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An Interview with Artist Elizabeth Vásquez Arbulú

by Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz


I met Elizabeth in the summer of 2013, which is winter in Lima. I was doing an artists’ residency at a now-defunct space in the center of Lima called Zona 30. Lots of artists had studios there; there was a lot of movement at Zona 30 (it was located right in la Plaza San Martín, which at the time was the place where everyone would meet up for all the rallies and protests). Historically, it has been a place of dissent and community.Artists in their 30's founded the space (hence the 30 in the name), but Elizabeth and I were younger artists that were either still in school or just coming out of school and finding our space in the Lima art scene. She was making a lot of work with ceramics at the time, riding her bike around the city wearing this amazing orangey-brown lipstick. Whenever I come back to Peru, we connect and catch each other up. We talk about what we've been working on and what we've seen. Beyond her work, and that of the collective she is part of, she also runs a ceramic studio in Barranco where she teaches ceramic classes. It's a wonderful space, and I've been so excited to see her practice grow over the years and to get to share it here.  

—Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz

Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz: Who is Elizabeth right now? How do you define her?

Elizabeth Vásquez Arbulú: Strange question. Many times I have felt like a nostalgic researcher/explorer/cachivachera (hoarder). Researcher because I enjoy the long processes, from engraving, which is what I studied to the pottery that is my main practice now. In both, you don't know what you’re doing until the end of everything. Explorer in the sense that my inspiration comes from outside my studio: from the street, nature, findings, and memories. So most personal projects start from something I found or something that I became obsessed with, and from that, I create records and a series of fantasies. And this is already being linked with the nostalgic cachivachera that enjoys collecting things.


XIU: What is it that calls you to investigate found objects and/or the desire to collect?

EVA: I think my collections are very personal. I collect to have memories of some place, time, shape, or someone. Sometimes it is the object itself that catches my attention, and when I try to complete the “fantasy” behind it, it is when it becomes a kind of investigation.

The origins of most of these objects are antique stores, antique fairs such as Tacora, places I walk, nature and abandoned spaces, the street always. Also, sometimes the objects arrive alone by themselves. But in these latest projects, objects cease to be more personal in order to be observed through the museum.


I have been fortunate to observe them this time not through the display case. My interest in them has allowed me to meet researchers in the field, archaeologists, museologists, and musicians, among others, who have allowed me to break that distance that is always in museums between the Object and the viewer. And I think that, as a result of that distance, I began to make a series of artifacts that extend this relationship, now through replicas, although for the last presentation in El Garaje, I was lucky enough to show an original Chancay textile as a sample loan.


Elizabeth Vásquez Arbulú

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Installation view, Artifact for reading 1 in El Garaje, Lima, 2018

XIU: How did you start researching the Andean design and cosmology?

EVA: I've always had a fondness for accumulation, collections, and objects; that's why some of my favorite places are museums, shops, flea markets, and antique sales in Lima.

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Detail of Chancay textile in Reading Artifact 1. El Garaje, Lima, 2018

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Study of brands and symbols Chancay. Sample Detail ‘Reading Artifact 1

Pre-Columbian cultures, or those alive before and after colonialism, have interested me since I was little. At the beginning, because it connected directly with the huacas*, like that silent habitat, full of sun and shadows. When I grew up and decided to pay more attention to curiosity, I felt that that part of the story was the part of us that, as an identity, we have blocked—a part of us that, however, we inhabit daily. We live in an unconnected Westernized form of our past. Or in any case, just exotized.


And that is the kind of thing you internalize when you travel. Three years ago, I did an artist residency in Colombia, and I had the opportunity to see an exhibition where they collected a history of both pre-colonial pieces as well as contemporary production. I also realized that, museographically, there was a special space for whistles, and then I had a flashback to the instruments I had seen in museums in Lima and the little attention they received. Before traveling, I was already curious about the whistling bottles. So when I returned to Lima, I moved my pottery workshop, and I began to manage a small program of pre-Columbian studies. I was also lucky enough to meet people who collaborated in it, from artists and musicians to archaeologists who contributed to the activities.


Huaca Puccllana. Photo by Elizabeth Vásquez Arbulú

XIU: What have you learned in this whole process?

EVA: I don't know if I've learned or kept asking questions. Investigating these issues makes you consider millions of possibilities, especially since you can never know for sure if your ideas are valid or real. But I think that is what attracts me. Putting together a series of hypotheses that can never be validated is a game to be scientific through replicated objects.

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Detail of Quillca machine, view of arduinos and skeins in Reading Artifact 1. El Garaje, 2018

XIU: Western education has always wanted to instill in us that all cultures that existed (and still exist) prior to colonialism were "less civilized" for not having a writing system. But we know it was never like that; In Artifact for reading quillca, you investigated sign systems. Tell me a little more about the word quillca and its influence on this investigation.

EVA: The word quillca refers to the graphics in Quechua and Aymara—to that series of basic graphs that are the product of the addition of lines, points, circles, and other organic and geometric shapes. When the Spaniards arrived, they sought to destroy everything that contained information or memory for the Incas and the various communities then dominated by the Incas. They destroyed temples, murals, gold-casted pieces, and tried to replace their cults with Catholic cults. However, they did not try to understand where the memory of these communities lived.

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Detail of symbols on pianolaen paper in Reading Artifact 1. The Garage 2018

For years, different researchers have put together hypotheses about the manifestation of pre-colonial writing and reading, trying to understand it under a colonial structure. In that journey, other hypotheses about quipus appeared, and a few years ago, hypotheses about graphics also appeared, leading you to think that not every source of “writing” is on paper, and not every source of ancient writing is on the mural (like Egyptian hieroglyphs). That led me to think of all the sources where certain graphics acquired permanence: textiles, ceramics, architecture. For example, many adobe bricks have been found to contain differentiated marks. Author signatures, enumeration, or encrypted language?

But after continuing to think and turning this around in my head, I realized that all these manifestations were still visual, and this fell again in a Western way of thinking. Language, word, and memory may not always have to be visual, perhaps permanence is not in that.


And there is a particular moment that changed my mind about that. In the permanent exhibition of the LUM (the Place of Memory, Tolerance and Social Inclusion museum), they collect testimonies of Indigenous communities in the Amazon during the period of terrorism and armed violence. They organized to defend themselves, hide, and protect neighboring communities, and weapons were not their only tools. They used a series of whistles, very similar to bird songs, as communication codes, alerts, evacuation routes. The sounds of those whistles were not representations of birds—it was not music, it was language. Why not think that we communicated like this before?


XIU: What role does music/sound play in your research?


EVA: Within what I investigate is language. I think that just as we have different dialects and languages ​​in our regions, we also have a sound communication that we are not aware of.


Detail of trumpet wolf. Matadero-Madrid 2019

But I must say that perhaps I come to this subject because of the impression before the object. That is, the instrument as a form. When I discovered that there was a range wider than whistles, I got carried away by the curiosity of luthier, the technology behind the form, and in the process of research, visits to museums, and conversations with archaeologists, musicians, and friends, I began to fill myself with wild ideas about the meaning of these sounds. I linked them with my current culture. And I say wild because I don't know if it has any grounding; my intention is to spin it fancifully. I began to wonder, for example, about the context of these sounds, and about the sound itself, about the universal relationship, for example, between trumpets and war, between the sounds of animals they represented and the magical-religious conception of these animals. I wander and think beyond the idea of ​​music or harmonious composition that we have today as music.


Part detail, trumpet bowl and amplifier, Matadero-Madrid, 2019

XIU: Let's talk about the instruments. Your research has a lot to do with language, in its maximum and complex expression. As you say, language is not always written, and it is not always with letters. The language is also sound and visual. I am interested in what you have been able to find in the process of creating your own instruments; what has this process told you about the same sounds, their contexts?


EVA: I learned to make instruments thanks to musicians who, in their interest in sound, considered investigating pre-Columbian instruments. At that time, my references were local, I was more fascinated with the form itself. My point of comparison for these was only with some folk instruments, but when I traveled to the residency in Madrid, Matadero, almost at the end of the residency, I met other local instruments such as the Galician bagpipe that, although they worked totally differently, kept characteristics that I started to connect. In that regard, I realized at some point the universality of wind instruments such as the trumpet, or a colonialist syndrome? I had and still have many questions and doubts about it. For example, the trumpets are of universal use, although the scope of visual representation of these is in the metal instruments used in orchestras—symphonies that represent this musical imposition—we find that prior to colonization, clay-like instruments were manufactured. The sound may differ a little, the amplitude of the sound produced by a metal and that produced by clay differ, but the language? The context?


Installation view for Open House Day Residences Matadero, 2019


pututo, 2018

We know little about its uses, much less about how to compose the sound. Some chronicles tell of its use in rituals, while other sources connect it with militancy or war. Once upon a time, a friend, who researched a lot of the pututos (conch shells), told me that these were instruments of rebellion. Tupac Amaru used them as a sound that will represent revolution, and that was how many of these were banned, hidden, or destroyed.

I think that finally what I rescue from all this is the impossibility of finding some truth in all these hypotheses or accounts; that is how I give myself the freedom to create stories and relate them through these projects, installations, or forms.


Trumpet bowl detail. Replica based on Larco collection piece. Matadero-Madrid, 2019


XIU: Recently I was in the presentation of “Once We Were,” a publication made in collaboration with two other artists. Tell us a little about “Membrana Ediciones,” how did it start? What connections do you see between your symbology research and the printed poetry of this new publication?

EVA: Membrana is a collective that we (Karla zorilla vela, Ibrain placido San Martín & myself) founded in 2015, when we agreed that we wanted to make an art book/object book and that doing it in a group could be a good start. We all graduated with a major in engraving, so we knew the graphic tools to produce books. We were interested in the idea of ​​partially reproducing some artisan techniques such as screen printing, frottage, stamps, embossing, and woodcuts. The scope of artisan printing is something that makes us nostalgic and scientific at the same time. Very organically, we conceived the publishing house in a very playful way, that is, to play scientists, to take books as files, all subjects with tweezers. Even our subjects come from the idea of ​​working in the laboratory: A beautiful coincidence that may come from the collector's desire that each of us shares, each very much in our own way.

Alguna Vez Fuimos is a book and poem, narrated from the visuality of school stamps. Until then, a book had already been made by the publisher with stamps that were specially manufactured for the book, but for the latter we liked the idea of ​​collecting what had been created as pedagogical material for kindergarten and elementary school, and from that we told a story of three children who grew up.


Now that you mention it, the connection in interest with the symbology in my research and this book is in the image as language. And now I might think that this interest goes back to my experience in engraving, and maybe, from time to time, I continue making engravings, but now with clay as a support, [laughs] I don't know. It can also only be a lot of technicalities.


Terracotta tests and symbol stamps

XIU: What projects are you working on right now? You are going to Loreto soon; what will you be working on there?


EVA: Now I am working two projects in parallel, I am still investigating the field of sound but from the electronic. That is, the correspondence between the acoustics of an instrument in clay and the field of digital and electronic, which modifies, alters, and organizes it. Still, I am taking it with patience and calm, since for me, it is also to learn a field that, until now, I had not explored so much. I have worked with video and animation, but they were digital experiences with which I have already been related. But now, understanding the world of music from the electric, opens a series of black holes that are becoming clearer.


On the other hand, I am resuming a research project that I had left unfinished. This begins with a series of trips to the Amazon, to areas affected by oil spills and consequently to the communities affected by them, focusing on working with Awajun women who live fairly close to these areas. Starting from the experience of living together to interpret a problem seems necessary to me. The idea is to carry out a registry and a series of pieces that arise from the co-production between the women and me.

I had this project in mind a long time ago when I started to make a series of pieces that had to do basically with the flora trapped in the process of contamination, a kind of fossilization in ceramics. However, in the process of doing them and researching on the oil issue, I realized that it was a very serious problem—very big—and it wasn’t so much about me, but that it was something that is real and that is specifically affecting communities that I did not know directly. I felt, therefore, alien when talking about them. I was oblivious to these pieces. So it seemed better to me to have a slightly more direct experience with the situation through trips and exchanges, which will begin in October and November.


Ceramic sheet tests, 2018

This project will be carried out collaboratively with an association that makes residences and is super interesting, HAWAPI. I am very excited. I have worked with this association before, and I greatly appreciate their mission. They work on art projects that are related to environmental problems in parts of Peru that do not include Lima. They aim to decentralize art projects and also think about art in a slightly more political way. In 2017, they managed a residency that dealt with the conflict of the border, the terrestrial triangle between Chile and Peru, where I participated with Peruvian and Chilean artists.


I know that the next residency they are preparing will be with Máxima Acuña, which is going to be beautiful, because they have always worked from a specific place/area that has been affected, but in this case, they are working on Máxima's house.

XIU: That's important, especially because Amazonian communities are in constant danger. Do you have any last words? Thoughts?


EVA: In reality, communities in the Amazon have been in constant danger for more than 10 years. Oil spills are not the only cause. There is deforestation, monoculture, illegal mining, drug trafficking, and more. The Amazon has always been an exoticized island, and hopefully it stops being perceived in this way.

Ceramic sheet tests, 2018

* The term huaca, waca, or guaca, from Quechua wak'a, designated all the fundamental Inca/others sacrednesses, sanctuaries, idols, temples, tombs, mummies, sacred places, animals, those stars from which the aillus (or clans) believed  the ancestors themselves descended, including the main deities, the sun and the moon, which were revered through different ceremonies. They can be found in downtown Lima today in almost every district. The city was built around them.


Elizabeth Vásquez Arbulú (Lima, 1990). Her work is based on found objects and files, which are replicated, registered or deconstructed in facilities where an interest in architecture, geography and archeology is displayed, in relation to socio-cultural symbols. Her practice is accompanied by a constant exploration and contrast of local artisanal techniques and digital media. Her research on sound focuses on the hypothesis of an encrypted language in ancient Peru. Some samples or projects have been exhibited in VideoTranslaciones (Madrid, 2019); 20th SESCVIDEOBRASIL (Sao Paulo, 2017); and Hawapi 2017: Terrestrial Triangle (Santiago de Chile and Lima, 2018 - 2017). Some individual projects and interventions include Land Projections (2016) and Collections of a temporary code (2018).


Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz is a multimedia artist, curator, and educator based in Brooklyn and originally from Perú. She is the co-curator of Visual Art at Nat. Brut as well as Teen Programs Coordinator at the Brooklyn Museum and co-curator of Maracuya Peach, a Brooklyn QTPOC reading series.


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