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Mapuche Artist Bernardo Oyarzun Unmasks Chile’s Truth

Artist Bernardo Oyarzun tells the story of his indigenous heritage and of Chile through his Mapuche masks, on display this year at the Venice Biennale.

Werken, a spectacular installation of 1,000 Mapuche masks surrounded by 7,000 Mapuche family names scrolling on video, by Chilean artist Bernardo Oyarzun, represents Chile at the 57th incarnation of the International Art Biennale of Venice, this year themed “Viva, Arte Viva.”

Directed by French curator Christine Macel, Viva Arte Viva included, for the first time, several Native artists, as well as guests: Members of the Amazonian Huni Kuin tribe accompanied Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto to the Biennale to his exhibit, “A Sacred Place”; “Emissaries,” by Maori artist Lisa Reihana from New Zealand, addresses colonization in the Pacific.

Werken, curated by Paraguay’s former secretary of culture Ticio Escobar, director of the Museum of Indigenous Art of Asuncion, offers a rare insight into the Mapuche rituals of Chile today. The exhibit recalls the resilience of a culture that has persevered despite racism and ostracism: a reality experienced by Bernardo Oyarzun through the trauma of being mistakenly arrested by the police because of his Mapuche look.


“I started to work on identity issues after this event,” Oyarzun told Indian Country Media Network.

The masks, metaphors for an indigenous revival, tell the story of an invisible but active Native population fighting for their rights.

“We are still here,” insisted Oyarzun as he sat down with Indian Country Media Network to discuss contemporary Mapuche culture.

Why did you choose Mapuche masks as your topic for the Biennale?

I chose to show the masks because they contain many symbolic and esthetic parameters of the Mapuche culture: the “Kollon” is a man who wears the mask during the rituals and protects the “Machi,” the healer leading the ceremony. So the masks are an important aspect of Mapuche rituals, as are the 70,000 Mapuche family names scrolling on video. I am trying to tell the Chileans that they are Mapuche, and that the Mapuche culture is alive. Pure Mapuche represent only three percent of the population; nearly all others in between are mixed blood, but deny it. And Mapuche face racism and discrimination in everyday life. When you look Mapuche like me, you might not get a job. There is absolutely discrimination. You cannot access the same things as others. When Mapuche participate in a protest, they are arrested for delinquency and treated like terrorists.

Were you arrested for that reason?

They have arrested me many times since my youth because of my physical appearance. When you are poor, or your face is different, you are a delinquent.

What is your background?

I grew up in the south, 1,000 kilometers from Santiago; my grandmother was Mapuche, my father was a peasant. Coming from a mixed background, the language, the culture, were lost; we were westernized. My parents moved to the suburbs of Santiago when I was three years old. We were poor, but they wanted me to study. I studied visual arts at the university, and was the first person from my barrio, my district, to attend the university. My father’s project succeeded, with huge sacrifices on his part.

Do the Mapuche live in communities?

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No, they are everywhere, but the most important area is Araucania, around Temuco. That is historically Mapuche territory, where the old communities resided before moving to Santiago, and where they continue to practice their culture within their ritual spaces. They live like anybody else but gather around a sacred space—the “Rewe,” the ritual altar.

Is there a revival among young Mapuche, or are you still the only artist to work on Native identity?

Now it is happening, young artists are working on that topic. Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable. But I am the only one from my generation. I am 54 years old and have been working on Mapuche identity for the past 20 years. Today, non-Mapuche are coming to rituals, searching for their Mapuche roots; this is a new phenomena among the youth.

Why did you focus on indigenous issues?

I went through a lot of violence and discrimination when I was a child—kids bullying me about my skin color, the police arresting me since the age of 15. It went on until I was 35, when I created “Bajo Sospecha” (Under Suspicion). They detained me and showed me to witnesses to identify me. I was about to go to jail. Traumatic. I have always been shocked by how badly the Mapuche were treated by the police. Bajo Sospecha, my first individual exhibition on racism, addresses this issue. Many innocent Mapuche go to jail because of their skin color. But the Mapuche fight does not only concern racism; it is about the land, the ancestral culture. I am interested in Native popular esthetics, and land issues. And it is essential that the language and rituals continue, like the New Year celebrations on June 22 when nature starts to renew, or healing ceremonies led by the Machi, and the prayers to the Earth.

Bernardo Oyarzun's Mapuche masks at the Venice Biennale 2017.

Bernardo Oyarzun's Mapuche masks at the Venice Biennale 2017.

Do you define yourself as Mapuche today?

Totally. It was complicated and difficult. I always feared to say I was Mapuche. And I know very little, but I participate in the rituals, and learn with the community.

Are the masks also sold for a decorative use, or just for rituals?

Craftsmen also sell them like souvenirs. But the ones utilized during the rituals are protected by the communities.

So the mask is an important symbol of Mapuche cultural survival, with the Kollon, the Machi, and the Werken?

Exactly: because the existence of a Kollon means that the Mapuche rituals are alive. The most important character of the Mapuche society is the Machi. Then the leader of the community, “El Lonco”; and then the “Werken,” the messenger who counsels the Lonco. The Werken is the most political, the wise man and the voice of the community. He is the one who transmits and carries messages, including outside the community. If a Mapuche was to become a senator, he would be a Werken.

And you, with this work, are a kind of Werken?

[Laughs] Exactly! I am, in this case. And with Ticio Escobar, we would both be Werkenes!

Another view of the Mapuche masks by Chilean artist Bernardo Oyarzun at the Venice Biennale 2017.

Another view of the Mapuche masks by Chilean artist Bernardo Oyarzun at the Venice Biennale 2017.