In 1981 Medellín, an isolated but prosperous town in the Colombian midlands, was suddenly transformed into a major Latin American art centre when Colombian curator Alberto Sierra Maya and Peruvian art critic Juan Acha invited some 40 Latin American scholars, critics and artists (including Cildo Meireles, Nelly Richard, Luis Barragán and the then little-known Ana Mendieta, who represented Cuba), to discuss how non-objective art might serve as an alternative to the hegemony of what was then still called the First World. That symposium turned out to be unique. Medellín – which had held four important Latin American biennials between 1968 and 1981, in contrast to the ‘internationalism’ of São Paulo – was plunged into a maelstrom of guerrilla and counter-guerrilla violence. For 15 years Medellín’s streets andplazas were empty, its universities under siege: frightened parents kept schoolchildren at home, and rumba bars shut down even in the poorest neighbourhoods. Civilian life in Medellín began recovering slowly only after the dramatic death of drug cartel godfather Pablo Escobar in 1993.
More than a decade later this booming tropical city has recovered its lost allure, although the hills are now covered with ever-growing slums of desplazados (homeless) as urbanization spreads north and south. The traumas are hard to forget, and almost everyone in town can recall the bombings, the erratic assaults of sicarios (hired gunmen) on their motor bikes or the unresolved disappearance of a brother, cousin or friend. This may be the reason why Medellín has developed a civility rare in other Latin American cities: along with luxurious shopping malls, the town is building sumptuous libraries, magnificent playgrounds and music schools the size of opera houses for members of every social class. A decade-old elevated metro, linked to a brand new cable system serving the hillside slums, now clean of graffiti and rubbish, runs across town, and the hundreds of motorcyclists have to wear bullet-proof jackets with their licence numbers in big fluorescent letters to distinguish them from the sicarios.
This was the context for this first Encuentro Internacional Medellín 2007 (International Encounter Medellín), a multifaceted, multi-venue enterprise initiated by the Museo de Antioquia and organized by a team of guest curators that included Jaime Cerón Silva, Ana Paula Cohen, Oscar Muñoz, José Ignacio Roca, María Inés Rodríguez and Sierra Maya himself. Lucia González, the festival organizer and director of the privately run museum, notes that the operation – running from January to June – was designed to ‘reconnect Medellín with the rest of the world’ by challenging 20 years of international neglect. But Medellín also ‘reconnected’ with its own past: Sierra opened his filing cabinets and unpacked the memorabilia of the 1981 symposium, including photographs of street actions by Felipe Ehrenberg and Carlos Zerpa, Mendieta’s earliest ‘Silhouette’ series from 1974 and hundreds of clippings that showed the repercussions of the symposium across Latin America. Meanwhile Alvaro Barrios – himself a pioneer of Conceptual art in Colombia – invited six artists to reconstruct key works of local historical importance, including Beatriz González’ censored banner for Medellín’s 1981 biennial, which reads: ‘This biennial is a luxury that an underdeveloped country cannot afford.’ Among the most extraordinary works in this small show were curled metal kinetic ‘sculptures’ by Feliza Bursztyn from a 1968 series called ‘Histérica’.
It’s hard to forget history in a country still undergoing a precarious healing process, and most of the 48 works presented in the series of shows, even by non-Colombian artists, dealt with memories, traumas and the underground civil war of President Alvaro Uribe’s ‘Refounding the Nation’ rhetoric. In a striking video, Bocas de ceniza (Mouths of Ashes, 2007), Juan Manuel Echevarría tracked victims of the genocidal war against the black and indigenous populations of the Chocó Department, on Colombia’s Pacific coast, who sing horrifying life stories of massacres, village bombings and forced displacements in monotonous voices somewhere between gospel and rap. Others take more oblique post-Conceptual approaches: Bogotá-based Liliana Angulo’s parodies of eccentric Afro-Caribbean hair-styles, juxtaposed with clippings from élite newspapers, are a comment on gender, disguise and recovering one’s lost identity. Meanwhile Mateo López dismantled a Vespa scooter – used by the deadly sicarios in the 1980s and early ’90s – capturing its mechanical parts in a logbook of exquisite drawings that mark his own itinerary along the perilous roads from Bogotá to Medellín.
Like other ‘festivals’ of its type, Encuentro Internacional Medellín 2007 not only consisted of art exhibitions but also an ongoing series of lectures, panel discussions, film programmes, concerts, performing arts events and community-based workshops, the latter curated by Conceptual and video artist Muñoz. During the opening weekend, site-specific works, such as artist Tatzu Nishi’s project to assemble a little house around the steeple of the church of the Barrio Triste (the Sad Quarter), or Slovenian Marjetica Potrc’s collaborations with local social workers, were just getting started. The public could, however, get a glimpse of these projects and previous achievements at the ‘Casa del Encuentro’, the former museum building, transformed into the festival’s social and interactive hub, totally refurbished in an anti-glamorous, absurd and humorous manner by Bogotá artist Gabriel Sierra. It was here that a convivial series called conversatorio con chocolate (literally, ‘conversations with chocolate’) took place between artists, curators and the public, until the donated supply of local hot cacao ran out.