Ronny Quevedo, los desaparecidos (the arbiters of time) (2018)

Sofia Ortega-Guerrero
June 4, 2024

On a banner of unstretched muslin, a gilded plan for a shirt jacket is suspended in time and space (Fig. 1). The pattern paper, printed with mathematical specifications of measurement, enters a diagrammatic purgatory, its capacity to envelop human volume left unfulfilled. Instead, the gold-leafed pattern pieces are held in a perpetual state of dismembered abstraction. Crisp lines ebb outward from the edges of their discrete shapes: the sewer’s guide to accommodating different wearers’ bodily dimensions.1 Yet, function here becomes form, and the jacket-to-be is left teeming with potentiality. Any tangible dimensions that the garment might have had are further negated by a central drawing in colored wax. Sharp lines of blue, yellow, red, and black extend radially across the pattern paper, some numbered in the Quechua language of the Andes.2 Like the unmade jacket, these markings of melted wax plot a methodical diagram, stopping a quarter short of a full circle––another sequence suspended in liminal space.

Fig. 1 – Ronny Quevedo, los desaparecidos (the arbiter of time), 2018. Wax, pattern paper and gold leaf on muslin, 48 x 60 in. Denver Art Museum, Denver, 2019.85. [Link to source]

Titled los desaparecidos (the arbiter of time), this collaged contemplation of mapping and measurement from 2018 is by contemporary artist Ronny Quevedo. Born in Guayaquil, Ecuador in 1981, Quevedo immigrated with his family to the Bronx, New York at a young age. There, his mother worked as a seamstress, while his father, once a professional soccer player in Ecuador, began refereeing for various local leagues on the weekends.3 As the artist himself states, Quevedo’s practice materially derives from this biography, “imaginatively and resourcefully transform[ing]” the “humble technical materials” of his parent’s professions.”4 Here, his mother’s dressmaking implements form the background of a radial design representing the forty-five-minute halves of a soccer match, a reference to his father.5 As Quevedo notes, these symbolic odes are “repurposing... materials in an almost cartographic way.” Indeed, much of Quevedo’s oeuvre explores cartography and culturally variable units of measurement in tandem with material transformation.6 Beyond modes of mapping space and time, for instance, the artist investigates modes of mapping the body through pattern paper, which traditionally traces bodily dimensions “much like latitude and longitude are used to trace the globe.” The pattern paper of los desaparecidos, however, is rendered obsolete, as it symbolically traces the spectral bodies of ‘the disappeared.’

As Quevedo reveals, “each component of my work”be it the title, materiality, or display“provides a context… to establish a transitional space,” an entry point.7 While its surface maps a corporeal absence, los desaparecidos (the arbiter of time) explicitly names its reference to the many forcibly disappeared under military dictatorships in Argentina and across South America.8 Such efforts to reassert memory and redress the violent erasures of history also drive Quevedo’s engagements with the ancient American past, wherein the ‘desaparecido’ reflects the destructive legacies of colonial invasion. In fact, the artist’s studies of pre-Hispanic artistic traditions, such as textiles and architecture, have conceptually and compositionally informed his practice. As he writes: “I’ve become interested in space not just as a physical entity but as a concept of measurement and control.”9 Visualizing such themes in its regularity and technical complexity, references to ancient Andean weaving have notably recurred throughout Quevedo’s oeuvre. Alongside los desaparecidos, which centers textiles and their associated manual labor, other works by Quevedo have made more explicit references to Andean textile traditions, such as every measure of zero (checkmate)’s 2018 quotation of an Inca checkerboard tunic (Fig. 2).10 Additional assertions of linearity in the ancient Andes, such as the topographical Nazca lines, have also struck a chord with Quevedo’s mark-making and cartographic explorations, as evidenced both here and in his 2017 every measure of zero (Nazca beyond the plain) (Fig. 3). While contributing to a practice-spanning assertion of a shared South American antiquity and its contemporary relevance, two particular “archetypes of the past,” in Quevedo’s words, aid his symbolic collapse of deep time in los desaparecidos: the quipu (khipu) and the ceque (siq’i) system of Cusco––both visualized by the work’s central wax drawing.11

Fig. 2 – Ronny Quevedo, every measure of zero (checkmate), 2018. Wax on dressmaker paper, 10 x 10 in. [Link to source]

Fig. 3 – Ronny Quevedo, every measure of zero (Nazca beyond the plain), 2017. Silver leaf and wax on paper, 9 7/8 × 13 1/8in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2018.143. [Link to source]

With his native Ecuador as the northernmost territory of the ancient empire, the quipu’s widespread use by Inca and its multicorded, radial structure make it an ideal symbol for mapping what Quevedo terms the “rhizomatic complexity of my roots” (Fig. 4).12 While likely originating several hundred years earlier in local contexts of the Tiwanaku and Wari cultures, quipu use under the Inca became systematized for purposes of imperial administration, as illustrated in Felipe Guáman Poma de Ayala’s 1615 El primer nueva crónica y buen gobierno (Fig. 5).13 The quipu, meaning ‘knot’ in Quechua, is composed of cotton or camelid fiber cords that record information through knots, color, and relative arrangement. A primary cord serves as the anchor for thinner pendant cords, which sometimes also anchor subsidiary cords, resulting in a notably rhizomatic structure replicated in the wax markings of los desaparecidos.14 Alongside spatial arrangement, the color and number of cords register symbolic distinctions in the quipu system: the former establishes differential relations between cords, while the latter expresses quantities or labels objects.15 With such semiotic heterogeneities, this knotted document could encode a variety of informational genres, as detailed by Spanish chroniclers, including censuses, tribute records, legal codes, narrative histories, and, in this case, the minutes and movements of a soccer match.16 While too numerous to correspond with the penalty cards administered for fouls, the alternating red and yellow ‘subsidiary cords’ of Quevedo’s quipu may mark distinct phases of play––the collective oscillations between offensive and defensive tactics––at each minute-marking ‘pendant cord’ of the match. The blue offshoots of the forty-fifth ‘pendant cord’ may then indicate additional time granted by the referee, the ‘arbiter of time,’ for any stoppage of play during this recorded soccer period.

Fig. 4 – Inca, Quipu, Pacasmayo Valley, Peru, 1430-1530. Cotton or wool fiber, 74 x 110 cm. British Museum, London, Am1907,0319.286. [Link to source]

Fig. 5 – Quipus depicted in illustrations of Inca bureaucracy from El primer nueva crónica y buen gobierno (c. 1615) by Felipe Guáman Poma de Ayala. Image from Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher, Code of the Quipu: A Study in Media, Mathematics and Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981), Plate 4.3, 66.

Unlike the two-dimensional writings of colonial administrators, quipus do not present a surface or even a definite orientation; rather, they “conceive and execute a recording in three dimensions with color,” in the words of mathematician Marcia Ascher and anthropologist Robert Ascher.17 As such, the oral transcription of quipus and their ‘embodied’ knowledge demanded multisensorial engagements from quipucamayocs (khipucumayuqs), specialized administrators charged with their care and interpretation.18 Notational writing may replace speech and, by extension, the speaker, but the knowledge contained in the knotted ‘writing’ of quipus can disseminate only in tandem with the human body and its touch, sight, and sound.19 Rephrased in the context of los desaparecidos (the arbiter of time), the quipu demands a presence; it demands an arbiter, as evoked by the subtitle. The historical record of these tangible documents, however, consists primarily of textual ones produced by the Spanish in projects of assimilating the region’s Indigenous peoples into the colonial regime.20 These textual archives, furthermore, recorded selective information about Inca lifeways in order to better combat ‘idolatry’ and systematically destroy Native religious practices. For instance, an additional genre of calendrical quipu appears in the colonial chronicles that would have been deemed idolatrous for “record[ing] the days dedicated to the maintenance of sacred objects and places,” called huacas (wak’as), “whose cults the Spanish tried to extirpate.”21 Various extirpation campaigns thus sought the destruction of calendrical quipus and the huaca worship they encoded. Echoing Quevedo’s title, both the quipu and its knotted knowledge thus become the desaparecidos of a destructive colonial mapping––a pattern reiterated in the case of the ceque system.

While not explicitly citing the ceque system, as he does the quipu, Quevedo describes his works, particularly his drawings, as addressing “the visual language of space: globes, grids, maps, and other units of measure.”22 One such Andean spatial language, the ceque system consisted of forty-two radial ceques or conceptual pathways, emanating from the Inca capital of Cusco into the surrounding valley, upon which nearly 400 huacas were organized and maintained by local kin groups (Fig. 6).23 Alongside its political role in the imperial landscape, Cusco represented the spiritual heart of a sacred geography, which culminated in the city’s central Coricancha (Qorikancha, Golden Enclosure), or Temple of the Sunonce covered in gold sheets, like los desaparecidos’ pattern pieces.24 With Cusco and the Coricancha at the center of the cosmological order, the Inca partitioned the surrounding valley and the greater empire, called Tahuantinsuyu (Tawantinsuyu, Four Regions Together), into four suyus (regions) along the axes of the capital city.25 These political mappings of space operate simultaneously with the spiritual mappings of the ceque system, described by anthropologist Brian S. Bauer as “a means to control space and time, as well as a means through which the social order of the Inca could be reaffirmed.”26

Fig. 6 – Map of the Cusco Valley ceque system. Image from Brian S. Bauer, The Sacred Landscape of the Inca: The Cusco Ceque System (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), Map 11.1, 158.

Much like the quipu and its simultaneous administrative and calendrical genres, the ceque system facilitated consistent, widespread worship while reinforcing the sociopolitical organization of the empire. Cultural historian Constance Classen visualizes this link of function, likening the ceque system to a topographical quipu: “the ceques were like the spread-out threads of the quipu, and the huacas like the knots.”27 As imperial huacacamayocs (huaca specialists) and vilcacamayocs (sacred object specialists) coordinated huaca worship across each ceque, calendrical quipus delegated the duties of this shrine maintenance across the kin groups of the valley.28 As with these quipus, however, the huacas of the ceque system became the subject of systematic anti-idolatry campaigns enabled by the textual records of colonial chroniclers. One such chronicler, Jesuit Bernabé Cobo dedicated four chapters of his 1653 Historia del nuevo mundo to recording the ceques and the huacas along their partitions, producing a field guide for an extirpation well underway, if not largely executed, by then.29 Paradoxically, the information provided and now preserved in Cobo’s account may have likely been selectively extracted from the knottings of quipus, recalling Quevedo’s reflections on tracing as “an act of transference: what gets lost and what gets created in the act of transferring something, even just generationallywith language, for example, or with customs?”30

In los desaparecidos, Quevedo’s quipu, like Classen’s figurative one, becomes a topographical transference. Melted into the flat muslin surface, the wax markings lose the volume characteristic of quipu, instead replicating a notational flatness reminiscent of European cartographic traditions. Here, quipu ‘cords’ become aerial perspectives of a ceque system that stretches across the pattern paper archipelago of another dimensionless textile (Fig. 7). Yet, Quevedo does not altogether replicate the sterilized flattening of Western cartography and measurement; rather, the symbols and substance of los desaparecidos reflect indexical signs of the artist’s mutable identity, continually conditioned and redefined by time, place, and experience. Through such interstitial suspensions, this fabric collage, like the rest of Quevedo’s oeuvre, fractures and reassembles symbols and their histories in a conceptual-material practice informed by Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant’s writings on diasporic identity formation.31 In various interviews, Quevedo’s discussions of Glissant recur as regularly as his references to South American antiquity, suggesting a reciprocal reinforcement between these research nodes. The question of incomplete transference, quoted above, indeed draws from Glissant’s 1997 Poetics of Relation, where the notion of “opacity”a measure of culturally and/or temporally specific comprehension (transparency), or lack thereofis nuanced by the “internal multiplicity of languages” inherent to diasporic realities, like Quevedo’s.32 In los desaparecidos (the arbiter of time), which conveys a bilingual multiplicity in the title itself, Quevedo phrases these Glissantian notions in pre-Hispanic idioms to strategically construct contemporary opacities and deconstruct historical ones.

Fig. 7 – Detail of los desaparecidos (the arbiter of time), 2018. Wax, pattern paper and gold leaf on muslin, 48 x 60 in. Denver Art Museum, Denver, 2019.85.

In the contemporary case, Quevedo co-opts ancient Andean references to redeploy “a lineage of thought that exists outside of the figurative and the textual, in ways not traditionally acknowledged in the Western art-historical canon.”33 By filtering the quipu and the ceque system through subtle, seemingly neutral aesthetics, Quevedo thus creates an ironic opacity that satirizes “contemporary notions of minimalism and abstraction as apolitical and asymbolic” rather than rooted in ancient American artistic legacies. Furthermore, the initial incongruity of los desaparecidos’ title and composition reckons with the continued opacity around the fates of those violently ‘disappeared’ under dictatorial regimes. With this eerie absence of the invoked body, Quevedo invites the viewer to map a mental space for the desaparecidosan act of remembrance charged with the potential for future justice, as the work’s subtitle, arbiter of time, suggests.34 Insofar as his deconstruction of historical opacities, Quevedo simultaneously “chronicle[s] our attempt to chart time and space” and proposes “alternative modes to map our existence,” rehabilitating historical modes through “an expansion of [their] poetic dimension,” another reference to Glissant.35 In order to enact such poetic expansions, los desaparecidos paradoxically reasserts the volume of Indigenous antiquity, namely, its quipus and ceque system, through flattened allusions to diagrammatic colonial archives. In other words, Quevedo implicates the destructive cartographies of Spanish chroniclers as his three-dimensional Andean references collapse into two-dimensional maps across fabric topographies. The systematic desaparecimientos (disappearances) of Indigenous lifeways under colonial regimes are thereby rendered transparent and reverberant across time. With an indexical materiality and a pre-Hispanic visual language, Quevedo thus mobilizes opacity in los desaparecidos to redress the forced absences across South American histories by reaffirming their continued relevance, if not presence, in a contemporary imaginary.

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1. Beverly Adams, “Interwoven Histories Between Ancient and Contemporary Latin American Art,” in ReVisión: A New Look at Art in the Americas (Munich: Hirmer Verlag GmbH, 2020), 72.

2. Victoria I. Lyall, “los desaparecidos (the arbiter of time),” Denver Art Museum. https://www.denverartmuseum.org/en/object/2019.85.

3. Alexander Gray Associates, “Ronny Quevedo: entre aquí y allá” (New York: Alexander Gray Associates, September 8–October 15, 2022). https://www.alexandergray.com/exhibitions/ronny-quevedo?view=slider#2. Ronny Quevedo, “Making Space: Ronny Quevedo Interviewed by Louis Bury,” interview by Louis Bury, BOMB Magazine, April 22, 2019. https://bombmagazine.org/articles/2019/04/22/making-space-ronny-quevedo-interviewed/. This citation also applies to the previous sentence.

4. Quevedo, BOMB Magazine interview. This citation also applies to the following two sentences.

5. Lyall, “los desaparecidos.”

6. Ronny Quevedo, "In the Study: Ronny Quevedo," interview, Joan Mitchell Foundation, July 11, 2022. https://www.joanmitchellfoundation.org/journal/in-the-studio-ronny-quevedo. This citation also applies to the following sentence.

7. Quevedo, BOMB Magazine interview.

8. Ronny Quevedo, “Down the Line,” interview by Sholeh Asgary, André Magaña, Keli Safia Maksud, and Mira Dayal, ARTnews, June 8, 2022. https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/interviews/down-the-line-lineage-roundtable-1234628137/. Adams, “Interwoven Histories,” 73.

9. Quevedo, BOMB Magazine interview.

10. Mariola V. Alvarez, “Making Worlds: The Art of Ronny Quevedo," in Ronny Quevedo, Recent Work (Portland: Upfor LLC, 2019), 4.

11. Quevedo, ARTnews interview.

12. Quevedo, BOMB Magazine interview.

13. Galen Brokaw, “El quipu en la época colonial,” in Atando cabos, ed. Carmen Arellano Hoffman (Lima: Ministerio de Cultura/Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú, 2011), 191. Colin McEwan, Ancient American Art in Detail (London: British Museum Press, 2009), 70. This latter citation also applies to the following sentence.

14. Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher, Code of the Quipu: A Study in Media, Mathematics and Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981), 16-17.

15. Ascher and Ascher, Code of the Quipu, 20, 32.

16. Brokaw, “El quipu,” 179.

17. Ascher and Ascher, Code of the Quipu, 63.

18. McEwan, Ancient American Art, 70.

19. Constance Classen, Inca Cosmology and the Human Body (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993), 246-247. This citation also applies to the previous sentence.

20. Brokaw, “El quipu,” 181.

21. My translation of Brokaw, “El quipu,” 186.

22. Quevedo, BOMB Magazine interview.

23. Brian S. Bauer, The Sacred Landscape of the Inca: The Cusco Ceque System (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), 1, 155.

24. Bauer, The Sacred Landscape, 3.

25. Bauer, The Sacred Landscape, 1, 6.

26. Bauer, The Sacred Landscape, 160.

27. Classen, Inca Cosmology, 133.

28. Bauer, The Sacred Landscape, 8, 155.

29. Bauer, The Sacred Landscape, 1, 5.

30. Bauer, The Sacred Landscape, 8.

31. Alexander Gray Associates, “Ronny Quevedo.” Katja Rivera, “Ronny Quevedo: at the line,” El Pomar Galleries, (Colorado: Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, October 1 - December 5, 2021). https://fac.coloradocollege.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/ronny-quevedo_at-the-line_gallery-guide_posters.pdf.

32. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 119.

33. Quevedo, BOMB Magazine interview. This citation also applies to the following sentence.

34. Adams, “Interwoven Histories,” 73.

35. Quevedo, BOMB Magazine interview.