Vienna

Bartolina Xixa, Ramita seca, La colonialidad permanente (Dry Twig, The Permanent Coloniality), 2019, HD video, color, sound, 5 minutes. From “And if I devoted my life to one of its feathers?”

Bartolina Xixa, Ramita seca, La colonialidad permanente (Dry Twig, The Permanent Coloniality), 2019, HD video, color, sound, 5 minutes. From “And if I devoted my life to one of its feathers?”

“And if I devoted my life to one of its feathers?”

Kunsthalle Wien Museumsquartier

Curated by Miguel A. López, “And if I devoted my life to one of its feathers?” borrowed its title from the opening lines of a poem by Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña, whose floor-to-ceiling arrangement of wool strands, Burnt Quipu, 2018, occupied the center of the main hall. A quipu is an Andean recording device traditionally used for accountancy, with numbers encoded as knots, and colors perhaps representing nonnumerical information. Vicuña’s quipu, however, does not store administrative data; it takes stock of a world undone by wildfires induced by climate change. Quishile Charan’s Burning Ganna Khet (Burning Sugarcane Farm), 2021, is another textile work referencing fire. The incineration referred to in the work’s title is part of a traditional way of farming—far from leaving destruction in its wake, it’s a technique for fertilizing the soil. “And if I devoted my life to one of its feathers?” opened an allegorical space between these two opposing types of flame, oscillating between the dimmed light of underrepresented forms of knowledge and the all-consuming blaze of racial capitalism, the political or psychological violence it elicits, and Indigenous resistance to it.

In Me gritaron negra (They Called Me Black), 1978, a filmed performance by Afro-Peruvian choreographer Victoria Santa Cruz, we hear a poem sung to a clapping rhythm, describing a memory of how, as a child, she recoiled at being called “black,” learning to hate her own features until, already a grown-up, she finally reclaimed and embraced her identity. In her video Ramita seca, La colonialidad permanente (Dry Twig, The Permanent Coloniality), 2019, drag performer Bartolina Xixa dances amid a garbage dump, surrounded by towering trash heaps, to a song by Aldana Bello accusing settlers of rendering the land as arid as their hearts. While Bello sings against the global corporatocracy—“Y canto contra Monsanto” (I sing against Monsanto)—and the local patriarchal formations that sustain it, the video The Mermaids, Mirror Worlds, 2018, by the Karrabing Film Collective, contrasts the sleekness of the corporate world, freed from messy entanglements with the social and natural worlds it lays waste to, with its effects on the ground at sites of colonial extraction and plunder. Manuel Chavajay’s Untitled, 2014, a drawing of a member of the Maya Tz’utujil people carrying the Taipei 101 skyscraper on his back, plainly suggests that global development is predicated on the underdevelopment of the racialized South.

Though much of the show had a combative or militant ethos, there were quite a few poignant moments nestled within it: Hiwa K’s video Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue), 2017, narrates the artist’s clandestine journey from Iraqi Kurdistan to Europe. On arrival he learns of his father’s death. Unable to react, he explains his numbness: It’s “the first time that [his] father has died.” Equally moving is the biting beauty of Santiago Yahuarcani’s tree-bark paintings Covid-19 pelea con los abuelos (Covid-19 Fights the Grandparents) and Espíritu delfín trae medicina contra el Covid-19 (The Dolphin Spirit Bringing Medicine to Fight Covid-19), both 2020.

No matter how affecting, these pieces were not works by people who represent themselves as sunk in distress. Instead, these artists strive to determine the content of their own lives in a world they often encounter as alien, resistant, or inimical to their being. It’s a puny thing to devote one’s life to, a feather. Apocalyptic themes have acquired an aesthetic currency in recent years, distorting every issue into a question of survival or extinction. But universal schemes crowd out others. “And if I devoted my life to one of its feathers?” did more than simply seek belated recognition for pivotal but all too frequently marginalized artistic expressions or figures; rather, the exhibition posed a challenge to white futurity by insisting that the pain of unbelonging calls not for inclusion in an unjust world but for a different world altogether. At Kunsthalle Wien, addressing an audience largely insulated from the violence it decries, the show might not have led to direct political action, but it estranged viewers from the given and familiar. It impacted not just the form and content of art but its social mission.