Waterweavers: The River in Contemporary Colombian Visual and Material Culture
Using the trope of the river as a conceptual device to explore the intersections in Colombian contemporary culture between art, craft, and design, Waterweavers reveals the intricate ways in which culture and nature can intertwine across disciplines. Curated by José Roca, Estrellita B. Brodsky Adjunct Curator of Latin American Art at Tate Modern and Artistic Director of FLORA ars+natura in Bogotá, with the assistance of independent writer and editor Alejandro Martín, the exhibition presents textiles, ceramics, graphic design, furniture, video, and installations to address a concept informed by social, political, and ecological strife in Colombia: the river.
In Colombia, a country whose complex topography has historically meant that waterways were often the sole means of transportation between communities, rivers have both united and separated. The works in this exhibition reference seven rivers: Amazon, Bogotá, Cahuinarí, Cauca, Magdalena, Putumayo, and Ranchería.
Today, when a majority of the population lives in cities, rivers continue to serve as the sole access to remote areas and to play a new role as the axis for a different type of economics: the black market that fuels the armed conflict that has plagued Colombia for decades.
Waterweavers addresses these issues from very different points of view, presenting a territory laden with conflict while showing the creative output that nevertheless thrives in the midst of—or in response to—hardship. Rather than isolating objects from their domestic or ritual contexts and then re-contextualizing them in the gallery space using photographs, maps, and other media, as is conventionally done in ethnographic or design museums, this exhibition allows the visual and material force of the objects to provide their own contextual information. Thus, for example, video installations show the rivers and violence-afflicted territories of Colombia, while furniture, textiles, and other objects provide the materiality of specific places in various forms: fibers dyed with pigments using traditional production techniques and motifs, textiles that mix industrial and natural materials, lamps woven from discarded plastic bottles, chairs constructed with bamboo roots, and piled clay rolls resembling a riverbed, among others.
The distinctive and intimate spaces of the Bard Graduate Center (BGC) Gallery provide the backdrop for a series of displays that emerge from a curatorial strategy Roca calls "figure/ground," with immersive environments presented on the wall framing more sculptural pieces at the center of each room. Unexpected juxtapositions create a critical and conceptual friction between works and practices that are seldom shown together.
Tour through the Exhibition
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Works by Olga de Amaral (* 1932 Bogotá) introduce the two prevailing motifs in the exhibition: flowing water and the processes of weaving. A pioneer of fiber art in Latin America, Amaral has been working since the 1950s. Well known for making large-scale yet intricately detailed work that references pre-Hispanic weaving traditions, myths, and motifs, she uses a diversity of materials including linen, fique, silk, paper, parchment, gesso, mud, acrylic, silver, and gold leaf. Shown here are Nudo azul XIII (Blue knot XIII), a thick strand of fibers joined together by a single symbolic knot, and Luz blanca (White light), an early piece, made with plastic, that evokes a waterfall.
Color Amazonia (2006 - 2013) is the result of seven years of ethnobotanical research on natural pigments in the Colombian Amazon rainforest conducted by an interdisciplinary team led by artist Susana Mejía (* 1978 Medellín). The installation consists of papers and fibers dyed with natural pigments and monotype prints made directly from plants. Tinted fibers from the fique plant, which is native to the Andean regions, hang from the ceiling, mimicking the way they were originally left to dry in the jungle. Color Amazonia introduces the theme of the natural environment of the Amazon River, particularly the plants that grow on its banks and the natural fibers and pigments that are used by communities alongside it.
The video Río (River, 2005) by Alberto Baraya (* 1968 Bogotá), filmed while he was documenting a naval patrol ship’s trip down the Amazon and Putumayo Rivers, presents the troubling world of contrasts that is the river environment of Colombia. A work of great poetic and political resonance, Río depicts the massive rivers that serve as primary tributaries for drug trafficking, waterways that are home for the guerrilla groups that, in the absence of a strong state, control the turbulent outlying territories.
Monika Bravo’s (* 1964 Bogotá) video installation URUMU [WEAVING_TIME] (2014) is inspired by a traditional pattern of the Arhuaco people, a cultural group native to the mountanious Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region adjacent to the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Working from a mathematical analysis of the way in which Arhuaco women weave their patterns, Bravo replicates their designs by constructing the textile digitally, using pixels as her "threads." Bravo’s digital weaving eventually morphs into the landscape of the Sierra Nevada.
In the center of this space is a group of Corocora stools (1993) and Cucarachero poufs (2014) designed by Ceci Arango (* 1967 Manizales). The seats are handwoven by women from the town of Guacamayas, Colombia, who are well known for a traditional spiral-basket-weaving technique whereby a core of esparto fibers is wrapped in fine fique threads. Visitors are encouraged to sit on the stools.
In the late 1960s, David Consuegra (* 1939 Bucaramanga, + 2004 Bogotá), one of Colombia’s foremost graphic designers, conducted research on motifs in pre-Hispanic indigenous objects that resulted in a new graphic vocabulary with references to water, weaving, fauna, and flora. Consuegra’s drawings, prints, and books are shown together with the work of Tangrama—a leading contemporary graphic design studio based in Bogotá that is the collective endeavor of artists Mónica Páez (* 1977 Bogotá), Margarita García (* 1978 Bogotá), and Nicolás Consuegra (David’s son, * 1976 Bogotá). For the exhibition, Tangrama has produced wallpaper designs and an interactive application based on David Consuegra’s pioneering research.
Hanging on opposite walls are two groups of "botanical plates." Alberto Baraya (* 1968 Bogotá) gathers artificial flowers and plants from all over the world and then classifies them in the manner of a botanist. His most recent collecting "expedition" was conducted in New York. Abel Rodriguez (* 1941 La Chorrera), a member of the Nonuya people of the Caquetá River region, produced meticulously detailed drawings in collaboration with Tropenbos International, a Dutch NGO concerned with the preservation of tropical ecosystems worldwide. His series depicts the monthly cycle of the flooded rainforest, and the large drawing features a tree—a symbol of the origin of life for many Amazonian peoples.
The two works in the center suggest contrasting interpretations of nature. Rodríguez’s "fish trap,"captures the beauty of natural materials and evokes the functional logic of a traditional form. Baraya’s shroud-like latex cast of a tree historically tapped for rubber, made in the Amazon with the aid of former rubber tappers, conveys how the relentless search for natural resources has ravaged the country’s landscape. The tree’s scars impressed upon the latex cast recall a textile design and also suggest the scars left on Colombia’s social fabric after decades of exploitation during the rubber booms of the late-nineteenth century and the World War II era.
Clemencia Echeverri’s (* 1959 Medellín) video installation Treno (2007) depicts the roaring, tumultuous Cauca River. The title of the work, an archaic Spanish word that means "funeral chant," refers to mythical associations regarding the role of the river as the threshold between life and death and as the vessel for the last voyage. This metaphorical reference finds new meaning when one is confronted with the reality of the political situation in the Colombian countryside, where casualties of armed conflict are dumped in rivers such as the Cauca, thereby preventing relatives of the dead from knowing their fate.
In the center of the gallery are three chairs by Marcelo Villegas (* 1952 Manizales), an architect who is known for his large-scale buildings and bridges constructed of bamboo. His studio is in Manizales, Caldas Department, near the Cauca River in central Colombia. The highly expressionistic Doble curva (Double curve, ca. 1990) chairs are made with the roots of guadua, a variety of bamboo native to the region that can grow to considerable heights, and the Bamba chair with the roots of the nato tree. Bamboo’s rhizomatic growth recalls rivers in its endless bifurcations and connections. Visitors are encouraged to sit on the chairs.
Lucy Salamanca (* 1961 Bogotá) is a Colombian designer based in Italy whose involvement in several rural communities in Colombia has helped to preserve and develop local craft techniques. Working worldwide for fair trade and sustainable design, Salamanca is committed to promoting ethical pricing, wages, and environmental practices. She goes beyond formal design by working with communities, such as artisans in Curití in northeast Colombia, to establish sustainable business models for craft production, as seen in the guadua bamboo and sisal fiber furniture shown here. Visitors are encouraged to sit on the stools from the Out of Balance project (2010 - 2011).
A group of lamps from the PET Lamp (2013) project hang from the ceiling of this space. PET Lamp grew out of an initiative of Spanish designer Alvaro Catalán de Ocón (* 1975 Madrid, Spain), who was invited to Colombia to provide a model for recycling the plastic bottles that pollute rivers worldwide. Relying on weaving techniques and patterns traditionally used by the indigenous Guambiano and Eperara Siapidara communities to create baskets and textiles, Catalán devised a system whereby discarded bottles are slit vertically and the resulting threads are woven into unique lamps, extending the use cycle of these ubiquitous objects by linking them to tradition.
Jorge Lizarazo (* 1968 Bogotá), who founded the workshop Hechizoo in Bogotá in 2000, seeks to reinterpret indigenous Colombian weaving methods, materials, and techniques. Lizarazo has established himself as one of the foremost creators of contemporary textiles, deftly incorporating tradition and modernity into his work. The installation consists of textiles, rugs, and a freestanding rubber and copper tree, along with a canoe from the Putumayo region that hangs from the ceiling and is clad with glass beads.
Normally used by the Inga people of the Putumayo region to create necklaces and bracelets, the beads were composed in traditional patterns representing water, sky, and animals by Inga artisans working in the Hechizoo workshop. On the opposite wall is Carol Young’s (* 1952 Montevideo, Uruguay. Lives in Bogotá.) installation Memoria (Memory, 2014). Made with ceramic sheets that have been rolled and stacked, this work highlights the way in which earth, in this case alluvial deposits, can act as a repository of memory. Young’s installation is at the same time a territory, a river, and a library in which time is encapsulated and knowledge is stored.
Linking these two works is Nicolás Consuegra’s (* 1976 Bogotá) video installation El agua que tocas es la última que ha pasado y la primera que viene (The water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes, 2013), which the artist conceived as a contemporary version of the panorama—a pre-cinematic device designed to provide an expansive view of a given landscape. In his work, vignettes taken in different places and times of day in the town of Honda—once the main port on the Magdalena River and currently a downtrodden community where poverty, unemployment, and environmental deterioration prevail—are connected by an impassive river that is indifferent to the miseries it links. This epic tale of one of the most historically important rivers in Colombia is recounted through mute images of idleness and despair.
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Juan Fernando Herrán’s (* 1963 Bogotá) video Untitled (1993) serves as a conceptual bridge between Waterweavers and Carrying Coca, the Focus Gallery exhibition on the fourth floor. Consisting of a close-up of a man sculpting grass into a perfect round ball by chewing it, this intriguing representation references the age-old tradition of mambeo, the chewing of coca leaves in order to gain the strength and stamina necessary to work in high altitudes, a ritual practice common to many indigenous cultures along the Andes. Memory, myth, and matter coalesce in Herrán’s video and provide a fitting prologue to Carrying Coca.
The illustrations on the reverse of the guide are by María Isabel Rueda (* 1972 Cartagena). The series is loosely based on the story of La Llorona (The crying woman), a popular myth that appears throughout Latin America. Despite regional variations, the basic elements remain the same: a woman murders her children in revenge for her husband’s abuse; despairing, she begins to cry uncontrollably and a river forms from her very tears. Indigenous groups, settlers, and immigrants in countries stretching from Argentina to Mexico have modified certain details, yet the figure of nature in mourning remains intact. María Isabel Rueda created her own version of this disturbing myth for a book titled La Llorona, from a series of publications about Colombian myths published by La Silueta Ediciones. In the drawings for the book, Rueda merged images of the Arhuacos (Ika), an indigenous culture of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region of Colombia, the fauna and flora of that region, and the process of weaving mochilas, the bags the Arhuacos traditionally used to carry coca leaves, with the Gothic imagery that characterizes her drawings, photography, and video works.
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