Delcy Morelos, Moradas (Dwellings), 2019, mixed media. Installation view.

Delcy Morelos, Moradas (Dwellings), 2019, mixed media. Installation view.

Delcy Morelos

A chest-high wall created a corral or, perhaps, a stage. To enter the bounded space of Delcy Morelos’s earthen landscape Moradas (Dwellings), 2019, one had to pass through an opening and walk along a path of bare concrete. Coating the floor, a dried, shallow crust of dirt was host to an array of objects bearing telluric patinas. The white gallery walls and pillars were likewise covered to chest height, delineating a sharp horizon in a striking formal gesture that gave one the impression of being surrounded by a dark sea—or, alternately, of having been buried alive.

The gathered objects—which appeared to be planks in a lumberyard, nubby outsize incense wands, or torqued rebar—were assembled in tidy piles and swaths. Were these inscrutable objects tools for living or tools for the afterlife? Was this environment an outdoor market or an ancient tomb? Everything was root dark: the color of the earth that Morelos excavated in Usme, in the south of Bogotá, to create Moradas. The idea of earth being the material from which we are born and to which we will return is a prevailing conceit across Morelos’s work and was here reflected in the incantatory language of a text printed in both Spanish and English on a wall opposite the installation: a sequence of phrases including DARKNESS EARTH, BODY EARTH, FINGERS EARTH, KNEE EARTH, CHEST EARTH, TEARS EARTH, PAIN EARTH. The body—and the body’s miseries—are bound up in this elemental material.

Born in 1967 in the Colombian department of Córdoba and educated in Cartagena, Morelos started out as a painter, though her work of late has exploded the constraints of the plane. Her newer large-scale installations are inspired by her patrilineal indigenous heritage. Having grown up in the indigenous territory of the Embera people, Morelos for the past seven years has studied the culture, philosophies, and language of the Amazonian Witoto people. It may be difficult to look at a recent work like Mother’s Surface, 2019–20—a room filled with sculpted earth—and not think of Walter De Maria’s seminal New York Earth Room (1977), or to walk into Moradas and not have Richard Serra or Arte Povera’s arsenal of soil, cloth, and twigs come to mind. But Moradas is what you might get when a woman—of indigenous ancestry—is enabled to operate on a monumental scale within Minimalist aesthetic parameters. Her work may have the mien of Land art, but it is unapologetically pregnant with mysticism and poetry and rooted in indigenous mythologies and traditional craft.

Now in midcareer, Morelos often references the violence that plagues historically vulnerable populations. As a Colombian artist, she is hardly alone in grappling with these politics, but her allusions to this context are more oblique than those in the work of many colleagues. Her installations project force through their affective potential: They are sensory, often smelling of loam and spice. Her palettes smolder. Moradas felt like a landscape after a fire, calling to mind the swidden agricultural practices of certain indigenous tribes.

Decimation, however, was not the prevailing narrative here. Death may have been present—a pair of oblong heaps of shale undeniably recalled graves—but all was not ruined. While staring at one imposing rectangular stack of material, I thought of Joseph Beuys and his piles of felt. Beuys, after all, saw himself as a kind of shaman. He believed his art had a healing imperative. Witness to a time of war and trauma, he brought mysticism and nature to the fore: One of his final works, 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks), 1982–87/1988/1996/2020, magicked a forest out of nothing. If you squatted down in Moradas and looked closely at the dirt, you might have noticed what appeared to be seeds and roots strewn throughout. Morelos, too, it would seem, had provisioned for rebirth; the cycle of life continues.