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As a child, Colombian gallery owner José Roca read a story in which explorers discover a lost civilisation that had developed in complete isolation from the west.
For lost civilisation read: Bogotá. For decades Colombia’s capital was a no-go area, riven by conflict between leftist guerrillas and rightwing paramilitary groups and devastated by the tyranny of the drug cartels. It was, declared Colombia’s finest writer, Gabriel García Márquez, a country consumed by a “biblical holocaust”.
Who would be rash enough to walk the streets of a city where killings and kidnappings were horribly commonplace, let alone visit an art gallery there? Indeed, there was scarcely a gallery to visit until a crackdown on the gangs by President Álvaro Uribe, who held office from 2002 to 2010.
Bogotá has gone from fear to hope. Last September private research firm WealthInsight reported that the number of millionaires in Colombia had grown by 39 per cent since 2007 and evidence of that wealth can be seen in the smart new blocks of flats, fashionable restaurants and shopping malls – although there are policemen and security guards on every corner.
The art market is part of that boom, with as many as 40 private galleries opening in the past seven or eight years, and with international fairs and artists winning worldwide recognition. British publisher Phaidon Press last October included Bogotá on a list of 10 “Art Cities of the Future”.
As Roca, whose own gallery Flora opened last year, writes in the book: “With no outside intervention, the local scene emerged without the pressures of the market (no production frenzy artificially induced by biennials or galleries). So when outsiders finally visited, they were pleasantly surprised to find a very mature scene with artists that would be major players on the international circuit had they been working in a more connected or visible environment.”
Gallery owner Catalina Casas, 41, is one of a new breed able to take advantage of her home city’s relative harmony. She has owned a gallery in Miami since 2001 but only in 2005 did she feel secure enough to open a second branch of the Galeria Casas Riegner and begin to promote the works of the 19 local artists on her books to a wider audience.
As Casas says, “It would have been impossible before to have a commercial gallery in Bogotá. The streets were not safe during the difficulties. The new mood of peace and the growing interest in art across the globe by gallery owners, collectors and dealers has encouraged outsiders to see what is happening here.”
Bogotá artist Miguel Ángel Rojas insists that as well as the coincidence of money and peace, the interest in Colombian contemporary art depends, above all, on its high standard. Best known for his undercover filming of the forbidden gay scene in the city’s Faenza theatre during the 1970s, Rojas says, “Paradoxically this high level of quality is directly related to the intense violence the country lived through for years. The first internationally recognised contemporary Colombian artists were those that responded to this adversity.”
He defines the current art scene in Colombia as “post-Fernando Botero”, the hugely popular artist whose bronzes and paintings of voluminous caricatures are now worth millions of dollars. “For years local collectors were only interested in Botero’s work,” says Rojas. “They did not support more experimental art from Colombia. This is no longer the case.”
Affirmation of the widening interest can be found at the first biennial to be held in the fashionable coastal city of Cartagena, with 120 artists from 45 countries, and in Medellín, a city cursed for years by the malign rule of the drug cartels, where a $12m extension to the Museum of Modern Art will open next year as part of the city’s regeneration plans.
Most significant of all is the International Art Fair of Bogotá – ArtBo – which was first held in 2005 and takes place each October. An initiative by the city’s Chamber of Commerce to position Bogotá as a city of culture and to strengthen the local market, last year it hosted 65 from 21 countries as well as collectors from Singapore, the US and Brazil. María Paz, director of ArtBo, says, “We want to keep the fair at the same size this year. It’s like a boutique fair in which we increase the quality and give an opportunity for younger, emerging talent. The fair attracts a crop of local collectors who are focusing on that new talent and a growing international following.”
All this activity has won interest from the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which has established a Latin American acquisition committee, and from MoMA in New York with the appointment of a Latin American curator. José Roca himself has been given the role of sourcing works for Tate Modern in London and next year Colombian art is to be specially featured at the International Fair of Contemporary Art in Madrid.
So who are making names for themselves on the global stage? Bogotá-born Doris Salcedo is familiar in the UK for her installation Shibboleth at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2007; British-based Oscar Murillo impressed critics with an exhibition at the South London Gallery last year and has since become an art-market star; photographer Juan Fernando Herrán has been shortlisted for the Prix Pictet.
Mateo López, who came to international scrutiny with his “Motorcycle Diary” – a narrative illustrated with drawings, objects and photographs of a 2,153km country trip by scooter – had additional exposure last year by being chosen to work with South African William Kentridge in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.
Others that might catch the eye include Antonio Caro, whose reworking of the Coca-Cola logo to read “Colombia” is a cryptic jibe at US economic muscle – as well as the cocaine trade – while Hector Munoz and José Alejandro Restrepo both attracted interest at last year’s ArtBo. Because so many of the new wave of artists have worked and exhibited abroad and been open to a wide range of influences, Catalina Casas admits that art they are producing is harder to categorise in terms of a style or identity that could be called “Colombian”.
In the dark days of the “biblical holocaust” that stretched from the late 1940s to the 1990s and even into this century, anger at the country’s plight was a constant preoccupation, as testified by the paintings of Alejandro Obregón (1920-92), whose “La Violencia” (1962) portrays Colombia as a murdered, pregnant woman, and the harrowing works of Norman Mejía (1938-2011).
While Galeria Casas Riegner still supports politically motivated individuals such as installation artist Rosemberg Sandoval and painter Beatriz González, it was María Fernanda Cardoso who flew the flag for the gallery at London’s Frieze art fair last year with her film of a copulating stick insect captured in painstakingly slow motion. As Miguel Ángel Rojas says, “The new generation of artists has moved away from more overtly political artwork and towards more personal proposals – art that is more related to form, poetics and the nature of art.”
The Cartagena Biennial runs until April 17. ticartagena.com