Is it possible in a state like Colombia to create art that has nothing to do with the social situation in the country? Is it to a certain extent an intellectual and/or ethical obligation for an artist to become politically engaged? Is not the human species per se, in the words of Aristotle, a «zoon politikon»?
From politically engaged art to visual document
Some 25 years ago, Juan Manuel Echavarría asked himself these or very similar questions. And—after having found his answers—he turned away from his activities as a writer in order to apply himself to making pictures, photographs first and then videos and films, too. After all, he was already familiar from literature with metaphors, with the concept of illustrative, figurative, symbolical language. So why not take an immediate and direct approach to pictures in order to achieve a more precise expression and to get closer to the heart of the matter?
In the end of 2004, I opened the major exhibition «Cantos Cuentos Colombianos» in Zürich. To me, as to many of the visitors, one of the most important exhibits was Juan Manuel’s video work «Bocas de ceniza» / «Mouths of ash» (2003/04): people who had personally witnessed wartime atrocities and massacres sing simple songs of their own composition, in which they describe and try to come to terms with their experiences, seeking catharsis. Rarely has there been a more haunting, authentic, sincere, and devastating document on this issue. With this work, Juan Manuel Echavarría pioneered new ground at the time. It was his farewell to the privatizing of the «visual artist» who announced his own ideas on violence and war and projected them in his art: It was his departure for reality. Of course without neglecting aesthetic aspects, Juan Manuel, to a degree, crossed to the other side and gave a voice to those who were usually not heard, for they have far more to say than the others who had not been directly and personally involved. In this way, Juan Manuel switched from being a politically engaged artist into a social and public realm that primarily regarded the pictorial material in terms of documents. From then on, document and art start to merge in his production.
La guerra que no hemos visto (The war we have not seen)
Soon afterwards, in 2006, Juan Manuel established the Fundación Puntos de encuentro (Meeting Points). Among its important educational and social programs, the painting workshops with ex-combatants held in the years 2007 to 2009 particularly stand out. Juan Manuel Echavarria and his coworker Fernando Grisales invited former members of FARC and ELN, so-called terrorist groups, that is, as well as former paramilitaries of AUC, outcasts, that is, and also regular soldiers of the Colombian army, to capture their wartime experiences in pictures and narrate them. In the political and social situation at that time, this came close to a revolutionary act. Nearly 500 pictures evolved as documents of the Colombian conflict with all its horrors and traumas; and they subsequently attracted much attention at exhibitions in many cities in Colombia. At the book fair in Bogotá in 2019, I attended a discussion where both an ex-FARC and an ex-AUC member were on the panel. This is a huge step toward humanitarian normality, which, unfortunately, is again being massively challenged by current Colombian politics.
Of course there remains the general question of who is the victim and who the victimizer. The boundaries are fluid, for the victimizers are frequently victims as well. Restorative justice, an approach to criminal justice focusing on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community and meanwhile being practiced in Colombia, has an essential role in this context.
Speaking the unspeakable
Juan Manuel Echavarría’s art treads softly, but makes a strong impact. In «Requiem NN», he succinctly narrates about the inhabitants of the town Puerto Berrio on the Rio Magdalena fishing corpses out of the river, burying, adopting and worshipping them, and subsequently asking them for favors. His deeply moving and highly poetic photographs in «Silencios» show former classroom blackboards in decaying school buildings that fell prey to the turmoils of war somewhere in the Colombian jungle. And, using drones, he produces film documentaries of the sites of traumatic war events as depicted in the combatant painting workshops; he then underlays them with the original reports from the former fighters, who vividly recount the witnessed events.
Over time, Juan Manuel Echavarría turned into a realistic artist. He makes the unspeakable and the unspoken accessible, and he almost has us understand it—if only it weren’t so incomprehensible.