Installation view of a large sculpture featuring multiple figures drawn from Inca and Catholic imagery
Installation view of San Sebastián Moche, 2022, by Kukuli Velarde

Kukuli Velarde Is Creating Her Own Canon

Nisa Qazi

The Philly-based Peruvian artist on the beliefs and choices that have shaped her career

Kukuli Velarde’s work is instantly recognizable. Startling, spellbinding, and often tongue-in-cheek, each of her sculptures, paintings, and drawings tells a story. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Velarde was included in the museum’s 2021 exhibition New Grit: Art & Philly Now. In July, while serving on the faculty of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, she offered me a glimpse of the complex negotiations—both personal and political—that go into every work she undertakes.

Nisa Qazi: To quote something you’ve said, “you cannot conjure the horror of an entire universe collapsing.” You were talking about the arrival of Spanish invaders to Peru. Your work, to my mind, is about many things: the female body and motherhood and intermingling cultural practices and more. But would it be accurate to say it’s ultimately about colonialism, or the ongoing impact of colonialism?

Kukuli Velarde: That is an interesting question. The other day, I was talking to the artist Abigail Deville, and I asked her, what is at the core of your practice? Because I think that many times in the struggle to “make it” in the art world, we forget what was the idea that initiated everything else.

And she told me without hesitation that, for her, it was love. And I completely believe her. In her practice, in her work, she’s starting from a very positive feeling. And then I asked myself that question, which, amazingly enough, I had never done before. And the first thing that I told her was, I think it’s anger. Anger is at the core of my practice. But then, when I thought more about what I am interpreting as anger, I think it’s actually the perniciousness of impunity, which pervades every human realm.

My work is about the rights—small and big and super important—that are trespassed on and destroyed and pushed aside and forgotten. It’s a desire to level the ground. To denounce, to protest, and to live in a constructive way that can open a path for others to continue. So I wouldn’t say my work is literally about colonization. It’s about leveling the ground.

A Mi Vida III (Left) and A Mi Vida VII (Right), 2021, by Kukuli Velarde. Photos courtesy of the artist

NQ: Your series, A Mi Vida, which was recently on view at the Clay Studio, featured works inspired by your daughter, about the experience of her growing up and growing apart from you. It was also inspired by the separation of children from their families at the United States border. You wrote that the pieces in the series are meant to be held, and that they “are heavy, delicate and valuable, as the life of any child should be for all of us.” Would it be fair to say that motherhood has changed your practice?

KV: I arrived to motherhood quite late. I was 48. It was a moment in my life in which I felt like I had already learned what I want to say and how I want to say it. Everything that happens to you changes you, but something so intense as motherhood should definitely change your practice. I cannot imagine any other way. And it’s funny because for many decades, contemporary art has kind of been denying the possibility of mothers being artists and including their motherhood in their work. I think it’s better now, or maybe I have just learned not to think about how my work will be perceived.

NQ: This idea of an art establishment that dictates what is serious art is still alive today, though, isn’t it? I’m curious what you think about formal arts education, particularly the very prevalent MFA culture. And what would you say to young people who are trying to figure out how to be artists outside of that culture?  

KV: That is a tough question. I didn’t do the MFA because I thought it was for people who want to teach in a university. And I never thought of teaching. It’s now that I find it a very interesting and fulfilling possibility. But also, during my undergraduate studies, I didn’t feel any connection with the curriculum. I didn’t feel that the art history and theory books were talking about me. That is not necessarily the case for somebody who is first-generation American, but I came from somewhere else. And I’m carrying many things from that place of origin.

An MFA is like a membership in a club, and there are advantages to belonging to that club. But I think the education has a lot of flaws. It doesn’t enable students to understand that the aesthetics they consider universal are actually not. It doesn’t validate the aesthetic choices of students who come from somewhere else.

I spoke to a student once—I think he was from Iran—and he told me that he was always working with symmetry, but he was trying to get better and do more asymmetric designs. I asked him what he meant, and he was like, well, I tend to do symmetry because that’s something I grew up with. So I’m doing my best to change, but it’s hard. And I said, look, there’s a moment in which you have to say, I look at the world in symmetry. And that’s who I am. And that’s it.

Students who come from somewhere else don’t have yet the agency to talk in their own behalf. And the aesthetic choices they bring with them are not seen as belonging in the realm of contemporary art. So we need to decolonize the curriculum.

Works from the series Plunder Me, Baby, 2017, by Kukuli Velarde. Photos courtesy of the artist

NQ: Let’s talk about Philly. This city has a reputation for being hospitable to working artists. Have you found that to be true? How did you end up here?

KV: Well, I was living in New York when I got a fellowship at the Clay Studio many years ago. I didn’t think I was going to stay in Philadelphia. But then at the Clay Studio, I met my husband, Doug [Herren], who is also an artist. And not only that, I had been squatting in a building in the South Bronx for six years straight. During my residency, I had the opportunity to become part of a program of low-income housing for artists in Northern Liberties. At that time Northern Liberties was full of abandoned buildings. And artists, we are the heralds of gentrification, unfortunately, because we are always looking for places that we can afford.

So all of a sudden, from being a squatter in allegedly one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York City at that time, to an apartment with air conditioning and heating—it was quite a big change. And I went from living alone to sharing my life with Doug, who I’ve loved for 22 years.

Philadelphia has given me so many good things, a stable life, a wonderful relationship. And I have been able to continue working without sacrificing my time in the studio. I’m very grateful for this city. It’s changing a lot, but here we are. We’re here to stay.

The artist’s current project, Wa’qa del Agua, in progress. Photo courtesy of the artist

NQ: Finally, would you mind sharing a little about what you’re working on these days?

KV: I’m working on a new series. Through the years I have explored different aspects of colonization, women’s struggles, and situations of social injustice in general. In the Plunder Me, Baby series I explored cultural appropriation and social alienation in anthropological museums’ controversial collections of pre-Columbian ceramics. In my last project, Corpus, I considered the syncretic survival of ancient entities incorporated within Catholic imagery as a metaphor for cultural resistance and negotiation.

This time, I have begun a multimedia project titled Wa’qas and Pachamamas. The first piece is titled Wa’qa del Agua. I’m beginning to use pre-Columbian textile designs and figurative painting on the surface. Rather than just research, I’m using these aesthetics by feeling, based on the accumulated visual investigation I have done in three decades of practice.

As an act of respect, in this project I acknowledge the entities that populate the Andean world and bring them forward. As I imagine them, they are as powerful as their Christian counterparts, because they were, and they are still. It is important to name and even recreate what is part of one’s heritage, as a way to keep it. Oblivion is the most definitive form of erasure.

Nisa Qazi is the editor of PMA Stories and Director of Content at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Peruvian-born, Philadelphia-based artist Kukuli Velarde draws deeply on her cultural heritage in a practice that spans ceramic sculpture and painting. The artist’s work is represented in museum collections including the New Taipei City Yingge Ceramics Museum in Taiwan, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Her work was included in the 2021 exhibition New Grit: Art & Philly Now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

This post was supported by a Re:imagining Recovery grant to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.