The globally-resonant word ‘cantadora’ is a play on the Spanish/Italian/Portuguese word ‘cantador,’ meaning singer. Part of an ancient oral tradition, it refers to storytelling that arises from personal and collective history. In the many landscapes that have shaped me as a human, and as an artist, I have found and experienced cantadora again and again.
I was raised in nature and witnessed life’s evanescence: a sense of impermanence in the constant cycles of the seasons. I grew up in a small hamlet on the east coast of America. Here, in sub-zero winters, we ice-skated on lakes and made angels in the snow, leaving an imprint of our young lives.
Over the years, my conceptual interests in ink and the natural world have merged with working methods learned from extensive travel to Central Asia, China, the Middle East and Africa. Ink’s origins are in the earth, whose life force, energy and spiritual components have informed my work and provided me with a language for the cultivation of an inner life.
The Cradle of Humankind in South Africa is a complex of limestone caves that contain the fossilised remains of ancient forms of animals, plants and hominids, our human ancestors. This landscape was formerly an inland sea and its stones have etched surfaces that reflect a vast expanse of time and history. Walk up from the lakes, and you are in wild bushland, home to leopard tortoises and stones that are naturally layered in the earth like graveyards, arrangements that seem to belong to ancient civilisations.
The installations I made in South Africa look at marking time with rock-forms that date back thousands of years. In the work 6671 Days, I traced the time from the birth of my son to the day he left school, aged eighteen. Here, the stones were found and arranged in groups of fifty following the lines of the land, fifty symbolizing regeneration expressed by individual lives. The work explores the passing of time whilst acknowledging the importance of family bonds and our direct connection to the land. As I worked, I felt profoundly connected both to history, to the landscape, and to the interconnectedness of time, nature and all of human life.
Simon Schama, in his wondrous book Landscape and Memory says, ‘Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock’. This, too, alludes to cantadora.
When you come to understand the meaning of the word, you see it everywhere: a heart-pulse carried by its practitioners through a physical knowledge deep in the body. I’ve witnessed it in Kyrgyzstan, along the Silk Route, in China, and in other parts of Asia and South Africa, from those I’ve encountered who understand the spaces in the earth they come from. In North-Eastern Brazil, I walked over two hundred kilometres with a shaman whose footsteps had traced that ancient landscape for twenty-seven years. His cantadora lay in knowing every movement of the dust, every inch of the cactus, and ways of bending needles to create the sounds of water – and how to listen for the whisper of trees. In knowing where to make fire from quartz and exactly when we were in proximity to a puma. In the absence of a shared language, we tracked the earth and listened to the echoes of its history. We traveled in silence but became friends through a shared love of what the landscape yields.
Kyrgyz literature and the singing and chanting of poems such as the Epic of Manas have enabled an intergenerational storytelling, reinforcing the mythic importance of ancestral lands. ‘Ala-Too’ names the various features of Kyrgyzstan’s landscape: this is cantadora, Kyrgyz style. The mountains are described as great forms, bodies wearing snow and sky. These are people who devote time and space to land, recognising it as part of themselves, the open heart of their origins, with their singing as a form of ritual and tradition. Anthropologist Tim Ingold says, ‘If science is to be a coherent knowledge practice, it must be rebuilt on the foundation of openness rather than closure, engagement rather than detachment. And this means regaining the sense of astonishment.”
In moving forward, we need to realise the interconnectedness of all dimensions of life and how integral we are to the natural world. Through cantadora and other methods of story-telling, we receive and give back to landscape as humans. We are inextricably part of the natural system of life on this planet. If we separate, we will not take care of the Earth or ourselves. We must not let the conscious side of ourselves, our ambitions, blind us to our unconscious and more aligned spirit as creatures of the earth. Philosophy teaches us that the soul forms through experience and knowledge comes through wisdom. Opening myself to the landscape has given me many gifts, showing me new realms and an awareness of the thin veil that exists between the physical and spiritual worlds. In ancient times, finding solitude amongst the trees was a way of allowing the inner voice a place, like a kind of oracle.
Whitney McVeigh is an American artist and writer. Her work is published in anthology Imagined Spaces by Voyage Out Press, edited by Kirsty Gunn and Gail Low (2020). Her poetry and prose formed part of solo exhibition ‘What is Worthwhile doing in this World’, Mount Stuart, Scotland (2019). In 2018, her library dedicated to universal human subjects was exhibited at the Getty Villa, Los Angeles in Plato in L.A.: Contemporary Artists’ Visions. http://www.whitneymcveigh.com