An Interview with Patsy Craig, Founder of AWA
Patsy Craig is a curator/producer, author/artist and Indigenous rights advocate who has for over 20 years generated and cultivated a wide range of cross-cultural collaborations in the fields of art/design, music, urbanism, and environmentalism. This output has included publications, exhibitions, and events, including lectures, concerts, symposia, workshops, etc.
6 years ago, Craig turned her focus to the environment and Indigeneity after spending time at Standing Rock to support the water protection movement 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. Since 2020 she has been operating a cultural project called AWA in Cusco, Peru that showcases environmentally focused art and the work of Indigenous artists.
Polina Smith (PS): To refresh our memories, Patsy, how would you describe AWA?
Patsy Craig (PC): AWA is a word that in Quechua, the native language of 14 million Peruvians, refers to weaving and the notion of interweaving. So that is what I do, I interweave visual culture in order to amplify Indigenous world views because to me it is clear that we have much to learn from ancestral wisdom. This learning is long over due and desperately needed at this point in our human story. A story that is currently driving us towards ecological collapse due to our ethically untenable relationship to nature. With these works of art I hope to inspire a reconsideration of all that drives us.
AWA is based at 11,500 feet in the ancient capital of Cusco in the Peruvian Andes- one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the Americas conceived as the belly button of the world. From this vantage point, my work focuses on environment, Indigeneity, ancestral knowledge, and decolonisation. Through research, art, and education I aim to provide unique access to cultural traditions that acknowledge, enrich and perpetuate sustainability and biodiversity as the means to ensure mutual flourishing. Today, such traditions are calling out to be seen, understood and honoured.
PS: Since our last interview in 2020 tell us about what you are up to, how is AWA evolving?
PC: Well so much has happened since we spoke last, the world has completely shifted, for one! Here in the Peruvian Andes many understand that this point in time is one of transition, of both personal and collective reflection and re-action. In these sacred lands many identify this time as the beginning of a new cycle, the Pachakuti, which in the
Andean tradition refers to the cycle of changes of the earth. The Pachakuti is manifest in the union of the ancestral and the here and now. In this way, we can describe ourselves not as who we are or what we were, but who we are becoming…
Given the current state of planetary affairs, I hear our earth mother’s calls loud and clear and I know that if I do not pay heed then I am out of sync. So I feel the need to shift with her, and I do my best to envision relevant responses.
In this light I guess the primary shift with AWA since we spoke over two years ago is that it is evolving into more of a project than a gallery, per se. This is exciting actually. It means that I am out in the field more often generating projects to do with art of course but that the focus is more on collectives or communities rather than individuals. The idea is to allow for individuals to shine in this context but to embrace what I feel is closer to the essence of the Indigenous ethos. In Andean culture we call this Ayni, which embraces the concept of reciprocity or mutualism. Ayni and the practices related to Ayni remind us of the interconnectedness of all life and how to live in relation to one another. So this is the essence of how I choose to evolve my practice that is not accidentally located in the heart of Andean culture.
PS: What new projects are you generating?
PC: There are three principal projects that I have been developing:
- One focuses on an art collective from a native community in the Madre de Dios region of the southern Peruvian Amazon known as the Harakbut. This collective is called ETOCHIME. In their native language Etochime means “our roots” and they identify their artistic practice as such: PAINT SO AS NOT TO FORGET. The members range in age from 4–44 and are essentially self taught artists. Paint on canvas is not their traditional art form but they have chosen this medium as a means through which to communicate their urgent messages with the outside world. Their imagery consists of lines and figurative representations of their human and non-human surroundings. The lines traditionally are natural plant dyes painted on the body as a symbol of respect to their sacred forest and it is believed that through these lines a more profound connection to the spiritual beings of the jungle is possible. The Anämëi tree is at the heart of their origin story. Just as the tree saved the Harakbut and gave rise to many species of animals and plants, the Harakbut iconographies also originated there. The tree became a symbol of unity, respect and harmony with the forest and other beings of the Harakbut worlds.
Yesica Patiachi is the driving force behind Etochime and was chosen to represent all Indigenous Amazonians to address Pope Francis when he visited Peru in 2018 warning that the Amazon’s indigenous people have never been so threatened in their territories as they are now demanding an end to the relentless exploitation of the region’s timber, gas and gold. The illegal gold mining so prevalent in Madre de Dios has had a tremendously negative impact on the cultural survival and territories of the Harakbut peoples.
Over the past year I worked with Etochime to create paintings that represented their culture and the impact of gold mining on their communities. This body of work was presented in San Francisco, California at both the Bioneers conference 2022 and elsewhere in SF alongside works by San Francisco Art Institute alumni in an exhibition I curated titled MINE: What is Ours in the Wake of Extraction. This was geographically and historically relevant of course because both Northern California and Madre de Dios share a connection to gold mining. I also curated an exhibition in Peru of their works which was recently presented in Cusco entitled ETOCHIME Children of the Forest: The Infinite Lines of the Harakbut. A more recent proposal with Etochime is in its initial stages so I will only say briefly that it has to do with dreaming, an important aspect of theirs and all Amazonian Indigenous cultures.
- The second project involves my translating an extraordinary book called Soy Sontone, an account by a Harakbut elder of his memories pre-contact. It is the first publication by an indigenous person in a situation of isolation in the Amazonian forests as told by father to son. The testimony of Antonio Sueyo Irangua as transcribed by his son Hector Sueyo Yumbuyo, immerses us in the life of the Harakbut, an Indigenous people whose territory is located in the region currently known as Madre de Dios. The first half of the 20th century the Harakbut remained isolated from the rest of society until they were contacted by rubber barons and Dominican missionaries, thus Antonio, or Sontone, lived his youth without contact with what he would later know as Peru. These memoirs show us a personal view of the dramatic changes suﬀered by the Amazonian peoples due to colonisation; how in the span of Antonio’s lifetime, their world changed completely. Alongside Luis Fernandez, director of CINCIA (Centro de Innovacion Cientifica Amazonica), I received a grant to translate this book for CEES at Wake Forest University.
- The third project is with a women’s weaving collective from a remote Andean community focusing on the impact of climate change in the Cusco region.
Video walk-through of the exhibition MINE : What is Ours in the Wake of Extraction
PS: So you are working with Andean communities now, how would you compare this to working in the Amazon? What characterizes each?
PC: It is totally diﬀerent. Peru is divided into three distinct regions: extreme jungle, extreme mountains, and extreme desert. That is what makes Peru so geographically spectacular. Although distinct these areas are coherent and have always maintained interrelation.
One of the sacred plants of the Andes for example is coca and it is grown in the Amazon.
What distinguishes the Andes from the Amazon of course is altitude and vegetation. Both regional cultures are intrinsically defined by their natural surroundings; by the local flora and fauna, which in regards to artistic practice is manifest both iconographically and materially.
Pre conquest, paint is perhaps more prevalent in Amazonian cultural traditions and weaving is the traditional art form in the Andes. Both of course implement natural dyeing techniques and both employ abstract patterning in their respective visual iconographies. Weaving is integral to the Andean cosmovision and Andean weaving is one of the worlds most sophisticated textile traditions still practiced widely to this day. I have been collecting Andean weavings for quite some time so I’m really excited about further developing my relationship with these remote Andean weavers.
PS: How is weaving integral to the Andean cosmovisión? Please elaborate.
PC: Weaving is the aesthetic manifestation of the entire Andean cosmovisión and all of the tangible and intangible elements that identify it. This cosmovisión embraces the notion that humans are but one component in the biosphere within which all living organisms evolve. It is the belief system that links the human and non-human with the cosmos, where the native language for example does not have a word for “it,” only pronouns that signify the position or location of an entity in relation to surroundings like “this, here” or “that, there.” This culture of life that celebrates and venerates the Pachamama or earth mother as the supreme universal intelligence is a perfect model for the new- old Rights of Nature movement proposing legislation that recognises knowledge that has long been silenced by European hegemony as fundamental to planetary survival and indeed flourishing.
So from this place, weaving is central and universal- the words “text” and “textile” share a common root in the Latin word texere, which means to weave, for example. To me, and to many, ancient Peruvian woven textiles were essentially a cultural database, a library if you will, of all that is culturally significant practically, intellectually, and esoterically. My project involves generating dialogue and inspiring new textile works that are representative of our times amongst a remote community of women weavers. Although there have historically been other climate crises for example some classify this one as the anthropocene- a geological era whose characteristics, the sixth great extinction event and general environmental collapse, as driven by human activity, primarily the unsustainable use of land, water and energy. I would love to see this represented in contemporary Peruvian woven works.
PS: Tell us a bit more about the exhibition you brought to San Francisco over the summer MINE: What is Ours in the Wake of Extraction, will your focus now be on extraction and its impact on Indigenous communities?
PC: In that all of the environmental issues that we are up against relate to extraction and our addiction to what this “provides” us, then yes. The exhibition MINE: What is Ours in the Wake of Extraction was interesting because it combined sensibilities with Indigenous non-Western artists alongside Western artists, attracting an audience that might not otherwise have been present. I think it was a welcome and appreciated learning curve for all Westerners involved to learn about the issues at hand from front line communities. And of course an opportunity for Indigenous artists from the Peruvian Amazon to have their voices heard. As the title suggests, my aim was to inspire a realisation that we are all interconnected and responsible however far oﬀ the context. I hope to work with Native American artists in the future and am excited by this prospect.
PS: Finally, in the last interview we spoke a bit about the plant medicines that are part of traditional Peruvian culture, do you have any updated thoughts in this regard?
PC: Yes I do. Since last we spoke I have initiated a relationship with the plant known as Wachuma or San Pedro. I feel a calling from the plant and am interested to explore it further. It speaks to me and after a powerful experience with Wachuma in the past year I am working with a Peruvian master to engage more profoundly. I am now open to receive the wisdom of the plant and with this master we will be looking at dreams as a source of significant spiritual knowledge and information. Essentially I will be learning from the plant and the guidance of a master healer, how to dream… All for now!