Articulate Q&A: Kukuli Velarde

Kukuli Velarde was born in Peru to parents who urged her to create from a young age. At age 22, she left her native country to study art in Mexico before relocating to New York City in 1987 where she earned her Bachelor's degree at Hunter College. 

Today, Velarde lives and works in Philadelphia where she creates striking visual pieces—sculptures, mostly—that reflect her indigenous heritage, a deep knowledge of art history, and an eye for the unconventional.

Below, she opens up about her Peruvian roots, charges that her work is "vulgar," and how young heartbreak shaped her artistic path.

 Kukuli Velarde with her sculpture,  San Antonio Abad .

Kukuli Velarde with her sculpture, San Antonio Abad.

Q: Many of your works are political, tackling topics such as gender roles and colonialism, but they also tend to be darkly humorous. Do you ever find it difficult to be funny when you’re dealing with such serious subject matter?

I don’t purposely make my work humorous, and not all of it has a humor component. Plunder Me, Baby and Puro Love have definitely a bit of derision, maybe some mischievousness, but they [embody] more an act of defiance than anything else. I think my dark humor also responds to a cultural sense of humor we Peruvians share. Peruvian humor is sarcastic, and many times cruel. It walks a fine line in between making fun of you and making fun with you. I make fun of impunity, I imagine.

Q: Your ceramic series, Plunder Me, Baby, is a sort of tribute to pre-Columbian indigenous sculpture, but with a twist: the figures depicted seem hyper-aware—even terrified—of their surroundings. Why was it important for you to give consciousness to these symbolic artifacts?

When I was doing my undergraduate studies at Hunter College in New York, I never perceived art history and art theory [as] related or relatable to me, directly. Even though I couldn’t elaborate and rationalize why, nevertheless, since very early, I felt they were about, by, and for somebody else. I grew up with somewhat different visual information. Western art was mostly in encyclopedic books. Peruvian art (pre-Columbian, colonial, republican, popular, even contemporary art), on the other hand, was first-hand experience. I think my aesthetic preferences were, therefore, defined by what I was visually familiar [with], since then until now.

My work is not a tribute, it is about an aesthetic preference fed by a visual history. Such aesthetic preference supports and contributes to a social and political vision, which carries the conceptual part of the work.

Plunder Me, Baby is an attempt to convey the horror of being snatched from your reality (where you were the center of your world) and the despair of having your historical process stolen and life subverted. Pre-Columbian ceramics’ presence in anthropological museums, where their artistic connotation is undermined by their anthropological value, lend themselves a perfect metaphor of alienation and cultural kidnapping.

  Santa Ana y la Virgen María .

Santa Ana y la Virgen María.

Q: Tell us about growing up in Peru. Did you have a happy childhood? Any artistic leanings early on?

Probably it was happier than what I remember. We often are unfair with our parents because we remember more clearly what bothered us than what made us happy. I was a prodigious child, having a solo show of my paintings yearly since 10 until 21 [years of age]. I remember feeling it a burden sometimes. My parents, especially my father, invested a lot of hope in my artistic endeavors. My dad was my biggest fan until the last day of his life.

Q: You left your native country in your mid-20s, first moving to New York and then, later, to Philadelphia. Why did you leave? How long did it take you to feel at home in the States?

I left because I could. I had a solo show and sold most of my paintings, making around $5- or $6K—this was in 1985. At that time, my first ever boyfriend broke up with me and my cousin Raquel was about to visit family that emigrated to Mexico years before. I went along with her and decided to stay in Mexico to attend the graduate art program at the Mexican public university (UNAM) as a continuing education student. I stayed for two years. Freed from my parents' oversight after having my heart broken again (this time in Mexico), I never thought [of] going back to Peru but decided to come to the USA. I came here because some friends of my parents lived in New York and offered me housing. Once in New York, I enrolled in Hunter College and did my bachelor's degree in Fine Arts.

I felt at home in New York quite fast. It was exciting. It is now, after 30 years in the U.S., that I feel nostalgic and realize as an immigrant, you belong to two places and quite never belong fully to any.

Q: You put a lot of yourself into your works, quite literally. In your Cadavers series, you re-imagined some well-known paintings from art history with yourself as the subject. Did you get any pushback from classical art lovers?

No, not really. Conversations with some audiences are more about the sexualization of the female body, what is sexual, why, that sort of thing. I don’t think my paintings are sexual, by the way. They definitely were not created with that approach, yet some people come to that kind of association without questioning. The eyes of the beholder carry a lot of information, and everything is seen through that filter.

Q: Along those same lines, you tend to sneak some vulgar language (often in Spanish) into the titles of your pieces. How often do you get caught, and what have been the reactions?

I don’t sneak vulgar language. I purposely use slurs in the pieces’ titles in Plunder Me, Baby because such words emphasize the concept of the work. Slurs are [in] common usage in Latin American, and I think they faithfully [portray] the racial/social/economic divides of a population that has learned to hate its indigenous roots, thanks to colonialism, and the modern world, its product.

  San Pedro with the Keys of a Kingdom

San Pedro with the Keys of a Kingdom

Q: From paintings to video pieces to installations, you’ve worked in many different media. But you’re best known for your ceramics. What is it about this art form that keeps you coming back?

I painted for many years since [I was] young, and a canvas always was a challenge, a space to fill. Clay is friendlier, [it] doesn’t give you time to be afraid. You just have to keep going.

 Q: Most recently, you’ve been working on a project that features your own child’s face. While you’ve never been shy about representing yourself, was there ever a question about whether you wanted to depict your daughter?

No. This new, small series [arose] because of a sense of nostalgia imprinted already in me, perhaps due to my immigrant status, I really don’t know. I know what it means to miss somebody, somewhere, and not being able to go back (no time machine). The emotion that is pushing the work is a sense of nostalgia that I can imagine already, though she is only 6. As I said in my Instagram account, thousand of photos taken, yet nothing there to embrace. I am making little bodies to hug when her life takes her away from me, as it should.

Q: Finally, how much of the “you” answering this today would your 20-year old self recognize?

That is a good question, and one difficult to answer. I think I had the ingredients in place. I hated impunity, unfairness, exploitation. I grew up with a Cusquenian culture lived through and through, thanks to my parents. And, most importantly, I always saw myself as an artist.

On the other hand, I was very stupid, extremely naïve. I just wanted a cute boyfriend, so I could feel cute myself. I understand that young Kukuli, if we consider that she never had male friends growing up, and my parents were too protective, she couldn’t know better. I am just sorry she wasted so much time. If we could see each other for a moment, she would probably look at me with incredulity and would scream: “You have a child!?” (I never was interested in children.) And I would answer: “But at 48, calm down. We lived.”