The Sacred Forest: an Online Art Exhibit and Interview with AWA Gallery Founder, Patsy Craig

Equilibrio Espiritual by Miguel Vilca
Patsy Craig, photo by Kelly Campbell

Patsy Craig is a curator/producer, author/artist and Indigenous rights advocate who has for over 16 years generated and cultivated a wide range of cross-cultural collaborations in the fields of art, music, architecture, and urbanism. This output has included publications, exhibitions, and events, including lectures, concerts, symposia, workshops, etc.

Four years ago, Craig turned her focus to environmental and Indigenous issues and spent time at Standing Rock to support the water protection movement there resisting the infamous Dakota Access Pipeline. Since then she has continued her activism and seeks to provide platforms that contribute to amplifying Indigenous world-views and ancestral knowledge. She recently opened AWA Galería in Cusco, Peru to showcase the work of Indigenous artists.

Bioneers Arts Coordinator Polina Smith interviewed Craig in August 2020.

POLINA SMITH: Patsy, could you tell us about your own background as a curator, artist and author and how you came to open a gallery in Perú.

PATSY CRAIG: I grew up in New York and from the age of 12 my family lived in different countries in South America due to my father’s work. I received my Bachelors degree in fine art from the Rhode Island School of Design (USA) and my Masters degree in Cultural Studies from Birkbeck College University of London (UK). A few years after graduating from art school I moved to England where I have lived for the past 24 years. My mother was Peruvian and my father American. On both sides I have Indigenous ancestry but my upbringing was very Western and unfortunately very unconnected to these roots. But I have always felt the pull of my ancestors which is what I believe took me to Standing Rock in 2016, and that became a real turning point for me. I’m ashamed to say I had not been involved in environmental activism until then but I was very moved by everything that was going on there and it changed everything for me. After my time at Standing Rock, I decided that I wanted to focus my efforts on Indigeneity and environmentalism so ever since I’ve been trying to educate myself as much as possible about the Indigenous cultures that I have connections to. Since 2016 I have spent most of my time in the US and in Peru researching various aspects of traditional environmental knowledge and I began focusing on what I might be able to contribute towards disseminating a greater understanding of Indigenous world views. Given my background, providing a platform for the work of Indigenous artists made a lot of sense and seemed imperative.

POLINA: What inspired you to go to Standing Rock in the first place?

PATSY: I remember the moment clearly: It was in September 2016, I was in Berlin, Germany and I was watching “Democracy Now,” which was one of the first news programs to cover the water protection movement at Standing Rock. I was outraged by what I was seeing but also very inspired by this Indigenous-led movement. I believe it was the call of the ancestors that sparked a bright light in my mind and heart and I decided on the spot that I needed to support it. So I contacted my cousin who lives in the Bay Area and has had a beautiful connection with Native culture most of her adult life- she and Winona La Duke were friends and roommates at Harvard for a few years- and we decided to go out and be there for Thanksgiving, to give a new meaning to the celebration. It was amazing, we stayed in a yurt with Cheryl Angel and other folks at Sacred Stone Camp. I learned so much and have been learning ever since. And it wasn’t just me. There was something incredibly special about that time and place so there are quite a few people who were very moved by their experience at Standing Rock and are now doing significantly relevant things in the world. Beyond being physically present there, I think it resonated the world over and brought a lot of attention to the climate crisis and Indigenous-led environmental movements generating a lot of much needed momentum in this regard.

POLINA: So, can you share a bit more about your trajectory from Europe to Standing Rock to recently opening your gallery in Cusco?

PATSY: After moving to the UK in 1996 I was very involved in the art world there but eventually I became disenchanted with it. I felt like it was all about money and it had lost a lot of the appeal that originally drew me to it so it wasn’t feeling right for me. After publishing my book Making Art Work (Trolley 2003) about how ideas translate into physical form, I began working with music, with jazz. Music felt less ego-driven, more joyous and joyously collaborative. And so I moved in that direction, but it was always with a social conscience and not just a purely aesthetic pursuit. I invited many American jazz luminaries to perform in London and in so doing learned a lot about jazz in those years both as an art form and as a culture, which was beautiful. The origins of jazz are about resistance and the music is of course associated with social struggle and civil rights, and that always resonates with me. So while my experience at Standing Rock was pivotal, in this way it didn’t seem like a huge leap, but rather a re-focusing, and it started me down a path of connecting to aspects of my own roots that I hadn’t yet delved into. It also brought me back into the visual arts, which I had to a large extent left behind. Ultimately, I feel my path, my trajectory, is resolved by my guardian spirits, my ancestors.

As a result of my research in Peru, early last year I decided to take an exhibition of contemporary Amazonian art to London to coincide with a project I was working on with UCL to provide platforms from which to amplify Indigenous world views in the UK. So last June the exhibition called The Invisible Forest was presented at Gallery 46 in Whitechapel. Presenting this beautiful selection of works was unique in a London context. In the heart of Empire my intention was to make visible an understanding of the Amazonian rainforest that was invisible to most and I organized talks with our artist-in-residence, a native Amazonian, which brought together folks from different worlds, anthropology, art, and environmentalism mostly. At one point while in the gallery I was on a Skype chat with Alexis (i.e. Alexis Bunten, co-director of Indigeneity Programs at Bioneers) and I was showing her the exhibit, and it just kind of popped into my head, I said, “Why don’t we show these works at Bioneers?” She agreed and put you and I in touch and with the help of the Peruvian Consulate in the Bay Area we managed to make it happen for the 2019 Bioneers Conference, which was wonderful.

After that I decided to live in Peru to generate something that ironically doesn’t exist here. Even though Indigenous culture is so prominent here in the Andes and in all the different geographical regions of Peru, there isn’t a gallery like mine, one that elevates contemporary Indigenous culture giving these art-forms the status they deserve in this dominant capitalist system, which of course is very divorced from original Indigenous contexts… It’s complex, tourism dilutes the local culture and the traditions become a spectacle here often very removed from their origins. Plus, art schools in Peru are very steeped in Western art traditions, which seems crazy given the ever rich cultural history of these lands. This erasure being one of the legacies of colonialism obviously. So for me this is my personal process of decolonization and a return to my roots. Cusco is a centre of Indigenous culture in the Americas, the belly button of the ancient world some say- I am blessed to be here, have much work to do, and it feels right.

POLINA: What has it been like during the pandemic for you in Cusco?

PATSY: Well I just opened the gallery in January, and obviously the gallery is not physically open right now. I’m trying to figure out ways to make it work that are adapting to these circumstances and I’ll find a way to make it relevant because I feel profoundly that COVID is a teacher. And I feel certain that this virus has made itself manifest in the world at a time when we actually desperately need to pay attention to what it has to teach us, so I don’t see it as a totally negative experience even though I know many people are suffering. We have just come out of one of the world’s longest quarantines which for me was a spiritual time.

POLINA: I’m wondering if you could share a little bit about the artists who are exhibited at the gallery.

PATSY: There is a strong energy now in Peru around contemporary Indigenous Amazonian artists so I was drawn into that scene and I started meeting people in Lima, the capital, that were a part of it. When I started digging deeper I went to the jungle and met various artists in their villages and in their homes and studios, etc. The exhibition I brought to England, “The Invisible Forest,” was a result of that research. This second exhibit, “The Sacred Forest,” is also about the jungle but is about a deeper gaze, it’s about looking at the sacred aspects of the forest, the plants, the knowledge that comes from working with the plants and understanding something about their healing energies.

POLINA: How do you find your artists?

PATSY: I follow my nose! Some of them are known in Peru, and some of them are less known. I tend to dig deeply when I do things, I do research, I use my eye and I go to the places where people live; when you seek, you find…The principal artist of “The Sacred Forest,” Dimas Paredes, began painting fairly late in his life. He studied with an internationally renown artist from Ucayali, Pablo Amaringo, who started the Usko-Ayar School in Pucallpa where students are taught to recreate their personal experiences through paint related to the biodiversity, cosmology, and mythology of the forest influenced by Ayahuasca visions. In this context Dimas developed his own unique personal style. I found that quite a few of Amaringo’s students copied the master and didn’t develop their own authentic personal voice but Dimas definitely did. And Dimas’s father was a well-known master healer in that region so you can see in his work that he has a deep understanding of the magical qualities of each plant represented in his paintings. He’s a “modern” artist because he paints on canvas, which is not a traditional format, but his iconography is steeped in an ancient tradition and way of knowledge.

POLINA: Given the ayahuasca-inspired paintings in this beautiful show you’ve curated, I was wondering if plant medicines have been part of your own journey?

PATSY: Not really, I haven’t taken ayahuasca or many plant medicines like it. It may be surprising to some because I am Peruvian and I’ve been coming to Peru all of my life to visit my grandmother and other family members so I’ve long been aware of these native traditions of healing that include sacred plant use but I’m wary of plunging into the whole Western immersion and appropriation of ayahuasca that’s been so intense in recent years. I have reservations about many aspects of that scene because I want to be careful and respectful of the cultures that originated the use of ayahuasca and other sacred plants. I have great respect for those traditions and want to learn as much as I can about them and to support the Indigenous artists who work with that imagery and those teachings, but sacred plant use has not so far been a part of my own personal experience.

POLINA: More and more Westerners are coming to Peru to try ayahuasca. Some of the artists you work with create art inspired by the medicine; what are your and their thoughts around this?

PATSY: I think money is a big part of it, it’s a whole touristic industry here now, and I think it has the potential to dilute the culture in ways that are having a negative impact, so I’m quite critical about it, actually. And I feel like there should almost be some kind of regulation on how it is dealt with. I’m not quite sure who the regulating body would be, so maybe that’s unrealistic, but when the authenticity and real cultural connection isn’t there, it loses its purpose and its power and its intention, so I feel like it needs to be done well, and needs to be done less. I feel like people need to have more respect for all that it is about and often you don’t see that. You just see a kind of Consumption.

Western culture is a culture of addiction in many ways, and I feel like that just gets translated into this. It’s a problem, but I’m not quite sure what the solution is. And many Westerners have a very incomplete sense of how these plants are used in traditional healing practices. Often it is just the healer who ingests ayahuasca, for example, as a tool to help see or “diagnose” the person’s condition, and then prescribes the appropriate plants or other healing techniques. So, it’s much more complex than this mainstream consumption that is so prevalent now. I’ve never even done ayahuasca and I feel like I could do it “well,” but I haven’t because I don’t want to participate in what I’m referring to. I want to be thoughtful and only participate in ways that are respectful of its origins and its better intentions. If the right time comes, I will engage because I am interested in its true value, and not just in ayahuasca, but in many other healing plants too. I think the artists I work with understand the tradition and its purpose.

POLINA: Will you share a little bit more information about the gallery?

PATSY: So I’ve done these 2 exhibitions presenting Amazonian art. The first one went outside of Perú, and this one is here in Cusco, although I’d love to have it travel abroad too so if anyone has suggestions or an interest in hosting it elsewhere I’d love to hear from them! But my intention is not to only focus on the Amazon. My intention ultimately with the gallery is to also represent Indigenous artists throughout South, Central and North America. And in this way I also hope to be a bridge that connects these various cultures, to encourage alliances and environmental activism always in hopes that these alliances can be an empowered protective resistant force. In this context I also aim to raise consciousness and encourage the art education system in Peru at least to become far more inclusive and open to evolving their own rich, ancient and homegrown artistic traditions. On their own decolonized terms.

POLINA: If your wildest dreams could come to fruition with this gallery, what would they be?

PATSY: The art is a means through which to enter into Indigenous world views, something I feel is crucial in these times. The dominant culture is clearly out of balance so we are at a critical point right now with preserving life on this planet and I think most people don’t connect these dots, which are ultimately about learning how to live sustainably with nature from cultures that have done this for thousands of years. We all have much to learn from this wisdom which respects the interconnectedness of all life so for me it’s about valuing Indigenous peoples and cultures, many of which are in danger of being lost. It’s about giving them physical, spiritual, and political space to exist and thrive. This I feel strongly will result in a mutual flourishing. Let’s hope we get it right.

I also hope to be a bridge that connects Indigenous folks throughout the Americas. For example, Lyla June is someone I’m in touch with, and I would love to translate the great work she is involved with online into Quechua and Spanish, so that it can be accessible to Indigenous communities here in Peru. I’ve begun to do that with her work but I need funding to continue. And I’d love to share the voices of others like Lyla’s mom Pat Mcabe and Casey Camp-Horinek, who I invited to London- both amazing women! And Tom Goldtooth who I met through Bioneers, and Wendsler Nosie Sr, who I met while supporting the movement in Oak Flats, Arizona, and Cheryl Angel who was my teacher at Standing Rock, etc. And on and on. I’d love to connect them all with folks down here to facilitate an empowering dialogue of interconnection and alliance…but I need support to do the work of translating Spanish, Quechua, and English content to present on radio and the internet.

You know, for a long time indigenous-led environmental activism in much of Latin America has been considered by the powers that be, a kind of terrorism, even more than in the U.S., so I’d love to be able to help open up these dialogues to change that perspective and those misinformed and destructive policies- to de-stigmatize the efforts of the protectors of these beautiful traditions and open up their profound teachings to a wider audience.

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