The ownership of looted artifacts has been hotly contested in art circles. It was an issue I first confronted regarding the artifacts of Native American tribes held by U.S. museums, including the Smithsonian. Museums often put forward arguments that the places of origin for many of these objects do not have the resources to properly preserve and safeguard them. In countries like Britain, I have heard museum professionals more paternalistically argue that the countries of origin should allow the indefinite “borrowing” of the objects. The words are spoken as if it was ever their call to make. In the U.S., some Native artifacts are making their way back to their tribes. I have also heard inspiring stories of Native Americans who have pursued degrees in Museum Studies so that their perspectives can effect needed change. (See What Was Ours.)
MFA Boston is perhaps among the worst of the American offenders when it comes to stolen artifacts. In their Egyptian wing, next to a beaded dress is displayed the photograph of the dead body from which it came. I walk through that part of the museum and cannot help thinking that everything I am seeing belongs in the ground – the dress, the mummies, their coffins, etc. We only have respect for some dead. It is very disturbing. The MFA also has significant holdings from other parts of Africa, Native American tribes, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuna’s Disappeared Quipu, which is on view in the MFA’s contemporary wing until January 21st, creates a dialogue between contemporary fiber art and the Andean quipu. The quipu was a fiber device that employed a knot-making system as a method for recording and remembering. Quipus were banned during the brutal colonization of the Inca by the Spanish. Many were later looted from their countries of origin.
Disappeared Quipu is presented in a darkened room. Quipus on loan from Harvard and other Andean textiles – some formerly having wrapped the dead – surround uber chunky locks of unspun wool roving hanging from the ceiling. Unprocessed with methods such as spinning and weaving, the roving represents the loss of cultural knowledge and practices. Ghost-like sounds, including the deep voice of a woman, can be heard while projections of the designs found on the Andean textiles float down the roving.
Vicuna’s evocation of the lost knowledge of the quipu also represents the losses of many in Latin America who have disappeared during dictatorships. Moreover, perhaps it intends to be a subversive critique of withholding cultural artifacts and knowledge from their places of origin.