I drag you with me: ancestry and contemporary practice
(a conversation between Raphael Daibert and Edgar Calel)
Edgar Calel came to São Paulo for a three-month residency that extended to six. Through a partnership between the Latin American artist residency platform Lastro and the artist-led cultural platform Lanchonete.org, Calel was able to travel all around Brazil. During his time in São Paulo, he lived between an apartment at the Copan, an iconic Oscar Niemeyer-designed building in the city center, and an occupied Right to Housing building called Occupation São João, only a few blocks away, but with a completely different reality.
“It was really important for me to experience these different ways of living in the Center of São Paulo,” Calel said. “The same art experience can allow you to be in a really private space like the Copan where the only possible spaces of socialization are the corridors and elevators, [and] to then live in a space where privacy happens in another dimension, as the occupation helps me a lot to think on the importance of collectivity,” he added. “To live in an occupation is like living in a small village. And the constant question of ‘Where do you come from?’ is what challenged me to start thinking about identity, migration, geography, and what exactly makes you be (or not be) from a place.”
During his residency in São Paulo with Lanchonete.org, different encounters led Calel to participate in ceremonies and events from different perspectives with a variety of communities. Along with artist Rodrigo Bueno, they led an ancestral ceremony and talk around indigenous and black ancestry with the Occupation São João community at their monthly themed event “Café Imaginário.” This event also acted as a way to integrate the artist and his practice in the community he was living with.
Calel’s relationship with Bueno was not limited to this specific event. As part of the Zona da Mata project (a partnership throughout 2016 between Lanchonete.org, Rodrigo Bueno’s Ateliê Mata Adentro and Goethe-Institut São Paulo), Calel brought some of his Mayan knowledge to Goethe Institut’s backyard through both a ritual, and through his work “Kit kit kit.” “Kit kit kit” is named after the sound that his grandmother used to make to call the chickens when Calel was a child. While in Brazil on a previous trip, his grandmother passed away. Once back in Guatemala, he decided to paint the walls of her old house with these sayings as a way to evoke her spirit. Thereafter it became part of his practice, being done not only on the shed in the Goethe-Institut’s backyard, but also at Oswald de Andrade’s Cultural Center, where he had an exhibition curated by Beatriz Lemos.
In his work At nu jukukempe, which he began in early 2016, Calel drags a dry, leafy tree by his hair and carries a corn plant root over his mouth. He relates this video to discussions he had throughout his time in Brazil—or, what he described as the stories that are not visible but that we keep on dragging with us. “Our bodies have different roots and branches that occupy not only the physical but also the abstract spaces. For example, I have myself neither lived [through] the Guatemalan armed conflict, nor the Spanish invasion but as fear is inherited, this memory is present in my contemporaneity.”
From Calel’s own artistic practice and working process in São Paulo—being part of different events, attending exhibitions in art institutions and independent art spaces, conducting workshops around his culture and ancestry in different spaces—he stresses that the history of spaces contribute greatly not only to the ideas produced in them, but also to the places ideas may go independently of their contexts. “My artworks are to build some other ways of thinking [about] processes. I believe what we search for [as human beings] is something similar, but through the process [of searching], new ways [of being] are found,” he said. “How do we reclaim and retain the knowledge our ancestors have left us, and where exactly have they lived?” he asked. “Even though I feel Brazil is far [from Guatemala], maybe it is not. Collectivity is not just a question of crossing borders, or geography; that’s more about permissions and visas. That makes everything seem distant. In a lot of rituals we can call people, and it does not matter if they are dead or alive, far or near. Their distances, in this sense, are so relative,” he added. “This work is about the spirit.”
 At nu jukukempe means “I drag you with me” in Kaqchikel, one of the Mayan languages spoken in the village Chixot or San Juan Comalapa, in the highlands of Guatemala, where Calel comes from.
Raphael Daibert is a researcher, cultural producer and activist based in São Paulo, Brazil. He is a founding member of Lanchonete.org and also part of the pedagogical and artistic experiment Free Home University, in Lecce, Italy.
Edgar Calel Apen was born in Chi Xot, Comalapa, an Indigenous community called Maya Kaqchikel, Guatemala. In 2016, he was an artist-in-residence with Lanchonete.org and Lastro in São Paulo. He dedicates his work in the visual arts to his community perspectives that allow him to hear, write, see, and live this ancestral culture of which, throughout his work and life, he spreads its rituals and roots through paintings, videos, installations, performances, talks and his presence in different countries of Latin America.