If the Chinchorros could speak…

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There was a mesmerising exhibition at the Palacio de Moneda of artifacts from the Arica region in the north of Chile. Among the wonderful works of basketry, weaving, jewellery and carving from the ancient cultures of the north are the fabled Chinchorro mummies. These predate the Egyptian mummies, originating back as far as 5,000 BC. Everyone in the chinchorro society was mummified, including children like the one on the left. Skin and flesh was removed from the body and replaced by animal fibre, hair and clay. The faces of the mummies are particularly uncanny, created from a clay mask. It would make a wonderful source of inspiration for a contemporary Chilean ceramicist, particularly with the theme of the ‘missing’ still an important political issue.

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Today I had the privilege to visit the Officios del Fuego at the Escuela de Artes Aplicadas (Skills of the Fire at the School of Applied Arts) thanks to the invitation of its director Simone Racz who had participated in the workshop at MAVI. It’s a wonderful establishment teaching ceramics, jewellery and glass in concentrated two year degrees as well as public courses. One of its main benefits is that it employs as many as 32 artisans each teaching a specialist skill. One of its main public events is a festival of artisans in the street, which happens in late November. The school includes a residency space and I’m keen to see someone from Australia spend some time at the school.

But there are questions. Señora Racz was explaining to me about their teaching methods, which often involve the study of a particular pre-Colombian culture from which designs are abstracted for application in new forms. For an Australian, this seems a little strange. We would rarely think of using indigenous designs, and if we did there are strict protocols about asking permission.

The absence of any living representative of these cultures is disturbing for an Australian. But one must always be careful about making judgements. Australia is hardly a model of cultural cohabitation. While Latin America may have been colonised more ruthlessly, there was also greater mixing of races than in Australia.

But an outsider can’t help but notice the shadow of the past and feel the power of the continuing presence of artifacts like Chinchorro mummies, wondering… What would they say about all this?

This would be a very powerful subject for a collaboration between art and craft in Chile.

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