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Colombian art scene rebounds after civil war

Western dealers and curators look to the South

Bogotá

Overshadowed for decades by the country’s violent drug wars and civil strife, Colombia’s cultural scene is finally gaining international attention. It is benefiting from a period of peace, following an unofficial civil war lasting six decades, as well as relative economic stability.

As Colombia opens up, Western curators and critics are beginning to explore. Since visiting the country four years ago, Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery, has been mapping its artistic culture in a series of interviews with artists, film-makers and writers, which will be published in “Conversations in Colombia: ANAÑAM-YOH-REYA” on 24 March.

Obrist says that the scene reminds him of the edgy emerging centres of Mexico and Glasgow during the 1990s, though, specific to Colombian artists, is a shared “memory of the socio-political context, of power, tragedy and civil war”, he says. The so-called “aesthetics of violence” prevailed in the work of many artists during the “long decade” between 1995 and 2005, says José Roca, an adjunct curator of Latin American art at the Tate. While this “theme has been slowly abandoned by many in favour of other subjects—some younger artists came of age after this period, so they do not even touch on the subject”, there remains “a strong line of work in Colombian art that deals with the politics of memory”.

Significant Western interest in Colombian art began to grow in 2004, with the first edition of the contemporary art fair ArtBo in Bogotá. The fair, which has been supported by the Chamber of Commerce of Bogotá for ten years, has focused on attracting international attention, aiming to create “a cultural and commercial platform to introduce the Colombian art scene internationally and to contribute to the stabilisation of the art market”, says María Paz Gaviria, the fair’s director. It also aims to bring international dealers to town: in 2014, 66 galleries from 29 countries participated; only 14 were from Colombia.

The same year that ArtBo launched, the show “Cantos Cuentos Colombianos” (Colombian Song Stories), took place at Zurich’s Daros Museum. The show brought together works by ten artists from different generations, including Doris Salcedo, Oscar Muñoz and Miguel Angel Rojas. Then, in 2007, the Biennial International Meeting of Medellin was launched, an unconventional project led by the Museum of Antioquia in Medellin, with the intention of promoting contemporary art practices. And, in 2009, international artists took part in the 41st Salón Nacional de Artistas (National Gathering of Artists) in Cali, promoted by the Colombian culture ministry.

As momentum grows, Bogotá remains the country’s main cultural hub, as well as its contemporary art market centre. It is home to 98 museums of which 12 are art museums (though only three show contemporary work), and most of Colombia’s contemporary commercial and non-profit spaces. The scene continues to grow. Two fairs focused on emerging artists, Odeón and Feria del Millón (Fair of the Million), have launched over the past four years. Meanwhile, a platform for non-conventional galleries in open-air spaces called La Otra Bienal de Arte (The Other Art Biennial) launched an art fair in 2007 and a biennial in 2013.

Outside the capital, two small fairs have emerged over the past six months: ART/Cartagena and Art Medellin. “Other regions and cities are offering an ambitious evolution, such as Medellin, Cartagena de Indias and Cali,” says Emiliano Valdés, the chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Medellin.

As interest grows, the international exchange is beginning to work in both directions. “Madrid briefly became an intensive course in Colombian contemporary art,” says Carlos Urroz, the director of the Spanish fair Arco, at which Colombia was guest country this year (25 February-1 March).

These kinds of initiatives might shake Western preconceptions of Colombian art, whether the fat-figured works of Fernando Botero or the stitched canvasses by market darling Oscar Murillo. Now, curators are beginning to discover artists who “did not have much international or even regional visibility”, Roca says, citing examples such as Bernardo Salcedo, Alvaro Barrios, El Sindicato, Feliza Bursztyn, Beatriz González and Antonio Caro. But many of these “discoveries” are new only to Westerners. “People didn’t come to Colombia because they feared drug-related violence. But, once the country was better off, people came and experienced first-hand what had been there all along. In terms of the sudden international visibility of a mature scene, Colombia is like Brazil ten years ago,” he says.