May 28th, 2020
A Dark and Lyrical Vision of Latin America
Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo’s photographs reflect the ambiguities of political violence in Colombia, Cuba, and Venezuela.
By Lyle Rexer
Six years ago, during a visit to Colombia, I joined a roundtable discussion with academics, cultural officials, artists, and writers about a program of monuments and memorials that would help to “heal” communities damaged by Colombia’s internal war. To call the discussion tentative would be an understatement. It was conducted in anticipation of a peace accord between the FARC revolutionary group and the Colombian government to bring an end to decades of armed conflict. In truth, Colombia’s sectarian violence had been going on a lot longer, at least since 1948 and the murder of liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. That history was enough to provoke Harvard economist James A. Robinson to describe Colombia as essentially a failed state.
One of the people not waiting for negotiated agreements or an official sanction was architect-turned photographer Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo. On that same visit to Colombia, he introduced me to a project he had begun in 2010 titled Colombia, Tierra de Luz. Escobar- Jaramillo visited some two dozen communities across Colombia that had been disrupted by war and, with the collaboration of their inhabitants, developed what amounted to ritual performances of cleansing and repatriation, all based on the use of light. The artist’s photographic record of those performances constitutes this multivolume project, published in book form in 2019 by Universidad de Caldas, to which I had the pleasure of contributing a text. The final chapter took place as the FARC negotiations were coming to a close, with a performance in which demobilized guerilla fighters used gunpowder from bullets as a light source for the photographer.
At the same time, however, Escobar-Jaramillo was working on another, far less optimistic project about the impact of political violence on the attitudes of a generation that grew up under its cloud. Patria o Muerte (La Luminosa, 2019) is a photographic comparison, presented with only a minimal text by Alberto Barrera Tyszka, of two revolutionary societies: Cuba and Venezuela. The artist began shooting these photographs just as negotiations with the FARC were beginning. In the background, he includes the deaths of two charismatic revolutionary figures, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. Of course, Chávez and Castro came to power by very different paths, but the inequalities that fostered their movements and gave them, and other groups throughout Latin America, a rhetoric of change invite a staging of resemblances and cross-references. The diptych structure constitutes the book’s narrative. We are never quite sure where we are—whether the bandaged arm in one image is Venezuelan and the arm holding the chicken (probably destined for someone’s pot) is Cuban, or vice versa.
Many of the images are deliberately truncated, and for all its structuring, the book has a chaotic feel, a sense of turmoil and disjunction. There are plenty of graveyards and slaughtered animals, and even the lyrical moments are compromised: a hand reaching into a cage to retrieve an exotic bird completely obscures the creature, except for a hint of blue and green in the tail feathers. Running through many of the images, like a musical motif in a dark symphony, are representations of the leaders and their epigones—Castro, Chávez, Che—on billboards, in graffiti and tattoos. It would be politically convenient to read these images as a eulogy for failed revolutions, but these revolutions did not fail; power changed hands. The privileged were brought down and society upended. It is what came after that clearly interests Escobar- Jaramillo: the cults of personality, the inevitable repressions and vendettas, the failure to build productive societies in a world whose complexity overwhelms all the simplistic formulae: Power to the People. Patria o muerte. Or, in a different context, Blood and Soil. When revolutionary governments, Left or Right, are responsible for millions of deaths and massively unfree social structures, do their ideas have any significance at all?
If Escobar-Jaramillo’s dark vision looks like garden variety disillusion, it has to be seen in a Colombian context—it is the psychic cost of violence and the impact of living in a country that is deeply fragmented and cannot enact its own best intentions. Rather than cynicism, it seems to have spawned a deep suspicion of categorical statements (like patria o muerte) and an embrace of radical ambiguity. You see it in literary works, like Tomás González’s Abraham entre bandidos (2010), a novel in which the main character is kidnapped by a high-school friend, who has become a legendary guerilla leader. Most disturbing are the purely domestic scenes, in which criminality and violence exist just below the surface of middle-class stability.
I am also reminded of the “urban interferences” staged by the late Argentine photographer Graciela Sacco. The pasteups of such imagery as eyes, wings, open mouths, and rock-throwing protesters did not announce their affiliation; they simply appeared in different settings in the streets of Buenos Aires and left it up to viewers to parse the context and make associations. Which leads back to Patria o muerte.
Escobar-Jaramillo’s attitude toward contemporary conditions is grimly compassionate, and toward political rhetoric, skeptical. Coming from an educated, liberal middle class, Escobar-Jaramillo recognizes that people who are oppressed must fight back; they must stand up against economic and physical injustice. But the benefits of resistance and victory elude the very people who have no choice but to believe in a future. And no matter how complete the overthrow, the legacy of violence proves difficult to overcome. In these pictures, there are no guerilla fighters (or anyone else) breaking open their cartridges to use the gunpowder as a light source. And yet . . .
Escobar-Jaramillo wrote me that his motivation for this project was the beginning of peace talks with the FARC. How could it be, he asked, that after thirty years of armed conflict, the state might integrate its enemy into the structure of governance? It would have to be under different terms than patria o muerte. His photographs caution that this process will not be an easy one.
Lyle Rexer is an independent critic, curator, and writer, contributing to many publications, including a regular column for Photograph. He teaches at the School of Visual Arts, New York.