Cecilia Vicuña. Palabrarma: la palabra es el arma (Wordweapon: The Word Is the Weapon) from the series AMAzone Palabrarmas. 1978. Ink and pencil on paper: sheet, 8 1/2 × 11" (21.6 × 27.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Latin American and Caribbean Fund, Modern Women’s Fund, gift of Agnes Gund, Amalia Amoedo, María Luisa Ferré Rangel (in honor of Cyril Meduña), and Juan Yarur Torres (in honor of Amalia Amoedo)

In the last three years, Cecilia Vicuña has earned sudden and impressive international recognition, culminating in the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 59th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennial this spring.

The seeds of Vicuña’s multifaceted artistic personality emerged in the 1960s, when she was still based in Chile. There, she started writing poetry in conjunction with painting, drawing, sculpture, textile work, and performance. Weaving together autobiography, the recuperation of ancient Indigenous knowledges, and a strong political conviction, her work has always anticipated current discussions about feminism and ecological thinking.

A group of drawings belonging to her series Palabrarmas, which was begun in the ’70s, were recently acquired by MoMA, and are currently on view in Gallery 205: An Inward Turn, along with other examples of Latin American works that address heritage as a source of forward-looking inspiration.

Palabrarmas proposes an entangled connection between words and images, synthesizing Vicuña’s emancipatory ideas. The title of the series is a portmanteau of the artist’s invention that combines the Spanish-language words palabra (word) and armas (weapons). Military dictatorships gripped Latin America at the time Vicuña produced this series, and she imagined that these nonviolent, linguistic tools might combat the brutality of that era. The artist’s poetic proposition of “words as weapons,” remains relevant today, offering a language for collective renewal that seems more necessary than ever.

In the account that follows, Vicuña shares the almost magical history of this work, as well as its multiple references and resonances.
—Inés Katzenstein, Director, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America, and Curator of Latin American Art

Cecilia Vicuña. Imaginación: imagen en acción (Imagination: Image in Action) from the series AMAzone Palabrarmas. 1978

Cecilia Vicuña. Imaginación: imagen en acción (Imagination: Image in Action) from the series AMAzone Palabrarmas. 1978

I grew up in Chile at a time when [it] was one of the most progressive democracies around the world. As kids, we began our week in school by learning how to self-govern ourselves. The teachers only had the right to sit in the back and listen to us. You can imagine what that does to a young person. We were so self-reliant and so empowered to be, to think, to create.

Furthermore, my house was full of books in many languages. One day, I was, I believe, nine years old, I had a dream, a dream that was so clear that I woke up and I decided that I could write it.

Then, as I began to grow older, I started to become very curious, reading all this poetry. Then I discovered, well, perhaps I’m a poet, because I read [poetry] as if I was entering into another zone, into another world, where I felt so incredibly free and so at home in the world of imagination.

One day, it was a summer night, I was lying in my bed and suddenly I had the impression that a word, as if it were a creature, a being, entered the room, as if it were a fly. Of course, it was invisible. It was only an inner vision, but this was so distinct, so clear. And the word was in Spanish, of course, enamorados, which means “people in love.”

This word opened up to reveal the universe it contained inside of it. It is as if you’re watching one of those films about the big bang when you see—POW!—all the stars and cosmos and galaxies being born. That’s what I saw, all inside that little word. And once the different parts of the word had separated, they began to connect each other as if it were a dance, and then it said:

En amor
Morado
Enajenados

In love
Purple
Alienation

You can imagine how beautiful it is when you are in love. You are certainly alienated from regular life, because you are in a different kind of mind; and you’re purple because you’re radiating love. So all these playful things, all these fun, joyful things were contained inside the word enamorados.

Cecilia Vicuña. Imagen: imán del gen (Image: Magnet of Genes) from the series AMAzone Palabrarmas. 1978

Cecilia Vicuña. Imagen: imán del gen (Image: Magnet of Genes) from the series AMAzone Palabrarmas. 1978

Words contain an image and this is what allows a word to continue.

Cecilia Vicuña. Labrar palabras como quien labra la tierra (Work Words Like Those Who Till the Land) from the series AMAzone Palabrarmas. 1978

Cecilia Vicuña. Labrar palabras como quien labra la tierra (Work Words Like Those Who Till the Land) from the series AMAzone Palabrarmas. 1978

I think everybody can have visions. A vision is like an image that appears in your soul, in your mind. We don’t know where they reside, but we do know that our brains have evolved for millions of years to deal with image and sound in words that we don’t understand, that are so complex that no computer will ever be able to decipher the extraordinary way in which we relate to these inner visions.

My book, AMAzone Palabrarmas, is a set of 28 drawings I created after a journey to the Amazon rainforest in the year 1978. When I was traveling in the Amazon and seeing the beginning of the destruction of this majestic rainforest, I suddenly had this vision and I saw an Indigenous girl flying and I could see that she was a word. She was a word holding itself: palabra, pala abra. That word really says, I am a wing, a shovel with wings to open reality.

At the time, I was living in Bogotá, and I was studying the Maya glyphs. If you have ever seen a Maya glyph, it is a sign, a drawing, a person, a number, all those things in one. I immediately began to draw this vision that I had in the Maya glyph style, which seemed to be like an unbroken line that danced, communicating its meanings.

So I created a series of 28 ink drawings and each drawing is actually a word.

The title is a sort of wordplay. “*Ama*” in Spanish means love; and “zone” is the zone of love. The girl that I saw in my vision in 1977 and ’78 is a vision of language as love, a vision of the Amazon as a place of wisdom.

The second part of the title—“Palabrarmas”—is a word I created in 1974. I was in exile in London because of the military coup against Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. That was [one of] the first times when a campaign of disinformation in our modern era was used to destroy a nation, as it is happening now all over the world.

One day, I saw a word as if it were a vision, and this word named itself palabrarma, which means, in Spanish, a word that is a weapon. But it also means labrar, to work words as you work the land.

Palabrarmas are really the language that words themselves are speaking.

Cecilia Vicuña. Palabrarma: armada por todos (Wordweapon: Armed by All) from the series AMAzone Palabrarmas. 1978

Cecilia Vicuña. Palabrarma: armada por todos (Wordweapon: Armed by All) from the series AMAzone Palabrarmas. 1978

Cecilia Vicuña. Pesimismo: el excesivo peso de sí mismo (Pessimism: The Excessive Weight of Yourself) from the series AMAzone Palabrarmas. 1978

Cecilia Vicuña. Pesimismo: el excesivo peso de sí mismo (Pessimism: The Excessive Weight of Yourself) from the series AMAzone Palabrarmas. 1978

If you think of how a word is born, most of the words that we use now were created a few thousand years ago by different cultures: the Greeks, the Latins, the Romans, the Anglo-Saxon peoples, or Indigenous peoples. And so a word is like a traveler, a migrant that has been traveling from person to person and generation after generation. Words contain an image and this is what allows a word to continue.

The image in each word is not necessarily a visual image. It’s really like a sort of teaching if you look at certain words to see what they’re saying.

For example, the word pessimismo in Spanish, “pessimism” in English. That’s, of course, a Latin word. And if you look at it from the palabrarmas perspective, it says “excessive weight of yourself, el peso de si mismo.” If you’re self-centered, if you’re selfish, you’re heavy and you’re pessimistic. Isn’t that beautiful? That the word itself becomes a drawing of itself? And if you look at the Palabrarmas drawing, you see a sort of fat person, very depressed.

If we were able to change our destructive ways and get back to loving the earth, everything would change so fast.

People often ask if I have a favorite drawing. That is true and untrue at the same time. I love, for example, a drawing that in Spanish says siembra, which can be interpreted as a command or as a plea. It means “plant” or “please plant.” But if you open it up and you see it from the perspective of the word herself, meaning from a palabrarma perspective, it means sí hembra. Yes, woman. Yes, to the female.

So to plant is to say yes to womanness, to the feminine, to the life force of this earth that has always been perceived as the mother of life by ancient Indigenous cultures all over the world. And as you know, now we’re losing soil. Soil is so devoid of life that we will soon be hungry. Soil is dying and the one thing that could return life to soil, could be to say yes to the femaleness of the soil, to love the earth and soil itself.

Cecilia Vicuña. Siembra: decirle sí a la hembra (Sowing Is Yes to Female) from the series AMAzone Palabrarmas. 1978

Cecilia Vicuña. Siembra: decirle sí a la hembra (Sowing Is Yes to Female) from the series AMAzone Palabrarmas. 1978

When I first came and crossed the Amazon by land and boat, I felt it was the most beautiful, majestic place on earth. And now, billions and billions of dollars by corporations and banks are investing in the destruction of this incredible life force and really dooming the earth to not being fit for humans anymore. Because if the forest disappears, moisture and humidity disappear. There will be infinite drought, infinite lack of fertility, of fecundity.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Amazon had this extraordinary smart civilization that had created a kind of soil that regenerates its own fertility. The forest itself was created as a garden, as a magnificent participation and collaboration between our species and many other species throughout millennia. It took thousands and thousands of years for this forest to be created, and now in just a couple of decades, we are destroying it.

I’m very glad that this work is coming to this exhibition, for people to reflect on how we’re all complicit and taking part in this destruction, and how, if we were able to change our destructive ways and get back to loving the earth, everything would change so fast.

So whatever was happening in the inner vision of that girl in 1977, it’s still completely current, the need to see and give sight, the need to create the culture of solidarity, the need to see planting as an act of love. All those things are even more urgent now than they were in the ’70s.