“I believe I have a wealth of visual information that corresponds more closely to my cultural make up. Pre-Columbian art is my most genuine aesthetic inheritance. It is what people who look like me created to their likeness, long ago, when they were the center of their own universe.”
“I approach Pre-Columbian aesthetics searching for cultural and ethnic commonalities, claiming them as my heritage while engaging the audience in conversations about colonization and coloniality, contemporary history, social injustice and racism.” Kukuli Velarde is a Peruvian-American artist whose bringing conversations about these important topics straight to the viewers with captivating and beautiful pieces. Inspired by pre-Columbian art, popular art, and history, Velarde’s pieces seek to create an honest dialogue about the negative effects of Western colonization while contemplating how artists can preserve and cultivate their own artistic voices and cultural heritage. Velarde imagines a world where labels of identity don’t become a cage for artistic development; “I envision a pluriversal aesthetic landscape where we all have the opportunity to be ourselves without ethnic, racial or cultural labels that undermines the power of our artistic speech”.
,Velarde explained that, “growing up my visual surroundings were always the same: contemporary urban and rural scenery against the monolithic presence of pre-Columbian and catholic colonial aesthetics, both of which conform and define Peruvian landscapes. My identity as a person and as an artist is marked by them and my body of work often summons their presence”. Velarde’s art explores the colonization of cultures and their art, and she explained that, “art produced in colonized territories up to modern times is often developed by populations compelled to follow an aesthetics that doesn’t reflect them. It intrigues me how such imposition has been accepted and negotiated, and how art makers may preserve characteristics of their own aesthetics in spite of cultural alienation”. Velarde hopes to capture a struggle in her pieces, particularly in her CORPUS collection. The struggle is one between the Western world and the worlds and cultures that were colonized, and the ultimate defeat of both sides; “the syncretism through which pre-Columbian identities survived under the disguise of Western sculptures is, in my opinion, evidence of the continuing struggle between two worlds whose hybridization has never reached completion. It is testimony to their grandeur and millenary power, but also testimony to their defeat. Ironically, it also testifies to the defeat of the conqueror, because despite hundreds of years of Catholic indoctrination, they were not erased from the memory of the people”. Velarde said that, “my work, which revolves around the consequences of colonization in Latin American contemporary culture, is a visual investigation about aesthetics, cultural survival, and inheritance. I focus on Latin American history, particularly that of Perú, because it is the reality with which I am familiar. I do so, convinced that its complexity has universal characteristics, and any conclusion can be understood beyond the frame of its uniqueness”.
Velarde looks at her art and her work as an “aesthetic inheritance” and part of her culture; “I believe I have a wealth of visual information that corresponds more closely to my cultural make up. Pre-Columbian art is my most genuine aesthetic inheritance. It is what people who look like me created to their likeness, long ago, when they were the center of their own universe”. Velarde’s inspirations carry important messages that her work urges the viewer to consider. Due to the far-reaching nature of Western colonialism, she has been able to find new artistic ways to incorporate her passions and inspirations into her pieces. Velarde is currently working on a new project, which she said was one of her favorite and most important contributions to the ceramics world; “at the moment I am doing some research on Inca beliefs and their fight to survive throughout the historical events of invasion, colonization and republic, to our days. I am focusing on representation of what is sacred and I am having a great time, I think this investigation is a step forward in my career and can’t wait to develop it further”. Her incredible work has garnered Velarde international success and exhibitions. She completed the CRETA residency with Doug Herren in Italy, and she has received numerous fellowships including the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in New York, the PEW Fellowship in Philadelphia, the Paula and Edwin Sidman Fellowship in the Arts at the University of Michigan where she was an Artist in Residence, and the Evelyn Shapiro Foundation Fellowship for the Clay Studio in Philadelphia where she was also an Artist in Residence. She has also won several awards including the Grand Prize Gyeonggi at the International Ceramic Biennale in South Korea, the Transformation Award from the Leeway Foundation in Philadelphia, and the Anonymous is a Woman Award in New York. Her successes are numerous, and this list constitutes only an inkling of the incredible name she has made for herself in this industry.
The road to success hasn’t been without it’s obstacles. However, Velarde has always found the bright side in any situation. She has counted situations that most may have seen as unconquerable challenges, as important and valuable learning experiences. For instance, when asked about the best challenge she had ever been posed with by a mentor, Velarde recounted 2 very different types of situations and still found value in both; “My BFA professor was very akin to defend Western culture invasion and colonization practices and when the day came to give me a critique at the end of the year, he just said he had no references. His lack of interest in different aesthetic research was very exemplary of the way Western art sees and seizes other aesthetic heritages, outside of its realm as well as within. I imagine that, in part, that kind of attitude pushed me to follow my own path. On the other hand, Susan Peterson, Kim Dickey and Jeff Mongrain always were very supportive and gave me space to work in the ceramics studio at Hunter College for years. I am grateful to them all”. Velarde is also living proof that a dedication to your passions and confidence in your dreams are the best ways to combat challenges along the way. She recalled that, “I lived in a squatter building for 6 years in the South Bronx, without heat and had a great time. It might have been a challenging time but when you are young, nothing is a strong enough deterrent if you are confident of what you want. I didn’t have to work daily in order to survive and had time to be in the studio everyday”. Velarde hopes to inspire other artists to be themselves and to make sure that their work represents who they are, what they love, and what is enjoyable to them; “Be true to yourself for better or for worse, the work will always be genuine and it will always be fun to make it. Don’t worry about fitting into trends or learning to talk the talk. We make art first and foremost for ourselves. It has to be satisfactory to you first”. She said that she would challenge other emerging artists by telling them, “don’t categorize other aesthetics in reference to Western aesthetics. Western aesthetics is not universal, and only speaks of and to a sector of the world population”. Kukuli Velarde is an incredible artist and her gorgeous work forces the audience to engage in dialogue about Western colonialism, social injustices, and racism while also seeing the ever-present beauty of her Latin American and pre-Columbian inspirations. By following her dreams, remaining true to her passions and inspirations, and honing her talents and skills, Velarde has found international success and made an important impact on this industry.
Educational/Personal Growth Opportunity
“Be true to yourself for better or for worse, the work will always be genuine and it will always be fun to make it. Don’t get worry about fitting into trends or learning to talk the talk. We make art first and foremost for ourselves. It has to be satisfactory to you first.”
“Don’t categorize other aesthetics in reference to Western aesthetics. Western aesthetics are not universal, and only speak of and to a sector of the world population.” What aesthetics does your work reference most and why? What other aesthetics could you reference?