How a robust economy and ongoing peace talks are nudging the international art world to pay attention to Colombian artists.
FOR YEARS, NO ONE CAME to Doris Salcedo’s studio in Bogotá, Colombia, to watch her twist rickety bed frames into haunting sculptures. In Medellín, José Antonio Suárez Londoño worked in similar isolation, filling notebooks with tiny drawings while he listened to gruesome radio reports about cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. Farther north, Gabriel Sierra grew up in the lush countryside fearing government soldiers and guerrillas alike, learning nothing about art except what he saw in encyclopedias. And yet still he drew.
During the unofficial civil war that consumed Colombia for much of the past six decades, several generations of artists came and went, largely unseen by the international art world. (One exception was Fernando Botero, the 82-year-old painter of chubby people.) But recently, Colombia’s military and rebel groups have been negotiating peace, and this delicate détente—along with a confluence of other factors—has encouraged the art establishment to give the country a closer look.
Colombia is home to a vibrant art scene that also happens to be undergoing a seismic shift. Older generations of artists, such as the 55-year-old Salcedo, prefer to provoke, their works scratching at the scabs of Colombia’s bloody past. At the same time, a younger set, led by artists like the 38-year-old Sierra, is trying hard to disassociate from this violent history, identifying with the country’s surging economy and energy. Instead of Escobar, the up-and-comers want to think about nature and architecture, culling pieces from their private diaries and quieter obsessions. Colombian art finds itself at a crossroads, pivoting between the desire for sociopolitical engagement and poetic escape—and the resulting creative tension could prove momentous.
Across Colombia—from the walled coastal city of Cartagena to the sugar-cane fields outside Cali—there’s a palpable feeling of flux, of a society shaking off its solitude and stretching out. Crime and poverty persist, but a measure of peace is making it safer to travel and do business across the region. This calm is also allowing Colombia to export greater supplies of oil, gas, sugar and cut flowers, boosting the pace of its economic growth. Last year alone, the country attracted nearly $16 billion in foreign investments. Luxury malls and beach resorts are sprouting up to cater to the country’s 36,000 high-net-worth individuals. Tourism campaigns cheekily play down Colombia’s war-torn reputation with slogans such as “The only risk is wanting to stay.”
Similar wealth booms have recently helped transform China and Brazil into global art hubs, so it makes sense to see international curators and dealers booking trips to Colombia now. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts and London’s Serpentine Galleries, among others, have all recently sent delegations of curators and patrons to scout art in Colombia. Pablo León de la Barra, a curator for New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, was among the early explorers, and the art he’s uncovered since is impressive, he says. “For some, art has become a way of working through the communal trauma, but the younger ones are trying to use art as an instrument of usefulness for something else. There are many things at play, but one of them is a desire for normalization.”
Whenever curators and collectors start sniffing around a new region, dealers and auctioneers invariably follow, eager to pounce on whatever the tastemakers discover. (A similar phenomenon has lately pushed up prices for China’s Zeng Fanzhi and Brazil’s Beatriz Milhazes.) In the past year, these market movers have begun championing a potential poster boy for Colombia’s rise in Oscar Murillo, the 28-year-old son of Cali sugar-cane farmers who now lives in London. Three years ago, Murillo’s frenetic paintings—often made with the help of relatives using dust and debris from his studio floor—were selling for as little as $10,000 apiece. But last fall, Phillips in New York auctioned off one of the artist’s 2011 canvases, Untitled (Drawings Off the Wall), for $401,000, or 10 times its high estimate. The sale occurred less than a week after he joined David Zwirner Gallery, and collectors have been trading his works for six-figure sums ever since.
All this faraway interest in Colombia’s rising stars has stoked a stronger art scene at home. Currently, at least 30 wealthy Colombian families are amassing notable collections of contemporary art, up from only five a decade ago, says local dealer Beatriz López. “Once the foreign curators started coming, people here started paying attention,” López says. “Even when there was no place to show, the artists never stopped working and learning to resist—and that resistance is being discovered now. That’s why the scene is exploding.”
Yet there is still a sense of novelty about collecting in Colombia. Within the country’s circle of collectors—mainly restaurateurs, architects, manufacturers and bankers—the shopping mood is giddy and relaxed. As an art marketplace, Bogotá represents a major departure from the competitive, auction-driven one-upmanship that dominates conversations in London and New York.
A recent Saturday-morning opening at a three-year-old independent art foundation called NC-Arte is emblematic: The airy institution, run by artist Claudia Hakim, sits on the site of a former church along a leafy, mountainside stretch of Bogotá. Collectors amble in wearing straw hats and sneakers, joined by college students sporting chunky black eyeglasses. Caterers carry trays of brightly colored fruit juices, and guests sip as they meander throughout the expansive, three-story space.
Upstairs, Monika Bravo—a 50-year-old Bogotá-born artist now based in New York—debuts a series of animated videos and colorful geometric drawings she had printed on tall glass panels. Bravo says she based her designs on diagrams she saw woven into mochila bags created by the indigenous Arhuaco Indians she met near Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. All her life, Bravo has wanted to spend time with the tribe, which still inhabits the remote, northeastern mountains of Colombia; now that it’s safer, she can.
In the downstairs gallery, Cali artist Elías Heim, age 48, shot bullet holes in the white walls and tucked red lasers into the cavities. Visitors have to pass through a web of red light beams—reminiscent of the kind used for aiming guns—if they want to walk from one side of the room to the other. The effect is unnerving, but it doesn’t stop anyone. Artist Lydia Azout marvels at the audience’s nonchalance, saying, “They don’t even care that they’re in the line of fire.”
Maybe that’s because, along with the lasers, Heim has installed a veritable orchard of fruit trees in the space, each plant potted within a metal shelving cabinet. Two years earlier, Heim had bored bullet-like holes through each layer of the shelves, giving the trees a way to grow, so long as their spindly trunks and branches follow the light up through the holes. Heim’s point? “Things aren’t perfect in Colombia, but I guess I’m feeling more hopeful.”
“The artists never stopped working and learning to resist—and that resistance is being discovered now.”
SO ARE COLOMBIA’S COLLECTORS. One of the country’s top buyers is Leon Amitai, a 44-year-old textile importer who began collecting in 2000 and now displays his vast array of acquisitions in a sprawling complex of warehouseson the outskirts of Bogotá. Amitai says he started hanging art around his office a few years ago on a whim, but in the past couple of years his workplace has become a must-see pilgrimage for visiting art lovers.
The journey is part of its appeal: To reach Amitai’s compound, you have to drive an hour outside the city center, eventually stopping at the end of a long dusty lane hemmed by pastures, speckled cattle and a meandering river. Inside, the experience is half cubicle, half museum—Amitai has ensconced seminal pieces by some of Colombia’s rising art stars in unlikely spots throughout the space, including conference rooms and staff offices.
Two years ago, he invited VIPs from the local art fair, artBO, to come take a tour. He planned for 30 people; he got 300. “I couldn’t believe it,” Amitai says.
In one of his clothing-sample showrooms, he displays a work by Carolina Caycedo. It’s a table displaying 31 aguardiente liquor bottles, each filled with around $300 in Colombian peso notes—or a month’s salary for a minimum-wage earner. In another area, Amitai has installed Sierra’s Untitled (The Devil in the Shape of a 2×4), a row of stepladders, rulers and tables that slide, upright, into a series of narrow slits carved inside a false wall. From a distance, the tables and rulers look more like thin stripes, a nod to the overlooked tools of an artist’s trade. Sierra says he took the objects from workers at New York’s New Museum.
“Isn’t that fantastic?” Amitai says, walking by and gesturing at the installation with a sweep of his arm. “It took me so long to install it, I thought some of my workers would resign, but none of them did.”
One benefit of Colombia’s growing popularity as an art market, Amitai says, is that more Colombian art students are staying put after graduation instead of seeking their big breaks abroad. This includes Mateo López, a 35-year-old artist known for his diary-like drawings of his road trips around Colombia. In Travel Without Movement, now owned by MOMA, López retraced every stop along an abandoned train line and drew what he saw along the way.
López says he and his artist sister, Rosario López Parra, remember the fear that followed them around Bogotá growing up, particularly the suffocating feeling that they couldn’t leave town lest they be kidnapped by the guerrilla fighters who controlled Colombia’s rural regions. But lately, as the situation has mellowed, he’s started traveling afield, as far as Cartagena. This spring, López put down permanent roots by buying his own three-story studio in the industrial neighborhood of San Felipe, near the alternative-art space Flora. He outfitted his new studio and home with an open-air kitchen on the roof. To encourage other artists to stick around, he added a guest studio area.
For the first time in Colombian history, López says, he and peers feel that it’s acceptable to explore their own internal struggles rather than react to those of their country. “I think my generation is trying to present facts, only differently. I want to watch the news, but is there a way to transfer that information into something else? Maybe it can be true and still feel like a breath of fresh air.”
What collectors don’t know yet is whether these younger artists’ personally felt pieces will maintain value over time—or whether they may ultimately be dismissed by the international market in favor of the conflict-era generation who preceded them, the hardy group who made art when few locals were willing to look at it, much less collect it.
“In the U.S., artists become famous all the time, even if their work isn’t particularly high quality,” Amitai says. “Here in Colombia, the only way you survived as an artist was by being really good.”
MENTION THE NAME Doris Salcedo in Colombian art circles, and all you’ll hear in reply is gushing reverence. Colombians like to tease Botero—they say his tubby portraits invite playful gibes—but no one dares joke about Salcedo.
The grand dame of Bogotá has a majestic wreath of curly black hair, and she works with 10 assistants in a towering studio behind a tall slate metal door in Bogotá’s Chapinero neighborhood. A visit to her studio is considered a coup for Colombian collectors because they never see her at exhibit openings or art parties. Salcedo admits her absence is intentional.
“I have a bad temper and I don’t want to go to the cocktail parties of the ruling classes,” she says one afternoon as she steps around the sandbags, hoses and construction equipment filling her cavernous studio. “My work is about mourning, about the day after tragedy—and I need to stay angry in order to think without compromise. I need that critical distance.”
Salcedo is hailed for being one of the first Colombian contemporary artists to show at major galleries abroad; she signed with New York’s Alexander and Bonin in 1992 and London’s White Cube in 1994. She is also among the few artists anywhere invited by Tate Modern to create a work for its vast Turbine Hall. Rather than fill the hall with art, her 2007 submission, Shibboleth, cracked into the museum’s foundation, splitting the Tate’s concrete floor with a narrow, meandering chasm that audiences were compelled to tiptoe around. The crack, she said at the time, was a way for her to explore the insidiousness of racism, easy to sidestep but dangerous as ever.
“I came back at the worst possible time,” she says of returning to Bogotá in 1985 after going to college in England. Car bombs regularly went off in the streets near her studio. Escobar, though based in Medellín, was at the height of his drug-cartel powers, making $500,000 a day smuggling cocaine into the U.S. (Escobar was killed by Colombian police in 1993.)
Salcedo concedes that today’s Colombia is not as apocalyptic, but peace hasn’t come to everyone yet. Lately, she’s been interviewing mothers in Colombia and elsewhere who have lost children. Leaning over a table in another area of her studio, she inspects a gray mesh patch that one of her assistants is making into a woman’s blouse. The fabric itself is composed entirely of needles. “No one could ever wear it,” she says. “Too painful.”
“Here in Colombia, the only way you survived as an artist was by being really good.”
Drugs, corruption, political killings and kidnappings—all of it gets confronted in the work of Salcedo’s peers from the ’80s and ’90s, including Oscar Muñoz, José Alejandro Restrepo and Miguel Ángel Rojas. Muñoz, who lives in Cali, was among the first to focus on people swept up in the violence by recreating their portraits in charcoal powder and then dripping water on or submerging the results until their faces distorted and eventually disappeared. (A major survey of this Vanishing series opened at Paris’s Jeu de Paume in June.)
Restrepo’s best-known work is Musa Paradisiaca, from 1993 to 1996, an installation inspired by the scientific name for a type of banana. Restrepo strung up bunches of still-green bananas and attached tiny video screens to their bases, requiring viewers to step close to see images projected onto concave mirrors beneath them on the floor. The images ranged from engravings of bananas during the colonial era to more recent news accounts of paramilitary killings in banana plantations in northern Colombia—an unsettling mix of imagery that only grew more pungent as the bananas rotted.
Back then, Restrepo’s dealer Jairo Valenzuela says, men with suitcases of cash used to frequent Bogotá’s few modern-art galleries looking to launder their drug money with art. “They wanted paintings of horses and nude women.” Valenzuela says. None of them ever wanted Restrepo’s rotting bananas. (Today, there are waiting lists for his works.)
Others, like Rojas, who is 68, have been making art for decades but are only now getting major museum shows. Rojas, who still works in the Bogotá house his grandfather bought in 1942, got his start by taking photographs of rendezvous between gay men in B-movie theaters in the ’70s. He pulled off this feat by hiding his camera under his jacket. Rojas says he had no hopes for exhibiting or selling these ghostly images—he just wanted to document a taboo scene, he says—but today examples from the series hang in institutions around the world.
Rojas is also known for a 2007 series of life-size portraits he took of an 18-year-old Colombian soldier who had lost one of his legs, below the knee, to a guerrilla land mine. Rojas asked the soldier to pose like Michelangelo’s David, pensive and nude, and the result serves as a quiet indictment of the toll the war has taken on Colombia’s youth. When the photos started selling well, the artist says, he gave a portion of each sale to the soldier. “He used the money to buy a farm,” Rojas says.
Things are changing quickly in Colombia, Rojas says. He is trying to keep up, to stay acquainted with newer artists and ideas. Earlier this year, he unveiled a new installation at Cartagena’s first biennial—a citywide exhibit that also included new works by auction hotshots like Murillo.
Rojas says he doesn’t always understand Colombia’s ascendant young creatives, but he doesn’t begrudge them their success. In a way, it feels like a shared victory. “I feel like a proud father,” he says. “We all make art—they just dance to other songs.”
Source: Wall Street Journal by Kelly Crow
Write to Kelly Crow at email@example.com