The Two in the One: Cecilia Vicuña’s Pantera Negra y Yo (ii) (Black Panther and Me [ii])

Composed of multiple bodies and body parts, human and animal, Cecilia Vicuña’s Pantera Negra y Yo (Black Panther and Me) is not just a painting. It doubles a painting that was destroyed and then recreated from memory. It is intimately connected with text, hinting at close connections between past, present, and future.

Cecilia Vicuña. Black Panther and Me (ii). 1978. Oil on canvas, 26 1/2 x 33″ (67.3 x 83.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Latin American and Caribbean Fund

Let me explain why Pantera Negra y Yo (ii) (Black Panther and Me [ii]) is not a painting. 

Cecilia Vicuña’s Pantera Negra y Yo (ii) (Black Panther and Me [ii]) is a work of reproductive labor, the infinite poetic labor of keeping alive the multidimensionality of signs.

Pantera Negra y Yo (Black Panther and Me) first came into the world in Santiago, Chile, in 1970 as a painted object and typewritten paper. The paper that holds the words that explain the meanings of the pictorial figures is not an accompanying wall text but rather a form of wordplay that extends the scope of the painted image outward toward dimensions beyond its maker. Words become images, images become words, and this interchange weaves the mental field of interpretation within which the “I/eye” of the observer is acknowledged and invited to project its imagination. In this sense, the text does not follow the painting; rather, it is an incantation that casts the painting into the future of the collective imagination. 

As an afterimage of Black Panther and Me (ii), a sequence of suspended riddles tumbles into my mind and onto the page I/eye am writing on: How many bodies does one have? What do desiring bodies embody? Why does a desiring body threaten? Where do unmet desires lead?

Cecilia Vicuña. Black Panther and Me (ii). 1978. Oil on canvas, 26 1/2 x 33″ (67.3 x 83.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Latin American and Caribbean Fund

In the wake of these questions, I speculate that Vicuña intuited that Pantera Negra y Yo would disappear as a result of the violent Chilean military coup of September 11, 1973. Tragically shifting the fate of a whole country, the dictatorship that took hold after the murder of Salvador Allende aborted the desires of a nascent collective body, el pueblo chileno (the Chilean people). Vicuña, who was living in England at the time, was forced into exile and immediately began rallying support against the human rights violations by initiating the collective Artists for Democracy and by publishing the book Sabor a Mí (Beau Geste Press, 1973), which included a black-and-white reproduction of Pantera Negra y Yo. The “original” had been left in Chile, and though it may have traveled to London, it eventually disappeared, along with the whole series of works of which it was part—a series that Vicuña has referred to as “pintura mala,” or “bad painting.” The reference to bad painting is not an act of self-deprecation but an allusion to the mischievous quality of the work: “For me, painting poorly was a rebellion against the colonial standards that we, the colonized, were expected to submit to. I conceived of these paintings as continuations of the indigenous subversion of European attempts to erase our culture by imposing European Christian images and techniques, such as oil painting. I adopted the very techniques and styles perceived by the elite as bad painting, or poor imitations of European art, as a way of turning around our condition.”1Cecilia Vicuña, email interview with author, July 1, 2019. Paired with the “intentionally crude depictions,”2Ibid. the text “Explicación de: Pantera Negra y Yo” is an essential feature of the spiritually materialist indigenous technologies that characterize Vicuña’s body of work.3Cecilia Vicuña, Sabor a Mí (South Cullompton: Beau Geste Press, 1973), 70, In 1978, while living in Bogotá, Colombia, Vicuña re-created the painting Pantera Negra y Yo from the memory of the text. This is the version now owned by MoMA.

A black-and-white reproduction of Cecilia Vicuña’s Pantera Negra y Yo in Sabor a Mí (Beau Geste Press, 1973).

I’ve never seen the painting in the flesh, only on the luminescent screen of my computer, three years after having seen it for the first time reproduced in color in the 2015 reedition of the book Sabor a Mí (Galería Patricia Ready). After an almost fifty–year time lapse, this mysterious transdisciplinary, transtemporal, transvestite entanglement titled Pantera Negra y Yo vibrated outward again, requesting renewed attention beyond its historic context.

Look at the staircase to the left of Vicuña’s single-headed, twelve-limbed, three-hearted, four-breasted, double-cunted nude body. Allow what floats just outside the painting to creep in, to descend into the pictorial plane, to animate it. The possibility of animation is the gift that Vicuña’s skilled artistry offers the beholder. 

Precariously weaving the unspun wool of universal threads, Vicuña’s dream-state amalgamation of past, present, and future signs returns in 2019 to remind the observer that unfathomable cosmic forces reign over planet Earth—and that only if we sacrifice individuality by calling on the companionship of the ghostly, the animalic, and the plantal will we be able to continue to inhabit the future. Like most of Vicuña’s work, Pantera Negra y Yo is a knot along a sight line that invites the union of image and word, sound and texture, to occur somewhere in the heart of the reader. 

Pantera Negra y Yo is not “simply” a painting but also a siding with indigenous temporalities’ “other” forms of world making.

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