Selk’Nam Comics, Mapuche Pop-Art: Native Culture Revives In Modern Form

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SANTIAGO – Chilean history is a braid of nationalist themes, Spanish conquest and colonies, and the ancient traditions and heritages of the land’s indigenous peoples. Many Chileans have a fragile memory though, or they simply choose to forget. A new generation seeks to reverse this and put the nation’s original peoples back in the center.

Chile has a 209-year history as a country and among its riches are its diversity of cultures, heritages, and folklore. Its history as a nation, of course, has its roots in Spanish conquest and colonies that reach back to the first half of the 1500s.

Over 10,000 Years Of History … Forgotten, Ignored, Erased.

But there are some who speak of 10,000-plus years of history, because the settlement of the land that we now know as Chile occurred long before anyone made a declaration of independence and first raised the country’s flag. Indeed, it occurred millennia before the first Conquistador ever set foot in this hemisphere.

Throughout its extensive territory, Chile was built on traditions that range from hunters and gatherers to fighters and resistance. From its ancestral peoples, it acquired names, territories, culture, and traditions. According to the portal Ser Indígena, at present, Chile has nine recognized indigenous societies which continue their distinct cultures. From north to south they are:

  • Aymaras
  • Quechuas
  • Likan Antay*
  • Kollas
  • Diaguitas
  • Mapuches
  • Kawésqar
  • Yagán Austral and
  • Rapa Nui**

* Better known as Atacameños.

** The last ones, although not annexed to the continent, are also part of this history.

And these nine are not the whole story. Prior to the Spanish Conquest, Chile was home to other native societies that did not survive the conquest, including the Chonos and the Picunches.

But even despite their respective rich histories full of knowledge, ideas, and traditions, they have been ignored, “invisible-ized,” and often mistreated in the last 500 years. Conquistadors, colonialists, and nationalists have all tried to erase the identities of the indigenous peoples in a push to “modernize” and “Westernize,” but despite their near-success and dominance, these indigenous cultures persist.

The Aymara in Chile: All about surviving

A New Generation, A New Reflection

There are some who have always refused to forget, and now new generations seek to stop the descent into oblivion, with an essential theme: without a past, we have no future.

These new generations have found new ways to retain the history and heritage of these cultures and to promote them—to put them at center stage so that all Chileans can see the roots of the peoples and traditions that once governed this long and narrow strip of land at the end of the world.

KaiKai – Inspiration From The Edges

One of these expressions is KaiKai, a Chilean brand established in 2011, which is primarily dedicated to the design of illustrations and gift objects—items which are not only inspired by the cultural and natural heritage of Chile, but are also designed and manufactured in Chile. They are 100% Chilean, from idea to execution.

Designer Catalina Hernández Infante and her mother, the history and geography teacher Rebeca Infante, are the leaders of this project. They told Chile Today that they started Kai Kai to “show the cultural and natural heritage of Chile in contemporary language, in objects that are used every day.” Their objective springs from two lines.

Mapuche silver – symbols of indigenous culture

The first, because Catalina, through her travels, “found many beautiful things that show the culture and heritage of those places,” and saw that those things did not exist in Chile: “There were no small objects that were capable of transmitting the culture.”

The second, as Rebeca explained, was born of her experience as a teacher. When she would try to give a class on Chile and its heritage it “was very difficult to find material.” There was a stark contradiction: it was easier to find support material that spoke of universal history, for example the French Revolution, but not local indigenous history.

From there, KaiKai sought creative inspiration from the edges of Chilean history, since, as both said, “Chile is very diverse.” They also add that because the indigenous histories are so broad and so rich, it allows them to show the many different faces of Chile, some that are largely unknown.

Among KaiKai’s work you can find illustrations made based on the photographs of the extinct Selk’nam people, which were taken by the priest Martín Gusinde and documented in books by Anne Chapman.

They also have a line called “Colección Pueblo” (Peoples Collection), which takes diverse objects and iconographies of other Chilean native peoples, mainly the Mapuche, and mixes them with pop art to transmit the culture in a more modern way.

The creators said their work has been well received. Clients find both the work and the native peoples they are based on interesting and they become hooked and want more.

The Kapak Nan: the lifeblood of the Inca Empire running through Chile

Mitomano Comics—Superheroes Reanimate Old Mythologies

Mitomano Comics is generating interest in a completely different way. This 15-year-old Chilean publishing house is dedicated to creating stories of superheroes but with a special twist: they narrate the stories of some 70 characters inspired by the mythology of the native Chilean people.

Francisco Fernández Leiva, founder and editor-in-chief of Mitomano Comics, told Chile Today that the idea of creating Mitomano came to him when he was attending college. From a young age he had always been passionate about superheroes, but he also wanted his brand to have a personality that would set it “apart from the rest of the superheroes in the world,” that would give it “a local identity,” so that when people read his comics they would be able to identify them as Chilean.

Fernández said it was not easy at first. Working with ancestral cultures was at times difficult, because the “mythology was seen as an untouchable entity,” and the treatment had to be with “respect and admiration.” Generating this mix between the traditional and the world of superheroes is therefore “a super complex balance to achieve, because on one hand it is about exploring everything that involves a culture without appropriating it.”

The Wiphala: what does this indigenous flag mean?

But even with these difficulties, “over the years new initiatives have tried to explore and rethink the original culture … which has allowed it to be perpetuated and retransmitted to the new generations, with stories related to our own.”

Fernández added that the ultimate goal of these stories is to create a “conservation of identity.” This “is not about keeping it on a shelf, but to show it” in order to “put the issue on the table for the new generations. ” This way of showing the culture “empowers and illuminates it more, so that it continues to exist.”

Inside Mitomano Comics you can find stories like Ayayema, about a Selk’nam and Kawésqar  warrior, which recounts the genocide the Selk’nam experienced at the hands of the greedy grasping for land and power; or the story of Antu, inspired by the mythology of the Mapuche God of the sun of the same name, which portrays the thought, customs, and relationship that these people had with the earth.

A Revitalized Hope

These two initiatives demonstrate the growing interest many have in the continued survival of Chile’s indigenous cultures. They are also further evidence that the histories of the native peoples are still alive, still matter, and still have much to tell us. It remains to be seen if the origins and roots of Chile eventually become more central components of the “official” history of Chile, but efforts like Kai Kai and Mitomano Comics, together with other initiatives, like the recent one by Recoleta to add Mapuche to the curriculum, are inspiring hope.

All students obliged to learn Mapuche language and culture in Recoleta

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