Above, details of models and photos of Tren-Tren the Snake of the Mountains and of the Sun Sandbox being installed.

Sculptures-playthings for the Mapuche school in Reigolil

Southern Chile. Executed in 2004


O Lands, if this be Land

Sometimes Federica makes mermaids whose scaley gowns are cloaked in stars that sparkle like a colorful flower or a glint of the sun. She thereby dips the heavens—moons and suns—in the waters of Andean rivers, and maybe she even catches the sea-foam breath of early-morning mermaids in the shards of stone—in hues of peat, atoll, cobalt and lazuli—that she embeds, ornamentally, in public squares. Federica makes such voyages for the delight of children. When the children of the wretched of this world are not purely and simply massacred, they eagerly plunge their hands into these dreamy waters. Federica lets me know she’s leaving for Chile to set up a playground in a Mapuche village in distant mountain lands. Playground space has been included in the plan of a school, there’s a boarding school for Mapuche children of the region. The village has only ten or fifteen houses—and a mountain. “Now the mayor is Mapuche, the architect is Mapuche, and they’re redoing the school, conceiving it with Mapuche spirituality. They’re moving from the Spanish square to the Mapuche circle.” Drawings and sketches are the proof. A line drawn in India ink is supple but strong, as though already carved in stone. Curves swirl into suns and moons, joined forever. “You know,” says Federica, “there’s a magic river there, where there lives a mer-creature, by turns male and female: a mermaid when she appears to men, a merman when he appears to women. So I’ll be in a kindred land.” I ask her for details - the story seems so preciously rooted in one land yet so imaginatively accorded to every expanse of land in the world. “The mer-creature is called Sumpall, and appears on moonlit nights, or when there’s a mist. It seems that she - or he - is more often male than female, and he abducts women to take from them whatever they have. There’s this sad side to the Mapuche: people are constantly taking what they have away from them, and that drives them crazy because they don’t have anything. Sometimes they lose a daughter, kidnapped by a family of Sumpalls. Then to make amends the entire clan brings fish the village, even fish that aren’t usually found there, are unknown there. When Sumpalls are female, they hypnotize boys who then go them, becoming Sumpalls in turn. But everyone of them first has to leave his horse behind - he usually has one, at home. I’ve heard people talk about a very interesting Sumpall who drowns the rich. Being rich is a crime among the Mapuche, since everything has to be shared out. Sumpalls also take children who remain in the water too long, whether in a river, lake, or sea - the icy cold water of Chile has a taste of icebergs. The village where I’m installing this project is called Reigolil, it’s just four hours by dirt path from Temuco, just before Argentina, about halfway across the country, south of Santiago, if you see what I mean. The story concerns the battle between the snake of water and flooding and the snake of mountains, earth, and volcanoes. Both are female, and are called Kai-Kai and Tren-Tren. Every year, or almost, the region is flooded, depending on the success very complicated ceremonies - if just one insincere person is there, it all falls apart. That’s why I’m happy to take you to Reigolil with me….” In Federica’s model, Kai-Kai curls on her back like a river - she’s the mistress of floods; women and children nestle in her folds. Tren-tren also slithers along the river, but she has legs for scaling heights; she carries trees on her body and seems, how can I put this, more geometric. She’s the mistress of mountains. “It all began with the fight between these serpents. Mapuche life involves climbing the mountain when the floods come, and coming back down when they recede. Harmonizing things requires many ceremonies, drums, and dances. It’s mankind’s job to help nature achieve harmony. To say, ‘You’re bothering me,’ the Mapuche will say, ‘My heart no longer sees the beauty of your being…’ It seems that the Mapuche are the ancestors, or the children, of the Batutos, or are simply Batutos themselves. I’ve put all that in the middle of the school ground: the snakes, the Sumpall creature, the double duck who lives in the lake nearby, and the moon that governs everything. I’m also putting stones on which I carve drawings of drums and female jewelry, the sky, and a sandbox in the form of the sun. The colors are very peaceful and soft, in harmony with the Reigolil River and the huge mountain just behind, because we’re working for and with the river and mountain. A big hug with all the beauty of my being….” One day, should the snakes have made peace between themselves and the water no longer rise, I shall make the trip, if I can, to see the installation, the mer-creatures that will lead packed trains of children directly to the river, the stars that will bounce off the magically acclimatized lake, the trails that will shimmer between earth and heavent-sent rain, I can picture all that. I just hope that Federica won’t yield to the urge to become a Sumpall, or that they won’t kidnap her, so they won’t need to send her children, family, friends and relatives, by way of compensation (as they do with the people of Reigolil), armfuls of unknown fish that they’ve caught in mythical seas and that we’ll absolutely refuse to eat, because our supermarkets are full of Bayonne ham, Montélimar nougat, dairy products from Vendée, even yams grown in Loir-et-Cher, all these towns and lands that the French know so well.

Edouard Glissant,  Ormerod (Paris: Éditions Gallimard)

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