Commentary on the series
April 2, 2016
by Eduardo Kohn, Ph.D.
This group of work by my sister, Emma Kohn, consists of ceramic pieces that she created using Ecuadorian clays. Much of this clay comes from the Ecuadorian Amazon, one of the few places in the country that still has a strong artistic tradition of ceramics, that has also been inspired by the tropical forests and the many visible and invisible beings that still live there.
This work is the fruit of a lifetime of investigation, artistic and spiritual (two words that are synonymous for me), and is strongly influenced by a parallel search: that of our grandmother Costanza Di Capua. Our grandmother, during the 68 years that she lived in Ecuador, developed a great love, curiosity and wisdom for the artistic and spiritual messages that the Pre-Colombian cultures left us, especially through the medium of ceramics.
Our grandmother's work was in some sense ethically and scientifically risky. The majority of the pieces she studied in order to understand better those messages transmitted iconographically come from "huaquería." This means that these were pulled, sometimes in violent ways, from their original contexts.
But this violence is only the sequel of a much deeper violence. I am referring to the Spanish Conquest and the catastrophic destruction of a whole complex of life (human and non-human, material and spiritual) that was set in motion when the Europeans set foot on these lands. What right did our grandmother have- and now my sister- to interpret those messages? And, moving to the scientific, how can one even try to understand without those interpretive contexts that a controlled archeological excavation attempts to give us?
I think that both my grandmother and my sister were very conscious of this ethical and scientific problem. Nonetheless, they concluded that these pieces can tell us something; if we find the way to hear their messages. And, even more so, they understood that we have a moral responsibility, as much to the past as to the future, to try to interpret those messages-- not in the capacity as authorities but simply as interlocutors, as a voice that adds to a millennial conversation.
My grandmother was convinced that the majority of the Pre-Columbian artistic production that comes from these equatorial regions is shamanistic. That is to say, she knew that this work represents attempts to communicate with the many visible and invisible beings that emerge from this complex of life that is unparalleled in the tropical forest. She was very interested in the world of hallucinogens and the visions they provoke; in the rites, in the jaguars and in the spirits (and we, as children, spent hours in her study, fascinated by this world).
My grandmother also realized that these pieces contain messages native to this spiritual world, and that her role was to try to listen to these messages. Furthermore, she noted that these pieces do not transmit their messages through language, which depends so heavily on human contexts to convey meaning, but rather they speak through another communication logic based on the image.
Thinking in images implies a different kind of logic. It is the logic of dreams, visions, the songs of birds, and is also the logic of art. It is a logic (sometimes seemingly illogical) that can cross the barriers that separate cultures, eras, and the various worlds that our cosmos encompasses. In her attempt to translate these worlds, to convey these messages-in short, to learn to listen in a new way- our grandmother's work has been more shamanistic than scientific.
Emma, I think, is following this path. Inspired by the pre-Columbian stamps, especially those that come from the Jama Coaque and Manteño cultures of the Ecuadorian coast, she is looking to hear these messages from those other worlds - messages, that come in the form of images and, with their contagious logic, are leaving their mark on her artistic thought.
I do not know exactly what these images are trying to say, but I think they are opening lines of communication between us and the world that extends beyond us but that is still alive in some places like the Ecuadorian Amazon as well as in the artistic explorations we see in this gallery. I think they are saying, "We are here; we're real; and we need your help to continue giving life to this threatened world that we share. "