Dominique Godrèche
“When the voice is the soul of a people:” each audio installation transmits a particular story, told by members of the various tribes, in their respective languages.

Mayan Spoken Here: Native Languages of Latin American on Display in Venice

Dominique Godrèche

The 56th edition of the International Art Biennale of Venice, All the world’s futures, curated by Okwui Enwezor, presented, for the first time, “Voces Indigenas,” an exhibition entirely dedicated to the Native languages of Latin America. All the world’s futures runs through November 22.

Located on the huge site of the Arsenale, in the Pavilion of Latin America, curated by Alfonso Hug and Alberto Saraiva, and run by the Italo-Latin American Institute (IILA) the project “When the voice is the soul of a people,” was conceived by artists, linguistic experts and tribal members, through sound installations exclusively representing the mythology, history… of Native communities from 16 countries of Latin America.

Each audio installation transmits a particular story, told by members of the various tribes, in their respective languages.

Walking through a vast and empty space filled with voices, visitors only focus on sounds, with no visual distraction. “This project is truly linked to the theme of the Biennale,” said Paolo Baratta, the President of the Biennale. “Voices, words, are a way to reflect history, future, ourselves… This Pavilion should not be considered exotic, or just about voices from far away: as those voices are here. They represent a reality.”

Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Uruguay were among the countries represented with Sandra Monterroso representing Guatemala. Monterroso was one of the few artists who spoke her own text given that she had studied her language – Maya Q'eqchi'.

After studying graphic design in Guatemala City and Mexico, Monterroso chose to focus on Indigenous issues: as a descendant of the Maya community of Guatemala, she underlines the importance of Native languages today, for her generation, and the  future ones, and the crucial meaning of this exhibition.

How did you get involved with “Voces Indigenas”?

I create videos, performances, about indigenous Mayan cultures; so Alfonso Hug, the curator, contacted me, as he wanted the artists to make a statement about the topic of the exhibition with an audio piece, through fiction, literature, poetry... My grandmother, when she was dying, was talking to me in Maya Q'eqchi', and I could not understand her. So 15 years ago, I began to learn it; and I chose that language for my text.

So, in this exhibition, are you the only one telling a text you wrote?

Yes, I am the only artist who speaks her own language; so I read a poem I wrote, structured like an ancient Mayan text, the Chilam Balam, or the Popol Vuh. The Mayan language is very metaphorical. And while I say it, I feel like a witch, doing a spell: the fact is, with this project, I wished to heal the history of genocide and dispossession of the Natives of Guatemala.

But why did you not speak the Mayan language before?

In Guatemala City, where I grew up, it is not spoken: I had to learn it on my own, with a dictionary, travelling to the communities of Alta Vera Paz, where 60 percent of the people speak it.

What motivates your focus on indigenous issues today?

It is my grandmother‘s history, so it is mine too: it is important to act about this heritage in the present. By showing that our language is alive, as a lot of people speak it, we show that our history is alive!

The loss of the language means the loss of one’s identity?

Yes: the culture disappears with the loss of the language. But today, there is a strong revival. Millions of people speak the Mayan Q'eqchi'; it is the second most spoken language in Guatemala, and the communities include it in their school programs. Among other reasons because of the struggles of Natives against the big enterprises who try to take their land, or develop their hydro electric plans…

How frequently do people identify themselves as Natives in Guatemala?

Most people do; though in the city, they might not say they are, because of the politics. Like my grandmother, who came to the city to work, and had to change her religion to Evangelical, and forget her language: to be accepted. Most Native people had to do that, because of racism – still strong in Guatemala today.

Walking through a vast and empty space filled with voices, visitors only focus on sounds, with no visual distraction. (Dominique Godrèche)

“Voces Indigenas” only shows audio installations, and has no visual side to it: how does the public react?

A lot of people walk through. But some stand, listen, and react positively: “such simple pieces, but so powerful!” As those installations are subtle, but powerful, as they attract the attention, and create a new perception.

Did the knowledge of your family language change your perception of identity?

Learning it changed my relation to my identity: accepting myself as a Mayan descendant, I accept differences. As a Mestiza, the acknowledgment that I am one of the Mayan people was very important, and changed my communication with them. As being a Native through my grandmother, I am a Mayan descendant: it is cultural, but also political. Because in Guatemala, these kind of categories are the result of the colonization process: before, there was no such category to define oneself.

My mother, and grandmother, were born in Alta Vera Paz, territory of the Mayan community, so I discovered my grandmother‘s history traveling to this area – a huge Maya community.

So with this piece at the Biennale, I acknowledge this heritage, invite people to establish a different relation with Natives, and avoid racism.

I dream that one day, you will be able to choose the Mayan language in school.

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boujoie's picture
Submitted by boujoie on
“When the voice is the soul of a people,” ... Tears come through my eyes recalling the first time i experienced a Native speaking his own language. my entire body echoes some kind of Remembrance for which my mind has no explanation. the man happened to be Lakota. i have had similar experiences with other Native languages, including my own long-lost Anishinaabe/Ojibwe tongue, when i was recognized by my Mackinac Band of Chippewa & Ottawa Indians. my artist daughter has been in Venice, Italy for the past fortnight. i have no doubt her Spirit led her to this installation. with Blessings to Us All as we ReMember our way Home Here Now. Joie Bourisseau