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Experimental ethnography in Tomás Ochoa’s Medieval Indians Project
by Joaquí­n Barriendos

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The staging of the coloniality of seeing comes to light in the animation of one of De Bry's engravings, where the natives quench Spanish greed by giving a captive conquistador liquid gold to drink. This re-enactment, in which the "monstrous Indians" are replaced by contemporary immigrant laborers, provides a true tableau vivant blending transatlantic colonial visual culture, current Euro-Latin American imaginaries and the need to create, in all their corpo-political dimension, new forms of representing the subjects that postcolonial theories defined as "subordinate". Indios Medievales therefore functions as a decolonial-ethnographic device designed to highlight the rhetorical and performative weight of the documents and archive-images that shape the visual economy of the New World and the geopolitics of labor of the Euro-Latin American cultural territory.

Joaquí­n Barriendos: How did you become interested in Théodore de Bry's engravings, cannibalism and images of the New World?

Tomás Ochoa: Most 17th and 18th-century Europeans' image of America stemmed from de Bry's view of America. His view had a determining influence in shaping the Western representation of the New World. The funny thing is that de Bry was never in America; he imagined his iconography on the basis of the accounts constructed by the chroniclers of the time. I find it fascinating that these fictions have been, and continue to be historical sources.

JB: In Indios Medievales you tackle issues dealing with the "good" and "bad" savage, with travel literature and with accounts of the Indies. Was this the first time you addressed these subjects? How did you go about broaching these topics in your art-research work?

TO: The first time I addressed these issues was in 1999. It was around that time that I began using de Bry's images to refer to different political processes, such as the indigenous uprising in Ecuador in 1998. Theoretically, in the Andean countries "whose population is largely indigenous" all citizens are equal before the law, but in practice Indians are subjected to a kind of de facto apartheid. Indians are viewed as a throwback to an outdated past of backwardness and underdevelopment. Indians are the incarnation of an undesired imaginary, so can we really call these countries genuine States when the majority of the population has never been included in national plans? The indigenous majority is, paradoxically, a minority in terms of political representation. Overcoming this is not so much a matter of making changes in legislation but of effecting change in a deeply-seeded symbolic imaginary. In my opinion, exercising memory to dismantle the historical prejudices on which today's regimes of exclusion are based is a task that cannot be put off.

JB: How does your artwork relate to exploring and reinterpreting historical archives?

TO: I view history as a contingent, reviewable and revocable relationship between the past and the present. If archives and historical sources serve to set the stage for the disproportionate influence of representation over reality and, furthermore, if this representation holds sway over the contemporary symbolic imaginary, then archives become recyclable material. I'm interested in examining the sometimes delirious amounts of fiction contained in these archives and understanding to what extent these accounts have an impact on the contemporary imaginary. I doubt if it is the province of art to debunk such documents, but nevertheless when history shows up with a succession of more or less delirious myths, it's feasible to think in terms of exercising allegorical substitutions. The paradigm of allegorical work --as Craig Owens points out-- lies in the palimpsest: a text that is read over another. An allegorist doesn't invent images, he confiscates them. The idea is not to re-establish the original meaning that might have been lost, but rather to add a new meaning to the image and then immediately supplant it. Moreover, when an artist manipulates the historical sources and ethnographic documents, he dispenses with established aesthetic categorizations or at least contaminates them. The poetic and metaphorical function is influenced by chronicles, essays or activism, and these kinds of accounts are in turn influenced by poetics and its metaphors.

JB: In what way is the title of the Indios Medievales series related to the publication of the book of the same name by the historian Borja Gómez?(4)

TO: Borja Gómez's book, Los indios medievales del fray Pedro de Aguado, has been a basic reference not just in creating the Indios Medievales series, but also in conducting, prior research. What Borja Gómez puts forward is that Aguado's chronicles of the Indies are a narrative fiction around which a specific image of the Indians was invented; they were also attributed with a supposed barbarism that was manipulated to meet the imperative need of the Western drive for civilization and Christian redemption. It's a view that responds to a medieval rhetorical and historiographic model that took shape in the context of European expansion. Personally I think this model not only still endures but has pervaded many aspects of contemporary reality.

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