New Biennial Signals Colombia’s Cultural Aspirations
By Jason Edward Kaufman
Latin America climbed another rung on the contemporary art ladder with the launch of a new biennial in Cartagena, Colombia. Biennials serve multiple interconnected functions: educational, economic, and what might be called flag-waving. By these measures the International Contemporary Art Biennial of Cartagena de Indias, which took place from February to April, was a measured success, though a somewhat underappreciated one.
The main patron of the biennial is collector Patricia de Ardila, wife of billionaire soft drink industrialist Carlos Julio Ardila. Though based in Bogotá, like many wealthy Colombians they have a home in Cartagena. Also instrumental was Nohra Haime, a Colombian-born Manhattan dealer who recently opened a gallery in Cartagena where she, too, has a home. She says they christened BIACI to add cultural life to the picturesque Caribbean town.
Cartagena is known for beaches and its quaint old town steeped with Spanish colonial history. The port in the 16th to 18th centuries was a Spanish administrative center and a waypoint for gold and silver from the continent. To defend against English and French pirates they erected massive ramparts and a fort that today are Unesco World Heritage Sites.
Outside the walls are highrises, but old Cartagena, composed nearly entirely of colonial buildings, is what parts of Havana could look like if Cuba combines preservation with economic reforms that invite investment and tourism. Narrow streets are lined with old houses, stucco facades in good repair, some prettily painted in pastel colors, and many with turned-wood window grills and balcony balustrades spilling bouganvilia. The streets and plazas are clean and safe and high-end hotels and boutiques are tastefully inserted into the colonial fabric.
The city hosts film and literature festivals – the late Gabriel García Márquez set Love in the Time of Cholera in Cartagena — and has modest museums, but patrons felt contemporary art was needed to ratchet up the city’s reputation. They enlisted as artistic director Berta Sichel, former curator of film and video at Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, who oversaw the international component while several curators collaborated on the Colombian section. All told they installed work by 120 artists from 40-odd countries in spaces around the city.
Sichel adopted as a theme the notion of “the presence of the past,” and some works alluded to colonialism, slavery, “negritude,” and to craft and music traditions. But the venues themselves were a constant reminder of history — colonial houses, schools and chapels, dungeons within the fortifications, the Naval Museum in an ancient arsenal and the Museum of the Inquisition, erstwhile headquarters of the Catholic tribunal, with its replicas of grisly instruments of torture.
Expertly installed in these historic sites were many videos by foreign artists including Bill Viola, Peter Campus, Janet Biggs, Nic Cave, Janet Biggs, Charles Atlas and Jesper Just, and a pulsating cylindrical LED sculpture by Leo Villareal. In a former church Radcliffe Bailey placed a Negro bust on a sea of broken piano keys. Ana Torfs wove a tapestry set whose imagery memorialized colonialism in a medium of European heritage, and Willie Cole hung chandeliers made of plastic bottles containing images of a local saint. The muggy weather precluded most works on paper, but Yinka Shonibare showed a large photograph of a galleon with African-printed sails. And there were magic realist nature still lifes painted by Anna Camner and Kevin King. Live performances included Bulgarian choreographer Svetlin Velchev contorting in a web of fishing lines, and one of Yoko Ono’s Wish Trees was among many installations that enlivened public spaces around the city.
One purpose of biennials is to mix local artists with their better known peers from abroad, and the Colombian component fared well by comparison. Co-curated by Miguel González, a curator from Cali, Gabriela Rangel of the Americas Society in New York, and Stephanie Rosenthal, chief curator of the Hayward Gallery in London, their show demonstrated that social issues and politics are still salient subjects for Colombian artists. Juan Manuel Echevarría made a video of campesinos caring for anonymous graves of victims of political and criminal violence, Libia Posada photographed the legs of displaced persons bearing tattoo-like maps of the routes they traveled in exile.
But the country’s violent recent history is no longer de riguer. The suddenly celebrated young Oscar Murillo took over a dilapidated house and placed his messy expressionist drawings on the walls and floor along with a video of rural folk singers. Miguel Ángel Rojas created an exquisitely beautiful poured-sand geometric-patterend Mozarabic floor that turned an ancient room into a dazzling décor. In the working-class neighborhood of Getsemaní, Satch Hoyt made a public speaking rostrum with a microphone atop a stack of books, and Adrian Gaitan offered a striking sculpture of a young man’s legs sticking out of a giant conch shell, a symbol of Cartagena.
If a function of a biennial is to boost the reputations of home talent by placing their work on a world stage, BIACI should have been a ringing success. And although the event attracted tens of thousands of visitors, including scores of journalists and curators, most of the audience was Colombian, and for that reason the biennial likely will not have a great impact on the reputations of the Colombian artists. And if the event did not provide a major stimulus to the economy, it bolstered local businesses and introduced local audiences to contemporary art. (I participated in a panel about the emerging Colombian scene with Jaime Cerón from the Ministry of Culture, Tate Latin American curator José Roca, biennale co-curator Miguel González.)
In any case, the event was a milestone for Colombia, whose top galleries, collectors, museums and nonprofit independent spaces are based almost entirely in Bogotá. So is ArtBO, the annual fair that is one of the best in Latin America, and the federal Banco de la Republica which runs the National Museum, the only Colombian institution actively buying contemporary art. BIACI demonstrated that the growing economy and enhanced security have proven fertile ground for cultural enterprises outside the capital. The second largest city, Medellin, has two of the country’s most vibrant museums, and the annual Salon Nacional mounted by the Ministry of Culture has in recent years been staged in regional centers. The new biennial in Cartagena will not challenge Venice, the Whitney and Sao Paulo for preeminence, but it has added momentum to the rising presence of Latin America on the contemporary art world stage.
Jason Edward Kaufman //
This article appeared on Artphaire (Online), May 15, 2014.