In Colombia, fighting has been going on for so long, few remember why it began. After decades of an internecine war and blood feuds between leftwing guerrillas, rightwing paramilitary groups and drug gangs, Juan Manuel Echavarría wants to block the country’s amnesia.
“Since I was born, Colombia never had a year of peace,” says the 68-year-old artist and photographer, who has lived through most of his country’s recent history of violence, starting with a decade-long bloodletting that started in 1948 and known simply as La Violencia, which pitted landowners against peasants and fuelled the rebel armed struggle.
After studying humanities in the US and art history in Italy and Greece, his artistic awakening came in 1995 when artist friends handed Echavarría a single-lens reflex camera loaded with a black-and-white roll of film.
He has documented Colombia’s internal conflicts — and to international acclaim. His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Musée du quai Branly in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in Bogotá.
“I’ve started digging into Colombia’s violence through images, building metaphors from the tragedies,” he says, likening his camera to the “reflection of Perseus’s shield” — which the mythical Greek hero used to protect himself from the Gorgon-monster Medusa, whose gaze could turn onlookers to stone.
Armed with his camera, Echavarría spent much of the past two decades travelling through war-torn parts of the country “getting into the bowels of the conflict to understand it”. Among his first body of works, Flower Vase Cuts uses human bones to portray the evidence of war mutilations as botanic arrangements.
Ana-María Reyes, a professor of Latin American art at Boston University, says: “His work shows how the aesthetic can help us to understand the historical roots of Colombia’s violence. He drives the spectator to ask questions and make connections.”
One of his most recent projects, Silences (2012-2013), is a series of photographs taken in abandoned and crumbling schoolhouses in Montes de María, a mountainous rural area whose inhabitants were forcibly displaced by paramilitaries in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The protagonists are the blackboards they left behind.
“They are a metaphor and witness to the war,” he says. In one photograph, a touching phrase can be spotted fading from the wall: “How beautiful is to be alive”.
In another subtle but shocking image, Requiem NN, Echavarría recorded over seven years the story of several “chosen” tombs of Montes de María victims, whose bodies were carried downstream by the Magdalena River to the town of Puerto Berrío. He recorded events, first through more than 400 photographs then in an hour-long film.
The bodies were fished out of the river by locals, and each grave was marked with the abbreviation NN for “no name”. The graves were tended by locals, who became their caretakers in exchange for favours. The lost souls, who have been stripped of their lives and identities, are prayed for, adopted — even named.
“It is an act of resistance,” says Echavarría. “These people are not turning their backs on the dead the river brought them. They are giving them a presence, a sort of second life. Most of all, they are giving them dignity in a place that is full of dead and disappeared, victims of guerrillas, paramilitaries and state forces.”
Peace negotiations between the government and Farc rebels are polarising Colombian public opinion, despite bringing a deal closer. The photographer and videographer’s works are important: in this war, the poor are the losers, and without blame or pity Echavarría’s work brings perpetrators and victims to the same level.
In December, Echavarría will exhibit three projects at the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux. One is a body of paintings by about 80 former rank-and-flank paramilitaries, guerrillas and soldiers, including Jhon, a 30-year-old rebel deserter and ex-military man.
“I liked neither the guerrillas nor the soldiers, but I had no choice, the war dragged me into both sides at different times,” says Jhon.
His life changed when Echavarría, who teaching paramilitaries and soldiers to paint, handed him a brush and a board while he was recovering at a military hospital in Bogotá.
“The first time I grabbed the brush I was blocked,” says Jhon, who is now studying for a degree in illustration. “But then I started painting what I have seen in the peasant area where I grew up, and where hearing the cracking of machine gun shots was commonplace, a sound of everyday life.”
Echavarría’s cathartic historical memory project, The War We Have Not Seen, gave many the opportunity to paint personal accounts of the drug-fuelled violence.
The images — almost always against the backdrop of Colombia’s lush green countryside — are striking, not because of its content, but because the chainsaws used to dismember victims; the massacres, shoot-outs, kidnappings, air raids, pools of blood and bodies dumped into the river, are painted with childish naivety.
A naive painting by Jhon depicting his uncle in his plantation of coca — cocaine’s raw material, is a case in point. In the painting, rebel assassins tie his uncle to a tree trunk for a fortnight, where he is embraced by his teenage daughter, before accusing him of being an informer and killing him.
“They painted like children because they never had the opportunity to hold a pencil for too long. From a very young age they were forced to hold a gun instead,” says Echavarría. “It is a very innocent language to describe the horror, which in turn makes it a brutal encounter between art and reality.”
That encounter may be on its way to find a place in Colombia’s history, but probably not until a peace deal is signed, he says: “It will take time for these paintings to be valued. When peace finally comes, they will be looked upon with more interest and less prejudice. For now, we are still at war and everything is very raw.”