1. History and conceptual framework
The Unicorn of the savannah:
During a trip to an uncle’s countryside house, which is on the hillside between Tabio and Subachoque, I went walking with a couple of friends. We walked for roughly two hours along the mountains that face the house. On our way back, walking along the dirt road that leads to the house, we ran into a very friendly cow. Aside from being a gentle and “social” animal, it could be said that this cow had something peculiar; It had only one horn.
Joking around I said to my friends: “a unicorn!”
One of them responded, citing from memory the following text:
“This Basma is an independent kingdom, and the people have a language of their own; but they are just like beasts without laws or religion. They call themselves subjects of the Great Kaan, but they pay him no tribute... There are wild elephants in the country, and numerous unicorns, which are very nearly as big. They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick... When they want to destroy, they crush him under their knees and then rasp him with their tongue.
The head resembles that of a wild boar, and they carry it ever bent towards the ground. They delight much to abide in mire and mud... ’Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon, and is not in the least like that which our stories tell.”
Marco Polo, Travels, Chapter CLXIX
The myth of the unicorn dates back to Ancient Greece, where Ctesias of Cindu, doctor and philosopher, relates the first description of the animal known by mankind:
“There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs. The base of this horn, for some two
hands'-breadth above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black...”
Ctesias quoted by Odell Sherpad in The Lore of the Unicorn, Chapter 1: The Gorgeous East.
The two descriptions represent two different animals, one resembling a rhinoceros and the other, with semi-fictional qualities, a combination of the body parts of various animals. This inconsistency can be interpreted as a formal evolution the image of the animal/myth has had. It transforms and adapts to the geographic and historic context it is in.
These descriptive texts are an example of the numerous variations the idea of the unicorn has had throughout human history. It appears in diverse cultures and epochs always displaying a different body and different qualities.
The most interesting part of this process of continuous adaptation is that it takes place outside of the animal’s body. This change happens due to the active function of the spectator in their relationship to the myth; with the possibilities of physical, emotional or ‘supernatural’ configurations
of this being. In other words, the body changes in response to the innumerable processes of perception, interpretation and representation by the viewer/teller through time and space.
Therefore, a breadth of possibilities and re- configurations of this being could unfold. It could be that through travels and cultural exchanges this myth mutates and transforms.
This is how the description of the only unicorn of the savannah I’ve seen results in what follows:
“It is a docile animal that shows tranquility when an artist comes near, which is why artists alone can see them. It looks very similar to a norman cow, brown and white, since it likes to camouflage amongst the cattle of the region. It usually lives in the ruins of countryside houses, where nature has regained possession of what humankind has built. For this reason it is considered good luck to run into it.
Its horn is small and grows right in the middle of the forehead. It is hard to spot, since its size has been diminishing to evade its principal predator. For this reason it is said that it no longer has the same powers and benefits as the horns of its ancestors.
Even then, it continues to be hunted.”
Sebastián Carrasco, Unicorn Project
2. History of cows in Nueva Granada and the arrival of the myth
If the unicorn has been changing shape over time and space to exist today in the body of a bovine, it is important to look into the arrival of this animal to America and, more precisely, to the Kingdom of Nueva Granada.
“The first bovines arrived with Colón to the island he baptized ‘La Española’ (Santo Domingo), where, favored by ferocious nature, they reproduced speedily. From there they moved onto Firm Earth. In the territory that is currently Colombia, there are news of the first bovine being introduced by Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1525 with final destination to his governance in Santa Marta.
In a capitulation of Rodrigo de Bastidas, dated November 1524 in Valladolid, seeing to a petition by the conquistador, the king gave him permission to populate the province and port of Santa Marta, with the obligation to fund a settlement within the two years following the capitulation; parcel out plots, water and lands amongst the neighbors he recruited, and introduce bovine cattle, horses, pork and other animals to raise, which he took since his property in Santo Domingo.”
About the capitulation, see: Sourdís, Adelaida. “Santa María de los Remedios del Cabo de la Vela: aproximación a los orígenes de la Provincia del Río de el Hacha”. En Boletín de Historia y Antigüedades , vol. XCIII, No. 833, abril-mayo de 2006. “
There is also a registry by Juan de Castellanos (1522-1607) where the arrival of bovine cattle in Nueva Granada is mentioned:
“By will and order of Fernando Álvarez de Acevedo, noble baron, whom I know since the times we lived in Maragrita, and I know to be the first to bring cattle from this island I mention in this New Kingdom, by a path no less dangerous than tedious.”
Juan de Castellanos in Elegías de varones ilustres de Indias,Tomo II, pag 431.
In the registry of the persons that entered the New Kingdom of Granada with Governor Jerónimo Lebrón it is mentioned with more exactitude the route travelled by Fernando Álvarez de Acevedo through what is currently Venezuela, and entering through what today comprises the eastern plains of
“List of people who remained in the New Kingdom of Granada, that was brought in by Governor Jerónimo Lebrón in the year 1541... Fernando Álvarez de Acevedo; was the first to bring, from the island of the Margarita, and through the plains, the bovine cattle into the New Kingdom of Granada.”
Juan Florez de Ozcaríz (1612-1692) in Genealogías Del Nuevo Reino de Granada, Tomo II, Segundos del Perú
The entry points for these animals where simultaneously active in various parts of the country and they began to populate diverse departments as can be seen in this chronology presented by an article belonging to the Museo del Banco de la República:
1524~ Rodrigo de Bastidas organized the first bovine shipment from ‘La Española’ to the territory of Santa Marta.
1536-1539~ Through the route of his expeditions, Sebastián de Belalcázar introduced cattle to the viceroyalty of Nueva Granada.
1542~ Pedro Fernández de Lugo started the expansion of cattle on the Caribbean coast when he
disembarked in the Guajira, and going down the valley of Upar until arriving in Santa Marta.
1558~ El capitán Francisco Ruiz opened the first cattle trade route from eastern Venezuela to the lands of Santa Fé.
1661~ The Compañía de Jesús was allowed to develop agriculture and cattle work to sustain its missionaries on the plains.
1676~ It was calculated that there were more than 30,000 cattle units in the valley of Aburrá, Antioquia.
1679~ La Compañía de Jesús founded that hacienda Cravo, one of many that built its cattle empire in the eastern plains.
1753~ Viceroyalty Solís asked the king to allow the Compañia de Jesús to supply meat to the city of Santa Fé.
1814~ On its road to Cartagena, the Union army, led by Simón Bolivar, stole the cattle from the ranches from the savannah of Tolú to fill its provisions.
1815~ Francisco Montalvo y Ambulodi, general captain of the kingdom, ordered the cattle to be brought from Valledupar, to fill the provisions of Pablo Morillo’s troops.
1819~ The general troop of Francisco de Paula Santander arrived in the plains of Casanare to obtain meat.
Sourdis Nájera, Adelaida, Ganadería: La industria que construyó al país Colección: Orígenes de la banca y la industria en Colombia 1850- 1950; Credencial Historia
3. Conclusions from the theoretic framework
To begin with, the possibility that the transformation of the unicorn’s body happened during these travels exists.
The aforementioned theoretic framework presents the general theme of the project. The idea that a myth and its imaginary can be generated through exercises of description that showcase actions and alter the significance of symbols through its diffusion in geographic and historic terms. Beings such as the unicorn and its stories have been a fundamental piece in how humans have understood and deciphered the world in which they live; Just as the two inicial examples of Ctesias de Cindu and Marco Polo where key experiences for the process of ‘discovery’ of a new world by western culture.
“The history of bovine cattle in Colombia, like many other histories in that country, is not one of a monolithic activity that can be generalized to all its regions. On the contrary, it is the history of a complex mosaic of local and regional developments that start to be articulated slowly around the central forces that make up the advance of the National State and the capitalist development, especially in the first half of the twentieth century.”
Baptiste, Luis Guillermo, El Poder de la Carne: Historías de ganaderías en la primera mitad del siglo XX en Colombia.
Cattle in Colombia has played a crucial role in the development of the economic, social and cultural history of the country. The imaginary of the cow crosses paths with all sorts of images, situations of conflict, histories and persons, creating new images and myths around the idea of bovine cattle; Leaving room for new interpretations of the signs and iconography related to this theme.
4. Description of the Project
Unicorn Project is presented as a series of seven pieces that reconstruct the history of the Unicorn of the Savannah through the appropriation of a series of seven medieval textiles called “The Hunt of the Unicorn.”
This series is one of the most important representations that exist of the Unicorn. Housed at the Metropolitan Cloisters Museum, these textiles, created between 1495 and 1505, tell the story of the European Unicorn from the culture of southern Holland. The narration is divided into seven key moments or situations for the conception of the myth.
Each piece in the series proposes an analogue relationship between the thematic of each textile and its actualization (textile or video). Each one presents images and events/rituals that are part of the cattle culture in Colombia, from the international ‘coleo’ gathering in Villavicencio, to the ‘corralejas’ of San Marcos, Sucre, Colombia.
The Hunters Enter the Forest
Technique: Industrial Weave. Dimensions: 2,05m x 1,60m
“... It begins here, in the loveliest of meadows, on the edge of a forest. We are in a world rich and fantastic. It is a world where seasons do not exist, where mid-summer fruits and spring flowers are at once. It is a world where lords and courtiers set out on noble quests. It is a world where men will hunt the unicorn.”
In this textile, the world where this being lives is presented, one rich in flora and fauna. A world without seasons where all of these species can live together at the same time. It isn’t a coincidence that this series of textiles was made between 1495 and 1505, dates that coincide with the first travels to América made by Colón and the first stages of colonization.
In this way it is possible to infer that we are seeing a possible representation of the new world. An América rich and full of resources. A magical América constructed by the European imaginary.
The Unicorn is Found
Technique: Industrial Weave. Dimensions: 1,80m x 1,20m
“The hunters wait. Their companion is now double its original size. They wouldn’t dare violate this act of purification. For this fountain that seems to be poisoned or contaminated with the venom of a serpent, the simple magical touch of the unicorn’s horn will cleanse it, and make it possible for all animals to drink from it.”
In the textile one can see lions, hienas, rabbits, deer and other beasts that share this sanctuary with the unicorn, who appears to be the great leader of the scene. This image of purification represents the magical content of this being/myth. It is said that the horn of the unicorn has curative Powerades and that it can even stop the passing of time for the person that bears it.
The Unicorn is Attacked
Technique: Video. Duration: 00:01:30
“The unicorn takes off running, the hunters following. The river announces the hunting horn. Our pray is crossing the river. From all different directions pack dogs follow...”
The Unicorn Defends Itself
Technique: Video. Duration: 00:05:15
“... for now, this fabulous pray finds itself against its hunters with horn and helmets. The hunters throw and stab, the hound dogs come and go. Another man holds his hound dog prudently. The attacks are more and more fierce. The hunters will catch their pray.”
The ‘corralejas’ are battles that free the beast and its assailants. Horrid scenes where the figure of the macho and the warrior are exacerbated by alcohol and adrenaline. These events are customary in cattle areas where there has been active presence of the armed conflict. The almost-ritual violence of the context expresses itself in cultural practices of leisure and release.
The Unicorn is Trapped by the Virgin
Technique: Industrial Weave. Dimensions: 1,80m x
“It will take another force to pacify and defeat this magnificent creature. Only the touch of a virgin can dominate a Unicorn. Hers is one that even terrestrial creatures fear. Even with hunger for blood, this hound dog, recently fierce, is now calm. The unicorn knows this. In response to the innocence of the young girl, its humility is that of Christ. But it is also the lover, captivated by the sweet promise of true love. The enchantment cannot fail, a few moments longer and the hunters will strike their final blows.”
The Unicorn is Assassinated and Taken to the Castle
Technique: Video. Duration: 00:05:15
“The end is fast and savage. All ritual is gone, men and dogs become one. They kill the beast, who cries in agony to the skies. It is done, the unicorn is dead... One of the hunter holds the precious horn; It is the trophy.”
The Unicorn in Captivity
Technique: Industrial Weave. Dimensions: 1,80m x 1,20m
“The unicorn lives. It has been reborn in paradise like Christ himself. Inside of its wooden container it will live tied up forever.”
Documentary: The Hunt of the Unicorn
Video Documentary / appropriation / archival material
The Hunt of the Unicorn Documentary 1974, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters 1974.