There is something deceptively remote about the geography of Bogotá: pinched between the Magdalena River and the towering spine of the Cordillera Oriental, a subrange of the Andes, the historic city is long and narrow, its red-brick high-rises clustered along steep hillsides as if fleeing a flood. It’s a rainy place, with thin air that is never quite warm or cold – though the rain doesn’t last long, and in the moments of damp quiet between gusty downpours, sunlight crests the mountains and casts its diffuse rays through low-lying clouds. The effect is straight out of a novel by the patron saint of Colombian literature, Gabriel García Márquez, and a reminder of why magic realism was born there.
I arrived in a Bogotá caught at a crossroads: as the city casts off a violent past, it faces an uncertain future. Not long ago, Colombia was a ‘narco-state’: its government powerless to stop the drug cartels whose gangs ran the streets, and whose allies controlled every major institu- tion. The assassination of the drug lord Pablo Escobar in 1993, and the eventual collapse of the cartels, restored confidence in government and peace to the barrios of Bogotá. But, while I heard no gunfire during my visit, I did have a creeping sense of unease. Just days before my arrival, a popular vote narrowly rejected a peace deal brokered between the country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionay Armed Forces of Colombia), after more than 50 years of bloodshed – the longest armed conflict in the world. (Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.) The referendum had a Brexit aftertaste: an elected leader had taken action within his constitutional authority, only to have that action erased by a plebiscite he pursued as a popular mandate. ‘No’, like ‘Leave’, was an emotional vote – a rejection of the painful yet necessary concessions made to an enemy stained with civilian blood.2
The week after the referendum, Bogotá’s white skies were mirrored in its paving stones. In Plaza Bolívar, Doris Salcedo laid funeral shrouds embossed in ash with names of the dead. The 2,350 pieces of white linen comprising Sumando Ausencias (Adding Up Absence, 2016), stitched together by volun- teers, filled the entire square in front of the Palace of Justice. The site is a charged one: in 1985, the Marxist guerilla cell M-19, funded by Escobar, held the Supreme Court hostage at the palace before murdering half of its 25 members. Next door, Bogotá’s cathedral marks the indigenous blood shed during its construction. Above all, however, Salcedo’s installation was a mournful affront to Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s former president, who – as a sitting senator – led the ‘No’ campaign from the legislative compound on the plaza’s northern border.
The art world seemed unified in its anger towards the referendum result. The facade of Instituto de Visión, one of the city’s best galleries, had been wheat-pasted with two matching black and white posters: a photograph of a woman holding a protest sign (‘¡Ni una bala mas!’, ‘No More Bullets!’) beside a photograph of a young girl’s face framed by shattered glass. Inside, as part of its three-person exhibition, ‘Óptica mióptica’ (Myoptic Optics), Nicolás Consuegra’s La muerte del padre (The Death of the Father, 2016) seemed like a nod to Salcedo’s iconic series ‘La casa viuda’ (The Widowed House, 1992–95): the legs of wooden chairs intersected with the plane of a simply hewn table to produce a geometric abstraction. Their clean lines and new varnish didn’t match the haunting patina of Salcedo’s sculptures, though a white cotton cloth – a shroud, perhaps, or the corporal in Catholic Eucharist – lay over a corner of Consuegra’s work, like an omen of death or resurrection.
Consuegra’s other works, some of them mirrors cut to the shape of familiar symbols, like the map of Colombia or (in the work that gave its title to the exhibition) the lattice of a chain-link fence, characterize a key dichotomy facing Colombian artists: the trauma and politics of war vs. the country’s tradition of magic-realist fiction. An older generation – which includes Salcedo as well as the late watercolourist Débora Arango and the Bogotá-based painter Beatriz González – have become known internationally for work that testifies to the human costs of war. Younger artists eager to strike a more opti- mistic tone have lately turned to Colombia’s literary history, although to mixed effect.
In many galleries I visited, photo-collages and works made using mirrors relied on parlour-trick illusionism, while gilded antlers and botanical drawings invoked a tired mysticism. Like Consuegra’s table-and-chair set, the geometric sculptures of Mateo López – installed in his solo show at Casas Riegner – mostly avoided this bind, though, through an overreliance on mini- malist aesthetics. The brand-new gallery Liberia, across the street from Instituto de Visión, side-stepped it altogether with a selection of darkly comic paintings and sculptures by Bogotá-based artist Miguel Cárdenas. The cubist deformations of fanged beasts, painted in lurid colours, were like nothing else I saw in town. On one outlandish sculpture (Archeologies of the Future, 2016), a white, wooden eyeball threatened to roll down an angled pyramid onto a long, cherry- red tongue; it was goofy and ghoulish, Ron Nagle meets Tim Burton.
In the La Macarena neighbourhood, an exhibition of new works by South Korean artist Do Ho Suh at NC-arte, Bogotá’s leading private arts non-profit, was far more restrained, though no less entrancing. NC-arte’s concrete lined exhibition hall – a former girl’s school turned art bunker – was bifurcated by a full-scale replica of the hallway in Suh’s former Berlin apartment, reproduced meticulously in green gauze. The ghostly impression of a space half a world away, a hallmark of Suh’s practice, recalled those Colombian sculptors whose work engages with bodily memory. A suite of drawings and household objects, beautifully crafted with gauze and set in lightboxes, similarly testi- fied to the psychic power of the places we call home, particularly those we abandon by choice or by force. Suh’s sheer fabric works presented the memories of those losses as precious, ephemeral objects. For Salcedo’s action to have any lasting effect, memories of the war dead must remain stronger than such delicate materials.
While travelling from space to space, my taxi often ascended the snaking foothill highway known as Carrera 1, which affords sweeping views of Bogotá. At times, the mountain backdrop on my other side could seem like a dead-end, as if the city had crashed into its rocky surface. But its thick green edges are also a reminder of the wild that lies beyond: the Llanos del Orinoco, a vast rainforest and one of the most biodiverse places in the world. The famed German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt conducted much of his research there, and many of its features bear his name. Nature seems to hold a singular power for Colombians – a trait that can be traced back 13,000 years to the Muisca era – and the country’s artists have often turned to it as muse.
I arrived in a Bogotá caught at a crossroads: as the city casts off a violent past, it faces an certain future.
At the Museo del Universidad Nacional de Colombia, arguably the country’s best public museum, ‘El Origen de la Noche’ (The Origin of Night) exhibited works by a dozen artists from countries whose borders encom- pass the Amazon. Photographs and videos documented the religious rituals of Amazonian tribes whose shared creation myth gave the show its title. The name was also given to the exhibition’s central work, a new commission from the Colombian artist collective 4direcciones. A looped recording of jungle sounds and indigenous prayers echoed in a large, pitch-black gallery, its central space a perilously unmarked rectangular pit. Standing at the bottom of this ocean of noise was like spending a night in the Amazon; but, without any clue to the sounds’ origin, I felt no empathy for invisible speakers. In another gallery, the aperture of Claudia Andujar’s camera captured dancing bodies as strange orange smears; the frequent use of double exposure in her photographs evokes a mysticism that does little to address the real struggles of modern indigenous communities. Despite having the best of intentions, the show often fetishized indigenous spirituality in the same way that many artists fetishize the wild: indulging in a problematic binary between nature and culture, ‘civilized’ and ‘savage’, and assuaging our technocapitalist anxieties with a sprinkle of jungle shamanism.
This apparent preoccupation with nature undergirds FLORA ars+natura, a non-profit exhibition and residency space founded in 2013 by José Roca, former adjunct curator of Latin American art at Tate, London. The multi-storey complex is brimming with greenery; leafy tropical plants have crept through the decorative concrete latticework on its facade and grow wild on its roof garden, designed by Colombian artist Nicolás Paris. Although its more than 15 regular artists-in-residence are free to take on other subjects, environ- mental politics are a mainstay of FLORA’s programme. In autumn 2016, José Alejandro Restrepo restaged his iconic 1996 show, ‘Musa paradisiaca’ (Paradisiacal Muse), which examined the banana plant as a symbol of colonial and capitalist subjugation in the country. On my visit, I saw historical works by Colombian artist Jonier Marín that wryly critique the naturalist obsessions of contemporary artists and the biases of ethnographic documentation. After an arduous journey through the Amazon, and several years spent in Europe – where he encountered Harald Szeemann’s legendary Documenta 5 as well as the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss – Marín returned to South America, where he produced ‘Amazonia Report’ (1976) for the Pinacoteca in São Paulo, Brazil. At FLORA, pornographic images collaged with stills of bare-breasted Amazonians bluntly revealed the way ethnographic films and photographs sexually objectify indigenous women. In one corner of the gallery, a battered Mobil oil can rests in a square plot of dirt, lit by a solitary tube of green neon: a reference to the global economy that exploits the Amazon for resources, leaving nothing but scorched earth – coloured not by plant life, but US ‘greenback’ dollars. Art may not be able to save us from environmental holocaust, but it can redirect our conversation about global warming in ways that produce lasting action.
On one of my final afternoons in Bogotá, I took a funicular up a near-vertical mountain to the 17th-century monastery of Montserrate. From there, the tallest skyscrapers looked no larger than dominos – puny grey tombstones for an ill-fated anthropocene era. As fog rolled in and swallowed the skyline, I watched the city disappear before my eyes. The picture of Bogotá I had formed in a single week was only as partial as that view: a city of nine million people obscured by a pearly haze. I began to sense the immensity of it – and how much I had left to see.
At the end of the 19th century, Bogotá was an inconsequential town of just 80,000 inhabitants, nestled high up in the great Andes mountain range. During this period – encouraged by visitors from other places and with no small degree of provincial pretentiousness – the elite of Bogotá proclaimed the town the ‘Athens of South America’. This declaration undoubtedly stemmed from the city’s intellectual roots. Nearly all of the presidents of Colombia, at the turn of the 20th century, had been poets, grammarians or philologists. The men dressed in black and the women dedicated themselves to homemaking. Dilapidated trams traversed the narrow avenues of the city, which reflected an urban plan dating back to the Spanish colonial era, interrupted by a chain of highland hills and jagged streams.
Some foreign intellectuals paid particular attention to the very correct way Spanish was spoken in Bogotá. In correspondence dating from the 1880s, the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno referred to the city as a ‘pleasant land’, where archaic Spanish words were still used, far removed from Latin American metropolises and universal centres of thought. Bogotá was a ‘silent’ city ‘favourable for art and poetry’. Unamuno recounts that the latest literary and artistic trends from Europe arrived very slowly in Bogotá – when they ‘no longer smelled of fresh paint’ – and that social and political life in the city was conducted relatively independently from the European cultural movements of the time.
Bogotá has since undergone a process of unimagined industrialization, urban transformation and globalization. During the 20th century, the city’s population grew to nearly nine million, while literature and art flourished. Colombian artists of the 20th century were highly cosmopolitan, travelling frequently to Paris, London, New York and Madrid to study, visit museums and keep informed about the latest developments in contemporary art. Yet, for a long period of time, the artistic output of Bogotá remained isolated from major exhibition circuits, the art market and canonical international art institutions – particularly European ones – impeding greater global recognition of the Bogotá scene.
The 1950s and ’60s witnessed the first wave of international awareness of Colombian art, led for the most part by the Colombian-Argentine art critic, Marta Traba, who had settled in Bogotá during this period. It also enjoyed the support of entities including the Pan American Union (known today as the Organization of American States), in Washington D.C., and of such international critics as Cuba’s José Gómez Sicre. Some Colombian artists, like Fernando Botero, achieved international fame during this time, inserting themselves in the collective consciousness of the international art world. Others did not find the same success and, while they enjoyed brief periods of recognition in the US, their names would be almost eradicated from global art history, despite their great merit: Alejandro Obregón, Édgar Negret, Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar and Guillermo Wiedemann, to name but a few.
During the second half of the 20th century, Latin American art was represented globally by Buenos Aires, Caracas and Mexico City. These cities became the public faces of Latin American modernization – driven, in the case of Caracas, by the oil boom. Bogotá, meanwhile – isolated by its mountains, jungles and rivers – continued to have very little involvement in the continent’s artistic, cultural or commercial circles, and none whatsoever in the exhibition circuit. This isolation became more profound during the 1980s and ’90s, owing to drug-cartel violence and the intensification of the Colombian conflict, which reached its peak between 1998 and 2002. While in cities such as Caracas there was high demand for paintings by Francis Bacon, Giorgio Morandi or Pablo Picasso, works by these artists seldom arrived onto the market in Bogotá: those that did were limited to graphic pieces and sold only with great difficulty. Colombian artists, however, enjoyed widespread acceptance, which led to a vibrant internal art market, closed to the wider world yet significant in its own right.
Increased stability has caused institutions worldwide to turn Bogotá, where artists have been creating work that criticizes the adversity if the country.
From 1991, when the new constitution of Colombia was adopted, the country opened up to global commerce, with a parallel process occuring in cultural circles. Over the past decade, increased stability and budding economic prosperity has led a number of insti- tutions worldwide to turn their gaze towards Bogotá, where artists have been working quietly yet persistently to create art that criticizes the adversity of the country. Out of this environment emerged artists who asked difficult questions about social order and the political legacy of their ancestors. While the most internationally recognized name amongst this group is that of Doris Salcedo, she forms part of a more complex fabric of voices, including, amongst many others: Álvaro Barrios, Feliza Bursztyn, María Fernanda Cardoso, Antonio Caro, Beatriz González, María Teresa Hincapié, Óscar Muñoz, Nadín Ospina, José Alejandro Restrepo and Miguel Ángel Rojas.
The Bank of the Republic, which established a Colombian art collection in 1958, began a rescue mission to support the contemporary Colombian art scene in 1984. The establishment, in 1997, of the Art Collection of the Bank of the Republic, located in Bogotá, has intensified the process of salvaging Colombia’s contemporary art patrimony. It is currently the most important public art museum in the city, mounting significant international exhibitions and, more broadly, playing a key role in the current critical reappraisal of Colombian art.
In 2005, Bogotá saw the emergence of Feria ArtBo, the most enduring local fair. The city has also fostered the establishment of a private gallery scene, which has both commercial and cultural relevance. Currently, there are over 100 galleries – including Casas Riegner, El Museo, Espacio El Dorado, Alonso Garcés, Instituto de Visión, Nueveochenta, Sketch and Valenzuela-Klenner – alongside non-profit spaces such as NC-arte and FLORA ars+natura. Even so, a greater commitment from private collectors is needed in order to cement the artistic heritage of Bogotá. During the same period, other Latin American cities have seen their museum offerings flourish thanks to private collections. The Buenos Aires Museum of Latin American Art and the Fundación Jumex in Mexico City are two such examples. The growth of the art scene in Bogotá has been more of a commercial, rather than an institutional, phenomenon, and there is still no large museum specializing in contemporary art that might serve as a counterweight to Feria ArtBo. Aside from the activities of the Bank of the Republic, the state does not systematically collect artworks for any of Colombia’s museums, of which there are more than 300, creating an effective ‘black hole’ in the documentation of the nation’s art history.
Local collectors, however, are now frequently seen publicly supporting social and cultural activities: a number of auction houses have launched, a dozen charity auctions take place annually in Bogotá, and at least five other art fairs have joined ArtBo on the calendar. Public institutions, suchb as the Fundación Gilberto Alzate Avendaño (administered by the Mayor of Bogotá) and the Colombian Ministry of Culture, have funded an extensive programme of publications, scholarships, research and exhibitions, all with the aim of salvaging the legacy of modern and contemporary artists forgotten by Colombian historians and art critics. Bogotá is home to several institutions of higher learning focused on art, as well as to hundreds of young contemporary artists. Almost a century after Unamuno first visited the city, Bogotá’s art scene is no longer ‘silent’ and hermetic, but vehemently decaring itself open for creative activity.
Translated by Deborah Wassertzug; lead image: FLORA arts+natura, Bogotá. Courtesy: FLORA arts+natura, Bogotá
First published in Issue 184