Document Type

Open Access Article

Author Biography

Travis Sharp is a Lecturer in the Department of English at Howard University and formerly a postdoctoral fellow at the University at Buffalo, where he completed his doctorate in the Poetics Program. He is the author of the poetry collection Yes, I Am a Corpse Flower (Knife Fork Book, 2021) and co-editor of Essays: 11.8.16 (Essay Press, 2017). Since 2019, he is the director of Essay Press.


Many competing theories of the Indigenous inscription practice known as the khipu have been offered, from L. Leland Locke’s long-standing postulation that khipus are accounting devices, to Walter Ong’s description of them as aide-mémoire, to Gary Urton’s more experimental theory that they constituted an early form of binary composition. Just as fraught is the history of the khipu, which were utilized by the Inka, intermediated by Spanish and Catholic authorities in their legal and religious systems, and, finally, banned and burned as seditious and sacrilegious. Contemporary khipus are primarily limited to those used by herders, but Chilean American poet-artist Cecilia Vicuña utilizes the khipu form to compose artworks such as Quipu in the Gutter, Skyscraper Quipu, Quipu That Remembers Nothing, among many others. This article argues that Vicuña utilizes the formal possibilities of khipu materiality, refusing to either limit her khipu-based works as simply mathematical or to romanticize their history. Instead, she intermediates the khipu form with elements of conceptual, visual, and performance art. In doing so, she participates in the colonial history of the khipu—just as Spanish authorities intermediated khipus with written Spanish in colonial courts and in khipu-based religious confessions. However, Vicuña in turn rejects the colonial violence imposed on the khipu in the same process, indicating that the possibilities of the form continue through the form’s intermediation and growth.

(Included in the issue section "Beyond the Book")