Into the Fluid Heart of Wallmapu Territory
"My work is very linked to the archive and the revision of history, whether it be to revise chronicles or colonial tales."
As part of ongoing research for Back to Earth, focusing on queer ecologies, scholar and writer Macarena Gómez-Barris speaks with Sebastián Calfuqueo, a Chilean Indigenous Mapuche non-binary artist whose work proposes a critical reflection on the social, cultural and political status of the Mapuche subject in contemporary Chilean society and Latin America.
Wild and Queer Ecologies, is an ongoing research strand of Back to Earth in which artists, writers and practitioners, reflect on normative narratives and regulating constructs within the environmental discourse and responses to the climate emergency. Here in a new article, Gómez-Barris and Calfuqueo explore specifically how queer/trans indigenous embodiment can complicate the many dualities of the Western ontology. You can explore more of Gómez-Barris’ research, in the episode Queer Currents, and stay tuned for more realisations of the Wild and Queer Ecologies research platform.
Into the Fluid Heart of Wallmapu Territory
Macarena Gómez-Barris and Sebastián Calfuqueo
In this still from their sumptuous video, “KOWKÜLEN,” Liquid Being (2020), we see Sebastián Calfuqueo’s body suspended from the thick trunk of a fallen tree. Tied up by deep blue ropes that represent the sacred color of Wallmapu, the ancestral home of Indigenous Mapuche communities, Calfuqueo’s back forms an ontological bridge, a connection between the dead wood of the monocultural plantations and the living liquid world of the river; an archway between colonialism and the other-than-human Mapuche dreamscape of the perimónton. Calfuqueo’s body hangs between the colonial violence of “in real life” and the Western civilizational paradigm of their mediated virtuality.
What are these arts of land and water defense? How does trans-Indigenous embodiment mediate, refuse, and complicate the Western duality of artistic and political realms? The earth’s depletion depends upon the somatic labor of the racialized female and trans-femme body. This global system of interlinked brutality converts life from Indigenous resource-rich geographies into multinational capital, as it did along the Bio Bio River for the Spanish-Italian corporation Endesa. Extractive capitalism operates through the trans-eco-geno-feminicidal capitalist impulse. In Wallmapu territories, like throughout the Américas, the process of anthropocenic extraction has only accelerated with the search for the last oil, the last forests, and the last water.
Calfuqueo’s body is not a metaphor or a flattened aestheticization, but the literal materiality of this settler extractive violence. The body work here diffuses the gaze, hanging suspended, existing in the plane of the otherwise. Calfuqueo turns towards a future that is not their mere obliteration. The social poesis of this transitive archway uses the liquid capacities of water to break the barriers of ossified colonial modes of seeing.
In showing their back to the camera, Calfuqueo turns away from the extractive gaze, folding instead into the two-spirit mirror of a liquid embrace. In the bridge of untranslateability, between English, Spanish and Mapundungun, what is palpable is Mapuche gender/sex transitivity. Weye, Alka Domo, Antu Kuram, Kangechi, these are the terms within Mapundungun that signify and multiply the category of non-binary. Against the normalizing logic of the extractive zone, they signify a pluriverse of gender and sex identities and forms of existing, both found within and erased by the colonial archive, as Calfuqueo’s research attests. In these land and water-based performances, they fuse the body and land together, liquid, solid, and other states become part of the carnal condition of bridging, making visible how embodied Mapuche non-conforming practices lie at the heart of Wallmapu’s ontological difference.
The performative arch or portal in this body-work represents what Kanaka Maoli scholar J. Kēhaulani Kauanui has called enduring Indigeneity, to name the capacity of Indigenous peoples to resist, persist, and refuse the death drive of settler colonialism, as well as the operative logic of settler colonialism in its militarized march to eliminate the Native. Here, Sebastián’s Indigenous non-binary body breathes and generates capacities that live in the squeeze of the plantation economy, under colonial occupation, in the breach of water scarcity and land occupation, and enduring the multifold onslaught of other forms of late capitalist accumulation. Since Pedro de Valdivia’s conquest expeditions in the sixteenth century, and the ongoing military campaigns during Republican nation-building, the people of the Earth – Mapuche, have indeed endured Indigeneity.
In Calfuqueo’s image, then, we see a contrast that pushes against the quest for biodiverse diminishment. With Calfuqueo we move into the vivid richness of trans and non-binary life es for Indigenous Mapuche peoples. This liquid being as a reference to fluidity, one antidote to the colonial anthropocene. In its fluidity, trans-Indigenous embodiment, in this case Mapuche gender-sex transness, does not separate community identity from anti-colonial struggle. These histories are intertwined, entangled, and bound in the colonial sex game of utter domination. They are bound together in the political terrain of the call for demilitarization, decolonization, decapitalization. And wound up in trans-Mapuche life like the Andes mountains themselves that stretch as a communal and set of resistant histories beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. Indeed, Mapuche ancestral territories that cross over and between the boundaries of Chile and Argentina. Mapuche scholar Luis Carcamo-Huechante poignantly writes of the sound waves, through radio, that bridge Wallmapu territories together on both sides of the Andes. 
To elaborate some of these engagements, we offer the following dialogue between artist and writer that took place during the techno-lag time of the pandemic. This conversation represents one piece of our ongoing collaboration.
– Macarena Gómez-Barris
Macarena: Thinking about Indigenous embodiment through your performances as well as through Wallmapu territory is critical to how we can imagine otherwise, or to lean into the grounded relationalities that Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd describes. It allows us to leave behind the overburdened history of colonial representation of the non-binary Indigenous body. This may be what Jack Halberstam describes in the work of two-spirit Cree artist Ken Monkman, as wildness, or the move away from the civilizing paradigm. I also love how Mapuche writer Daniela Catrileo attends to your work as an act of collective resistance.
Decolonial artistic praxis like yours, Sebastián, offers an opening, a method for undoing Western visual history, as well as building that space of the otherwise — the worlds that exists before, during, and beyond the colonial anthropocene. How do you deal with the legacies of coloniality and force of gender/sex normativity in your life experience and work?
Sebastian: For me, gender is a colonial construction that has marginalized as well as reinscribed colonial binaries. We have been bullied, insulted, violated in the most violent ways because of cis hegemony in the heterosexual paradigm. My work is a proposal for other ways of seeing the present, the future, and to read the history of colonial narratives by seeing critically the profound implications of coloniality and its deterritorialization.
My life experience relates to the historical violence that I sustained as a non-binary Mapuche individual. Chilean and Latin American societies are profoundly racist in how they relate to Indigenous communities. We have been constantly subjected to live according to the parameters assigned by colonialism. Forced displacements and diasporas have resulted in Mapuche communities migrating from their ancestral homes and their rural communities to urban cities. This is not just my family’s story, but that of thousands upon thousands of others from those territories. Because of this, my work connects with other experiences of racism and racialization that are informed foremost by the extreme violence of colonial history.
The states of Argentina and Chile are colonial extensions, through the nation project and through the violence of the military campaigns such as the Occupation of the Araucanía and Desert Campaign that took place during the nineteenth century and stripped Wallmapu, Mapuche historical territory from us. We are not Argentines, nor Chileans. We are Mapuche.
Macarena: This settler colonial violence is directed against the earth, natura and the Mapuche tongue, body, forms of living and being. In your body of work on water and territory you integrate the concept of Ko (water) with mongen (vida). This is what the critic Cristián Vargas Paillahueque has described as a critical recuperation since in your work you directly address the devastation of neoliberal expulsions and privatizations.
Sebastián: The Mapuche body is part of our territory, part of natura, and also part of the historical present. The historical narrative about Mapuche peoples makes reference to a heroic uprising as residing in our collective past. The government of the present does not want us to speak of our political demands, of land restitution or of reparations for the genocidal violence we experience. We make our demands as political subjects with a voice, yet in European and Republican Chilean art we have been represented through their colonial lens. Our collective political voice vindicates our territories, our bodies, our experiences. We write our own history, such as the work that Comunidad Mapuche Oral History Collective does to tell our own history.
My work is very linked to the archive and the revision of history, whether it be to revise chronicles or colonial tales. It’s been important for me to search through these archives, which are always created through a colonial lens concerned with Indigenous bodies. I research how the history of bodies and sexual identities in pre-colonial societies was built and it is a far more biodiverse world. In the Indigenous archive of gender and sex, we find traces of other ways of thinking far beyond the prevailing binary introduced by the Western world.
My performances and video art question the neoliberal model of privatization put in place by Pinochet during the dictatorship. The basic right to water is not guaranteed in Chile, and many of our communities no longer have access to clean water on a daily basis. This is the most basic right and it has been stripped from us by those who profit from our territories.
I believe we must question extractivist projects like mining, hydroelectricity, forest monoculture that are owned and organized by the large European transnational corporations. They continue to seek our territories for their imperial appropriation and ongoing quest to accumulate wealth.
Macarena: Though we were in contact prior, I met you in person for the first and only time just months before the pandemic at Performance Space New York, an alternative space in the East Village. Your work was part of “Knowledge of Wounds,” a two-day series of performances, readings, and discussions led by Indigenous comrades, S.J Norman and the scholar Joseph M. Pierce.There, you performed the impactful Bodies in Resistance and I was so taken with the use of hair in your work. And, now on Zoom I see that your hair is so long.
Sebastián: The pandemic, querida. We grow our hair out. But yes, hair plays a very important role in my life story and in the process of feminizing my body as a teenager. School was the place that mutilated the possibility of my ability to inhabit my own body. Patriarchal norms made me cut my hair repeatedly because men simply are not supposed to wear their hair long. There is also a history of Indigenous bodies and colonial hair cutting, as you know. To assimilate Mapuche peoples assigned male at birth to a Western vision of masculinity, they stripped us of our long hair. It has been associated with femininity.
For me, hair, my hair, is absolutely linked to the colonial structure that continues to rule many of our communities and territories.
My interest in hair is also related to gender and visuality. Indigenous men should cut their hair to adapt to the occidental culture as an imperative. Hair, for many Indigenous peoples, has a relationship with strength and vitality. Cutting hair like making Indigenous languages illegal and binarizing sexual and gender plurality was key to the Christianizing and civilizing project of the Spanish and then the Chilean nation station. Such are the logics of cultural invasion.
In that performance, I write with hair as an act of reinscribing in the narrative the history of non-binary Mapuche peoples. And also as a way of bringing dignity to the history of those who were disappeared through the translations made in the colonial archive, that of Catholic priests whose patriarchal view has marginalized our non-binary, third gender voices and experiences.
Macarena: Speaking of translation and the colonial archive, Mapudungun, like other Indigenous languages, has made a resurgence, in this case thanks to Colectivo Rangiñtulewfü, Mapuche poets and writers such as Daniela Catrileo, Roxana Miranda Rupailaf, Elicura Chihuailaf, Maribel Mora Curriao have done. Can you speak about the use of monolingual tongue against your Native tongue? How does the language of Mapudungun figure in your practice? Is there something non-binary about this use?
Sebastián: Yes, the monolingual tongue. Stereotypes and social prejudices limit us. They box us into delimited spaces that only serve ruling colonial and patriarchal interests. My tongue is multilingual. Learning Mapudungun—the Mapuche language—has been a slow process that I began as an adult. My grandparents were punished, struck with a wooden rod on their hands for speaking their language. Today there is an important revitalization of Mapudungun taking shape, which is why I think it’s a political choice to utilize it in my work and bring it forward in my artistic, visual, and performative practices.
Language is a political space, and within our language we can understand the entire cosmovision of Indigenous communities. For me, language is a powerful tool to be able to see into the world of the other from a different sensibility. To recuperate is a reparative gesture, and to include Mapudungun in my work is my duty as a Mapuche subject. And, my lived experience as non-binary is also part of this act of resistance to dominant cultural scripts and norms.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, there were Machi Weye: Mapuche people that did not adhere to the gender binary structure. The Machi Weye were able to transit from what is feminine to masculine, what is political (bound to men) and what is spiritual (bound to women).
Macarena: This gender spectrum and transit is so important to our conversation about the biodiversity in human and other than human sensorium of the pre-colonial world. What is the significance and context of your three-minute video, sound, and textual work Kowkülen, “Liquid Being” (2020)? It is such a rich work that builds layers of saturated color as well as includes elements and sonic rhythms.
Sebastián: Kowkülen” translates, as you say, into “liquid being.” This work narrated with text over water, presents a physical, personal, and poetic journey regarding water, wetlands, lakes, oceans, rivers, and slopes. This work was created in Curacautín, in the Araucania region, an area that is in constant siege at the hands of the Chilean militarized police. It is also a region that has been tapped by national timber companies who have developed neocolonial extractivist projects on behalf of European enterprises. Together they enable the monoculture of Insigne Pine—a non-native tree species that requires large quantities of water—and in the process deprive thousands of people from access to water. Unlike the Native Pehuen (monkey-puzzle tree) that is sacred to us, as you write about in The Extractive Zone, Maca, this is not a living forest.
This work questions the relationship between life and water, and the consequences of extractivism with relation to “itrofil mongen” (Mapudungun for ‘all forms of life’) necessary for harmony on our land. This work also seeks to complicate the Western colonial legacy that introduced a binary code defined by oppositions rather than relations: feminine/masculine, civilization/barbarism, black/white. We as a species are not binary, and we move through waters that adapt to diverse containers of our experiences and bodies.
Macarena: I love the idea of fluidity and beingness, the overflowing of the binary container of gender and sex. To me this is part of the flexible work of decolonial cuir-ness and trans-ness, and it signifies the ability to be fluid, adaptive, and move into other forms of co-existence like flowing beyond the colonial anthropocene as I am currently writing on. Thank you for your insights here.
Sebastián: Por supuesto, querida. I appreciate your liquid elaborations, too.
Macarena: Finally, the use of Mapuche blue has a profound significance in your work such as in the ropes in your performance Kowkulen. How do you use it to signal a complex cosmology and forms of liquid being that reach beyond singularity?
Sebastián: The Guñelve (a star that represents the planet Venus, or the morning star) has been a Mapuche symbol that I have used in several works. It’s an image that can be seen in colonial paintings and narratives as a symbol of Mapuche resistance. For me it has been important to reclaim the value of this symbol and what it means for the Mapuche community.
The color blue is another element associated with my heritage. My last name translates to “blue flint”—this color is sacred in the Mapuche worldview and is very valuable. I use it in a political way to inhabit this imaginary aesthetic that is present in the Mapuche psyche.
Mapuche stories are full of aquatic beings that transport souls, give birth to the world, or live underneath its liquid coat. The characters of Treng treng and Kaykay, Shumpall, Trempulkalwe, Ngen-ko, among others, emerge from and inhabit the water, in which they take on various forms. The universe was created in water, and at the same time, water is a guide towards the dimension of death. We can trace these testimonials, memories, and creations in oral/written narratives, in poetry, in their ülkantun (songs), and even in surnames and toponomies throughout the territory today called Chile.
For me these waters are about fluidity, and thinking other forms than the mere binary of masculine and feminine. In the power of water, I also see life, territory, and the connection. The diverse species of the forest want collaboration to arrive in the waters, in the fluid forms of being where the waters are a point of connection and sensibility, as well as a form of resistance.
Macarena Gómez-Barris is a scholar and writer who works at the intersections of art, environment, feminist-queer politics, and decolonial theory and praxis. She is the author of four books, Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile (2009), The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (2017), Beyond the Pink Tide: Art and Political Undercurrents in the Américas (2018), and Towards a Sociology of a Trace (2010, with Herman Gray). She is completing a new book on what she terms the colonial Anthropocene, At the Sea’s Edge: Liquidity Beyond Colonial Extinction (Forthcoming Duke University Press 2022). She is Founding Director of the Global South Center (globalsouthcenter.org) and Chairperson of Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. She works in collaboration with artists, scholars, and activists to imagine and build the worlds we want to live in.
Sebastián Calfuqueo is an artist, performer, and video maker with an MFA in Fine Arts, University of Chile. They are part of the Mapuche collective Rangiñtulewfü and Yene Revista. As an Indigenous Mapuche non-binary artist, their work proposes a critical reflection on the social, cultural and political status of the Mapuche subject in contemporary Chilean society and Latin America. Their body of work includes installation, ceramics, performance and video art to address cultural similarities and differences as well as the stereotypes produced in the nexus between Indigenous and Western ways of thinking, doing, and being. Their work makes visible trans-feminisms, sexual dissidence and territorialized and embodied social movements.