Colombia – The Athens of Latin America?

It was still the year 2000; I had already familiarized myself with my new work and had travelled quite a bit, when I noticed that Colombia was missing on my agenda. No wonder, really, for no one was traveling there, and everyone advised against it, out of deepest conviction, for safety reasons. What could I do? I turned it over in my mind for a while, weighed the pros and cons, and then told myself: “I simply have to go to Colombia; everything will be alright!” So I set off…

Normality in the middle of conflict

Doris Salcedo picked me up from El Dorado Airport (what a promising name!) in her car and took me to my hotel. On the highway from the airport to the city, it already occurred to me: “Hmm, this looks pretty much like back home in Zurich…” At the hotel, still petrified by fear, I was looking out of my window onto the bustle of the rush hour in the street out front, when I realized that down there were simply thousands of people on their way home from work, much like anywhere else all over the world… There was no holding back for me then; I went down and joined the crowd!

Photography: bronxcityblog.wordpress.com

Of course, Colombia at the beginning of the millennium was still being much more afflicted by assassinations, kidnappings, and murders than it is today. Nevertheless, to me it did not feel more dangerous than Israel some years ago, and I quickly got used to the massive police and military presence and checkpoints. In these first years of the millennium, I still witnessed slight traces of the absolute madness that had previously reigned in Colombia. Just imagine a country drowning collectively, over years and years, in drugs and terror!

At that time, the El Cartucho neighborhood had not been demolished yet. It was still a district beyond law and order where no one dared go, and where not even the police or other armed forces had any control. It was an apocalyptic, smoldering, urban nightmare of a cityscape completely undermined by tunnels and underground passages—no post-apocalyptic Hollywood horror epic could come up with these images any better.

Photography: semana.com

The faces of Janus

Added on to this were countless narratives on the bloody, cruel, inhumane massacres committed over decades between the FARC and other “political” rebel groups and the paramilitaries and the military forces. None of this seemed to fit in with the charming, kind, and educated people from the Colombian elite whom I had the pleasure of meeting, all the ex-presidents and their wives, all those lovely couples who were not only interested in art, but also well-versed and exquisitely learned in cultural matters… Only afterwards was I to find out what had actually happened under these presidents…

If at all, the situation perhaps compares to that between Israelis and Palestinians, where generations have adhered to the doctrine of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, and hostilities between individuals and entire family clans as well as between bitter political opponents can be resolved by nothing in the world. Under these circumstances, it seems a miracle that the Colombian conflicts have somewhat subsided in the past years.

Mine for the picking

In this tense and definitely fragile situation, I was the first foreign curator in a long time to scan the artistic landscape of Colombia with serious intentions. As a result, the Colombian art world virtually fell in my lap, like a ripe fruit from a tree. Nobody outside of Colombia knew anything about the country’s contemporary art, the reception of which had been limited up to that point solely to Fernando Botero.

For our exhibition “Cantos Cuentos Colombianos” in Zurich in 2004/05, I therefore managed to launch an entire generation of Colombian artists at an international level. Of course the artists represented in this exhibition, and thus also those of the Daros Latinamerica Collection (Juan Manuel Echavarría, Doris Salcedo, Rosemberg Sandoval, Oscar Muñoz, Miguel Ángel Rojas, Fernando Arias, José Alejandro Restrepo, Nadín Ospina, María Fernanda Cardoso and Oswaldo Macià) took reference to the political and social situation in the country—how could they not? But the details of this exhibition in Zurich will be discussed at a later point.

Class society and melting pot 

Only few countries in Latin America are as heterogeneous as Colombia, which oscillates between the most diverse cultural influences, with no single specific culture prevailing. In several waves of migration over the past centuries, former inhabitants of the European “Occident” and the Near and Middle Eastern “Orient” washed over the rich, diversified country and successively took possession of it. As so often happens in Latin America, the indigenous population fell on the wayside. Colombia is a deeply bourgeois, conservative country. Europeans can imagine here what their own society may have been like a long time ago, and how it may have worked in terms of a nearly impenetrable class society. 

The advantage is that cooks, maids, and nannies traditionally come from the Caribbean or from the Pacific coast, thus adding a touch of fresh, autochthonous blood to be taken in by all well-born Colombian infants with their mother’s milk.

  1. I enjoy your personal stories and I can certainly relate to your “Colombian” experience!
    Can’t wait to read the next chapter!
    Francine Birbragher

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