All Eyes on Bogotá

Astrid Bastin

Since I left Bogota in 1996, the city has undergone a profound transformation. When I was attending university there in the early 1990s, stories of violence and conflict dominated the news. Now, Bogota is one of the safest and most vibrant metropolises in Latin America. With its award-winning restaurants, cool clubs, great fashion designers, funky handicrafts, and thriving artistic scene, Colombia’s capital is gaining international renown for its impressive cultural life.

I recently visited ArtBo, Bogota’s leading art fair, where I realized that Colombia is aggressively seeking to become a regional player in the arts scene. The fair attracted foreign galleries like Vermelho (Brazil), Magna Projects (USA), Oficina #1 (Venezuela), Revólver (Peru), and my project, Astrid Bastin Projects (Canada), as well as non-commercial organizations such as AGYU (Canada). Highlights outside ArtBo included Juan Manuel Echaverría’s two shows, at the Museum of Modern Art and at the Sextante Gallery; Carolina Caycedo’s exhibition at La Central, a cool new space; Luis Fernando Roldán at Casas Reigner; and Barbarita Cardozo at Nueve Ochenta. When asked about his impressions on the fair, Vincent Todolí, the Director of London’s Tate Modern, told the media that “The eyes of the world are on Latin America.”

ArtBo is just five years old, but it is working to develop a much bigger presence within the Americas. Its organizers created two alternative, non-commercial and experimental spaces: Arte Camara and Projects Rooms.

Arte Camara had Exactitudes Errantes and Fronteras En Expansión, both curated by Maria Iovino. In Exactitudes Errantes, Chirara Banfi, Lia Chaia, Beatriz Olano and Andrés Ramirez Gaviria analyzed accuracies, the moment when all parts of a system reach a state where all components fit perfectly, while remaining in motion or permanent creation, like the universe. According to Iovina, the notion of perfection has been linked with the most rigid geometry, but in this exhibition the artists analyzed it under the concepts of composition and structure of forms. Meanwhile, Fronteras En Expansión highlighted a very diverse group of young Colombian artists. All of them analyzed social and personal interactions and their relationship with space, time, and nature. Two of the most interesting were Daniel Santiago Salguero and Angélica Teuta.

Salguero had an installation called 1985-2085. It consisted of six old chairs, a rope with a stone at each end, and a clock. He stated that the piece was about the person he has been and will become over a period of hundred years: all his different selves. The ticking of the clock represented his transitory life, and each stone stood for the beginning and end of life, which were linked by the rope. In the same space, Angélica Teuta presented Bosque, an imaginary forest that allowed the artist to explore issues of space and the claustrophobia brought on by life in São Paulo. She placed an overhead projector to light the gallery wall, but it also served to frame the work itself, a small structure that had been meticulously created out of acetate cuttings, small pieces of wood, and tiny motors that made the images of trees and leaves move. The projector also activated a little game where the viewer had to compare the image on the wall with the model in order to find the trees and leaves that caused the shadows on the wall to move. The experience became more real when the viewer walked around and found himself projected into the scene, building up the illusion of an imaginary forest.


The second space, Projects Rooms, was devoted to less conventional, less commercial, and more challenging and experimental art proposals presented by contemporary art galleries and not-for-profit organizations. I showed Bioscopio, an installation by Maria Isabel Rueda dealing with spirituality, religion, and different systems of beliefs, based on a study conducted by Rueda with a community of Arhuaco Indians in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. An important part of the exhibit was the collection of writings and research that was the backbone of Rueda’s philosophy; viewers were encouraged to browse these works. Next to the mini-library, Rueda presented a drawing on the wall depicting a woman sitting on the floor, stripping leaves behind a coca tree; the plant is viewed as being of divine origin in the religious cosmology and rituals of the Andean communities. Stripping the leaves off a coca plant is strictly a feminine activity, and chewing the leaves is mostly a male activity that serves as a powerful symbol of religious and cultural identity. (The leaves are also used by shamans as a means to reach the other world.) Associated with the concept of cosmology, Rueda also displayed five photographs of stars; stars function as a record of time and light, because when you see them, you are in fact watching the past. The millions of infinite white dots are reflective of the whole universe.


The Art Gallery of York University showcased Mateo Rivano, whose environmental installation reflected an extraordinarily prolific imagination. Rivano brought together a variety of media including 44 detailed drawings, one sculpture, and a pedestal holding a book of drawings. All this was framed by the figure of a painted animal eating another animal while excreting. The installation illustrated the advanced stage of consumption in western capitalist societies and the endless process of production and consumption that is linked to the proliferation of art fairs. Many of the references depict an acute tension between Rivano’s major sources such us folk art, craft, graffiti, religion, fauna, and music.


Next came a trip to La Otra satellite fair, which was set up in an abandoned 1940s building. The initiative of Valenzuela Klenner’s Jairo Valenzuela, the fair is three years old. Although there were only thirteen galleries, they featured strong artists. International galleries included Living Art Room, Habana, Jason Rulnic, Nueva Galeria de la Barra, La Fabrica, Toulose Gallery, Tanya Leigthon and 80m2. From Colombia there was Casas Reigner, Cu4rto Nivel arte contemporaneo, La cometa, and Valenzuela Klenner.

After spending three weeks in Bogotá, I realized that during all the years I was away, Colombians have been busy building the country with positivism and culture. Artists are busy addressing not only issues of violence but also history, race, identity, economics, religion, and philosophy. My studio visits confirmed how vibrant and diverse Bogota has become in terms of artistic output — and this is just the beginning.

The Artists:

Nadin Ospina is well known for pioneering the articulation of new vocabularies in relation to power and the production of culture within Latin America. His work has maintained a constant, productive dialogue with Colombian culture and the relationship with hegemonic powers and elements that define a cultural circumstance. Ospina has great interest in history and a love of pre-Columbian art, which he says comes out of admiration for the culture to which he belongs; identity and hybridity are two notions that Nadin has explored through his work. He says that since there is no pre-Columbian written history, at least he can find a connection with that culture through its aesthetic. Some of his most recognized work has come from his own experience growing up in a middle class neighborhood in Bogota and witnessing the arrival of American pop culture. Idol with Skull (1998), is a modified Mickey Mouse; Dignitary (1999), an altered Bart Simpson; both hybridized as Pre-Columbian archeological pieces. His work also investigates the stereotyping of cultures, such as in Colombia Land (2004), which alludes to the stereotypical image of violence in Colombia; and Los Americanos (2009), which deals with how the image that people have of Native Americans is the stereotypical figure that comes from cinema, TV, and comic books.


Delcy Morelos explores color as a method to address social issues such as race, human behavior and violence. In Cordoba, where Morelos was born, landlords are usually only white and violence persists. One of her works, What I am Made Of (1995), looks like a volcanic explosion of red liquid, a reference to the bloody conflict in Colombia. The scale is large, to represent the magnitude of the problem and the number of lives lost in the conflict. The Color I Am (1999) is an investigation on skin tones: the piece overtakes you with its size and, as a viewer, you find yourself searching to find skin tones that match your own. Morelos’ latest works are made of strips and thread attached to a frame where red or cream paint is dropped and dripped. The texture and color of the grids has a visceral feeling.


Mateo Lopez’s studio looks as if it were ready to be packed and Fed-Exed to a museum. Visiting his studio, one wonders whether one is looking at real objects or works of art. Is that an ordinary paper cup, or an imitation of an ordinary paper cup made by the artist? An accidental drop of ink, or a drawing of a drop of ink? Everything is meticulously organized, and everything is small: scissors, rulers, erasers, pencils, plastic band-aids, notebooks, and lots of paper cups, paper-cut matches, and paper-cut maps. When you speak with Lopez, he chooses his words carefully. He is precise and, at times, he seems like a character out of his drawings.


Miler Lagos’ imagination thrives on exploring the properties of materials and the relation of these materials with objects, suggesting that things are not what they look like, but what they are made of. His background in mechanical engineering explains why most of his work involves designing new methods to manipulate the materials that he uses to produce objects; for example, twisting formica to create marble-like columns. (At the faculty of Arts of the Universidad Nacional in 2002, Lagos filled a gallery with marble-like Ionic columns, traditionally viewed as symbols of power; but Miler’s columns were empty, leaving viewers to wonder whether he was questioning the educational system in arts.) Miler said that he “likes to question the construction of the reality that we establish based on the appearance and shapes of things”. One of his best-known works are the tree-like sculptures made out of sand-carved paper — the paper is burnt by friction, resulting in the look, and smell, of a natural tree. Some of them are made out of art history books, others are made out of pagan holy books, or Communist theory books. As Miler has said, “historically, paper has served as a container of knowledge and power.” Lagos is visiting Toronto soon, and I wonder what part of Canadian culture and history he will engage during his visit.


SIDEBAR


Not everything about my trip was work — after all, Colombians like to bond on the dance floor! The first bash was organized by Nueve Ochenta gallery at the restaurant Gaira, where their signature is Vallenato music and traditional Colombian food. From there, it was on to bars like El Goce Pagano, Cefe Libro, Cha Cha, Mai Lirol Darlin, Sargento Dodo, and Andres Carne de Res, to name a few.

During ArtBo one has the chance to see many galleries at once, but in fact Bogota does not have a centralized contemporary art district; galleries are dispersed throughout the city. Alcuadrado doesn’t even have a fixed location, and while they work with very established artists, their shows occur most often in old abandoned buildings. Casas Reigner (calle 70#7-41) works with artists that have influenced the local art practice but they also take on emerging ones; La Central (calle 93 No. 14-20, room 606), a very interesting and independent gallery, focuses on the experience of making art; Nueveochenta (calle 70 No. 9-80) has an excellent stable of emerging artists; Sextante (carrera 14 No. 75-29) tends to work with projects from Arte Dos Gráfico, which is the most interesting workshop for printmakers and book designers; and Valenzuela y Klenner (carrera 5 No. 26-28), works with commercial and non-commercial proposals.

As for food, no one should miss tamales or “ajiaco” (a local chicken potato soup with avocado). The best place is Club Colombia (avenida 82 No 9-11).  Restaurante Minal (carrera 4A No 57-52) offers seafood from the Pacific and the Caribbean, with an emphasis on freshness and spiciness. For steak, traditional Colombian barbeque and a party scene, don’t miss Andres Carne de Res in the outskirts of the city. La Moderna (carrera 13 No 28 A local 301) has local music. Revamped Colombian flavors and a wonderful wine list come together at Leo Cocina y Cava (calle 27B No 6-75), which is close to the Museo Nacional.

Bogota’s colonial Candelaria neighborhood is another obligatory stop. It backs against the Andes and is comprised of 17th and 18th century houses and buildings. It has hosted many historical events and has interesting bars, restaurants, churches, museums, and art institutions. The cobblestone streets are narrow and some of them are reserved for pedestrians. There are many worthwhile places to visit, such as the Casa de Poesía Silva, the Fundación Alzate Avendaño, Palacio de San Carlos, Casa del Marqués de San Jorge, Museo de Arte Colonial, Museo Santa Clara, Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, Teatro Colón, Hotel de la Opera, and the churches La Candelaria, San Ignacio and Nuestra Señora del Carmen.

Don’t miss the Gold Museum which is chockfull of pre-Columbian treasures — the famous Muisca Raft is among them. In late 2008, after extensive renovations, the museum reopened its doors to show jewels and treasures from the Quimbaya, Calima, Tayrona, Sinú, Muisca, Tolima, Tumaco, and Malagana tribes, among others.

The National Museum of Colombia is located in a extraordinary building and is one of the oldest museums in the Americas. It was founded in 1823 in what was once a penitentiary and houses both permanent and temporary exhibits.

El MAMBO, or Museum of Modern Art, is the place to experience Colombian modern art and to see contemporary exhibitions. To coincide with ArtBo, they organized a strong, thought provoking show on Juan Manuel Echavarria, The war we have not seen.  Echavarria invited demobilized fighters of the Colombian conflict to paint their personal experiences. There were 35 men and women present, each of whom fought in one of four groups: ELN, FARC, paramilitaries and members of the Army. They had all fought for different reasons, but arrived at the same outcome: the dysfunctional life that follows trauma. The show highlighted the healing process that each of the 35 participants experienced: art as a way to help to shape change.

La Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango, or Blaa  as it is popularly known, is a cultural center and in addition to providing bibliographic services develops musical programs and has an interesting program for the visual arts. La Blaa has three buildings, Museo de Arte del Banco de la Republica, La Casa de la Moneda, and El Museo Botero. El Parqueadero is a wonderful space devoted to projects for temporary exhibitions that focus on documentation, video, and curated projects. All the shows and activities are free and open to the public.