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Confront, Heal, Repeat: The Art of Iván Sikic

To address greed and oppression tactfully through art even once is no small feat. Greed and oppression are entwined within an enormous and elusive intersectional system of power structures, perpetuated daily by kings and pawns alike. Even the most voracious learner will struggle to fully absorb the magnitude of injustice that one greed-driven choice propagates across time. And even the most justice-driven empath will be overwhelmed by the pain of processing the prevailing effects of one formerly sanctioned system of oppression. The nexus of injustice spurs a pain so acute yet unmanageable that few can be blamed for failing to immediately act upon it. How is one to begin understanding a feeling for which (at least in the English language) there is no exact word? The pain is part-outrage, part-sorrow, part-empathy, part-helplessness, -disbelief, -shame, and so on (with the intensities of each part fluctuating all the time). The pain stirred by injustice is far larger and heavier than the sum of its parts, and thus—when you are not completely creatively immobilized by it—you are liable to end up trapped in one of its narrower emotional corners, taking exploitative black-and-white photos of “the Victims,” or penning your manifesto in a vain attempt to say it all. I must admit: I found myself repeatedly drained by this very attempt to articulate the efficacy of Iván Sikic’s work. For Sikic wields time, context, and symbolism as DaVinci wielded figure, shadow and composition, to disrupt hyperlocal norms and cast light upon issues of oppression and greed at large (in as few “strokes” as possible, too). In effect, each of Sikic’s works exemplifies a dual-functioning that I believe is critical to the “success” of any artwork attempting to combat the morally corrupt, two-headed monster that is greed and oppression: to confront and to heal.

In three durational performances, Sikic collaborates with a fellow artist to address the violence, colonialism and violations responsible for the ongoing mass displacement, cultural dispossession, and trauma inflicted upon Native Americans, Indigenous Australians, and Syrian refugees, respectively. In each iteration of the performance, Sikic applies gold foil to the body of a collaborating artist who walks steadily backwards through a locale symbolically relevant to the displacement of the diaspora to which the collaborator belongs (Paul Cannon, singer-songwriter and member of Kumeyaay Ipai tribe, on the original Lenape trading route in modern day Manhattan; Ian Michael, Noongar artist, on the streets of a Melbourne suburb; and Mohamad Karaman, a Syrian engineering student and political refugee, in Madrid, Karaman’s adoptive city, during the peak of the “European migrant crisis” at the international contemporary art festival, ARCOmadrid). In each context, the solemn march backwards (as if towards history) disrupts the general mood and pace of the environment, confronting (by slowing down) the viewer’s decision to ultimately look away from the performance—and the oppression—once it is out of sight. Healing comes by way of visibly confronting the elephant in the room, but also by way of visibly honoring the wounds of the dispossessed, borrowing from the Japanese practice and philosophy of Kintsugi, which honors the broken history of ceramic vessels by mending their cracks with gold. 

In Sikic’s site-specific installation, CHOLO – CHOLA (2019), the words “cholo” and “chola,” are inscribed into the massive broken sand dunes that flank one stretch of a major highway just over 100km south of Lima, Peru. By visibly claiming right to the land using the reclaimed, prideful sense of the words, the monumental inscription honors the wounds of those for whom these words were originally made to oppress (children born of parents with mixed heritages, traditionally from indigenous backgrounds). However, the juxtaposition of these reclaimed words on both sides of  the road that still acts as a geographic dividing line between rich and poor communities accentuates and confronts the gargantuan tension between symbolic reform and actual progress. 

And in Amor Humano (2017), Sikic subverts the customs of the Huayno folk song and performance of the “Tunantada,” in order to shine light on the dark omnipresence of gender-based violence while mourning the many victims of femicide. Traditionally performed during the Feast of San Sebastian and San Fabian in Jauja, Peru, accompanied by a parade of dancing, costumed caricatures (an Argentine mule driver, an Andean herbalist, a Spanish prince, and an indigenous Jauja-Huanca woman, to name a few), The “Tunantada,” has come to symbolize unity between people of various backgrounds. However, Sikic’s rendition features just five female dancers in identical ensembles—the embellished black dresses, white veils, and stoic-faced masks the indigenous female dancers wear to mimic their white colonial counterparts’ character. The only notable variation between the dancers is their capes’ embroideries, which bear the dates, cities, and names of several women who were killed by their lovers according to local newspaper clippings. Surrounded by a somber sea of tombstones, crosses, and mausoleums, a Master of Ceremony reads out the names of 150 more women who suffered similar fates while six saxophones and a Peruvian harp play “Tunantada.” Despite the burlesque show that traditionally accompanies the song, it is said that musicians playing “Tunantada” are required “to make the heart cry.” It is no surprise then, that when played outside of the ironic, festive context, “Tunantada” evokes deep sorrow. For if the “Tunantada” is a symbol of unity in the Mantaro Valley, then by shifting its performance to a cemetery (the largest cemetery in Peru, no less), Sikic effectively stages a funeral for unity, making a succinct and poignant proclamation: As long as instances of gender-based violence persists, unity, at large, is dead.

The last three lines of Iván Sikic’s artist statement read:

“My whole body of work, including this poem, inspired by Miguel James, is against oppression and greed.

My entire body of work is against oppression and greed. 

My whole body of work is against oppression and greed.”

Sikic’s statement and practice stress not only the need to make work against oppression and greed, but also the importance of repetition in effectively fighting and making work against injustice. (Think of how many videos of police brutality white people in America watched before actively speaking out against racism, or how many Black lives were taken before mass media began covering protests). 

Ultimately, Sikic’s body of work demonstrates three things:

1: Repetition is key to visibility.

2: Visibility is key to healing and confronting (which, I argue, is the twofold responsibility of any artwork attempting to counteract injustice).

3: And finally, if our ability to see injustice is like a flickering bulb, then steadily, Sikic points the flashlight.

About the artist: Iván Sikic (Lima, 1983) has shown work at The 8th Floor (New York), Smack Mellon (Brooklyn), the Museum of Contemporary Art, (Lima), Km 0.2 (San Juan and Mexico City), Luis Adelantado (Bogotá, Madrid, and Valencia), UV Estudios (Buenos Aires), The Border Project Space (Brooklyn), MANA Contemporary, Miami (presented by Good To Know) and Vigil Gonzales (Lima), to name a few. His work has been written about in publications including Artnet News, The Huffington Post, VICE, Metro, New York, Art Guide Australia, Fast Company, TerremotoMX, amongst others. In November 2020, Sikic will present a new performance at Green-Wood Cemetery (Brooklyn), commissioned as part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial. To learn more about Sikic’s work visit www.ivansikic.com or follow him on Instagram @ivansikic.

About the writer: Alley Horn is an artist and writer from New York. She is not yet the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship but is manifesting her destiny one bio at a time. Follow her on Instagram @alley.horn or visit her website at www.alleyhorn.com.