The best art exhibitions are sometimes the most difficult to consume. That is surely the case with “Colombia: The Corn, the River, and the Grave,” the raw and ambitious offering currently at Denver’s Museo de las Americas.
The group show, featuring 15 contemporary Colombian artists, is a difficult plunge into the trauma inflicted upon the country due to its horrendous, five-decade-long civil war, which technically ended with a peace agreement in 2016 but remains unsettled in large regions. It is also the most riveting exhibition I’ve seen this year in Colorado, in terms of the individual objects hung on the wall.
Curated deftly by Alex Brahim, who lives in the. remote city of Cúcuta and knows artists throughout the country, the show accomplishes two major things. First, it establishes as fact the region’s organic beauty, its jungles, rivers and wildlife, its diverse, people, customs and crafts. Colombia, we are reminded again and again, is a place of abundant natural resources and rich civilization.
But the show also documents how all of those things are now experienced by many through the filter of a violent conflict that took the lives of 220,000 people; terrorized multiple generations; forced bitter political strife; and lead to environmental disaster.
Life goes on in Colombia these days. There are wild parties in Bogota nightclubs and crowded beaches in Santa Marta. Medellín and Cartagena are elegant fashion and food paradises, and tourists once again descend upon the larger cities, like Barranquilla and Cali, all generally safe and welcoming now.
But, as this art makes clear, the hurt for some is as resilient as the armed gangs that still wreak havoc in the interior, and real hope for a lasting, tranquil and equitable Colombia is not easy to come by in a place that has a long history of social disruption and violence going back to its independence from Spain in the early 1800s.
Artist Fernando Arias’ piece “Nada que Cesa” (“It Hasn’t Ceased Yet”) sums it up boldly. The work — which consists of the actual text of those words — is installed in a brilliant neon light that hangs over the exterior entrance of the museo itself.
The words play on a line from the country’s national anthem that translates roughly into “The horrible night has ceased,” and refers poetically to the end of Spanish dominance over the land.
But, as Arias — one of the most influential artists in Colombia today — makes clear, the horror only shifted form, from the violent exploitation of invading Europeans to the brutal warring of the modern-day Colombians who took control and continue to menace people and terrain.
The piece is a striking introduction to the rest of the show inside the museo, where other artists break down Arias’ broad assessment into specific and poignant subtopics.
Photographer Erika Diettes dives into one of the most hurtful remnants of the long conflict, the fate of tens of thousands of people who simply disappeared due to individual acts of violence or those coordinated by the government or paramilitary groups engaged in the conflict.
Diettes has spent many years integrating herself into the families of the lost, many of whom still maintain the possessions of their loved ones — to the point of washing and folding articles of clothing on special occasions, like holidays and birthdays.
For her series “Downriver,” she asked families to give up one piece — a precious shirt or a party dress — which she then submerged in tubs of water and photographed from above using a large-lens camera. The pieces are colorful, hyper-personal and mournful at the same time, signaling the ebb and flow of memories and the lasting power of faith. Diettes printed them directly on glass; they are fragile objects taking on a delicate idea.
Sebastián Sánchez explores the environmental damage caused by lax oversight of mineral mining and oil extraction that took place as the country devolved. He presents a series of drawing under the title “Crude.” Each profiles an animal that lives in Colombia’s many open areas — a wild bird, a crocodile, the furry and prevalent rodents called capybaras — and whose well-being was threatened by pollution and industrial disasters.
His media contains the message. The drawings are “painted” in actual crude oil on gold paper, a reminder of the impact of natural resources whose desirability created the damage-inducing greed.
There are other clever moves like that. Artist Yasmin Botero recreates in exacting detail a series of historic botanical drawings using acrylic paint on gold leaf paper. But within the intricate flora he inserts references to weapons of war, implying both the naturalness and inevitability of conflict.
Similarly, Carmenza Estrada and Sebastián Sánchez use iconic elements of Colombian culture in their pieces. Estrada works out her grief over burying a child by reducing actual photographs into pixilated images, which she then reinterprets in thread, using a traditional cross-stitch technique that is a specialty in the eastern city of Cartago.
Sánchez uses the country’s version of the Farmer’s Almanac — the Almanac Bristol — as the basis for a series of linocut prints that highlight regions where farmers and indigenous people are suing in courts to take back ownership of land after a century-plus of theft and forced displacement.
As a portrait of Colombia today, “The Corn, the River, and the Grave” can be misleading. It is a somber outing, bogged in sadness, recrimination and regret. There is little in it that recognizes that joy, pride and a great deal of political freedom also define what it means to live in Colombia today. Business is thriving, at least at the moment; there is a new progressive president leading the government; the press reports freely; and art, particularly contemporary dance, is thriving.
But it does underscore how the country remains in the shadow of a conflict that will not completely stop, and how the same complications that caused the troubles still exist: bad bureaucratic decisions, extreme nationalism, avarice, discrimination.
In that way, it serves as a reminder of the role that art plays in society at large. After so many decades of argument and injury, there are few words that haven’t been used to express the Colombian experience. So these artists do that job in images — paintings, videos, photos — and they are eloquent in their efforts.
It also shows how art can serve as the conscience of a community, large or small. Yes, life goes on in Colombia, though not so easily for the damaged and certainly not for the disappeared. This show speaks for their version of the experience. Thanks to the museo, which stretched resources to present this outing and hopes to send the show to other galleries, it is there for other parts of the world to better understand.
IF YOU GO
“Colombia: The Corn, the River, and the Grave,” continues through Aug. 20 at Museo de las Americas, 861 Santa Fe Drive. Info: 303-571-4401 or museo.org.
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