Cecilia Vicuña (1948 - )

palabrarma (1974)

Collage on paper
height: 21.5cm
width: 28cm

Purchased with the assistance of PINTA Museums Acquisition Programme 2013


Created in London, where Vicuña had come on a scholarship to study at the Slade and where she found herself suddenly exiled from Chile following the military coup of 11 September 1973, this powerful piece is a sort of political rallying cry, but one that is open to many different interpretations. The word ‘palabrarma’ is a conflation of different Spanish words, most obviously palabra meaning word, and arma meaning weapon. This suggestive conflation, written along the side of a gun, implies a call to arms where words are the weapons, weapons are words. In the immediate post-coup context however this has a particularly sharp edge. In Chile in the years before the coup there had been heated debates between different groups about whether or not the government should arm the workers so that they could defend themselves against the growing power and hostility of the armed forces. With hindsight it is clear that neither more dialogue nor arming the workers would have prevented the ensuing bloodshed, but this piece is an expression of the high emotions of the time, of anger and fear, but also optimism that democracy could be quickly restored. There is visual as well as verbal playfulness here. What may appear at first sight to be a gun, with trigger and sights along the top of the barrel, can just as easily be read as a golden trumpet with a blue whistle for a mouthpiece, blowing out provocative new words.

Vicuña is a poet as well as an artist and words have always fascinated her. She once said that since she was a child she has always been attracted to what she calls the ‘interior space of words’. In 1984 she wrote a poem entitled ‘Palabrarma’ in which she unpicks the word palabra into pala, spade, and abra, to open, so ‘word’ can mean a spade that opens up a way for the light to enter: ‘Palabra es pala y abra para que se entre la luz’. There are more possibilities embedded in this work: labrar can mean to work hard, but also to work in the sense of to craft something with skill, and ala means wing, a word with a wing on which to fly away.

Valerie Fraser, 2013

browse the collection

artist a-z > work type > advanced search >