Carlos Jacanamijoy


Context: The Ingas

At the present time, after many definitions and re-definitions of the concept of ¿art¿, it is better understood that a work may not be correctly judged unless we analyze it in terms of the elements from which it results, given that the contrary approach would amount to separating it from the historical background to which it belongs and stripping it of its true significance. With this in mind, we may say that the work of Carlos Jacanamijoy forms part of a historical background different to the ones we are familiar with. Although his oeuvre is not exclusively addressed to the minority race he belongs to, its motive, source and gestation are, in any case, intimately linked to his culture. It would be as wrong to approach his work by only using the kind of analysis that is employed in evaluating the art of the hegemonic culture, as it would be impossible to fully understand its contents without speaking about the values, the vision and the cosmogony of the Ingas, an indigenous community which has been settled in the Valley of Sibundoy, in the Department of Putumayo in southern Colombia, since the late 15th or early 16th century.
Carlos Jacanamijoy was born in 1964 and lived with his family until 1982, when, at the age of 18, he decided to go to Bogotá to study at the National University of Colombia. By this time, as is to be expected, the artist had already assimilated the special features of his society. He had become impregnated with the myths and legends that teach the difference between good and evil; integrated himself into the customs and the particular social organization of the Ingas, adapting the singular cultural and religious syncretism of his community; and entered into the spirit of a system of ethical and esthetic values that do not always agree with those of the dominant culture in Colombian society.
The Ingas descend from communities that formed part of the Inca empire and thus belong to the Quechua linguistic group. However, wars among indigenous ethnic groups that took place before the European discovery of America led the Ingas to become isolated from the other Quechua-speaking communities of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. For this reason their culture acquired a number of special traits that are related to their experiences, their geographical setting and their particular relationship with western culture.1 These factors may have something to do with a distinctive feature of the Inga culture: their tradition of constantly traveling in quest of knowledge and their long contact with indigenous peoples of other regions. Recently, large numbers of them have been migrating to the big cities of Colombia as well.
Their geographical setting has also played a part in the formation of their culture: the Valley of Sibundoy, which was once a lake, is a tableland traversed by several rivers and surrounded by mountains. The region is rich in natural resources and has a wide variety of micro-climates and ecological niches, which means that it is the main environmental and economic reserve of the race and a botanical treasure house that fascinates ethnobotanists from many different countries.2
The tropical rainforests around Sibundoy hold a highly abundant and richly diverse number of plant varieties that have been investigated by western science, many of which are recognized to be important food plants or to have outstanding medicinal or hallucinogenic properties. The region is so rich in this respect that some scientists claim that ¿you cannot really call yourself a botanist until you have worked in Sibundoy¿.3
It is not surprising, then, that many Ingas have been herbalists or shamans who work with plants, nor that the vegetable and animal kingdoms play a leading role in the customs and rituals of their communities and indeed in their daily life in general. For the Incas, ¿Pachamama¿, that is, the Earth Mother or Mother Nature, the origin of life itself, is worthy of veneration. In a similar manner, the Ingas are fully aware of the mystical and religious significance of sacred plants, especially the one known as ¿the vine of the soul¿, yagé, the most renowned hallucinogenic plant of the Amazon region.
The father of the painter is an example of this tradition. He is what is known as a ¿curaca¿, a healer who works with medicinal plants, that is, a sort of shaman whose skills are made use of and greatly respected by his people. In a characteristic syncretism, he is a also a devout Catholic. He holds ancestral rituals and ceremonies that help those who take part in them to free themselves, both physically and spiritually, from the illnesses they suffer from, which are considered to have both a corporeal and ethereal aspect. We should bear in mind, however, that women also play an important role in the mythological expressions of the Inga culture. It is they who give an explicit visual identification to the symbols that are identified with the cosmogony of the race, through the creation of cultural artifacts like the ¿chumbe¿, a sort of sash woven with designs derived from the shape of a rhomboid, a glyph which evokes the belly or womb for this community, the place where the gestation of life occurs. These sashes are, at one and the same time, their most striking and distinctive article of dress and the best-known medium for their artistic expression.4 The Inga woman is also the person who is responsible for transmitting the traditional values of the ethnic group to her children.5
On the family level as well, the schemes of relationship do not follow the same paths that we find in most of the racial groups that make up the Colombian nation. For example, among the Ingas, all elderly men are considered to be and are treated as uncles, so that all boys become their nephews. In the same manner, they have complex godfather relationships, not common in the rest of the country, which revolve around a system of reciprocal rights and duties within their large extended families.
This, in short, is the human and cultural background of Carlos Jacanamijoy, the situation which nourished the roots of his art ¿ a special social and natural environment that is very different to that which has formed the immense majority of artists who are currently active in this era of creative globalization and critical homogeneity. We are speaking of a painter who, very unusually, grew up in the bosom of a minority race which has conserved a great number of its traditional customs and native values despite the imposition of alien ones that resulted from the arrival of Europeans in America.

1 Benjamín Jacanamijoy Tisoy, Chumbe, Arte Inga
(Bogotá, Ministerio de Gobierno, 1993).

2 The most famous botanist to work in Sibundoy was the late Professor Richard Evans Schultes, who later became director of the Harvard Botanical Museum.

3 Wade Davis, El Río (Bogotá, Banco de la República, El Áncora Editores, 2001), page 163. Spanish translation of ¿One River¿.

4 Benjamín Jacanamijoy Tisoy, loc. cit.

5 Rubén Darío Guevara, ¿Los Ingas del Putumayo: Interacción entre etnicidad y género¿, (The Ingas of the Putumayo: interaction between ethnicity and genus). Colombia: Ciencia y Tecnología, vol. 14, No 2, pág. 23- 31.

Beginnings: Nature

As may be expected, once Jacanamijoy moved to Bogotá to study art, he became more familiar with the daily happenings, customs and values that mark the mainstream society of Colombia, which is what we might call a Europeanized ¿mestizo¿ one. While the artist maintains close ties with his family and the Inga community it is part of and continues to participate in their fiestas and ceremonies, the university channeled his creative expression towards the emblems of the long tradition of western art, which he carefully studied. At the same time, it enabled him to deepen his knowledge of the reasoning that prompted the development of painting, the inner logic of different periods and styles from the beginnings of western art to the contemporary age.6 At the university he also received a thorough grounding in the use of different pictorial techniques and acquired a special skill in the handling of oils, which is plainly evident in the suggestive presence of his canvases, where his knowledge of contrast and transparency, depth and two-dimensionality and the range and laying on of colors reveals a full awareness of their respective properties and scope every time that he chooses to use or refer to them.
Nevertheless, from his earliest pictorial efforts the artist made it clear that, while the medium of expression he had chosen to communicate the life he had lived and the visions he had seen to the contemporary world was of European origin, he would not deny his roots. He has continued to express the experience and knowledge he has acquired since his childhood, and the values and meanings that marked his physical and spiritual growth.
An overlapping symbiosis in which the inherited and the learned, the native and the foreign, the intuitive and the rational play their part is the foundation of his work. Therefore it is not strange that ever since his time at the university his work has been markedly different from that of his fellow students, although not only for reasons of technique or style ¿ two elements that, in the contemporary world, no longer play a leading role in art ¿ but also for those of content: his work is enriched by cultural precepts and considerations which lead the spectator into unknown and surprising sensations and visions.
Since then it has become increasingly evident that, just as nature is closely linked to the tradition and evolution of the Inga culture ¿ whose members are the ¿ancestral guardians of the secrets of the earth¿ ¿ 7 and constitutes the wellspring of both its material and spiritual resources, so too would it be the backbone of the painter´s own work. Not as a pictorial tactic or document or starting point, we emphasize, but rather, as a way of expressing its special relationship with the universe. In this relationship nature is conceived of as a compendium of all the virtues and benefits which are showered on mankind and as the most suitable path for establishing a communication with its conscience and dreams, with the reality of this world and the realms beyond it.
In other words, the evocation of nature in the work of Jacanamijoy has little to do with the representations of the natural world that have been seen in the history of art. In his work nature does not form part of spectacular panoramas or romantic landscapes, nor does it provide the raw material for botanical reflections or formal abstractions. In his pictures, as in Inga culture in general, nature is a source of spirituality, a sort of springboard that allows both the artist and the unprejudiced spectator to explore his own interior and lose himself in a dimension in which it is difficult to distinguish fantasy from reality and visions from experiences.
In his early works ¿ paintings produced between 1992 and 1994 ¿, the pictorial space, the illusory depth that characterizes painting, is more recognizable and better defined than in his more recent ones, as are the forms of nature, the sun and moon, the leaves and fruits, the vines and flowers. Erudite studies note that: ¿on the very border of the footpaths of Sibundoy creepers cling to the bases of trees, and Heliconias and herbaceous Calatheas yield to aerial plants with broad leaves that climb up in the shade of the forest¿. Although what is depicted in his paintings is simply a matter of formal and chromatic suggestions of vegetal life, it is evident that they produce the same sensation of fertility and exuberance.
Spontaneity runs through these paintings of broad gestures, allowing the spectator to divine the movements of the artist¿s hands and the thrusts of his paintbrush. But their objective has nothing to do with the visualization of stylistic attitudes, nor with representations that seek to document visible reality. On the contrary, they are above all components of a whole which seeks to submerge the observer in a vision of the world that originates in the jungle, nourishing itself on the wisdom of its colors, but is dominated by abstract notions that are incomprehensible to normal logic, such as influx, misgiving and energy. In addition, his pictures force us into reflections on how human beings behave towards nature, that is, they remind us of the care and attention which are owed to it, to the awe we should feel before its evolution and growth.
In most of these paintings there is a central emphasis, although all give the impression of being only a frame, a quadrangular segment of a much broader vision that spreads beyond each side of the represented fraction in an undefined way. Apart from the natural elements, the spaces are also more precise, more delimited than in his later works. From these early pictures it is perfectly clear that, among the artist¿s different intentions, the first is to conciliate his inner with his outer life, his intimacy and sensibility with a reality which is observed and enjoyed through a full awareness of its multiple stimuli. It is not in vain that the artist has said that he places ¿emphasis on the experience, on what is lived, but on what has been humanly lived. On what happens when that which is originally ´material´ leaves traces in the spirit¿.8

6 The artist studied philosophy, as well as fine arts, at university level.

7 Carlos Jacanamijoy, ¿Putumayo, Infinitas Posibilidades¿, (Putumayo: Infinite Possibilities), Magazine "Cambio 16", Special fourth anniversary issue, number 222, pages 235 and 236, 1977.

8 Carlos Jacanamijoy, Catalogue of the exhibition of his paintings at the Museum of the Nation, Lima, June, 2001.

Consolidation: Color

From 1995 onwards the paintings of Jacanamijoy tend, first, to grow dark and later, to become crowded with colors, gradually approaching a type of abstraction which, in contrast to those of the majority of artists with similar aims, is not based on the stylization of forms nor exclusively derives from the mind of the painter. The brush strokes become less and less evident and the new elements become more and more blurred, so that color itself becomes the protagonist, the most important component, the device responsible for filling the spectator with that cultural and spiritual content we have referred to: the content which has a mythological basis, gives rise to ethical reflections and provides a hitherto unknown perspective on the universe.
Small and sporadic forms that suggest the pincers of crustaceans, butterfly wings, leaves and mollusks are the only vestiges of representation that remain in his paintings of this period. In some cases repeated points intensify the sensation of animal life, of swarms of insects, and with this, the impression of jungle, of light which filters through the foliage, of the biological development not affected by mankind. But none of this is represented in a direct form: everything has turned more diffuse, as it were, including the idea of space, which by now has become difficult to measure, although a sensation of thickness, of phytomorphic superposition, leaves the observer with the unequivocal feeling of finding himself before a tangle of vegetation that has become interwoven over eons of time.
The jungles near the Valley of Sibundoy, especially their vegetation and atmosphere, continue to be the protagonists ¿ or, rather, the initial resources ¿ of his canvases, but from this moment onwards his work begins to approach them from a different angle, giving priority to their mysterious character, their vibrant chromatic quality, their shining appeal. We might say that his paintings represent an entelechy of the jungle instead of being centered on a description of its components or details, but it is clear that we are dealing with a hallucinatory fiction, which comes from experiences and presentiments, passes through illusions and intuitions and finally forms images of vertigo.
There can be no doubt that there exists a close relationship between the paintings of Jacanamijoy and the experiences found in the rituals that revolve around the use of the sacred potion of the Ingas. Generally known as yagé among the indigenous cultures of the Amazon basin, the Inga name for it is ambihuasca. It is prepared from a jungle liana. Inga youngsters are initiated into the ritual of yagé by their parents: the ceremony begins in the evening and goes on till dawn, and is led by a ¿curaca¿ or ¿curandero¿, who uses ritualistic objects like a quartz crystal, a leaf-fan and a crown made of feathers which fall down his back nearly to the waist. While these ritualistic elements are not literally reproduced in his paintings, they do give suggestions.
His works give the impression that the vegetation in them may be appreciated from several points of view simultaneously; not because of a rational intention to illustrate the many facets of what is represented ¿ as was done by the artists of the Cubist movement at the beginning of the 20th century ¿ but rather for magical purposes, somewhat in the manner in which the facets of a crystal of quartz reproduce different aspects of the world it reflects and make its colors sparkle. However, the most obvious influence of such artifacts on the work of Jacanamijoy is the chromatic intensity of the feathers and their harmonic contrasts.
But even more than the objects of the ritual it is the visions yagé provokes which explain the rich and accentuated color of his paintings: visions in which ¿bursts of colors which merge into one another¿ are one of the most insistent fantasies.9 Indecipherable backgrounds of a green or violent luminosity, bright reds that fly out of the vegetation, yellow reflections that seem to have their origin in the stars and deep blues that evoke water and the sky ¿ all of these tonalities bear the poetic stamp of hallucinations that seem to conspire against the spectator; that tempt him to be carried away, to lose himself in the labyrinths, disturbing and pleasurable at the same time, of a heightened awareness and sensibility.
The rainbow, a phenomenon of color par excellence that is full of varied symbolism in all cultures, also has a special significance for the Ingas. They honor it with a celebration called the ¿Atunpuncha¿, which corresponds to the carnival. In the course of these festivities people adorn their heads with flower petals, as a way of reaffirming the chromatic roots of their culture. It would not be surprising if this homage to the rainbow had its origin in or was at least inspired by their sacred plant, for those who participate in the rituals of yagé frequently speak of seeing this atmospheric manifestation of a harmonious variety of colors in their visions. It is not strange, therefore, that the colors of Jacanamijoy seek to project its iridescence, nor that the rainbow is one of the main suggestions in his images. His paintings also provoke the sensation of effects and phenomena that are not necessarily visual ¿ such as night dew and cold, humidity and wind ¿ or manifestations and presences that are not represented in an explicit way, like silence and the sounds of nature, the growth of plants, the whirring of insects and even the furtive breathing of the crouching jaguar. It is from all this that there emerges that atmosphere of mystery which impregnates them, despite their attractive colors, so that they resemble a metaphorical invitation to penetrate the unknown, to enter into situations or landscapes which seem to suggest an element of risk or danger, even as they beguile us with the ineludible fascination of a prodigal and exotic nature.
In conclusion, if nature is the center of attraction in the work of Jacanamijoy, as it is in the culture he belongs to, color is the element that gives strength to its suggestions. It is evident that the artist knows all of the secrets of color: the ones which affect adjoining tonalities; the ones which blend or clash and advance or recede; the amount of color needed f or their effectiveness and balance. But even more important, the painter also knows that tonal variations may be infinite and that none is prohibited to his brush, given that a total chromatic freedom is indispensable to the full expression of the contents of his work.

9 Wade Davis, op. cit., pag. 228

Development: Energy

Although they are practically unknown to the public, Carlos Jacanamijoy also produces drawings: they differ from his pictorial work not only in color but also in their inspiration and objectives. They are silent and modest works, undertaken when his mind is blank or thinking of something else, that is, they are done without very clear intentions and follow the erratic impulses of his hand without paying too much attention to it. They are a kind of small record of movements ¿ going first in one direction and then in another ¿ which the artist assembles on sheets of paper of a larger size, adding one and on occasions two tonalities to them, tonalities that give them a certain look but apply a coloring that is pretty restricted nevertheless, compared to that of his paintings.
Another genre the painter works in, which is also little known to the public, is monochrome: washes on paper and paintings in black-and-white. In these cases the representations are closely related to those of his oil paintings, but the differences are also evident. In the washes the most obvious one is that they are done with a sense of tone, using a range of grays, while in the black-and-white painting the most evident characteristic is the eloquence of gesture, the intuitive way the artist has of anticipating the visual effects, such as intensity and extension, of a given movement.
Despite the absence of color, these pictures transmit as much energy as the paintings with which his oeuvre is usually identified. Nature throbs in them, highlighting the artist¿s knowledge ¿ the talent he has for revealing and communicating that which animates his work, its inner spiritual content. The monochromatic reiteration of these intentions and ambitions is also a proof of the artist´s deep-rooted convictions about the pertinence and scope of his expressive designs.
For this reason, it may be said, returning to his polychrome painting, that while color represents the strength of Jacanamijoy¿s work and is its predominant element, it does not fully explain its particular quality. It is also thanks to the brio with which the artist applies his pigments to the canvas that his pictures display a contagious energy. This spiritedness leads to a state of mind that allows the viewer to enter into and appreciate the painter´s visions.
All of his paintings are restless and dynamic. Each brushstroke gives the impression of tracing the frenetic movements of a ritual dance which inexorably lead to a chromatic paroxysm.
Evidence for this is seen in the pictures he produced from 1999 onwards, when it might be said that new goals emerge in his oils, ones which gradually make them different not only from his drawings, washes and black-and white canvases, but even from his polychrome works of the previous years. In these paintings the interest in making perceptible the manner in which they were done has revived and with it the presence of the painter. But even more significant, his color has been purified and become more direct and brilliant. Nevertheless, the chromatic transformation that has taken place only becomes evident when you compare his works from the beginning, the middle and the end of the 1990´s to one another, since it is not a question of variety but of intensity, of refulgence. A certain oxidation that was perceptible in his previous works, for example, has disappeared and a new luminosity is exultantly seen on the surface of his canvases.
What is more, in recent months the artist seems to have taken a further step in this constant evolution, free of radical ruptures with the past, that has characterized his works. His format is more horizontal now and his palette has become more harmonious and less contrasting. It is a stage that is barely beginning at the time I write this essay, so that it is not very clear how long it will last nor what its implications and consequences will be. But it is evident that his work is currently exploring another angle of the same set of concerns, emphasizing the character of an oeuvre that is simultaneously diverse and consistent.
As well as being the result of a process in which the variations are a matter of a permanent evolution rather than radical breaks and starts, the work of Jacanamijoy has developed in different directions at the same time. In the same way that his paintings, washes and drawings have unfolded and grown, each following its own course, his subject matter and color explore proposals that reflect his own experiences as a member of a minority culture and his willingness to communicate them in a visual way. In this era of critical uniformity, when artists are expected to share the same concerns no matter where they live and their works are explained with similar arguments no matter what the context in which they were produced, it is comforting to find works like those of Jacanamijoy. It would be senseless to examine them with the conceptual stereotypes that are currently applied to plastic art all over the world, since they can only be fully understood when they are appreciated, or, rather, experienced, in the light of the physical and social background which gave birth to them.
To put it another way, his work has been immensely enriched by the cultural meanings which characterize it. It is blessed with an esthetic and history that are different to those of other artists: qualities which come from the indigenous world and are linked to its magic, enchantment, mystery and irrationality. An apparent irrationality, that is, because it only seems so to the urbanized inhabitants of a globalized and homogenous world: in reality, we are talking about the unknown rationality of human beings with a different sense of time and history, with a cosmovision that widely differs from the one that is established and accepted in most parts of the world. Like yagé ¿ which only illumines the mind after it has purged the body ¿ his paintings oblige us to cleanse ourselves of all preconceptions, to free ourselves of those limitations which block the attainment of wisdom.
The originality of Jacanamijoy´s work derives from his willingness to maintain his links with his culture, from the clear and prideful celebration of the heritage of his forefathers, which he has converted into a highly spirited artistic statement. In this process it might be said that Jacanamijoy plays the role of a priest for a world that it is forgotten but not lost. Its principal rites, visions and beliefs are restructured by the artist, who seeks to conserve and project them into the living and powerful fact of his paintings.