Juan Manuel Echavarría belongs to a generation of Colombian artists whose work shares a causal link with the social and political situation in their country. And is it any wonder – after over 50 years of effective civil war that continues to rage in Colombia to this day. A whole host of his contemporaries have considered it their ethical obligation to express their political views through art.
Juan Manuel Echavarría was somewhat late to the visual-arts party – but he made up for this in his intensity and thoroughness. He had previously been channelling his creative juices into literature and poetry, though after several decades, he felt these were no longer a sufficiently expressive means of articulating his artistic thoughts. As a writer, he was of course more than au fait with the use of metaphors and imagery. So he set about adopting a direct approach to an image, creating it one for one in the form of a photo, thereby perhaps sending out a more accurate message and getting straight to the point.
It was through photography that Echavarría quickly moved into video as the perfect, broader means of expressing and documenting his content. This more complex approach required a team, particularly also a kindred artistic partner, whom he found in young Colombian artist Fernando Grisales. The pair have now been working together for some twenty years.
But his early video piece Guerra y pa’ (2001) (single channel video, 9:00 min) demonstrates that good art doesn’t necessarily need a whole workforce behind it. Echavarría had spent months getting two parrots to practise the words ‘guerra’ (‘war’) and ‘paz’ (‘peace’), which they then performed in a hilarious ‘singing game’, sitting on a horizontal beam and fighting over their positions: the male fluffs his feathers up and squawks ‘guerra’, while the female, hustled off the beam by the uncouth macho, utters her ‘paz’ in a meeker, almost sheepish tone. It is a wonderful and humorous metaphor, both for the ‘battle of the sexes’ and for the situation in Colombia (link).
Echavarría created one of his most important works in 2003/2004 in the form of Bocas de ceniza (‘Mouths of Ash’) (single channel video, 18:50 min), whose authenticity and intensity is unparalleled. Witnesses of wartime atrocities and massacres sing simple, self-composed songs in which they try to describe and cathartically process their experiences and the inexpressible, as if in an act of self-therapy. Rarely has this topic been documented so candidly and harrowingly (link).
This work saw Echavarría break new ground in art at the time by shifting from being a politically engaged artist only portraying his own personal views on the subjects of violence and war to the public sociopolitical sphere, where he also used image material as a means of documentation. This marked the start of his move to fuse artwork and documentation. While still maintaining the aesthetic aspects, Echavarría thus entered the world of political reality, giving a voice to those who would otherwise go unheard, but who have a lot to say – more than all the others who could not be there.
As a logical consequence of his new personal experiences, Juan Manuel Echavarría soon (2006) established a foundation, the Fundación Puntos de Encuentro (link), which has certainly lived up to its name of ‘meeting places’. This initiative has given rise to a number of ground-breaking projects and activities. The painting workshops with ex-fighters, held between 2007 and 2009, were of tremendous socio-political significance. Juan Manuel Echavarría and Fernando Grisales invited former members of the FARC and ELN ‘terrorist groups’, as well as former AUC paramilitary fighters and ordinary soldiers from the Colombian army to record and recount their wartime experiences through images. Given the political situation in Colombia at the time, this was akin to a revolutionary act.
The result was nearly 500 images documenting Colombia’s civil war, with all its unfathomable atrocities and trauma, which were then displayed in many Colombian cities. A concept still unthinkable at the time – namely the creators of all these works being publicly named – has now actually become possible. At the Bogotá Book Fair in 2009, I attended a panel discussion where Echavarría was joined at the same table by representatives of the FARC and AUC – a giant step towards normalising humanitarianism, though this has now unfortunately again been called into question by Colombia’s current policymakers.
Discussing these matters inevitably raises the issue of the extent to which the question of perpetrator and victim needs to be fundamentally reframed. Because, all too often, the perpetrators themselves are victims of a cruel systemic cycle; after all, most of the would-be perpetrators have been gang-pressed as children and adolescents, under extreme duress. The crucial aspect of the artistic-documentation approach adopted by Echavarría and Grisales is that they do not talk about the victims externally, but rather work with the victims and allow them to speak for themselves. Also of tremendous importance in this context is Colombia’s current use of restorative justice, a criminal justice system focusing on rehabilitating offenders through reconciliation with their victims and the community.
In their extensive video series entitled La guerra que no hemos visto, Echavarría andGrisales ultimately combine the aforementioned images (produced in the workshops) with their creators’ relevant comments (as audio documentation) and drone footage of the described landscapes and villages, adding a topographical dimension to the verbal and graphic descriptions of past events. The video Amargura y sufrimiento en los portales del Río Fragüita as part of the Rios y silencios series. (technology) (photo) (link) is an impressive example of this.
The works by Echavarría and Grisales are muted in their appearance but have all the more lasting an impact. Requiem NN tells of an initially odd-seeming custom that residents of the city of Puerto Berrio, on the Río Magdalena, have been following for several years. In view of the countless dead bodies simply thrown into the river to permanently get rid of them during the chaos of civil war, the city’s residents decided to fish the body parts out of the river and bury them decently as ‘NN’ (Latin: nomen nescio) alongside the other dead in their local cemetery – thereby fighting back against the notion of being anonymously forgotten.
Over time, the new dead, the ‘NN’, were honoured, and all manner of assistance and miracles were offered to them – as a return gift in this new symbiotic relationship, they were shown affection, their graves were looked after, and, in some cases, they were effectively adopted posthumously, i.e. they were given new names in a bid to help restore their lost dignity (link to film)
Silencios saw the two artists spend years taking very impressive, poetic photographs of blackboards in dilapidated classrooms that had fallen victim to the chaos of war in Colombia’s jungles, and which, without roofs, protection and children, had been robbed of their former function. The pair have found and photographed over 200 blackboards in recent years. The sheer absence of everything our children so desperately need is expressed here in a highly poignant, horrifically laconic manner.
There is no more education here, no culture, no communication, no rules, no cohesion, no advancement, no goal and no future. These images, like all of the works by Echavarría and Grisales, rock us to our core. We often don’t even know whether to scream or just cry. The blackboard bearing the text ‘Lo bonito es estar vivo’ in scrawled, spidery writing is heart-breaking.
Over the years, Juan Manuel Echavarría has become a realistic artist.
Together with Fernando Grisales, he brings us a step closer to the unspeakable, such that we could almost understand it, were it not so incomprehensible.