In a speech to the EU in 2010, the Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba lamented “Colombia is a mass grave, it is the largest cemetery of Latin America”.
In recent decades the country has witnessed brutal violence from corporation-backed paramilitaries, state and guerrilla forces, with thousands of its people murdered and displaced.
Ranking as the world’s most dangerous place to be a member of a labour union, violence has been integral to Colombia’s history, also serving a hyper-political purpose in repressing indigenous social movements, trade unions and political dissenters. But as Colombia stands poised on the brink of change, with an historic peace deal between the FARC and the government, a new exhibition held jointly at the Koppel Project Hive and 93 Baker Street in London seeks to present Colombia beyond the spectre of violence.
“Mitologia de la Tierra” (From myth to Earth) examines Colombian peoples’ myriad identities, histories and folklore.
Borne of a six month research trip in Colombia alongside close interaction with the Colombian diaspora in London, “Mitologia de la Tierra” is the project of artists Gabriella Sonabend and Sol Bailey-Barker.
The Prisma spoke to the artists who explained that the exhibition is about “creating an international dialogue between communities.”
Sonabend elaborates: “We knew that Colombia had this amazing folklore and mythology, but there was a real disparity between what the country is like, and people’s perception of it. To the outside world people think of Pablo Escobar, the violence and the drug trade. We felt a responsibility as outsiders to go and find out how the country is, what the folklore was, about the multitude of cultures and try and bring some of that back to England so we could reflect on that and broaden the outsider understanding of the country.”
Sol Bailey-Barker adds, that there is “a particular emphasis on understanding these myths and legends that come out of people’s relationship to nature, [and] the complex history of the indigenous culture and the colonial”. While travelling around Colombia, Bailey-Barker made a series of sculptures which he left in various sites there, “either as an offering directly or as a gesture.”
But pinning down what ‘Colombian identity’ means unsurprisingly proves fraught. “It’s not one cohesive place, it is so many different territories. You can’t look at it as one place, or one identity,” Sonabend concedes.
In a parallel exhibition space at Baker Street, Sonabend and Bailey Barker showcase the works of seven Colombian artists who reflect on Colombian identity. “All of the artists we’ve invited to show in the parallel gallery have an interesting relationship to history and time, and a really poetic way of thinking about their identity,” Sonabend explains.
Grappling with the enduring trauma of disappearances, torture and murders, Colombia’s artists have responded in divergent ways over the years.
For Bogota-based artist Ivan Felipe Castillo, who has been closely involved with “Mitologia de la Tierra”, Doris Salcedo is a formative influence. Salcedo confronts memory, trauma, displacement and violence unflinchingly in her work.
Her notable works include Shibboleth (2007) which took the form of a huge crack within the floor of London’s Tate Modern.
But Castillo believes that the latest generation of Colombian artists are eschewing overt engagement with political conflict, declaring “It depends on aesthetic approach. You do not find many political artists who engage with the violence… I’m from Bogota and it is kind of isolated from the real violence. It is a cruel contrast; Bogota is dangerous… but it’s really different from the countryside. That was an issue for me, to feel so separated [from the violence].”
Castillo points out that many younger contemporary artists do not want to be defined by the shadow of conflict: “Many want to cut this narrative of violence, because it took over. There’s a feeling that there is more to us.”
Bailey-Barker adds: “There is a generational divide. The older generation are more politically engaged, but the younger generation is trying to move on.” Sonabend concurs: “We noticed in Bogota that a lot of the contemporary art galleries are really abstract, trying not to be ‘political’.”
Evoking a palpable sense of place, with its smells, sensations and colours, is central to the exhibition experience. Visitors can sit inside a makeshift bus-shelter and listen to the stories written by Sonabend: “The stories explain [everything]. For example, the indigenous salt industry in La Guajira region; they talk about different mythologies, the conflict where an indigenous world clashes with a world of tourism, or with the cocaine trade.”
One of the sculptures produced by Bailey-Barker is constituted from a horse’s skull brought back from Colombia in luggage. Another, entitled Bullets to Spade, uses 300 bullet casings collected by Bailey-Barker in San Agustin, which were then hammered into a hand-carved spade. So given the importance of Colombia itself for the artworks, and the relationship between the artworks and their sites of origin, what can be gained, or indeed lost, in transplanting the works from Colombia to London?
Castillo demurs: “There’s no point reproducing art in a literal way, but spaces like this create a metaphysical connection.” Sonabend adds “There’s an alchemy when you bring things back together. It may be in the Amazon, it may be in London.”
Retaining connection with London’s Latin American diaspora, the exhibition also works with the “Mapping Memories” project developed by Verónica Posada and Lorena Raigoso, which raises the visibility of the Latin American community living in London and aims to increase their recognition in the United Kingdom.
Part of the exhibition programme hinges on the workshops Sonabend, Bailey-Barker and other artists have undertaken with Latin American communities in Tottenham and Elephant and Castle.
These storytelling workshops aim to help the communities to share their stories about life in the UK and their experiences as migrants.
Uncoupled from fixed national frontiers, Colombian identity emerges therefore, as a geographically fluid concept. Though curated from a resolutely outsider perspective, “Mitologia de la Tierra” is ultimately a persuasive and sensitive exploration of a country hopefully on the eve of political change.
“Mitologia de la Tierra” runs until 5 November 2016. Info here: http://thekoppelproject.com/mitologia-de-la-tierra/