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In order to speak about Bernardo Oyarzún’s work, we must consider several different indicators ranging from not only his own personal biography but also that particular to American and world history.
His work did not have a big impact or visibility in the late 80s when he graduated from university, and it wasn’t because of the characteristics of his artistic practice or because the dictatorship in Chile was nearing it’s end. It was only the repercussion of a very particular fact, incorrectly referred to as mere anecdote, which changed the course of the artist’s career.
In 1998, while walking along Vicuña Mackenna Avenue in Santiago, Chile, he was stopped and interrogated by the police, and arrested for suspicion of a crime and presented to the victim, who didn’t recognize him. This particularly impactful experience being but one case among the constant discrimination and bullying Bernardo suffered throughout his childhood and adolescence for being short, dark-skinned and with facial features revealing his indigenous origins.
“Bajo Sospecha”(Under Suspicion) is an installation of the same year, with three large format photographs emulating criminal forensic photographs and another of the composite sketch of the suspect of the crime the artist had been arrested for, as well as a series called “La Parentela” (The Relatives) with photographic portraits of relatives, friends and neighbours.
Some years later, he does the performance “Proporciones del Cuerpo” (Body Proportions), in which he himself represents Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, but using his own physical measurements and proportions, which barely resembles the ideal of proportion and harmony from the Renaissance and Anglo-Saxon world. Projected onto his naked body were names and adjectives of popular, national pejorative terms referring to skin colour, ethnic group or other physical features. This action was documented and then shown in light boxes, under the name of “Antropometrías” (Anthropometries).
In the 2008 series of 21 Photoshop retouched portraits, “Cosmética” (Cosmetics), Bernardo Oyarzún introduces himself through modifying his physical features, which are typical of a Chilean man of Mapuche ancestry from brown to blue eyes, dark to blonde hair, dark to white skin, and utilizing the poses and creative direction that refer to certain fetishism present in public society and the mass media.
Why are the features that are typical of the natives that are part of our identity, denied?
The work of this Chilean artist wishes to account for a national phenomenon regarding the reality of miscegenation, so typical in Latin America, that wishes to improve itself through the “whitening” society and individuals, thus denying the actual identity and development that has been shaped since colonial times, a period in which the race concept did not have the meaning it acquired in modernity and which we know now, but instead had to do with purity of lineage, without Jews, Muslims or non-believers, a condition consolidated by the Inquisition. Likewise, and following what Kant said, the Native Americans were seen as inferiors and the mestizos as bastards. The exaltation of the white race has nothing to do with the American reality, but with concepts imposed by the invasive European world and even by the European philosophy. What are the reasons of this adoption of lineage hierarchy in our context? Why are the features that are typical of the natives that are part of our identity, denied? Why do they want to eliminate the mestizo feature and follow an almost Renaissance aesthetic model that has nothing to do with the native America?
The last and most important work of Bernardo Oyarzún’s is “Werken”, for the Chilean Pavilion in the 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale Di Venezia, 2017. “Werken”, a prominent character in Mapuche culture, is a messenger in many respects, he is a moderator, the representative of a community and the mediator in conflicts. And while he’s not the only one that can wear a mask, he’s the one that wears it the best, as a representative of the Mapuche face and voice.
The piece is made of 1500 masks on pedestals grouped and distributed in a circle and positioned at eye-level. It is a route with no beginning nor ending that can hypnotize one, trying to get a vision that crosses this cluster, like wanting to be able to capture the many and different expressions they represent. These pieces, called kollong or kollón, are accompanied by red LED text lines projected on the walls, repeating the 6906 Mapuche last names that still exist.
“Werken” is a messenger in many respects, he is a moderator, the representative of a community and the mediator in conflicts
Images courtesy of the artist