Celia Vasquez Yui

The Council of the Mother Spirits of the Animals

Salon 94
3 East 89th Street
New York
Upper East Side
Jan 19th — Mar 26th

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For her exhibition “The Council of the Mother Spirit of the Animals” at Salon 94, the artist, Indigenous-rights activist and politician Celia Vasquez Yui has created a marvelous bestiary of more than 50 coil-built earthenware animals. Bean-shaped capybaras conspire with armadillos, musk hogs, river dolphins, tapirs, monkeys, deer, jaguars, turtles, fish and squirrels. Covered with vivid geometric patterns in a spectrum of orange, cream and loamy brown, they are staged on a triple-tiered amphitheater in the center of the gallery. A group of stragglers approaches from a corner; three birds preside over the affair from their perch on a shelf. The council is anchored by a snake, its maw open to reveal a forked tongue. All of the represented species are threatened by rapid deforestation and overdevelopment of the Amazon.

Vasquez Yui’s exhibition presents a highly sophisticated ecosystem that demonstrates the holistic interdependence of cultural and natural worlds. Born in 1960 in the Peruvian city of Pucallpa, the artist descends from a long line of Shipibo ceramicists whose traditions stretch back thousands of years. In Shipibo culture, each artist devises a unique pattern, called kené, that elaborates on those established by her ancestors. Each kené becomes a signature and gives visual form to the Shipibo belief in “design medicine”—that is, the ability of art to heal. Music plays a similar role within the reciprocal exchange of energies among humans, animals, plants and land. The council’s proceedings here are accompanied by a soundscape of chants from an ayahuasca ceremony conducted by members of the Shipibo Union of Ancestral Healers as well as recordings of the rainforest—rushing water, birdsong, the hue and cry of insects.

The artist collaborated on the exhibition with the Harlem-based Shipibo-Conibo Center with the stated goal of establishing “a model of how to possibly rejoin the realms of art, healing, ecology, and politics that were separated through colonial and neocolonial modes of extraction and representation.” It's hard to say what this might ultimately look like. This venerable assembly has traveled thousands of miles to convene, temporarily, in a neighborhood of mansions constructed for the world’s elite. What message do they hope to convey, and to whom? I pictured a tapir on a credenza next to a vase of dried pampas, one of the smaller armadillos on a fireplace mantel. But after circling the crowd a third time, I noticed that my instinct to pick favorites had subsided. It became impossible to imagine the group torn apart, stowed piecemeal in private collections. Even if that’s their immediate future, I like to imagine that one day some higher power might contrive to correct the pattern and call them back together. —Christopher Alessandrini

Installation view, Celia Vasquez Yui, The Council of the Mother Spirits of the Animals, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstei.n