Ana González y Ruvén Afanador
They say the world is changing… but they are not. They are still there, just as they were hundreds or even thousands of years ago. They observe us, undisturbed, perhaps with curiosity, although their gaze is really more of empathy and compassion. And we are there, in awe of a people who come from an inherited ancestral indigenous culture; not from literature, nor from the kind of writing that responds to reason, but from an oral tradition that is woven into tales and that, when sung, reaches the soul.
Coming from a world dominated by the energy of masculine thought, of the tangible and the secular and transitory, we feel at once the feminine force of intuition, of that which is not considered, but deeply felt, that which heals and nurtures.
They are from nature, not only because they take care of it, but because they live in harmony with it, understand it, and talk to it, bathe and sleep in it, listen to it, always asking for its permission and its forgiveness. They dance and sing to it in ceremonies that mark the cycles of life, birth, harvest, summer and the rainiest of seasons.
Their worldview only makes our ignorance evident. We want to save them, protect them, educate and take care of them, as if they needed that from us. As if we did not understand that what they need is for us to leave their world in peace, that we give them their space, that we listen to them
and understand their age-old vision.
For more than three years, we traveled through a territory now called Colombia, inhabited today by more than one hundred indigenous cultures. We photographed the twenty-six most remote and hidden of these communities, those that have not yet disappeared in the wake of colonization and “civilization”, those that have something to tell, those that keep the secrets of their history in their villages, their languages, their clothing, their crafts, their chagra crops, their time-honored medicines and their day-to-day lives. We travelled through that mythical Colombia that, for the briefest moment, opened its doors to us, thanks to the peace treaty of 2016.
We could now enter those distant and secluded cultures, where we were shown a gold that does not glitter. That El Dorado is in that nature that we so neglect, that El Dorado is in our ability to listen to the other, in the reservoir of timeless thought, in the threading of a loom, or in the circular weaving of a mochila bag. Everything is circular. Water, life, death, the planting of the chacra, the turns of the jigra of the Misak or the mochila of the Kogui.
In their textiles they write the history of humanity. Warp and woofare like life, threads, moments woven together to make a rich tapestry. Threads that, like the river, feed life, enter the wildernesses of the mind and heal the wounds of the soul.
We saw how ancient cultures as old as the Inga, descendant of the Inca, or the Kogui, descendant of the Tairona, make beautiful offerings and dances to implore forgiveness for what we have done to each other and to nature. Offerings like those made by the Kogui when they plant a quartz crystal as a gift to Mother Earth, so that a river may be born, a quartz said to be the seed of water. Or offerings like those made at the Carnaval del perdón in the Valley of Sibundoy, in Putumayo, in which, evoking a ritual that goes back to a time before conquest, forgiveness is asked from all humans nearby, or the lovely dance of the chontaduro in the Amazon, when permission is asked from Mother Earth to collect its fruits, hunt its animals, as well as to ask for enduring fertility and plenty of abundance for all. We also saw how such cultures as the Embera Chami, displaced from their ancestral lands by mining and coca plantations, sewed their vestidos de protección, dresses to shield them against all manner of dread, and strung the beaded necklaces, from which, in other times hung small stones made of mud, with colorful flowers and hummingbirds, the messengers of the gods. And when we reached the red desserts in the northern lands of the Wayuu, we saw that the women paint their faces black to protect themselves from the sun and the evil spirits that fly with the wind.
Like that, in a process that almost became a ritual, Ruvén would enter, respectful, hushed, almost ceremonial, to photograph those who had voluntarily given their time, their moment. They would pose before him and his camera with profound regard, full of all the wisdom of their ancestors, all the translucence of their rivers, all the lush beauty of their forests, mountains and deserts. Ruvén looked at them in silence, as in deep meditation, and, without words and only a few gestures, it was understood that this was a unique and hallowed moment, granted so we could understand everything in the stillness of a pause in time that passes at such different speeds, and in languages so far-removed from ours. Ana observed and felt, talked to the women, understood their chores and their lineages, she would sit with them, woman-to-woman, listening to the most holy of the feminine, which is what really matters the most. Later, in the silence of her studio, surrounded by sketchbooks and drawings, she would begin to give shape to that which does not come from logic or intellect, but instead, from the heart, from intuition. And only then she would create layers of paint over that first photograph, and after months of reflection, her work would conclude in a message, a remnant and remembrance of what was the encounter, a clue of what was our origin.
We never tried to usurp their message, nor tried to interpret their truth, we did not want to decontextualize what we saw, nor rationalize something that was sacred. It was more like the meeting of two worlds, theirs and ours, separated by thousands of years of life, ephemeral and violent, an encounter translated by our intuitive glance over communities that don’t want to be owned or indoctrinated, that only want to be heard with the heart.
For the Kogui water is the origin of life, intimacy and virginity. It is the same for the Misak, who are hijos del agua, of the lagoons, of the rain, and the downpours. According to their mythology, the Gunadule and the Wayuu also believe that the world originated in the water and the heavens, and that, together, they created the earth. To the Pachacuari, the Apaporis river cleanses the world’s energy, and they say that in its rapids everything is shaken, everything is transported to a higher plane. Just as for the Ticuna women, heirs of the mythic Amazons, the water is he serpent, the life-giving goddess, the boa that goes around the world giving life to many people. And, as such, in all the indigenous communities, water is the reflection as well as the manifestation of
the energy of the universe.
Hijas del agua because that is where everything comes from. Because it is the return to the origins and, perhaps if we understood from where we came and accepted it, we could follow a wiser journey, longer and quieter, in communion with all people and nature. Hijas del agua because water is life, because it vibrates in its eternal element and is present in all the myths of the communities that we visited. In one form or another, they all have a story about water, about
the origin of their ancestors, in the lagoons of the treeless páramos or in the rivers that bathe the edges of their villages. In the thunder storms and the clouds, in the sea and the frosty snows of the Sierra Nevada, where the sun is born. In the mountains where the Misak give symbolic value to the water that comes from where everything was darkness, but where the Mother Water came and from her sprang the mud, and from the mud, the shapes of humans.
Thus, this book is an offering to all of them, to nature and to the true guardians of the soul of the forest, of the desert, of the páramo, of the snow. They don’t owe us anything, but we owe all to them. But not in kind, but in listening to them, in understanding them, accepting them and letting them be. To let them be without the arrogance of thinking that we are superior or better because
we are more cultured or more “civilized”.
We learned so much that cannot be explained in words, we feel that this book can only illustrate a little of what changed in our souls. It was the wondrous voyage of two artists that, in a historical moment and in an intuitive way, without preconceived ideas, approached indigenous communities that have everything to teach us, where there are no prejudices, only emotion. Where there is no dogma, only intuition.
The untouched and secret female worlds opened their hearts to us from the solitude of the confinement that defines so much of their cultures. In that isolation, the Wayuu girl learns to weave the mochilas and the chinchorros, the colorful bags and hammocks of her people, while visited by wisdom-imparting elders; whereas, while confined, the Gunadule girl comes to understand the meanings of the molas’ myriad layers and colors, undergoing a process of transformation as she acquires the gamut of her aunts and grandmothers’ skills. Sequestered too, the Misak girl learns to use the vertical loom and weave the jigra (mochila) and the chumbe, the traditional sash that symbolizes fertility. Whilst the Arhuaco girl is initiated in the crafting of mochilas made of wool and cotton also secluded in her home. They all experience this ancient ritual passage, a spiritual encounter with their new life as women, wives and mothers.
And, like that, all the communities have a beginning in darkness and confinement, because they say that in life the enlightenment of transformation must pass first through a period of blindness, darkness and isolation. In fact, some children in the Sierra Nevada are chosen when very young to be mamos, a wise man, and it is in confinement and only upon leaving the night’s darkness that they embark in their long spiritual journey.
Each trip allowed us to see and feel landscapes that look as they always have for centuries upon centuries. There were so many anecdotes, like the stories from Conchita, the artesanal leader of the Wayuu in Cabo de la Vela, who told us, as if it had happened just yesterday, how hundreds of years ago the spider Waleker taught them to weave the mochilas and the chinchorros. Or the female shaman of the Gunadule, a healer who descended from the first jaguar in the mountain, or the Misak girl with the most beautiful blind eyes in the land, or the Ticuna princesses that no longer wear gold diadems like those worn by the Amazons that Pedro de Ursúa found in his first expedition long ago, but those made of seeds and feathers of unimaginable colors. And then there was the boa hunter with the most perfect and healthy body that earth has ever produced, or the child who would be the mamo of the Sierra, staring, lost in a world inhabited by eagles. There is also the shaman of the shell necklace who offered us rapé, a form of tobacco snuff, to lessen aches and pains that healed forever, or when we chewed coca, the sacred leaf, with the Yagua, so we could withstand long walks, the heat, the hunger, the humidity, and felt invincible in the middle of the most vibrant and threatening of the dense forests in the Amazon. We also saw the woman in Jirijirimo who carried a bird on her shoulder, as if it were whispering to her where to go, and the ceremonial maloca, where the shamans say they are in the heart of the world, even if they only have seen the astonishing shapes of their terrain in their yagé trips. Or the Nukak, who are in such lamentable condition because of the planters of cocaine and palm oil, having nothing to eat, nomads lost in a sedentary and rigid culture who despises them, indifferent to a twelve thousand old year history. Nomads who, despite scarcity, still carry the brood of the animals they hunt to eat, as if they were paying for the prey, taking care of the children of that sacrifice, evoking, even today, the petroglyphs of the range of Chiribiquete.
It was hard to sleep in the nights during and after our trips. In the darkness, everything that we had lived during those days would transform into hallucinating dreams that interwove our reality with theirs. We dreamt about their beautiful and unfamiliar languages, with the endless murmur of the forest, of the wind, of the desert, of the night hammock, the frozen river, rolling and golden, traveling towards the sea, and the sounds of the sudden thunderstorms… with the colibrí and the tapir… the yuca, the chicha, the ripen fruit, the dense fog, the gigantic Ceiba of the deep green forest and the phantom orchids.
We were in the world of the eagles and the jaguars and the dolphins. In the villages of the clouds, the forest and the sea. And this is the testimony, a journal of two artists who marveled at the secrets of their ancestors and of their country. Returning to our lost origins.
Returning to our hidden secrets.
We are all Hijas del agua…