VOZ spoke with Mapuche ceramist Yessica Huenteman Medina. Working with clay has deepened her connection to the earth as well as to native heritage, which had been systematically suppressed by the Chilean government. She lets us in on her creative process—and how the politics of history have indelibly impressed her work.
How has creativity shaped your life?
I am a descendent, a granddaughter, of families that are tied to the earth. I have always been surrounded by great uncles and great aunts, grandparents and parents, who could make anything with their own hands. When I was a child, all of their creations were like magical artifacts to me! It’s so important for children to see that kind of magic—and to have the curiosity, enthusiasm, and imagination to make magic of their own. Growing up in a rural place, where life follows a rhythm of its own, made it easier for me to unearth those capacities and realize that genius.
Tell us about your Mapuche identity.
I was not always tied to Mapuche culture.
My own history was formed by austere processes of assimilation because, beginning in the 1800s, the Chilean state forced the original Mapuche pueblos to assimilate. Many generations of Mapuche people were obliged to abandon their culture in order to take advantage of opportunities in society. Some assimilated in order to protect their children from discrimination. Some went into hiding to preserve their cultural wisdom.
I am the fruit of three generations of self-negation as a means of survival. When I was a girl, I didn’t know that I was native. Neither my parents nor my grandparents ever told me. For a long time, ‘Mapuche’ was a faraway word.
My awakening took place while I was in university, when I was a scholar-in-residence at the center for sociocultural Mapuche development in Temuco, which is now called ‘Pelontuwe.’ There, I learned to protect who we were and are—our history and identity.
I reconstructed my Mapuche family history through clay. I discovered that my ancestor Tuwun ‘Wente-Man,’ which in Mapudungun means ‘bird of height,’ came from the Wentechc-Pewench de Santa Barbara lands, or the actual Bío Bío Region of Chile. Historically, the clays of Quilako, from the river beds of the Bío Bío Region, have been the most highly regarded clays of Wallmapu, which is indigenous territory. Knowing this deepened my love for ceramics, since I haven’t had any ceramicists in my family for at least three generations. But maybe if I go back far enough, I’ll find my roots in ceramics and unravel a genealogy. I’m still searching…
How would you define ceramics?
Ceramics is a channel of expression, a way for me to transmit cultural knowledge: what I feel, and how I think, as an artist, as a woman, and as a Mapuche. It allows me to pass wisdom from the present to the future, in spite of the traumas brought upon the Mapuche people by the Chilean government over the last two centuries.
What do you need to always have in your house or workshop?
Coffee and music from other cultures. A history, art, or design book. And clay.
Walk us through a normal day in Taller Arterra Kutral.
The truth is, I don’t follow a routine. My creative energy exists within and without the workshop.
But a productive day will always begin with turning on the fire in the oven. Usually when I arrive at the workshop, I won’t have a fully formed idea in my head. So I’ll have my coffee, gaze out the window at the countryside, turn on some music, and eventually put my hands in the clay! While I move the clay, ideas will come to mind. Sometimes I’ll take a break to crystalize them, and other times I simply let them run their course.
What is the most difficult part of your work?
The part where you leave being an artist and a creator in order to become a producer and reproducer of a series of ceramic objects. I have learned to deal with this shift by organizing my thoughts. I dedicate certain days to being a ‘worker’ and certain days to being an ‘artist.’ This way, the ideas and images can come to me and there will be space for me to give them life, and at the same time they won’t take over my life.
What do you dream about?
I dream about the rejuvenation of Mapuche ceramic art through new aesthetics drawing from our heritage and from our living culture.
I dream about how the new generation will use clay to build a base for Mapuche empowerment.
I dream about the majestic proliferation of Mapuche arts and culture beyond geopolitical borders.
I dream about the creation of mechanisms to preserve cultural and intellectual heritage.
I dream about a new way of knowing ourselves, and of a new interculturality, through our art.
I dream that my own work will contribute to the realization of these visions.