Yn llygaid y Ciguapa
by Dylan Huw
It was a season of communal malaise. Of narrative struggle. People looked how the seasick look at maps and dream of land.
Helen Marten, The Boiled in Between
Just off-centre, there is a creature: this much is clear. Though she’s obscured by a pile-up of feathers and colour upon the canvas, it’s clear too that she is wading forward into, or perhaps rising above – can she fly? – a mess of torrid ocean waves. There is something almost camp in her, extravagant but shy, too, as if daring you not to look at her, to let her go forth in her quest, to breathe.
She is a ciguapa, feral seductress of Dominican folklore who lurks in that country’s mountains and forests. It’s said that she appears to those un/lucky enough to encounter her as either the most beautiful or most horrifying creature they’ve ever seen; that she feeds off the flesh and souls of men, devouring any farmers or wayward travellers bold enough to cross her terrain; that her feet point backwards – as illustrated in the painting described above – so that if you follow her footsteps you are automatically on the wrong path.
That she ensnares her victims simply by looking them in the eye, cursing them forever.
I love that about her.
(In the painting, you cannot see her eyes.)
Her story, like most stories worth hearing, is mutated from telling to telling, from generation to generation, growing warped with every passing century and each mistranslation, miscommunication, misremembering. I go down the ciguapa’s rabbit hole, devour each telling of her lore that I can find on the internet, gaze at the various artistic interpretations of her, on the same screen in the same room that I have been doing all my work, eating, writing and looking for months. And I begin to realise that I am, slowly, surely – happily – being taken in.
They say time’s gone all flat, our sense of passing minutes, weeks, seasons all corrupted by the chaotic nothingness of plague-time. From this room, I wonder if the act of looking has undergone a rupture from which it will never recover.
With consciousness all disrupted, thinking about looking and memories of looking have taken the place, perhaps, of looking itself. Perhaps art works have come to play the role of conduit, between a time and a space in which looking was possible and a now in which it barely exists. A now in which looking through this same screen in this same room has become my whole experience of the world.
Wayne Koestenbaum says art “is a free ride to ecstasy — if you surrender to it, if you perform the requisite symbolic transpositions.”
Surrender: I remember her.
The ciguapa painting described above is A Map of the British Empire In America with the French and Spanish Settlements adjacent thereto. but it could be one of many by Firelei Báez, who grew up on the border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti with the ciguapas as an everyday oral presence; they have become a consistent figure in her artistic practice.
(An intoxicating idea, for an artist to make a muse of a figure who dares you not/to look at her.)
The creature’s presence in Báez’ paintings often provokes her looker to question their assumptions about women’s bodies, and to what ends they are narrativised, and by whom. Though the ciguapas’ stories were often told to Báez as a warning, to be fearful of wildness, of abjection and of independence – and in this sense find all kinds of parallels in all kinds of stories about women and others who we are told without question as children to fear, to avoid, to neglect – the stance they occupy in Báez’ work emphasises their capacity to embody liberation, freedom, potentiality. (Wildness, abjection, independence.)
Maps and other archival materials which speak to the geographically specific are other constant features in Báez’ work, and in the painting described above, the presence of map contours and far-off islands lend the ciguapa’s stance a historio-political drive, an invitation – an urgency – to look more closely. Her posture speaks to a back and forth between forward-movement and backward reflection. If she initially struck me as camp, in how she dared to splay her feathers all over this canvas, this map, this totem to colonial domination, perhaps it was because of how she pushed the natural and the real to their breaking point, in service of a kind of freedom unhindered by anyone’s expectations or assumptions: about who she is, who gets to tell her story, where she has been and where she might be going.
Midway down the rabbit hole into the ciguapa’s lair I encounter a new detail: she howls. This is apparently a rare feature that remains consistent across almost all tellings of the figure. Her constant howl, her backwards feet, that backward glance: they all speak to a profound melancholy, a yearning of some kind.
It had definitely happened: the creature has me bewitched.
Some twenty-seven months ago, I wrote an essay-review of the Artes Mundi 8 exhibition for the website of O’r Pedwar Gwynt, a Welsh-European literary journal, titling the text Rhyfedd o fyd — A strange/uncanny world. In the piece, I zoned in on how several artists in that exhibition used it as a vehicle for interrogating the plural functions of the documentary, as a form and a strategy, from the vantage point of our hyper-mediated (then-)present. Reenactments and revivals felt ubiquitous, from Bouchra Khalili’s muscular evocation of militant organising’s afterlives, to Trevor Paglen’s ghostly renderings of state-owned landscapes, to Otobong Nkanga’s transformation of one of the National Museum’s back galleries into a richly transcultural live(d) environment. In writing that text I spent a lot of time inside those ideas, (I did a lot of looking then,) popped back into Amgueddfa Cymru every now and again to see what the images would say to me that time.
Reading the piece back today is a strange experience. As if I knew that I knew that I knew that the world was spinning wildly off its axis but, for some reason, I was carrying on looking as normal.
I wrote of collapse and distrust and unrest as if I knew what they meant twenty-seven months ago.
(As if I know what they mean now from my one screen in my one room.)
As if looking was ever stable.
I wrote about art as if it was a thing that was possible.
Bewitched by the seductive beast of the Dominican mountains – who has assumed in my imagination the status of an Angel of History, Klee-like, tossed by the winds of time – my imagination returns, as it often does, to Ysgolan.
Ysgolan is a similarly mutable mythological figure who appears in the earliest surviving Welsh-language manuscript, Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin, as an agent of chaos and destruction, and who recurs across different Celtic mythologies, always in slightly different figurations: a scholar here, a cleric there. In the two poems which narrate their story in the Llyfr Du, Ysgolan is said to have committed acts of senseless ruination — from setting fire to a church to slaughtering a cow to drowning a valuable, perhaps holy, book — before suffering through a never-ending purgatorial quest for forgiveness. Some Welsh Renaissance scholars addressed a figure with the same name who it is believed burnt all the Welsh books treasured in the Tower of London by Welsh prisoners after the fall of Llywelyn, the last prince of Wales, in 1282.
There is not much more than this “out there” about Ysgolan, much less than there is about ciguapas in general. We are not told their story as children, there are no paintings of them in prestigious international contemporary art exhibitions. It is partly because of this invisibility, this fluidity of their potential for imagining and considering anew, particular as regards the relationship between history and futurity, chaos and numbness, that I have been so consistently entranced by the figure.
I came to Ysgolan as a collaborating writer on an early-stage work for performance that never came to fruition. Over two weeks of development we travelled back and forth from the folkloric to the futuristic, ancient to contemporary, seeking sense in the unexplainable, the imagined, the impossible. Perhaps the project did not happen because the impossibility of Ysgolan got to be too much.
But then, perhaps this is what looking is for.
Perhaps we don’t give the impossible enough credit.
Around the same time as I was working on the Ysgolan performance, I was writing an essay that I told my tutor was about “algorithmic memory” and “mnemonic images across media,” which arose mostly from the sensations that occurred in my body when I would scroll through photos on my phone of a recently-ended relationship.
My stated goal with the essay was thus to “outline” some strategies of thinking about the relationship between photographic images, autobiographical and collective memory and the algorithmic regimes of contemporary digital culture. I was interested in demystifying the upheaval I felt happening all around me in the relationship between looking and remembering – in the way I was made to engage with the photos on my phone, with online viewing rooms, with instagram stories and old movies and on the internet. How, I asked, could it be possible to remember outside of the digital today, when in a landscape in which even our most intimate thoughts and memories are mediated and re-mediated back to us by algorithms.
I would not say I got very far in “outlining” any of that, but the time spent thinking through this idea of a crisis of looking has continued to percolate, particularly over the last year. The sense of the environment in which we look being mediated by a complex web of incomprehensible forces has become intensified, as we tick things off our watchlists and to-do-lists more out of obligation than desire, and consume and consume until we fall asleep to dream of more consumption because there is little else to keep us sane. Plaguetime has made it so that it’s not only memory outside of the digital which becomes an archaism but live, active looking too.
(Around the same time as I wrote that essay, the most depressed I have ever been, I moved to Cardiff after four years away from Wales. Also around the same time, I started calling myself a writer.)
“If it were up to me,” says Firelei Báez in a recent video, “I would be a hermit in some mountain seascape.”
Firelei Báez’ paintings marry fantasy and narrative splendor with rigorous socio-political undercurrents, aided by archival methods. Seen from the vantage point of our current season of desperation and solitude, they speak to the very concept of vividness, of life itself.
As part of the artist’s epic, wall-size assemblage of small works presented as part of Artes Mundi 9, she places a found image of a ship coming into Bute Docks in Cardiff, set aflame. Emphasising Cardiff’s history both as an innately plural, diasporic city, and, as part of a network of global port cities, a major centre of Empire, this modest inclusion is suggestive of the archival image’s endless capacity for complexity and re-activation. It all depends on who is doing the looking.
In dialogue with the ciguapa’s outward gaze to the sea, this image of fire and ruin also evokes Ysgolan’s hunger for chaos.
All this mining of all these histories, all in the service of making us look.
Like the ciguapa taunts us to love her.
As if to say: I have been seeing, sensing, feeding off catastrophe since before you existed.
As if to say: look into my eyes. I dare you.
Look: looking may be back some day. One day in the future I may even see the Artes Mundi 9 exhibition, which I have so far experienced only as a preview of a preview of a thing that really does – actually, astoundingly – exist in the real world, part of it only half a mile from my house.
In the same video quoted above, Firelei Báez says the following: “It is always within your grasp to make something new. It’s exhausting. But limitless.”
I think I am drawn to the ciguapa because she suggests, determinedly, restlessly, something of this limitlessness. The ciguapa’s mournful howls are the only sounds that make sense to me, at least partly because I have not heard them.
And I think I am drawn to Firelei Báez’ paintings because they make room for life, for story, for fullness and colour and mystery, and I am, we all are, hungry for all of those things. For life in particular.
How the seasick look at maps and dream of land.
As if to say: What if, after all this time, wildness; what if abjection; what if independence.
The Welsh and English versions of this text were written concurrently.
Dylan Huw is a writer and arts worker living in Cardiff. He is a co-creator of mwnwgl, a forthcoming journal of art and writing in and around Welsh languages, and is currently guest-editing an issue of Cynfas, the National Museum of Wales’ online magazine, on the theme queer looking. He has an M.A. in Visual Cultures from Goldsmiths, University of London.