Friday, October 16, 2009

The War We Have Not Seen

The exhibition "The War We Have Not Seen" opened on 14 October at the Bogota Museum of Modern Art, Calle 24 No. 6-00. It runs until 14 November.

View the exhibition online at:

"The War We Have Not Seen: a historical memory project," is an exhibition of 89 paintings organized by the Puntos de Encuentro Foundation. It presents works by former combatants from the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), ELN (National Liberation Army), AUC (United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia), and National Army soldiers who were wounded in combat. All of them are anonymous fighters: campesino men and women whose common denominator is the desire to paint what they witnessed and experienced as the protagonists of Colombia's armed conflict. The objective of the exhibition is to provide an occasion for artistic and social debate, so as to raise awareness and take a stance against war.

Picture a Unicef card: The naïve style of painting scenes of daily rural life and celebrations in bold bright colors. Picture a child's painting of a hamlet in the mountains where the townspeople are dancing in the streets in celebration of a saint's day, or simply going about their business: the world of Macondo where "nothing happens." Now picture the same scene, only instead of dancing, people are fleeing armed gunmen, and rather than banners festooning the streets, bodies streaming blood are strewn about.

Because the technical execution of these paintings is not skillful, the portrayals are not very realistic. This makes it possible to view them without turning away in the way that a more graphic and realistic image would cause the viewer to do. Still, the contrast between the primitive, childlike technique, with simple shapes and bold, bright colors, and the profoundly disturbing subject matter, dispels any illusion of innocence. One artist stands out in terms of technical excellence. His paintings were signed John Jairo. In his paintings the landscape dominated the few figures he showed; the denseness of the tropical forest practically swallowing up the scene. He conveys a sense of silence, remoteness, and oppression. I hope to see more of his work.

Recurring themes in the paintings

Anonymity and ambiguity: As untrained painters, the artists lack the skills to effectively differentiate the individuals in their paintings. This technical deficiency becomes a commentary on the anonymity of war. It is often difficult to distinguish which armed group is being represented: Is this the Army, the guerrillas, or the paramilitaries? Are they attacking or protecting? The methods and actions are often interchangeable, giving rise to the question, who are the good guys?

Closeness to the civilian population: In war the distinction between combatants and civilians is often not respected. The image most commonly portrayed in the paintings is that of the civilian population caught in the crossfire of war. Executions of civilians who are suspected of being collaborators are portrayed a number of times. One painting shows two kidnap victims bound in the forest; in the distance between the mountains, a nearby village may be seen. The distance between barbarity and civilization is very close.

The undercurrent of violence: In many of the paintings, the violence is not always apparent on first glance. It takes a while to shift through the details before noticing the figures moving between the trees, or the fact that in the lower corner all of the passengers have disembarked from the bus and are standing on the road while a couple of their fellow passengers are being executed.

Context information: A brief introduction to the armed conflict in Colombia

The guerrilla movement grew out of poverty and abandon, in a misguided attempt to vindicate rights by through armed violence. The rank of the guerrillas were populated with humble peasants who allowed themselves to be convinced that their movement would lead to more fairness and a better standard of living for all, as promised by the idealist, university-educated leaders who had embraced the socialist banner. You can't run a rebellion for free: revenues to support their war came from "taxing" the rich, extortion, kidnapping, and then they branched out into drug trafficking. They also waged a highly successful international campaign by claiming to represent the true voice of the people and alleging that the people were being forcibly repressed by the government. The Colombian public has expressed overwhelming repudiation for the guerrilla movements and their tactics.

The self-defense movement was the response by landowners who found themselves under siege by these guerrilla groups. Their private security forces grew in strength and number until these were operating on their own, as paramilitaries, and selling their security services to landowners and businessmen, making them "offers they could not refuse." As the de facto authority in their regions, they considered themselves to be above the law. They also found drug trafficking to be a lucrative way of funding themselves. As the paramilitary groups have demobilized, a percentage have continued to be involved in drug trafficking.

The Army: For many years the Military Forces were ineffective at fighting the guerrillas. They tacitly acquiesced to the self-defense groups, thus giving rise to the denomination paramilitaries. Under paid, ill-prepared, the ranks of the military were rife with corruption and human rights abuses. Most of the rank and file soldiers come from the obligatory military service requirement that young men must fulfill upon completing high school. In recent years the Colombian military has made enormous strides in terms of better preparation, better equipment, and better strategy. The military has managed to secure control in regions that had no government presence for many years, although in some areas this control is still not consolidated, and human rights violations continue to be a problem.

The common denominator of these three groups is that the foot soldiers in this war all come from the same campesino roots, joining the armed groups via threat of forced recruitment, lack of other opportunities in life, or military conscription, with a minority joining because of shared ideals. It is the humble who are the cannon fodder in war.

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