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Donna Huanca: CUEVA DE COPAL

Exhibition curation, Arnolfini, 2022. 

The installation CUEVA DE COPAL (translated as Copal Cave) continues Bolivian American artist Donna Huanca’s interplay between light and darkness, evoking cycles found in nature. Audiences are invited to explore the space and take a reflective journey through this immersive, multisensory, environment.

Huanca’s multidisciplinary practice has encompassed performance, painting, video, sound, and sculpture, collaging together these different elements. Her work is woven with references to ritual, materiality, and memory, suggested through sensory interventions. Textures, like CUEVA’s futuristic white sand, are used alongside colours drawn from natural pigments (blue is often used for its mood-altering quality). These are paired with Huanca’s self-made scent (a variation of Palo Santo, meaning holy wood) and sounds drawn from nature.

Drawing on personal history, Huanca’s work also explores notions of identity, gender, and belonging. The performance element that lies at the heart of her practice is layered with memories of time spent in Bolivia and references to ceremonial practice. This includes the use of copal (in the installation’s title), a resin known as the ‘blood of trees’, and a sacred scent used for spiritual cleansing in ancient rituals performed in cultures native to Central and South America.

In previous installations physical performances have taken place within the gallery. In CUEVA DE COPAL, these performances – in which ‘models’ are painted with a mixture of materials including raw pigment, clay, oil, coffee, turmeric and body paint, creating a new ‘skin’ – have taken place behind the studio’s closed doors.

Remnants of these performances remain in the photographs which lie beneath Huanca’s mixed media paintings. Layered amidst sand and oil applied by the smooth palm of Huanca’s hand, these performative traces are then scratched and clawed away creating a new surface. Likewise, in the scarred ‘skin’ and bodily forms of each sculpture, which Huanca describes as ‘stand-ins’ for the human form.

Reflected from multiple perspectives, these surfaces, or ‘skins’, hint at absent bodies – movements that have occurred in another time and space – encouraging audiences to pause within CUEVA’s cocoon and reflect upon our own relationship to time, space, and the world around us.

See Arnolfini here.


CUEVA DE COPAL, Donna Huanca, 2021, Painting - Oil, sand on digital print on canvas, Courtesy the artist and Peres Projects.

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