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Issue 241

The Sacred Alchemy of Carlos Alfonso

At Casas Riegner, Bogotá, the artist fashions spaces for community and security

BY Jennifer Burris in Exhibition Reviews | 14 DEC 23

In the early 2000s, my graduate programme (like many) was preoccupied by post-structural French theory and its rehashing of classical motifs. One discussion focused on how the Greek term oikos (whose tripartite meaning encompasses family, property and home) had come to describe a dispersed domesticity of uncertain grounding, articulated by the moveable, transient fires around which people gather in the street. Over the last few years, Colombian artist Carlos Alfonso has fashioned such oikos in the form of a series of earthen clay ovens that have become sites for making, cooking, knowledge-sharing and creating alternative social formations. Instantiations of these vessels have moved across disparate venues for emerging art practices in Bogotá – FLORA ars+natura in 2019 and PIEDRAPIEDRAPIEDRA in 2022 – before arriving in its current fragmented state at Casas Riegner, awaiting collective assemblage and activation over the course of Alfonso’s exhibition.

Curated by Paula Bossa, ‘Altares del suelo se animan con fuego’ (Altars of the Ground Are Animated with Fire), the artist’s first solo show with the gallery, offers a repository for the knowledge gleaned through years of such workshops. A circle of terracotta bricks, each presenting a small grouping of local seeds, anchors the largest room as a simultaneous offering and call to worship. Encircling this ‘altar’ and reinforcing its sacral connotations is a sparse installation of 11 exquisite canvases that pair miniature figuration with short, hand-painted texts in the manner of Mexican votive paintings.

Carlos Alfonso, ‘Altares del suelo se animan con fuego’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Casas Riegner

The incantatory writings move between familial recipe, instruction, accusation and the tonality of a loved one imparting blueprints for generational health. Such fluidity translates into a fever-dream of floating symbols in the illustrations, where cosmic dances of embodied memory share a pictorial field with amulets, nails and extracted teeth. Each work, as replete with encoded information as a seed, moves deftly between narratives of individual and collective illness (calcium deficiencies, poisoned earth, corn filled with pesticides) and an accumulation of received restorative wisdom. By juxtaposing images of botanical wealth with descriptions of hunger, Alfonso evokes the heartbreak shadowing his seemingly utopic oikos: the fires on the street are not just talismans for the potential of a sociality outside consumer structures but are also relics of a precarity felt by unhoused people throughout Colombia.

Further elements in the exhibition include a dedicatory wall frieze in the gallery’s central space, which names those elements positioned within this proposed constellation of healing, and an installation of objects that will be used to construct and activate the oven. Both site-specific gestures reflect the influence of the late Antonio Caro, whose estate is also represented by Casas Riegner. Pictograms that meld a colonizer’s language with indigenous transcription recall the brilliant Homenaje a Manuel Quintín Lame (Tribute to Manuel Quintín Lame, ca.1978), just as the presentation of food as a site of revolutionary encounter draws upon Caro’s performance Dulce Zipacón (1992). But where Caro encased such investigations in strategies of conceptualism and pop, Alfonso’s work insists on the primacy of Colombia’s commonly held cultural forms and expressions: the particularities of cooking over fire; the act of growing, preparing and sharing food.

Carlos Alfonso, ‘Altares del suelo se animan con fuego’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Casas Riegner

This orientation has led to longstanding dialogues with fellow researcher-archivists like ceramist María Cano as well as with Cristina Consuegra and Lisa Blackmore, whose recent collaboration, Cómo Cuidar un río (How to Care for a River, 2023), uses Alfonso’s graphic, community-oriented strategies to generate interest in protecting the Bogotá River – one of the world’s most polluted waterways. As such collaborators are invited into the gallery space, the exhibition faces its most ambitious proposal: the transformation of the collectively assembled oven into a site of knowledge production within the exhibition. No longer pure registry, this intentionality would render the gallery space almost alchemic, closer to fire.

Carlos Alfonso’s ‘Altares del suelo se animan con fuego’ is on view at Casas Riegner, Bogotá, until February 2024.

Main Image: Carlos Alfonso, ‘Altares del suelo se animan con fuego’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Casas Riegner

Jennifer Burris is a curator and writer based in Bogotá, Colombia. She is currently working on a long-term research project on Alexander Calder in Venezuela in collaboration with curator Vic Brooks.