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Fire, Air, Earth and Water

Artists Beatriz González and Amalia Pica discuss painting, curating, activism and identity 

Beatriz González’s paintings have the colourful flatness of much pop art, but the subjects she depicts cut to the core of Colombian politics and culture. In her work, the 79-year-old artist has often featured figures from her country’s traumatic past. Since the 1980s, González’s practice has acquired another dimension, too, migrating from canvases to curtains and furniture. On the eve of her retrospective at CAPC museé d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, she met with Argentinian multimedia artist Amalia Pica – whose work also grapples with the economics, politics and the history of Latin America – to discuss the evolution of her six-decade career and her ongoing commitment to political activism.

Amalia Pica  How and when did you decide to become an artist?

Beatriz González  I was passionate about art when I was at high school in Bucaramanga, but I decided not to study it at university because I didn’t want to spend time learning something that I thought I already knew. So, I enrolled on the architecture course at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá. But I soon realized that – with the exception of an art history class, in which the professor spoke beautifully about Johannes Vermeer’s The Lacemaker (1669–70) – my lessons had nothing to do with art, so I dropped out in my second year.

AP  Did you enrol in art school or teach yourself?

BG  I returned to Bucaramanga and designed window displays; I worked for a sewing-machine manufacturer and a tobacco company; and I did decorations for fashion shows. My sister thought that I was on the wrong path and bought me a beautiful book on Michelangelo; my dad said the same thing and told me that, if I wanted to be an artist, I couldn’t continue working in window design. The writer and critic Marta Traba was teaching a class on the renaissance at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, so I enrolled in their School of Fine Arts to study graphic design in 1957. I was one of about 90 female students. But, despite Marta’s influence, I became very disillusioned with the programme and started taking philosophy and other courses. This continued until I was in my second year and my classmates asked if I wanted to open an atelier, as we called it, in our very French manner! We looked for spaces everywhere and my aunts suggested I return to Bucaramanga.

AP  When you speak of those early years, it intrigues me that you always return to your provincial roots. I am Patagonian and, for me, being Argentinian is not the same thing as being from Buenos Aires, just as being from the countryside is very different from being from the capital. When and how did you come to think of your provincial identity as a possible artistic position?

BG  My pride in being provincial stems from my admiration for Bucaramanga and its very particular style. The Cathedral of the Holy Family, which you could see from the house that I grew up in, has a yellow cupola with stripes of green tiles and a wine-hued band at the top. Seeing those colours filled me with an immense pride for my city and my region. As a citizen of my state, even at a young age I felt that it was very important to be a revolutionary – not in the sense espoused by the guerrillas, but in recognition of something intrinsic to the Santanderian people.

AP  Do you identify as an activist?

BG  No, I have always felt more like a transgressor. I wanted the viewer who engages with my works to feel assaulted, and I’ve accomplished that. It’s typical of shy people: we are generally very reserved but, when we do want to say something, we go off like a bomb.

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Los suicidas del Sisga No 1 (The Sisga Suicides No 1), 1965, oil on canvas, 1.2 × 1 m; photograph: Óscar Monsalve

Los suicidas del Sisga No 1 (The Sisga Suicides No 1), 1965, oil on canvas, 1.2 × 1 m; photograph: Óscar Monsalve

AP  You used to incorporate into your work images from classical painting – by Vermeer and other artists – but, at some point, there was a shift in your practice. Many see your painting, Los suicidas del Sisga (The Suicides of the Sisga, 1965), as a turning point.

BG  In 1964, I was looking at a local newspaper and saw a photograph of a young couple. Reproduction had robbed their beautiful picture of its volume; with its frugal ink, the newspaper had flattened it. I saw in it a way of depicting eyes not as precisely rendered drawings but as paint stains. I didn’t want to be Fernando Botero or Lucy Tejada, the artist from Cali who painted lovely little figures. I wanted what I saw in that photo.

AP  It’s a wonderful idea – finding joy in errors that might occur due to a lack of resources or a faulty printer. There is often a sort of celebration in your work of technical failure or images that might be considered popular or kitsch.

BG  I was, indeed, seeking a kind of joy in underdevelopment. I articulated this in an interview in 1977 with Marta, whose questions spurred me to think deeply about my work for the first time.

AP  Your art responds to a Colombian context, particularly in its use of images from the media. However, you have also been dedicated to the development of Colombian art as a teacher, nurturing the practices of many great artists, such as Doris Salcedo. What role does teaching  play in relation to your own work?

BG  When I exhibited at the 11th São Paulo Biennial in 1971, I was asked to explain my work to the guides, who were all fine art graduates. I decided to teach them how to read texts by important writers, rather than lecture them about classical art history. I then started a study group at the Bogotá Museum of Modern Art, where some of the students told me: ‘You teach us how to think.’ Coming closer to an artwork, from any period, isn’t about studying works chronologically or otherwise, but about analysis and discussion.

AP  You’ve also worked as a curator and museum director, and helped to build a major private collection. Do you think that artists approach these tasks from a particular perspective?

BG  I think artists have a certain sensitivity. I was an advisor at the Museo de Arte del Banco de la República, where I assisted in developing the bank’s collection for more than 20 years. I was also a curator at the National Museum of Colombia, which was a wonderful experience. I didn’t just highlight the names of historical figures or important events: I addressed these details from a mixture of disciplinary perspectives. Artists are more attuned to these approaches and less reliant on chronologies.

AP  Do you think that your teaching and curatorial experience fed into your work in some way or do you see them as separate?

BG  I have always wanted to wear different hats – curator, painter, researcher – and to keep these identities distinct. There are people, like Alexander von Humboldt or José Celestino Mutis in Colombia, who took a universal approach to history. But I never wanted to be a natural history painter. I make sure to delineate boundaries, which is a question of self-defence.

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‘Beatriz González: Retrospective 1965–2017’, exhibition view at CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux. Courtesy: the artist and CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux; photograph: Frédéric Deval, Mairie de Bordeaux

‘Beatriz González: Retrospective 1965–2017’, exhibition view at CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux. Courtesy: the artist and CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux; photograph: Frédéric Deval, Mairie de Bordeaux

AP  Let’s put your painter’s hat back on, then. When you finally managed to achieve the flatness that you spoke of in your paintings, you continued in that mode but left the canvas and began painting on curtains and furniture. How did that come about?

BG  I launched a campaign against the traditional, refined elements of painting: frames, canvases, oils. I began to strip my art of all elegance. If I liked the look of something – a metal fence in the street, say – I’d take it and use it. I was painting with commercial varnishes, which was considered very transgressive at that time. My engagement with furniture came about by chance. I went to a home improvement warehouse with my husband and a metal bed caught my attention. I said to my husband: ‘We’re buying that bed!’ At home, I had a painting of the Christ of Monserrate in Bogotá and, as if hypnotized, I placed the painting in the frame near the foot of the bed and it fitted perfectly. It was either magic, or fate: it’s not as if I measured the bed and produced a painting that would fit. In that moment, I invented the furniture series.

AP  Or maybe furniture invented you! I recently saw one of your works at Tate Modern, Decoración de interiores (Interior Decoration, 1981) – a 20-metre section of silkscreened curtain fabric. What first drew you to this format?

BG  Once I started working with wood, the pieces became difficult to carry and began to take up a lot of space. Painting on curtains, towels and cloth was a practical solution. This shift was also informed by the source photographs I was using: there are elements in the images that dictate which material I should use.

AP  A formal relationship?

BG  Yes, but the reverse is also true. For example, I found a bronze towel rail that resembled a conch shell and saw the Venus de Milo (c.100 BCE) in it. Sometimes, the object or image dictates the artwork. When I made Decoración de interiores, I had been looking at a photo of President Julio César Turbay Ayala – a terrible man who, during his time in office from 1978 to 1982, created the Security Statute and exiled both Feliza Bursztyn and Gabriel García Márquez. In this image, he is entertaining guests and everyone is singing happily. Behind them is a curtain, very of its time with its bands of colour. I had already finished the design for my silkscreen when I thought of printing it on another curtain.

AP  You describe your encounters with these images as if they occurred by chance – an image jumps out at you and you decide how best to translate that into a different medium. But have you ever felt that you needed to be cautious with your choices, not only because you might cause offence but because you might be censored or face legal repercussions? Did it require bravery to make work that was directly critical of the Colombian president, for example?

BG  Bravery is another characteristic of the Santanderian: I was never afraid. My gallery did receive a call from the presidential palace after I completed Televisor en color (Colour Television, 1980), which featured Ayala. And, when I first exhibited Decoración de interiores, the gallery was filled with policemen. There was no doubt that this work was critical of the president. The official reaction gave me a sense of the work’s power but, before that, I simply thought it was funny.

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Peinador Gratia Plena (Dressing Table), 1971, enamel on metal plate mounted on wooden furniture, 1.5 × 1.5 m

Beatriz Gonzáles, Peinador Gratia Plena (Dressing Table), 1971, enamel on metal plate mounted on wooden furniture, 1.5 × 1.5 m

AP  Retrospectively, it seems to be an immensely brave piece. Your work not only speaks directly to Colombians, who recognize the people and history depicted, but it also resonates with those of us who lack that specific knowledge. How do you feel about this new level of international attention your work is receiving? Do you think that some of its specificity is lost?

BG  Yes. In the interview I did with Marta, I said that I thought my work could only really be shown in Europe as a curiosity. I did have pieces in some important international exhibitions that looked at the whole of Latin America, such as ‘America: Bride of the Sun, 500 Years of Latin America and the Low Countries’ (1991) at the Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts, as well as other, smaller shows. My works have travelled to Europe, but they were not admired there until recently.

AP  Can you tell me about Auras anónimas (Anonymous Auras, 2007–09), your installation at the Columbaria  [Central Cemetery] of Bogotá, which I believe is the largest work you’ve ever completed?

BG  Although this piece is not mobile, it has a clear relation­ship to my work with furniture. I came up with the concept for it in 2003, when I discovered that the six beautiful, neoclassical buildings of the Columbaria were due to be demolished. The authorities had already begun removing the dead, separating them from their relatives, and some niches were unoccupied. I got in touch with the artist Doris Salcedo, who loved the Columbaria as much as I did, and she devised a very interesting project that we took to the city hall in the hope of getting permission for it, but it was never realized. I had already made some small tombstones in marble and, walking past the cemetery one night, I got the idea of creating enough to seal all the niches – nearly 10,000 in total. Doris was very enthusiastic and we returned to the city hall to fight for the project. Finally, they agreed and we began work in 2007. When the Columbaria re-opened two years later, every tombstone bore one of eight different silkscreen-printed designs, positioned where names and images of the dead would typically be found. The designs are from an earlier series, ‘Cargueros’ (Carriers), which I began in 2006 following a paramilitary attack on cocaine plantations that resulted in multiple deaths. The images depict the various makeshift means by which farmers, soldiers and local villagers had to carry away the bodies. In the Columbaria, the designs have a strong impact: the architecture is beautiful and the repetition of figures is striking.

AP  Do you think that this work has contributed to the preservation of the site or is it still under threat?

BG  The project did initially succeed in preserving the site when it was in the process of being demolished. Unfortunately, however, the mayor who originally wanted to raze the buildings has been re-elected and plans to create a football field and skating rink on the site. He said that my work glorifies death; he doesn’t understand what it means to be a victim. The work is called Anonymous Auras because I sensed the auras of the dead in the air when the tombs were exposed and felt compelled to cover them up again. It is a memorial to anonymous victims, of which there are many in Colombia.

AP  While you don’t readily define your work as political, it does evolve from a concern with its context. Can you tell us more about your project for documenta 14 in Kassel last summer, for which you revisited an earlier piece [Wiwa Stories, 2015]? Why do you think it’s necessary to revisit the past?

BG  There is a saying: ‘Art tells us things that history cannot say.’ I think my art recounts things that historians don’t see or cannot uncover. It can do so through repetition and by persevering with certain themes. For example, in 2014, a village of the indigenous Wiwa community burned down when it was struck by lightning, killing 11 people. The villagers believed that nature was punishing them for using mobile phones and other modern conveniences. A local newspaper published a photo of the community, which I found remarkable and began to rework. I think that an artistic approach can follow paths that history doesn’t take.

AP  Like many artists, I am preoccupied with the idea of having a body of work in which distinct pieces are interconnected. What are your thoughts on this and on the relationship between what you have already created and your future output? Do you feel that you can work with total freedom?

BG  I never really worried about that. My body of work is very diverse and, when I have exhausted one avenue, I change course. I hate obvious art. When I think that I no longer have anything to say, an artwork, photo or object will spark a new idea. I am always working – not physically, although I do spend a few hours in my studio every morning and sometimes draw in the evenings – because I am always thinking. My work is too evanescent to be considered part of a conscious oeuvre.

I’m more of a transgressor than an activist: I want the viewer who engages with my work to feel assaulted. - Beatriz Gonzalez

AP  Do you have an archive of the press images that you work with? Now that print is becoming less prevalent, are you also interacting with digital images or do you continue to buy newspapers for source material?

BG  I still buy newspapers. I do have an archive, which is currently being organized by my assistants as it is pretty disorderly. I believe that the archive is a way of remembering and protecting against the disappearance of print.

AP What are you working on at the moment?

BG  I recently had a show at Galerie Peter Kilchmann in Zurich that focused on migration. The subject prompted me to think about the causes of migration, and about nature; I began making very large paintings that depict the four elements – fire, air, earth and water – in the Colombian landscape. I seldom painted landscapes before, but these combine the appeal of that genre with stronger themes: fire, for instance, recalls the burning of the indigenous village, and earth is the place in which the bodies of victims are interred.

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Paisajes elementales: Tierra en Barranca (Elemental Landscapes: Earth in Barranca), 2017, oil on canvas, 50 × 60 cm  

Beatriz Gonzáles, Paisajes elementales: Tierra en Barranca (Elemental Landscapes: Earth in Barranca), 2017, oil on canvas, 50 × 60 cm  

AP  Do you paint every day? Do you have any rituals that help you work?

BG  I am quite meticulous: I go to my studio at 9am and I work throughout the morning. Sometimes, I paint in oil; at other times, I draw. I rest in the afternoon and then I take up drawing and go through books or other important materials. I disappear on the weekends and stay at my house in the countryside, where I go for walks with my dogs.

AP  When we first met you told me something that left quite an impression on me, and I wanted to know: do you still eat a papaya for dinner?

BG  Yes, yes: a papaya! I still do – it’s an almost religious food.

Translated by Caroline Marciniak

Amalia Pica lives and works in Mexico City, Mexico, and London, UK. In 2017, she had solo exhibitions at The Power Plant, Toronto, Canada, and the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia. Her solo exhibition at CC Foundation, Shanghai, China, opens in June.

Beatriz González lives and works in Bogotá, Colombia. Her retrospective at CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, France, runs until 25 February. In 2017, her work was included in documenta 14, Kassel, Germany, and Athens, Greece, as well as in group shows at Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, Germany, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, USA, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and Casas Riegner, Bogotá.

Issue 192

First published in Issue 192

January - February 2018
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