Finding the movement of smoke

Manuel Chavajay,  Si'b , 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Extra Galería.

Manuel Chavajay, Si'b, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Extra Galería.

Installed at Extra Galería, Manuel Chavajay's five-part installation of rear-view mirrors, Si'b (2017), is suspended from the ceiling by almost-invisible cords. Each of the five hanging sculptures has a different number of mirrors welded together in a configuration which suggests a kind of off-kilter critter, limbs akimbo, who spins and circles gently in the air. The viewer walks around and between them, and looks up and down to make out the words painted in red on each mirror: B’ojooy, Kuku, Achik’aneel, Awan, Tzuuy, Ixim...

The painted words are Tzutuji'l, one of the 23 Maya languages/cultures/peoples of Guatemala, and the language of the community in which Chavajay lives and works, San Pedro La Laguna, Sololá, Guatemala. Each of the words has a richness to it that suggests a breadth of cultural practice, rather than a singular definition; it is this breadth of cultural identity that the sculpture hints at. In the glossary Chavajay writes for non-Tzutuji'l viewers, he interprets Achik'aneel as dreams, deep and full of happiness, visions which lift the spirit, connection with our grandparents, with the animals and forests, energies of the great jaguar, eagle, and owl. Kura’ he describes as the smell of the clay of the earth, the dust, the love of men, a mix of water with clay, the jug carried by the grandfather over time and with a smile. The words he selects are filled with associations and moods, animals, ancestors, relationships to the earth and to many kinds of life. For each word, his glossary offers an interpretation--notably, not a translation. In each word, then, lives a world.

Each sculpture threads together words that share an idea or reference: the ancestors, the maize plant, vessels for carrying, male/female, color and its relationship to love. The first sculpture has two mirrors: Achik'aneel and Xukulem, which Chavajay interprets as a connection with the energies of the grandfathers and grandmothers, fire, water, and the wind. This first sculpture, then, places together words about ancestors and the energies of the earth and its animals. The second is a collection of nouns for vessels, things that contain, that are carried, filled with water, with love, with smells that signal memories and experiences. B'ojooy, he writes, are the hands of the grandfather or grandmother working the clay, the energy of that movement, the mold for the clay and the hopes and dreams drawn over time, making the perfect mold for the clay vessel, and the smell of life in the country. Tzuuy is the water carried by the grandfather, walking while guided by grandfather sun, and thirst satiated by the water filling the vessel. Kura' is here also, and Xoot, the color of the earth, the color of time and the love of grandmothers, the mothers, the daughters, the heat of the fire, the heat of the home, the laughter in the comal, the smell of white, black, and yellow tortillas. Tzimaay, the glasses of grandparents, filled with love. In the third sculpture, colors and flowers and clothing are intertwined. Sklawix, white and black colored by the hands of a woman, drawing the naturalness of daily life of the man, the pants worn by my grandparents. Katon, the colors of the natural world, the flowers, the green of trees, the white of clouds, sewn by the grandmothers filled with wisdom, the huipil. Uuq', he writes, are the flowers, the trees of the forests, full of colors, the dress, the range of colors sewn by hand. The fourth sculpture is filled with color: Waay as white, black, yellow, red, the colors of the countryside. Waay also as tortillas made with love. Q'utuuj as love in a mother's hands, the smell of corn tortillas that are made into atol. Suut he sees as the colors of the flowers, the time told by each passing of the thread by the weaver, the waiting of each day.

If each word holds a collection of significations, each hanging sculpture becomes a kind of poem. In a community/language/culture that has almost no written books, Chavajay's sculpture is insistently based on the printed word. Together, then, the five sculptures might be thought of as a book of poems, in which the viewer can see herself reflected. Rear-view mirrors, of course, look backward, to the place from which one has come. Chavajay looks backward while he records a living language; it is significant that the piece itself offers no translation for its non-Tzutuji'l speaking/reading viewers (Chavajay's glossary is provided by the gallery upon request). The artist's looking backward is not a gesture of nostalgia. Rather, it works as a collecting, a compilation that describes the nuances of life within a specific community, at once an acknowledgement of the past and an indicator of a life philosophy in the present.

Chavajay has worked with mirrors before, painting them with scenes of his town, in one case with a man pointing a gun into the absent car, a carjacking in process. In other works, he has used barrels of water to reflect video of the lake, polluted with discarded bottles and cans. Such reflections are materially similar to the landscape from which he works: one has to think of Chavajay in dialogue with Lake Atitlán and the reflections it makes of the communities around it. In another work, he places a rear-view mirror on the shore of the lake: it reflects the town that has been built along the shore. "I love to intervene in the landscape," Chavajay writes. "Why? That is the place from which we see ourselves."

The piece's title, Si'b--to confirm the movement of the smoke, Chavajay tells me--seems to suggest the gentle movements of the sculptures themselves. But to see the way the smoke is moving might also be a way of thinking about the changes to a culture over time. Do you recall seeing someone moistening a finger and holding it into the air to see which way the wind blows, learning from the wind how best to move forward? That gesture of checking the wind to find direction: that is what I imagine this sculpture does.

The fifth sculpture of Si'b offers a series of reflections about corn, about the selection of seeds by hand, about the milpa dancing to the rhythm of the wind, about the countryside lined with plants, about the cornsilk pulled by the wind, the mazorca shining beneath the sun. These works are reflections of a quotidian life and its rich music, of a field of significations that come from living in ongoing conversation with a place and its land and its plants and its people and its water, a recording of its language and how language both makes and reflects.