000 Salvadorans dead, or the more recent genocide in Guatemala led by ex-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, which resulted in over 1,771 Mayan-Ixil killed and 29,000 displaced over his seventeen-month rule—the Indigenous body remains the object of violence, historical discourse and sociopolitical analysis, and is rarely acknowledged as a voice or enunciation of visual epistemologies. In some cases, well- respected and well-intended artists in Central America addressed the Indigenous plight in contemporary artworks, but the Indigenous body remained a representation from the gaze of another. It appears that unless an artwork figuratively depicts village life, customs or landscapes (subject matter that fits within an already accepted folkloric style), Indigenous artists are disqualified from art narratives as creators of contemporary or experimental art, much less as contributors to an intellectual or philosophical artistic debate. Why is Indigeneity relegated to a romantic past, one that is to be depicted, that serves to inspire artists and that is only to be seen, while Indigenous peoples in the region are continuously subjected to racist and colonialist treatment, dehumanization and murder?

Today in postwar Guatemala, the flourishing contemporary art scene consists of several artists who employ experimental art practices to address the current state and violence within a greater system of coloniality. I here refer to the term the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano introduced to describe a system of domination in which the European/Western colonization of political and economic spheres continues to be intricately linked to the colonization of knowledge systems at the world scale: Coloniality is not synonymous with colonialism, though their historical relationships are the same. Rather, coloniality extends beyond the removal of previous colonial governments and administrations, and persists as an ideological and epistemic tool of domination embedded in systems of power brought about by the history of colonization. [1]

For years, artists Benvenuto Chavajay, Sandra Monterroso, Ángel Poyón, Fernando Poyón and Antonio Pichillá have challenged colonialist notions of Indigenous peoples as mere silent sources of inspiration. Similar to what Walter Mignolo has termed a “locus of enunciation,” these artists create and articulate knowledge from a specific place — a colonial wound — visually and through the body. [2] From an Indigenous embodiment of knowledge and cosmologies, they critique coloniality as they observe and live it in contemporary Guatemala. What issues do these artists bring to the forefront of decolonial visual thinking and critiques of coloniality? And how do these artists negotiate contemporary art practices with a colonial legacy of Indigenous repression, as they engage in creative decolonial strategies? How do their works delink from Eurocentric notions of the Indigenous body as one to be seen, and not as one who sees?

[1] Aníbal Quijano, “Coloniality of Power and Its Institutions” paper presented at the conference Coloniality and Its Disciplinary Sites, Binghamton University, NY, April 1999).

[2] See Walter Mignolo, “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference,” South Atlantic Quarterly 101, no. 1 (2002): 56–96; and Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000).


Kency Cornejo is currently a PhD candidate in Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University and holds an MA from UT Austin and a BA from UCLA. Her dissertation, “Visual Disobedience: The Geopolitics of Experimental Art in Central America, 1990–present,” explores the intersection between race, gender and coloniality in the art of postwar Central America, and considers issues of violence, femicide, immigration and Central American diasporas. Her work has received support from the Fulbright-Hays DDRA and the Ford Foundation. She has designed and taught a course at Duke titled Art, Visual Culture & Politics in Central America.


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