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WERKEN: THE MAPUCHE MESSENGER Interview with Bernardo Oyarzún

Carolina Castro Jorquera

Calligraphy, 2011. Installation: 8th Merco Sur Biennial, Porto Alegre, Brasil. Photo Credit: Chi-Hua Salinas
Bernardo Oyarzún (Chile, 1963) will represent Chile at the 57th Venice Biennale with Werken, a project commissioned by the curator Ticio Escobar (Paraguay, 1947) that addresses the arrival and suppression of the Mapuche subject—a very current issue and one of great relevance to Chile’s social and cultural makeup. Chile, like many other nation-states of the Americas, has stood out for infringing on the rights of its earliest inhabitants. In 1877, indigenous people were forcibly abducted and taken to Europe to be exhibited in the famous Jardins d’Acclimatation of Paris, next to “red skins,” the bearded lady, and elephants. Nowadays, indigenous peoples have come to be called terrorists solely for wanting to exist and inhabit their own lands. Curiously, a machi, a Mapuche spiritual leader, has appeared for a few years now on the Chilean 100-peso coin, just like the national heroes that appear on other bills and coins. We must then ask ourselves: How much closer do these gestures move the Chilean State toward a greater understanding of the richness of its native peoples?

The werken is the mouthpiece of a community; it is the Mapudungun word for “messenger”—one who bears the word. Oyarzún’s work recalls a crushed and humiliated community, but also the tenacious strength of the only peoples that were not vanquished by the dominant power. Throughout the following interview, the view proposed by this Mapuche artist declares that we are standing before a living nation. For this reason, Oyarzún’s work takes on the quality of a kind of mission and, in the 21st century, renders him the bearer of a message that will make it to the Old World, undoubtedly with the support of the ancients, so that in the context of contemporary art, Werken can be read not only as a denunciation, but also as a gesture of solidarity with the struggle of all peoples.

CAROLINA CASTRO (RAIL): Let’s start at the beginning. What is Werken about? How did it come to be?

BERNARDO OYARZÚN: In order to know what it’s about, I think it’s important for me to tell you how Werken began. [Curator] Ticio Escobar extended an invitation to me to do a project specifically for the Chilean Pavilion in the Venice Biennale about “the Mapuche question,” as he called it. After that, he sent me a very beautiful curatorial excerpt that put me in check—I felt I had to accept the invitation. I began to imagine a piece. I started to look for the Mapuche imaginaries with which I’d already worked, for example, with the curator Beatriz Bustos for the project Souvenir, where I made totems of color. In this search I came to the kollong (masks), which have a theatrical and ceremonial use, and I sent Ticio a sketch. At first I proposed to work with Mapuche surnames—this has a very relevant connotation for me, from a territorial perspective. I think that these surnames are bastions of the Mapuche territory as toponymy, even though the erasure of many of them and the transformation of others has led to the survival of around seven thousand surnames of Mapuche origin. But the toponymy has maintained itself almost intact in its indigenous denomination—I find this significant.

In relation to Werken, the visualization of Mapuche surnames has two readings. On the one hand, they are a historical projection of the weichafe (warrior), illustrated for the first time in Ercilla’s [16th Century epic poem] La Araucana, that display the heroes and martyrs of Mapuche history—that are projected even into our own times, above all, if we think about the permanent state of conflict [of the Mapuches] with the Chilean State. In light of this conflict, Mapuche surnames become part of an imaginary of resistance and struggle. The second reading is more literary, more like a fable; It refers to the werken, or messenger, the one who can change things with poetry and who travels with the word, wisdom, memory, and patience.

These two visions of the Mapuche subject are the key to the masks; they open a path for the work that finally becomes Werken. Superficially, and with a bit of irony, it’s interesting to imagine these indigenous masks in the dance of the Venetian masks, which represents something quite different.

RAIL: It’s my understanding that there are native Mapuche names that come directly from Mapudungun, from the origins of the ethnicity; there are also all of the transformations that those surnames have suffered, upon being written, pronounced, and with the passage of time, but also because of the mestizaje [race-mixing] that occurs between these surnames and others from outside, products of colonization. In your case, Oyarzún is not a Mapuche surname, but rather a white conquistador’s surname. What is the history of your own surname?

OYARZÚN: Yes, my surname—according to what I’ve been putting together from my family history—appears with my great grandmother, who was Sánchez Sánchez, which leads me to conclude that she was the daughter of a single mother. She then gave birth to my grandfather who became Oyarzún, perhaps because he was the son of a Spaniard or a colonist with the surname Oyarzún; maybe the owner of the land where my great grandmother lived at that time changed my grandfather’s surname or gave him his own. It isn’t very clear. Many Mapuches, due to pressure or by their own free will, changed their native names to foreign names, those of the colonists. Some names changed due to an erroneous entry in the civil registry. Also, in the first half of the 20th century, there was a great loss of Mapuche surnames by order of the Chilean State—by decree—but also to escape marginality and racism.


Digital sketch for Werken project for Venice Biennial

RAIL: Then, Werken has a biographical relationship to you; working with surnames has as much of a relation to your personal history as to the political history of Chile. In addition, there is also the dialogue these surnames could establish relative to the kollong. Tell me: what is the main function of the kollong? How does the presence of these pieces in the exhibition operate?

OYARZÚN: These masks have a completely theatrical function; they are used as representations. To represent Spaniards, for example, the look of the mask is changed and horse hair is added. There are rituals in which the machi tends to use a stone kollong during the ceremony. There is also a character that directs the ceremonies whom they call captain, and another that has a certain authority in the ceremonial events who is likewise called kollong, and who is masked. The kollong in a way disguises the Mapuche to exercise another function.

RAIL: We have, then, a staging of the totality of the Mapuche surnames in existence today—all 6,906 of them—and an ensemble of 1,500 Mapuche masks. It is inevitable to think that the intersection of both of these elements is very politically charged; it’s a very current proposition in relation to the current situation of the Mapuche conflict.

OYARZÚN: It’s a combination of this territorial friction between the Mapuche people and the Chilean State, and the epical aspect of each surname. Each one of these surnames is at once a werken and a weichafe, a messenger and a warrior. Ticio and I both liked the idea of calling the project Werken because it has a more poetical meaning: werken is the messenger, the one who remembers the word and transmits it.

RAIL: Your work has always had a large poetic component and an interest in language. For example, Lengua Izquierda [Left Tongue or Left Language], which you executed in 2009 during a residency in Stuttgart, Germany, makes obvious the colonial relation between Mapuches and Germans: the latter are the ones who led to the Mapuche language being written, adopting many conceptual and imaginary similitudes. There is a very strong poetical translation, a wanting to understand, to translate, to search for and inhabit territory through the use of language. A cosmology.

OYARZÚN: Lengua Izquierda is a poetic work about the way to indicate things. In Werken, each surname creates a poetic imaginary that has an ideological, political and cultural meaning. Given the way each of these meanings comes together, the composition of the names in a way constitutes identity, above all because of the symbolic composition that comes together in the naming of a subject: references to the social and cultural world, cosmogony, understandings of nature and wisdom that have been transmitted from time immemorial.

Surnames, therefore, are compound and highly complex because they reflect a profound social relation and observation of nature. In spite of the loss suffered by all these attributes post-colonization, it is still possible to sift out the deep-rooted, cultural richness of the names.

For example, the surname Leufuman is composed of two words. Leufu, which means “river,” would be the attribute of its lineage, man, a reduction of manque, which means “condor”; therefore this surname signifies River Condor. Another surname of this lineage: Calfuman. Its attribute is “blue” (calfu) and its lineage, manque; therefore it signifies Blue Condor. In the end, this constitutes the work—the Mapuche subject.

RAIL: According to my understanding of the indigenous world and, in particular, the Mapuche, this world conceives of itself in a collective sense. There is an issue of community. Every situation is decided, addressed, and understood collectively. There is a collective identification. The Mapuche individual is bound to his or her community, not isolated. From a contemporary point of view, the individual is alone; society has abandoned him or her. But in the Mapuche universe the individual exists communally—in relation to.


Ecosystem, 2005. Installation: Galería Gabriela Mistral, Santiago de Chile. Photo Credit: Fernando Balmaceda

OYARZÚN: Effectively, the social world of the Mapuche was completely bound by communities or lof. In addition to their organization on the village-level, they maintained close contact between groups of villages—like the well-known ayllarehue (nine rehue), which corresponded to nine lof, or communities—that were totally connected. In turn, the ayllarehue could meet in large parliaments called Collang; thus we are talking about an organization of all the land, totally connected. For them, the function of the werken was quite relevant. Nowadays, the contemporary Mapuche world is scattered across a geographical and cultural dispersion that broke the roots of the culture—we’re talking about lineage, land, and nature. There is a great diversity in this dispersion and in these new settings, the Mapuche reconstruct themselves like a jigsaw puzzle. But I would boldly dare to synthesize them in three profiles: the more fundamentalist or pure, like the communities situated on ancient lands, the culturally hybrid, or permeable. I’m thinking of the communities of San Juan de la Costa; even though they retain Mapuche traditions, these are permeable. For example, some of their Mapuche music sounds like Chilote folklore. I’m thinking about the communities that are more open, culturally, but that nevertheless do not lose their roots, or at least have strength and try to survive within their culture in spite of how lacking they are in countryside and other fundamental elements, which happens to the communities situated in urban sectors. I’m thinking about the kiñe pu liwen (new dawn) community and about the great, urban Mapuche poet, David Añiñir. A culture hybridization is produced and it continues to develop. In this category we find the Mapuche communities that have assembled in Santiago: they continue to maintain their ritual traditions, etc., but with an accommodation for the city, no longer in the countryside or native forest. They have survived thanks to their cultural adaptation.

RAIL: In which of the profiles do you feel the most comfortable? Considering your Mapuche filiation, how has that changed since your childhood? If we trace a line to the present, what are the most significant moments of your family life in relation to the Mapuche world? Rituals, words, stories . . .

OYARZÚN: My case was that of all mestizo families in Chile. I lived in complete ignorance of the Mapuche issue. With time I began to realize in my immediate family the natural and often unconscious inheritance of the Mapuche world, above all of the chilota huilliche of the south. I was born in Port Montt, on the costal part, in the Muermos section. That translated to some traditional foods from that area, to medicine, to the peasant world my parents brought in their exiles’ luggage when we came to live in Santiago. And many other things I realized later on. But throughout all my youth and even into university, we did not discuss that subject—I arrived at this through art. One intuits that there’s something there; then curiosity takes over—thus I came to my ancestral origin. At home it wasn’t a topic; like I said earlier, there was a negation, a rejection. One did not claim this heritage. Nowadays the situation has changed: I’m thinking of my mother who has found her own path to begin taking interest in this matter. I think this happens to all Chileans. There is a great tendency here, in Chile, to talk about the European colonizer-ancestors, but not about the indigenous ancestors. The mechanisms used by the State in all of Latin America to make invisible the indigenous world have been relegating the matter to the margin, making it something undesirable and disconnected from the cultural processes; there is no access from any direction, and so it doesn’t exist, just as it didn’t exist in my family for a long time. I would say, even more severely, that the secret hope exists that “this”—the Mapuche subject—will disappear one day and that it will no longer be an issue. The permanent incitement in schools—everywhere—to an identification with “Chilean-ness” is absurd and biased; on the contrary, all of the culture is impregnated with “indigenous-ness” and with a great diversity of tributaries which, in addition, are in permanent flux, as we see today in Chile with the immigration phenomenon of our Latin American brothers.

RAIL: This prompts us to address the reality that the indigenous world has lived—lives—across all Latin America, to address the consequences of this negation that has led to the disappearance of many cultures. In Chile, few cultures have survived and though it may not seem to be the case, Mapuches account for 10% of the population. I’m referring to the people that identify as Mapuche: 500,000 in Santiago and a million in the south. These figures show that there is both a presence and absence.

In Ticio’s curatorial proposal, he highlights, on the one hand, the large presence of the Mapuche world in Chile’s social and political scenes, but uses this visibility to point out, on the other hand, the absence, silence, and strength of what is omitted. Ticio’s words lead me to think about the vast asymmetry that exists between the circulation of “Mapuche-ness” (the surface) and the true understanding of that universe (the bottom). It seems to me that Werken, through its aesthetic proposition, operates on both of these levels.

Taking the Mapuche world to an aesthetization, the kollong, which hides something that is unknown to us outsiders, and the exercise of bringing to light the surnames on behalf of a people. The great Mapuche conflict camouflaged behind an apparent understanding of the Mapuche universe, of its richness—I’m referring to certain decisions the government has made, for example, putting machis in hospitals throughout Chile to attend to patients. These gestures demonstrate a recognition of the Mapuche world, a more thoughtful coexistence, but it also covers up a reality.

OYARZÚN: You are speaking to the work’s great metaphor; making visible what has been omitted in the official visuality causes helplessness because there is something that cannot be shown—the visibility of the cultural universe of the Mapuche is, in fact, an impossibility. Nevertheless, in what has been omitted, one observes the deception that exists in the State’s strategies of inclusion or visibility, either because they are translated into technical measures of inclusion, as in the bilingual signage in public places—when the reality is that, in Chile, Mapudungun should be an official language—or when I refer to the fetishization of ancestral objects converted to souvenirs. Nowadays, the use of the Mapuche—and indigenous—imaginary, on a political level, is a superficial fetishism which the State usufructs, for example, the 100-peso coin in Chile that bears the portrait of a machi, or the little gift that the president takes when he makes an official visit to another country, which normally has to do with our native peoples. There is a cultural trivialization that clearly explains the ambivalence of the visibilization that maintains the indigenous world in marginality.

RAIL: Taking what you’re saying to the symbolic weight of the work itself, in terms of culture and energy, it’s my understanding that you’re going to have the kollong made by Mapuche artisans. How are you going to involve the Mapuche community in the exhibition? Do you think it would be good to go in the company of a Mapuche party? If those kollong were blessed by a machi they would have a different weight. Have you contemplated this kind of gesture for the installation in Venice?

OYARZÚN: Yes, the kollong will be made by different Mapuche artisans, and I would love it if a party could travel with me—we’ll see if it’s possible. There are some communities that are going to perform ceremonies for the delivery of the masks—that’s going to happen. I’m going to accept everything that comes on the symbolic level. In many cases, some communities are going to work on the creation of these masks and, naturally, they are going to perform the pertinent rituals.

RAIL: To me, it seems fundamental. These masks are—as you say—theatrical elements, but above all they are ritualistic; they have a current, contemporary use. Werken is going to Venice on behalf of Chile, but above all on behalf of the Mapuche people, and that is not something trivial. In an artistic setting—we could take it to the realm of discussion of the aura of the art work—these objects are just as artistic as ritualistic. For almost a hundred years we’ve talked about whether art works have or don’t have an aura, but what happens when you work in the art world with objects that belong to the rit world? How does contemporary art intersect the ritual universe? It’s interesting to imagine that a place exists where these two energies converge. How is a people with real living, ritual customs represented through an object like the kollong?

OYARZÚN: It is, rather, a symbolic setting. The kollong is presented in its real functionality, allowing the scene of the masks to give up representational meanings. The scene this group of masks creates is not going to be something avoidable; you are going to enter an invented, but special, setting, more ancestral than museum-like.

RAIL: Werken, then, operates to “make appear” (Ticio speaks of Lichtung) the truth, considering that our national history, and that of all of Latin America (post-conquest), has always articulated itself in the constant suppression of the truth of the people that constitute it.

OYARZÚN: The work is defined, as Ticio says well enough, in the appearance and suppression of the Mapuche subject. It is a very transcendent matter from the Latin American context; for that reason I think that this work can get a lot of attention in Venice—a product of the intimacy that Ticio and I both have with the indigenous world, as well as by saying Latin America is a territory that is still under the colonial yoke. Thus the status of the indigenous world hasn’t changed much, it continues subdued, and it is an issue so complex and political that the art world doesn’t tend to address it.

RAIL: I think that, at least in Chile, there is no theorist more qualified than Ticio to address this issue within the context of contemporary art—in terms of knowledge, of involvement in the indigenous world, and comprehension of the complexity these themes have upon coming into contact with art, above all in the mainstream place that is Venice. As a researcher I have always felt that to enter the indigenous world through contemporary art would require a truly deep immersion in a total cosmovision that could not be accessed simply through books; it’s necessary to enter that ritual world, that mystical world, that space of experience that makes a bridge to knowledge—not simply from your anthropological observation. And that is something that takes time. You have to put your body there, open yourself to other relationships. How close are you to the indigenous world in your work, and in your personal life?

OYARZÚN: Entering the indigenous world has always been an apprenticeship. Projects, when they don’t have a practical usefulness, a window to knowledge, don’t interest me. My contact with the Mapuche world—also with the Guariní (in past projects) and very recently with the Maori in New Zealand—has been though experiences in situ. Entering these universes motivates me, and from a kind of modesty and respect, I have succeeded in making great friends in these communities. For me this is today a world so rich that I find it difficult to abandon.

I remember once, in Brazil, I was left alone in a Guaraní village and the relationship was born very naturally, little by little, every day. I don’t arrive as a researcher to extract things. I try to make it so that the processes are natural and I’m incorporated little by little into their customs. Then we go as a family to ceremonies, like the wiñoy tripantu, a huge party and ritual for the new year, which is an honor above all when you are invited by a family. We feel at home. The kids play. The relationship is everyday and natural. The first time I made contact with a community was in Temucuicui, Ercilla; the community’s Longco (chief) went on and on and on . . . At some point, I told him how good he was at talking and he told me, “Before, the ancients could spend entire days talking, and they went on and on until everything was done.” These kinds of things are particular to the Mapuche culture: rituals of the word, rituals of conversation. There is a tradition in the Mapuche culture with respect to conversing and resolving all disputes in this way, which also translated into the agreements they arrived at with the Spanish at the appropriate times and with the State of Chile, which ended up betraying its word in the end.

RAIL: It seems to me very interesting to suggest that you, having a Mapuche filiation, would enter that universe from a point of curiosity, taking on what you don’t know about that universe and looking to get close in order to understand your own bond, your roots—that heredity. I think that throughout your work there is a big effort, always present, to narrow distances, or make visible the points of contact between the familiar and the foreign, if you allow me to put it in these terms: that with which you identify yourself and that with which the other identifies you, what you are and what the other thinks you are. In what way does your work deal with those spaces? I’m thinking about works like Cosmética [Cosmetics], Mal de Ojo o Negro Curiche [Evil Eye or Black Blackman], or Trabajo Forzado [Forced Labor] in relation to your father.

OYARZÚN: I think that, today, there is an opening move in the western world to understand and open itself to indigenous knowledge. I think that it has to do with the times we live in, with a certain urgency. In some way in my work, in some more than others, I am taking on the existence of a cultural reality, a different relation to the universe, and the need to bring to light that knowledge and share it. As you say, Werken is a work that has surprised people by addressing those issues, and to me it seems a sign that it’s been chosen to represent Chile, considering the complexity involved in taking on these issues nationally; it is also surprising the way in which, nowadays, this will be shown at the Venice Biennale. Everything seems to me a great innovation with positive outcomes for the image of Chile and, even, Latin America.

Carolina Castro Jorquera is a curator and art historian based in San Felipe, Chile