When Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio owned the Garth Clark Gallery, they exhibited Kukuli Velarde’s Plunder Me Baby series on cheap metal shelves with yellowing labels. The Peruvian artist’s figurative ceramics incorporate techniques and visual motifs from various periods of Pre-Columbian art history. The display was a near-perfect facsimile of a museum’s neglected archives, but for one detail: the sculptures stared down their viewers with contemporary urgency. Clark and Del Vecchio closed their gallery in 2008, and now they’re co-curators of the ceramics and design program at Peters Projects. In a new exhibition of Velarde’s work, the Plunder Me Baby series has escaped its basement set piece in favor of pedestals, but the artist’s critique of institutional racism and sexism still rings clear. This night at the museum is a darkly funny wrestling match through the ancient blood and mud of our neocolonial present.
Originally from Cuzco and now a resident of Philadelphia, Velarde mounted her first solo show at ten years old, at the Instituto Cultural Peruano Norteamericano. She has a memory from the same year, of her Peruvian nanny rejecting their native language of Quechua in favor of Spanish. Years later, Velarde’s observations of a woman determined to shed any signifier of her indigenous roots became the inspiration for Plunder Me Baby. The contorted ceramic figures are indelibly marked with the colors of their ancestors, but their faces—all self-portraits—speak of modern neuroses. Their enormous eyes pop, roll and glare, taking in the world with exasperation and anger, but never confusion. The titles of the sculptures are brutal punchlines in a mixture of Spanish and English. One reads, “Resentida social, socially resentful, she believes she is an equal. Dismissible.” Another says, “Tranquila, tranquila. She may lack respect, but she surely fears you.” Each sculpture is also labeled with the culture and epoch from which Velarde drew knowledge to create the piece. As the artist writes in a statement, these are the “spoils of wars,” now trapped behind glass in museums and private collections. In an adjoining room, there’s a series of paintings on aluminum in the colonial style of the Cusquenian Baroque School. The panels are screwed into the walls, creating temporary murals in which Velarde inserts herself into iconic art historical images. Velarde is brilliant in the way she slips into patriarchal structures and turns historical others into many-layered protagonists. The first step to breaking the invisible cages of the colonial castas is to occupy them, and meet your captors straight in the eye.