Venice Biennale; Venice, Italy 2022

The word talel in Tsotsil and Tseltal (batsʼi kʼop), which gives the title to Santiago Borja’s project created in collaboration with El Camino de los Altos for Hasta que los cantos broten, is translated as “way of being, character, personality, inclination, mood, custom” and as “soul.” The anthropologist Pedro Pitarch Ramón translates it as “that which is given” to each person, “the character conferred upon them before birth and therefore formed a priori.” These translations certainly give a sense of the meaning of talel, but not entirely. To paraphrase the anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena, it’s all that, but not only that.

To translate is to always get things wrong to a certain extent; not in the sense of making a mistake but in the forced and sometimes subtle transformation of the meaning of something by transferring it into another way of thinking that has been created by another language. Translations are often affective approximations to be with others. When she wrote “not only,” de la Cadena “signaled translation as a practice that allowed for conversation while also insinuating its limits, thus evoking a possibility for that which the same translation that allowed for communication could not contain.”

Talel (2022) is an installation consisting of twenty-three looms made by eleven Tsotsil weavers (batsiI winik’otik): Lucía Patishtán López, Ernestina López Patishtán, María del Carmen López Patishtán, María Patishtán López, Marcelina López, Juana Cirila López Patishtán, Lucia López López, Antonia Patishtán Patishtán, Virginia Patishtán Jiménez, Juana Jiménez López, and Margarita Patishtán Collazo. They live in Bautista Chico, a community near the municipal seat of San Juan Chamula in the highland region of Chiapas. Along with women weavers from other communities, they are members of El Camino de los Altos, an association focused on reappraising textile technology and instigating intercultural dialogues.

This collaboration was born of Santiago’s interest in reflecting on heritage (and customs), in both an individual and cultural dimension, and thus exploring the implications of its representation as a scientific reality as opposed to an affective reality that marks and “tarnishes” the abstraction of that purportedly universal representation. In his previous work, Santiago had drawn contrasts with unfamiliar ways of thinking, exploring how abstraction has different implications inside and outside the Western world, but also how modern Western thought is permeated by forms of knowledge that have been minoritized.

Talel explores the possible ontological implications of human genome sequencing, which was completed in 2003 and supposedly provides a generalist representation of our component genetic material and which, up to a point, defines the human race. We say “up to a point” because the Western definition of what it means to be human can be questioned and reconsidered from other epistemologies, and the impossibility of translating these forms of “being,” or rather “being with,” form part of Santiago’s efforts to analyze the notion of personal and cultural identity—defined by Yásnaya A. Gil as a “subset of traits that establish contrasts”—by asking: “How are we what we are? Or why do we believe we are one thing and not another? To what point is this “invention” necessary for existence?”

Epigenetics came from the same Western scientific language and tools that have been validated within their epistemological model. This term refers to the expression of genes above (hence the prefix “epi-”) the universal genetic sequence. In other words, how that genetic information interacts with the medium in which it develops. Epigenetics somehow reveal that the separation between nature and culture does not apply to the reality of our existence in the world. The boundaries that this construction draws are fabrications that cause us to feel exempt—and therefore alienated—from the rest. However, social factors largely condition these different expressions of the human genome. This realization clearly shows that individuals exist in continuity with their surroundings, where their way of life is built collectively with other humans and non-humans.

The basic structure for each one of Talel’s twenty-three textiles is the representation of each pair of chromosomes that form the human’s DNA sequence. This scientific convention is the starting point for each weaver to work directly on their cloth, imprinting a singularity reflected in its production; in the rhythm, tension, and sensibility that “they imprint” on the fabric, over and above what they would traditionally make and that is now considered a handcraft and sold as such. The use of millenary technology such as a backstrap loom, reveals a particular relationship of the body in relation to the surroundings that construct it and which it modifies.