Being Indigenous Is a Form of Knowledge

Artist Gabriel Rossell Santillán works with indigenous communities in Mexico. His videos, photographs and books, presently on show at the ifa Gallery, are the result of this work. In this interview he talks about forms of exchange and how contemporary art can lead to a polyphonic space.



ifa: The exhibition 'A Natural Order of Things' presents works by Lothar Baumgarten and yourself. What impulses have you taken from Lothar Baumgarten?

Gabriel Rossell Santillán: I can name one of Baumgarten's works that is very important for me. The one where he collected leaves and branches in a dirty old wooden display case. The warmth there causes fungus to grow, insects hatch from their larvae, the ecosystem is reinstated. He places a plate in there, on which he has drawn rivers with a pencil. Another important work is the Cherokee alphabet on the glass roof of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. The Cherokees developed this alphabet shortly before they were resettled – taken from their own territories to die. Another important influence was experiencing Lothar as a teacher and seeing how diverse and different all the artists were that emerged from his classes.

Collaboration with indigenous communities as an artistic practice

Lothar Baumgarten, Algarrobo, from the series 'On the Aroma of Names', silkscreen print, 1987, ifa Collection, photo: ifa

ifa: Lothar Baumgarten appears himself as the author in his works. How do you understand authorship?

Rossell Santillán: I am also an author, but in another way. I address the theme of the distribution of resources. Which voices are heard more frequently, who has and gets more resources, how do hierarchies and privileges operate in work contexts. In my artistic practice I do not attempt to analyse, or to interpret or to speak on behalf of the Wixárika. I try to open up a space where the Wixárika community shares with us what they need or what they think is important to say.

Gabriel Rossell Santillán, La fiesta del maiz, in the Ethnological Museum Berlin-Dahlem, second meeting and interview with the Wixárika offerings in Berlin-Dahlem, 2016, photo: Guillermo Gudiño

ifa: How did you establish contact with the Wixárika community?

Rossell Santillán: Through my sister Arianna. She had already worked with the Wixárika community when I began to study in Berlin. She told me that the Wixárika community and an NGO had expressed a wish to come to Berlin to see the offerings in the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem. We decided to contact Richard Haas in the museum, and this led to the first interview and the reunion between Don Dionisio de la Rosa1 and Xaureme with the offerings and the ceremonial utensils.

Indigenous knowledge is an alternative form of thinking

ifa: What is special about this Wixárika community?

Rossell Santillán: Being indigenous is not an identity or a skin colour; we can better understand it as a form of knowledge, an epistemology, an intellectual environment in which non-human subjects are identified in the world around you, for example. If you earnestly and regularly conduct ceremonies, speak with 'achachilas', sacred beings, with the mountains, rivers, lakes and stones. I speak to the stones. That is the first point. Then hand and spirit join together, or: sowing and harvesting, the ceremonies of sowing and the harvest create different connections to food. And ultimately it is about wanting to create community. And community is also a knowledge environment, an epistemological environment, an environment of shared learning, learning about things that happen, knowledge and action, and the ability to act2.

ifa: Were you able to show your work to the community? What was the reaction like?

Rossel Santillán: There is a great asymmetry between the Wixárika community and the art institutions, such as here in Germany. Therefore the work I do with the community cannot have the same form.

Gabriel Rosell Santillán, Altar del Venado, Mexico, 2013, photo: Gabriel Rossell Santillán

The video that is shown in the exhibition, with Don Niuweme, Don Agustin, and Xaureme, was translated into Wixárika, and it is planned to show it at a meeting of the Wixárika community, in order to explain the process of the project. We decided on the editing, the sequence of the material and the contents of the video together with Don Niuweme, Don Agustin, Xaureme and Totupica; we edited and corrected together, with the aim of showing the video in the Wixárika communities and in Germany.

ifa: You often spend months at a time living in the communities with which you develop art projects. How would you describe your relationship?

Rossel Santillán: I feel I am a friend.

Gabriel Rosell Santillán, Mesa de Venado, Mexico, 2013, photo: Gabriel Rossell Santillán

Critique of extractivism from an artistic perspective

ifa: Do you see your work as artistic research?

Rossel Santillán: No. The term research has a negative connotation today in the Wixárika community, as in many other communities. It is connected to the fact that important people in the communities are ignored, that resources are exploited, and that epistemological extraction takes place, and information is appropriated in one direction only, and not returned to the original communities.

ifa: What is the role of your work in reference to decolonialisation?

Rossel Santillán: I take an active interest in the work of many decolonialist authors and have great respect for them. What concerns me is that decolonialisation is becoming a discourse, a fashion in the academies and cultural institutions, and that it ultimately produces resources that perfectly fit in with the existing system of exploitation. The people who start off in secure positions will retain these, and when this fad is over the women, children, people and other beings that are exploited by the system will continue to be repressed by it.

Interview by Valérie Hammerbacher

About the artist
Gabriel Rossell Santillán

Gabriel Rossell Santillán was born in 1976 in Mexico City, he lives and works in Berlin. 2006-2008 he was Master student at Berlin University of Arts, UdK with Prof. Lothar Baumgarten. 2002-2006 he studied Fine Arts at Berlin University of Arts, UdK with Prof. Rebecca Horn and Prof. Lothar Baumgarten. 1998-2002 he studied photography and fine arts at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain, with Prof. Cristina Garcia Rodero. 1998 study visit in Italy. 1996-1997 he studied architecture, painting and drawing at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.