Santiago Yahuarcani: My name is Santiago Yahuarcani and my name in Uitoto is Komuilla Jitó, which means “the son of growth.” I live in Pebas, Loreto, province of Ramon Castilla. I belong to the Garza Blanca clan of the Uitoto Nation. I am an autodidact and I have been painting for many years. All of the paintings that I am making are on yanchama and I use natural paints.
Miguel A. López: We wanted to ask you about the group of paintings that you did in 2020 in relation tothe COVID-19 pandemic. What was the working process like and how do those paintings reflect your personal experience and the experience of the community to which you belong?
S: Before COVID-19 hit, my paintings revolved around myths and stories. But, when COVID-19 arrived, my own person changed in all of this, this whole idea, because we needed to protect ourselves. When the illness was about to reach Iquitos, we didn’t know what it was, what its symptoms were. Then, the issue was to see: I wanted to know what symptoms COVID-19 presented. We learned that it was fever, headaches, aches and pains in the lungs, colds. So, when I came to learn about these symptoms, I started analyzing that this sickness fell on everyone who had a cold body.
So, with medicinal plants, there are plants that you take that warm up your body. Then, since this went directly to the lungs, my idea was that this is a cold, [and that] what we needed was to drink [something to] warm up our body. So, that way, I started trying to use ajo sacha, garlic,
onion, lemon, kion. And with that, with these plants, with these fruits, I started making my infusions, with tea that was hot. I would drink it, and I started to make it—to grind, to gather my leaves, and I started trying to make it for the whole family. I had all my children in my house and friends who had come to the house. There were at least twelve or fourteen people. So, I had to make at least four or five liters of this medicine. And we all would wake up at 4:00 a.m. and would take what we prepared. And, at 8:00 a.m., we would take it again. It was our water. It was that medicine all day, all day and night. We hardly drank water then, and the body started to stay warm. And then, I started to get the ajo sacha leaf and I would tie one in a small bundle of five or six leaf plants. I would hang that in the doorway, in the other doorways, and hang it in the window and different corners of the house. Why? What for? So that this disease would not arrive intensely, or if someone got it that it would not be so strong. Because people were dying in the town. This caused me to dedicate myself more to taking care of my family.
Well, in those days, COVID-19 reached my family. My children had a little bit of a headache. [One] had a slight temperature, a little, but it was simple, like a simple cold. Well, later the time came when, at 7:00 p.m. at night, I started to get a chill. Then, I said to my wife, I think this is COVID-19 that is getting me, because there were no other sicknesses at the time. Then my wife gave me the medicine we were taking, plus a paracetamol and, with that, I was calm. But I was afraid in my body. I said, what is this? thinking that the time had been so sad, so silent, I couldn’t hear any sounds, everything was silent. It was 12:00 midnight when I woke up. I woke up and I felt that I was losing my breath, that I couldn’t breathe. Then, let me tell you, I called my wife and said I am dying; I am dying. Then my wife got up and she asked me what I was going to do.
So, at that time, when one person was already dying and suffocating, we heated some water, cut a grapefruit by half, and submerged it in the water. With that water, my wife had to rub my lungs from top to bottom. Since in that moment my lungs were closing and with the heat of the grapefruit I could open my pores. That was what saved me, because otherwise I would have died. Thus, [I have been] the only person who reached that point, those were my experiences. I thought, this has never happened to me, and I started to think like an artist: this is going to be useful for me to write or paint, and I started to get into all of those thoughts.
S: Well, that is what happened to me, it has been an experience for me, and I think that it was very useful for me for certain works and other issues that I can present. So, in this work [titled Dolphin Spirit Brings Medicine against COVID-19], I try to present a reality, a story. When this illness arrived, first we had to call the spirit of the dolphin so that it would tell us [which] plants we are going to use, because we are not just going to use whatever we want or what we more or less imagined. First we had to smoke the cigar, take ajo sacha, and later, through the intoxication, we could connect with the spirits, because they are the ones who provide the recipes. So through them, it has been possible to obtain the herbs, everything that I mentioned. In this work I try to see how, through intoxication with ajo sacha, they bring or show us which medicines, leaves, fruits, herbs we are going to use. I have tried to capture it here.
This grandfather [which is how] I refer to the spirits—carries leaves of ajo sacha in his hands. We also see his speech [represented] with yellow dots and we even see the drops of lemons that we have added. Why do I use the color yellow? Because we consider these drops of lemon to be so valuable that I have represented them with a gold that is yellow colored. Here I have tried to represent how this spirit shows the things that should be used. So here comes the carving of the spiritual, which is what I have not done in my previous paintings, during my years of work; I have not addressed the spiritual. That is why [I made] this painting, so that the public understands what it is that I have done and what we have done as Indigenous communities in the Amazon to be able to defend ourselves against this, against this monster, because for me, COVID-19 was a monster.
M: So, Santiago, could you tell us about this painting, El vuelo de mamá Martha II, which I imagine is also a testimonial painting, no?
S Yes, well, my mom was also dedicated to healing people. And I have worked with my mom a lot since I was very young. And I would ask my mom, “Where are the spirits?,” for example, when a sick person comes to the house. Then she would grab her tobacco and light it and start to blow. She said that she was calling the spirits to come look in the mirror. Then I was curious and I asked my mom where the spirits are, and how and where they come from. And my mom would never tell me. My mom spoke to me in my head and said, no, we don’t talk about that, because in ancient times our grandparents told us everything that makes up medicine. And so, I had to beg my mom for years. One day she started telling me the truth about the spirits. She said the spirits are in space, they are wandering. And then when the shaman smokes his cigar, he is like a magnet. The spirits smell the tobacco. They come and ask, what do you desire? Why are you calling us here? You have to say what it is that you want or what you are thinking, [and] the spirits will get to work. And thus, during the night [they heal] the sick. I remember all of this from my mom. She attended to my wife with
the children [in] childbirth. She would sing her songs to my wife so that she would go into labor. We never went to the hospital. My mom said that the hospital sometimes starts to induce labor, to provoke pain before the time for the child to be born.
I remember all of this, all those years working with my mom. I was a child who wanted to learn everything I could from her to be able to teach my children. Then one day, my mom and I were talking, she was alone in the kitchen, and the two of us were smoking tobacco in the dark. My mom [was] sitting facing forward. And I was able to see that my mom, who had her skirt up to here, that one of her legs—the shin—was normal and the other was like that of a bird, just a little stick. And then I was totally surprised and scared because how could my mom be like that? And I was so daring that I went to touch her other leg; it was like a bird leg, like a heron. I was totally afraid because I never expected to see my mom that way. I started to be a little afraid of my mom, who knew a lot about shamanism, about healing. Later I asked my mom why she was like that and she never wanted to tell me. At some point she started to tell me that she was taking a flight, that she was flying, she was with her spirit, leaving her body—she was taking a spiritual flight. “When a person or a shaman takes flight, how do they do it?” [I asked her]. I wanted to learn everything from her and she said that they turn into a bird or an insect. We are from the Garza Blanca clan, so [what I do is paint] the flight with wings and I place the necklaces here and I imagine more or less what a spiritual flight would be like for people who know about spiritual matters.
I try to describe this work through my painting years [after] my mom had already passed away. In homage to my mom’s flight, it is called [The Flight of Mother] Martha. In the work, those eyes that you see here, are the eyes of Almighty God that are giving strength, because God is invoked [in] all works that are made. These are the teeth that forcefully cut and devour any evil spirit that dares to come; they are like piranha teeth. The stars are human beings who have something like a warplane with bombs, that are like a defense. Thus they are shooting, killing, bad spirits and they don’t let anyone get close. Here [above], you can also see the image of the White Heron. What you see here [in the middle] is like an anaconda, like a snake. In her hands, she [my mother] grabs some evil spirit or some evil shaman who is coming. She is [also] a ship, like an electric eel, that she hits them with; a single hit kills the enemy. The yellow is like a tiger’s skin, a jaguar, which alludes to her ferocity if she wants to attack that person. The wings belong to an eagle.
M: Right, there are claws.
S: Yes, those are the weapons, if someone dares [to come], it traps you there. And here there are also necklaces of teeth [hanging on her neck]. Here there are also other eyes that are like small antennas that connect with the whole universe. And this that you see in red is the sound that she emits during her flight.