Dispatch: Colombia

View of Bogotá’s city center from the surrounding Montserrate mountains

Today, fresh winds of change blow through Colombia. I remember vividly the first time I went there, in 2001, at the invitation of curator Maria Ines Rodriguez. At that time, people lived in fear of the kidnappings and terrorist guerrilla attacks that formed part of the nation’s everyday reality. Because of its civil war, Colombia was then totally isolated. Since 1964, this conflict had embroiled the military, paramilitary, leftwing guerrilla groups such as FARC, ELN, and M-19, and the drug cartels in a battle over territory. It was difficult for Colombians to travel outside their own country, and traveling internally was possible only by airplane due to violence on the highways. There have been at least 300,000 “official” victims of the conflict, and five million people have been displaced into the cities or out of the country. The 2002 election of President Álvaro Uribe, together with his tough policy against violence, produced a sense of stability that hadn’t existed for decades. Today, under Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, Colombia seems to be another country altogether, one of the most stable and growing economies in South America. But macroeconomics aside, the country and in its people are now involved in a tricky process of social and political reconstruction. Pictured is Bogotá’s city center, as seen from the surrounding Montserrate mountains.



Founded in 2013 by curator Jose Roca with Adriana Hurtado, FLORA ars+natura is a contemporary art gallery that, through commissions and residencies, focuses on the relationship between art and nature. As is the case in many Latin American cities, curators and artists have here been working to compensate for the failures of official cultural institutions. In Bogotá’s case, it is the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá (MAMBO) that has been most notably dormant, separated from the artistic life of the city for many decades.



A recent exhibition by Doris Salcedo at FLORA ars+natura. Salcedo (b. 1958) belongs to a generation of artists whose work embodies the suffering of their countrymen and women during the long and violent civil and drug wars. Plegaria Muda (2008/2010) is an installation that evokes a mass memorial or collective burial site. The tables are reminiscent of tombs, but the green grass that emerges from them suggests the possibility of redemption, growth, and life after death.



Located in downtown Bogotá, Estudios Las Nieves is a project by Celia Birbragher of ArtNexus magazine, who restored a seven-floor building that had been abandoned for twenty years and transformed it into fourteen studios and an exhibition space.



An exhibition at Las Nieves selected from a private Colombian collection, curated by Jaime Ceron. Pictured is a work by Antonio Caro (not to be confused with British sculptor Anthony Caro), who uses conceptual strategies to criticize the political and economic situation. His Colombia series of paintings is a critique of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. While there has been a recent upsurge of interest in Colombian art, the strong scene from which it emerges did not spring up overnight. Rather, it is the result of decades of work by artists and curators from different generations, often carried out in adversity.



Pictured here at Las Nieves is Cali artist Wilson Díaz, who was born in Pitalito, a Colombian town affected by the drug economy. Díaz’s work deals with the political and personal implications of the coca plant. Here he is next to his work Fallas de Origen (1997), which won first prize at the 1998 Salon Nacional de Artes Visuales. The work presents the dream Colombian home of the time, featuring the logo of a bank that finances low-income housing, and a garden of coca plants that represents one possible routes to loan repayment. Díaz is also founder of the artists collective Helena Producciones, which, since 1997, has organized the Festival de Performance de Cali.

Read an interview with Díaz.



Building on the work done by a previous generation of gallerists including Jairo Valenzuela of Valenzuela and Klenner, and Gloria Saldarriaga and Juan Gallo at the now-defunct Al Cuadrado Gallery, Catalina Casas of Galeria Casas Riegner has been fundamental in helping to internationalize the Colombian art scene. She exhibits some of the most interesting artists from the younger generation, including Mateo Lopez, Bernardo Ortiz, and Gabriel Sierra, as well as established voices like Miguel Angel Rojas and Antonio Caro.



A female art revolution is happening in Colombia thanks to the recently opened Instituto de Visión, founded by Beatriz Lopez, former artistic director of the now-defunct La Central. The Instituto de Visión constitutes a new model for research, experimentation, and exchange between local and international artists, markets, and cultural agents. Pictured are the visionary women behind the organization: Omayra Alvarado, Karen Abreu, Beatriz Lopez, and Maria Wills.



A 2013 exhibition by Carlos Motta, curated by Beatriz Lopez, was one of the last mounted at La Central before it became the Instituto. Motta’s The Defeated (La Visión de los Vencidos) investigates the imposition of European epistemological categories onto indigenous cultures during and after the Conquest of the Americas, with an emphasis on the construction of sexuality and gender as identity categories based on Judeo-Christian precepts. As such, the exhibition is a speculation on the ways in which indigenous groups may have lived homoeroticism as part of their culture.



A visit to the studio of Fatima Velez and Daniel Santiago Salguero, members of the Residencia de la Tierra, an artist’s residency in the Colombian coffee region of Quindio. Salguero’s practice explores the intersection between memory and time, the personal and the artistic.



Gabriel Sierra’s studio in Bogotá. Working between art, architecture, and design, Sierra rethinks the way in which we build and reconstruct our social and personal contexts.



Adhoc, a 2013 exhibition of new work by Eduardo Consuegra at Las Edades, an exhibition space run by artists Lina Gonzales and Lucas Ospina. Consuegra, an artist from Bogotá living in Los Angeles, presents advertisements from U.S. magazines of the 1970s alongside their Colombian equivalents, negotiating the disjunctions between desire and reality that both unintentionally underscore.



While the new Bogotá’s restaurants, shops, boutique hotels, and consumerist middle class might make it seem upscale, one need only make a wrong turn into a side street to find oneself confronted by the remains of the old city, where inequality still holds sway.



Meanwhile, twenty years after the death of drug lord Pablo Escobar, the industrial city of Medellín has spent the past decade busily reconstructing itself. Pictured is an intervention by Costa Rican artist Federico Herrero at the columns that support the metro rails at Parque Berrío Station in the city center. The project was curated by María Inés Rodríguez and carried out during the 2007 Encuentro de Medellín (Medellín Encounter), an attempt to recover public space through art.



Artist Fernando Botero, Medellín’s prodigal son, donated several enormous bronze sculptures to the city’s main square as part of its renewal. Pictured is a self-portrait photograph by Guatemalan artist Byron Marmol, which enhances the beauty of the work. Marmol’s Cheveridad (2011) was presented as part of the 2011 Encuentro Internacional de Medellín.



Medellín’s Museo de Antioquia houses one of the biggest collections of paintings by Fernando Botero, as well as donated works from his collection by Roberto Matta, Antoni Tàpies, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Julian Schnabel. The museum also hosted the Encuentro de Medellín in 2007 and 2011, and was the main venue for the 43rd Salón (inter) Nacional de Artistas in 2013.



Curator Maria Angela Mendez, artistic director of the 43rd Salón (inter) Nacional de Artistas: Saber Desconocer (To Know Not to Know). Financed by the Colombian Ministry of Culture, the Salon has traditionally been the mechanism by which Colombian artists get recognized. The 41st edition, in Cali, and the 43rd, expanded the local, regional, and national representation of the event and created a much-needed international dialogue (which naturally provoked resistance from those for whom internationalism remains beyond the pale).



Simon Vega’s Imperial Slum Ship (2013). This cardboard sculpture by the El Salvadorian artist was one of the highlights of the 43rd Salón.



Puerto Rican artist Radames “Juni” Figueroa’s Eucalyptus Triangle for Meditation, another highlight of the 43rd Salón.



The Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, founded in 1978 and located since 2006 in the old steel workshop of the Talleres Robledo, was another of the 43rd Salón’s venues.



At MAMM, the fantastic exhibition Hidden State (Estado Oculto) curated by Brazilian Rodrigo Moura as part of the Salon, established a dialogue between indigenous art and contemporary practice. Pictured are works by Armando Andrade and Gabriel Sierra, and an abstract painting from 1958 by Colombian painter Omar Rayo.



The Orquideorama at Medellín’s Botanical Garden, built in 2007 by architects Plan B, is one of many instances of the town’s revitalization through new building and culture.



Cali, Colombia’s third city, grew out of the colonial era’s sugar and cotton plantation economy, and was the door to Buenaventura, Colombia’s Pacific port. During the 1970s, it enjoyed a cosmopolitan momentum, due primarily to the U.S. embargo on Cuban sugar. An important art and film scene developed, and Cali became known as the capital of salsa, with all the major salsa musicians playing here. It also hosted the Pan American Games in 1971. Sadly, the effects of the ’80s and ’90s drug economy and its accompanying violence did such damage to civic life that the city has yet to recover.



La Tertulia, Cali’s Museum of Art rests, like most of the city, on past glories. Nevertheless, it has a great collection of Colombian art from the 1970s.



Founded in 2004, Lugar a Dudas (Room for Doubts) is run by Cali artist Oscar Muñoz and his wife Sally Mizrachi. It is in the tradition of Ciudad Solar, an iconic artist-run space in 1970s Cali, and in some ways makes up for the deficiencies of local art institutions. Muñoz, born in 1951, is one of Colombia’s most successful artists, and has invested time and energy in developing the cultural life of his city. Lugar a Dudas also runs a residency program for local and international artists, and has two exhibition spaces. One is inside the house while the other, La Vitrina, is a street-level vitrine. Lugar a Dudas also runs a weekly film program, maintains a library and documentation center, and acts as a training ground for local young artists and curators.



Lugar a Dudas is also a meeting-place for artists and intellectuals of all generations in Cali. Pictured is Cali filmmaker Luis Ospina who, together with friend and collaborator Carlos Mayolo, made a series of films on Cali in the 1970s. These includes the seminal Vampires of Poverty (Agarrando Pueblo), a mockumentary that follows a group of European filmmakers exploiting poverty in Latin America for the purposes of “social realism.”

Watch the film and read Michèle Faguet’s essay in Afterall on the film and “pornomiseria.”



Pioneering Cali curator Miguel Gonzalez, who was part of Ciudad Solar and curator at La Tertulia, pictured with artist Oscar Muñoz, founder of Lugar a Dudas, on the gallery’s terrace.



Monica Restrepo’s film Tacones is a restaging of a Cali film from the 1970s that was never screened because its makers didn’t have the rights to the salsa music it featured. Restrepo belongs to the active young generation of artists that has emerged from Lugar a Dudas.



The walled city of Cartagena de Indias is located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, It was one of the main ports from where looted gold and silver from the viceroyalties of Peru and Nueva Granada was taken to Europe during the three hundred years of the Spanish Colony. Today, the city has outgrown its walled perimeter and become Colombia’s main tourist destination. While new Miami-style apartment and hotel towers are constructed beyond it, the historic and protected city itself (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) retains its charm and life. Hopefully, the uniqueness of its inhabitants and economic activities will never be spoiled by tourism.



The First Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo Cartagena de Indias opened this February. Initiated and funded by private sponsors, its artistic director was Brazilian curator Berta Sichel. The event took over several buildings and public spaces in Cartagena, and invited visitors to rediscover the city while viewing work around themes of colonialism, trauma and memory, and craft and folklore. There was a strong emphasis on indigenous knowledge and the roots of the city in African slavery (many of the inhabitants of the city are descended from slaves). Sichel is pictured next to Lothar Baumgarten’s floor-based installation and Friedemann von Stockhausen’s hanging banners.



Colombian artist Felipe Arturo’s installation Tropico Entropico in the Plaza de la Merced in front of the Pedro de Heredia Theatre, uses white and black sand to replicate the design of the floor of the Opera Square in the Amazonic city of Manaus. The sand becomes mixed together as visitors walk through the square, a neat metaphor for African and European miscegenation in the Americas in general, and in Cartagena in particular.



Oscar Murillo’s installation in the Cartagena Biennial. The perishable nature of these drawings on paper, which are held to the floor by the corn dough used to prepare arepas, seems to be a response by the artist to the rampant speculation that has made him a new auction-house darling. Murillo is not entirely representative of the current Colombian art boom—he built his career in London, where he has lived since he was ten years old, studied at the Royal College of Art, and had never exhibited in Colombia prior to his current success. Nevertheless, Murillo is representative of the violent Colombian context that obliged his family to search for a better life by migrating to London, where they worked as office cleaners. It is also true that if Murillo had stayed in Colombia, he might not have had the chance to become an artist. Hopefully, in the new Colombia, more people from backgrounds like Murillo’s will enjoy that opportunity.

I received support during my travels through ARTBO and MARCA PAIS, with special thanks to Maria Paz Gaviria.

All photos: Pablo León de la Barra, except Colombia view (courtesy Otto Berchem), Doris Salcedo at FLORA ars+natura (courtesy FLORA ars+natura), Catalina Casas (photo: Oscar Monsalve, courtesy Galeria Casas Riegner), Instituto de Visión directors (courtesy Otto Berchem), Felipe Arturo’s Tropico Entropico (courtesy Felipe Arturo/Instituto de Vision), and Oscar Murillo’s installation (photo: Nisma Zaman)


  • marinagp

    Thank you!

  • Astrid Higuita

    Me encantó.

  • http://www.energyrefuge.com apasolini

    Great dispatch, Pablo