“Cantos Cuentos Colombianos”, Zurich 2004 – 2005

Since we had committed ourselves to showing only works in possession of the Daros Latinamerica Collection, our Zurich exhibition program was necessarily based on the stage of the collection’s development. All art from Latin America was in general absolutely new to our audience; nevertheless, I wanted to provide as much variety as possible within this huge field and to surprise our visitors again and again with fresh new presentations.

Changing Colombia’s art world

In this context, Colombia was a candidate par excellence—up to that time, a white spot on the world map of international contemporary art! In 2004—the collection had meanwhile expanded to nearly 80 artists, and we were already looking for permanent exhibition premises in Latin America—we presented «Cantos Cuentos Colombianos» to the local Zurich and international public.

Installing works of José Alejandro Restrepo and Fernando Arias

After having overcome my fears and already having traveled to Colombia for the first time in 2000 to take up my artistic research work there (see also my post no. 21 on Colombia), we presented «Cantos Cuentos Colombianos» in our exhibition rooms in Zurich in 2004, complete with a symposium on the social and political situation in Colombia. It was the first comprehensive exhibition of contemporary Colombian art to take place in Europe.

So the art world learned that Colombia boasted other artists beside Fernando Botero, who was not represented in the exhibition, and Doris Salcedo, who was already internationally known at that time. This exhibition gave a «new» generation of artists, a generation as yet not adequately assessed and appreciated even in the own country, the opportunity to introduce themselves. Along with three Colombians living abroad (Fernando Arias, María Fernanda Cardoso, Oswaldo Macià), there were seven more Colombian artists: Juan Manuel Echavarría, Oscar Muñoz, Nadín Ospina, José Alejandro Restrepo, Miguel Ángel Rojas, Doris Salcedo and Rosemberg Sandoval. 

No one will deny that this exhibition in Zürich changed Colombia’s art landscape for good. The Colombians finally realized that art is not perforce limited to painting and classical sculpture; photography and multimedia installations finally prevailed on the domestic market, too. It took an impetus from outside, as is often the case, an external view, as it were, only that this time, it did not come from the MoMA in New York, but rather from the Daros Latinamerica Collection in Zürich. 

Hans-Michael Herzog and Fernando Arias, Zürich, 2004

Why Colombia?

In order to give you an idea of our state of mind at that time, I will repeat a passage from the introduction to «Cantos Cuentos Colombianos» here:

“Why an extensive exhibition of artists from Colombia? Colombian art is virtually unknown here in Switzerland. The news that reaches us from Colombia is nearly all negative. The list of prominent Colombians is quickly exhausted after mentioning Juan Pablo Montoya, Shakira, Gabriel García Márquez, and Fernando Botero—to the extent that these names are associated with their native country. People are unaware of the country’s many universities and other educational institutes—like the exemplary library program of Bogotá, and above all the Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango, with more than three and a half million visitors annually. Nor does anyone here realize that it is not just the flowers of Colombia that are thriving but also the arts. And how could they? For fear of physical harm most avoid visiting Colombia, so this extraordinary land remains a blank spot on the map, colored at most by blood from reports on the civil war and drugs.

For more than fifty years, war and violence have raged throughout the country. Under such circumstances, a profound social consciousness has been developed, and, through the will to survive, the focus on the essential is less obscured than elsewhere. The goal is not only to cope with the ever-present threat, but also to juxtapose it with something that makes life worth living. This may be one reason for the intense and passionate engagement with art and culture that one finds in Colombia.

It is difficult to be an artist in a country that is marginalized geopolitically, where the situation for institutions is difficult, where the art market is rudimentary, and where there are few professional collectors, most of whom have one foot in the USA. “Cantos Cuentos Colombianos” is a national exhibition, but at the same time it is also a thematic one, since under such stressful living conditions it is only natural that artists address the political and social situation of their country. We did not seek out stereotypically this kind of political engagement in contemporary art in Colombia; we simply found it was a dominant factor and thus included it both in the collection and this exhibition.”

Whose side are you on?

Besides the artists, we also invited the Colombian catalog authors Fernán E. González, Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Alfredo Molano, and William Ospina to our symposium starting off the second part of the exhibition in January 2005. I had to muster all my diplomatic skills to act as intermediary between the guests that I had deliberately invited as political opponents, some of which downright refused to sit at the same table with a so-called left guerrillero-friendly «terrorist». In the course of the talks, the «left terrorist» turned out to be an ultra-conservative hardliner, while the supposedly arch-conservative gentleman was not only the one who could best express and explain himself, but who also had the magnanimity to show his gratitude for the inspiring and insightful discussions. In the end, the artist Rosemberg Sandoval revealed the far-left and the extreme-right participant to have originally been best friends… Discussions such as these indeed disclosed a great deal about the desolate state of affairs in Colombia and about the pig-headed stubbornness of some of the country’s most prominent intellectual representatives.

Oswaldo Macià, Zürich, 2004

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