Elysia Crampton

It’s not often that you attend a lecture where the speaker purposely revels in the “self-sabotage” of getting sidetracked. It is difficult to tell a story without boundaries, but somehow Elysia Crampton, who spoke at Carnegie Mellon’s Studio for Creative Inquiry last Friday, was able to tell a story while also challenging the idea of what a story should be. Crampton is a critically acclaimed electronic artist whose work spans themes of Latinx culture, Queerness, and Andean experience. Crampton’s work sits at the intersection of multiple communities and perspectives but is unified through her research and understanding of native perceptions and personal experiences as someone of Aymara heritage. Though dense and difficult to summarize, Crampton’s lecture approached the concept of abolition from a native, Andean perspective.

Crampton defined abolition as, “...not just the end of all forms of bondage, but all forms of external or internal colonialism and imperialism.” The lecture was centered on the analysis of images from “El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno” or “The First New Chronicle and Good Government,” a manuscript from the 17th Century that details the history of the Andes from native empires to the Spanish conquest. The manuscript’s depictions of native life and the reality of Spanish rule provide a striking insight into how Andean cultures viewed themselves and the world. Crampton specifically highlighted aspects of native language and textural understanding shown within the manuscript’s illustrations.

From an Andean perspective, time does not flow in the linear progression adopted by Western schools of thought. The past is not a dormant stage behind us, but a battleground to be actively engaged with and challenged. In fact, in Aymara, the past is seen as something ahead while the future is perceived as something behind.

Another unique characteristic of the Andean experience is the “textural language” of native peoples who wore their culture and history in a “language of fabric.” From distinctive clothing worn by different members of native societies to the Incan Quipus used as a method of record keeping, the Andean culture was built on a distinctive textile understanding and awareness.

Other themes included dual-gendered spaces and queer identity in native communities, internalized imperialism, communal memory, and the persistence of native symbolism and thought through the rise and fall of various empires.

Crampton acknowledged that her analysis and the manuscript itself were full of contradictions that highlight the paradoxes of our modern world. We live in a world where we can critique society while still existing within and benefitting from it, and we can discuss a language that superimposes space and time, and uses the same word for “an instant” and “forever” in a language that only functions in a linear progression.

This world of contradictions, or “world in reverse”, informs the way Crampton views the past and the potential for the future. The final image of the lecture was entitled “God the Father” and depicted a male deity in the foreground holding the sun and moon in his hands, while the Andes Mountains diminished in the background. At first glance, it seems to tell the story of the rise of Christianity and the fall of native religions, or the rise of colonialism and fall of indigenous peoples. But if you approach the depiction with an Andean understanding of time, what’s in the background is the future, and what’s in the foreground becomes the past.

Along with images, Crampton also shared a video clip of Neil Degrasse Tyson explaining the belief that contemplating the universe is a privilege held only by people who do not need to worry about their day-to-day survival. Crampton disagreed, positing that Andean understanding is not a regression of thought and that contemplating a cosmic sense of the universe is not a privileged position held only by “more civilized” people further along the linear progression. Consider another illustration that depicts the native “astrologer poet” sowing seeds and contemplating the sky. The native holds knowledge of the earth as space both below and within, and a knowledge of the sun and the moon as they relate to his crops and his sense of self-mastery. He holds an understanding of a world without discrete taxonomies, a world beyond a settler’s perspective.

Crampton concluded by addressing the fact we are often taught to engage with the world in ways that do not align with our experience or with constructs that do not even exist. There is a limit to understanding the world in certain ways, so maybe it’s time we considered different ways of viewing and understanding our world so that we can renegotiate our future and our past.