What Peace Looks Like? Art, sustainability and reconciliation

What peace looks like?  During the last few weeks I have been trying to understand what does it mean to have a Peace Agreement in Colombia, and what will happened after the negotiations between the FARC (the almost 50 years old left-wing guerrilla) and the Colombian government of Presidente Santos. It is not an easy process, after all we have lived for so long in the “Violence”, to the point that we cannot even imagine what peace looks like. We do not have referents, narratives or images about what is to be peaceful: on the opposite, all our urban and national stories are crossed by violence, extermination, a male-patriarchal-bully attitude, violent drug traffickers, and a sustained violence against minorities and women, whose bodies bear the scars of conflict and war.

Indeed, my family’ history -as many other Colombians- is marked by stories of violence: my parents’ parents leaving their lands in the 1950s because of the civil war between liberals and conservatives; then the “calma chicha” of the Frente Nacional, the agreement between the two parties of stop killing each other while sharing power, this was a short lived situation that did not resolve the structural problems of the country and gave origin to the guerrillas. And then, the horrendous time of drug trafficking, the nightmare in which we got into with the complicity of many seduced by the “easy money” of the drug trade, without measuring the tragic consequences for our country. This was actually my time: the bombs of Pablo Escobar, limiting our “going out” in the city; the terrifying presence of drug traffickers in discos and clubs, which became an off-limits places; the abominable assassinations of judges, journalists and politicians, who dared to speak about that emerging nightmare; the tragic assault to the Palace of Justice; the inhumane rise of kidnapping (both for political purposes or common delinquency) touching and tearing apart families (including mine, albeit we had it easier…)… my god! I can write so much about the violence and the war.

It’s all so part of my story, and yet, I -as many other Colombians- have tried to “get over it”, or as they say here “keep chill and carry on”; because otherwise, it is easier to fall into desperation and frustration, and life needs to go on! There was a time where guerrillas meant something, the last sparks of the Cuban revolution and the Che Guevara aura, and when we had a first peace process in the 1990s with the re-insertion of M19 and other left-wing guerrillas, we thought we could make it. It was the time of the Student Movement and the New Constitution of 1991, it was the new millennium approaching and the possibilities of really making a difference. Sadly, this was not going to be the case: for the newly appointed politicians (ex-guerrileros, some as charismatic as Carlos Pizarro) it became a “death sentence” as they were assassinated and with them the ideal of real reconciliation. This had also an effect on the rest of guerrilla groups who saw this as the clear failure of the intentions and promises of negotiation.  The problem was that such guerrillas soon lost their ideals, got involved with the drug trafficking supply chain, and quickly dissolved into meaningless and cruel actions.  Those ex-guerrilleros proved not so “nice” and first hand account of their abuses on their newly gained positions evidenced the difficulties of the process.  The ideals were transformed into blunt criminality, the same vices that guerrilla aimed at fighting were actually enacted in their own realms.  Dreams for peace were destroyed, and even the attempts of President Pastrana of negotiating a new peace process -he even offered a “free zone” for guerrilleros-  ended in the “chasco” of the “empty chair” (the main guerrilla leader never attended the so-publicised peace talks).

During and after that period, the chaos was rampant, and the truth is that there was not such a thing as “one guerrilla” but because of its very nature, this was an “organism” of many groups dispersed throughout the territory.  That chaos and the sensation of being sieged by the criminality, opened the door for the following government, the establishment of a para-military activities and a policy of “mano dura”… war with war, and with it, all sort of violence and abuses. Not surprisingly, most of the Colombian society welcome the change… after the powerlessness feeling of the previous years, Uribe touched on the ‘patriarchal’, ‘macho’ aspects of our national psyche, and his overwhelming atttitude and dictatorial style gained many admirers. However, his government also had a questionable record of human rights abuses and in general, I think that Colombians do believe in democracy and freedom (even if it is just words) as evidenced by the notorious absence of “military dictatorships” which abounded in other countries of Latin America.

To try and re-establish a peace process has been in itself a great achievement for the current government, for the society and the parties involved, but somehow took us all by surprise! So what do this peace process mean? For starting, this has been a masterful example of negotiation and use of the language. For instance, the guerrilla is not going to surrender their weapons (entregar las armas), because they say they have not been defeated, but they will “leave them” or “laid them” (dejarlas)… also, they do not agree with going to prison, but the negotiation agreed on “being judged”.  All these little details actually evidence the delicate texture of the peace process and the help and support from experts around the world in making this possible.

But this is just the beginning, and after so many decades of war and violence, it is very difficult to imagine a country in peace. What does it mean to be in peace? is it only to be able to go to the countryside houses? or rather is the possibility of re-think and address the structural inequalities that are at the heart of any conflict?  Is this all about economic development? or it is time also to include the social and environmental dimensions. We are all talking about the “post-conflict”… even the Army is talking about being an organization for peace and re-thinking their role in the country. This is just amazing, and I think that all of us should be following this example by re-thinking what is our role.

As a Colombian, as an artist and as an educator, this is a wondrous moment. Yes, I am outside my country, but my country is inside me…I’d like to dream and to create visions of “peace”… and they are all around us. As an educator, we need to recreate our ways of telling the story, understanding a balance between an official story and the context in which all these situations have happened. It is an exercise of truth and forgiveness, because, we really need to move on and create the peace we have dreamed for decades!

As an artist, it is my responsibility to be part of the change, to be there, documenting, encouraging or manifesting what others cannot do. It is all part of what Nicholas Bourriaud has called “altermodernism” which actually transcends the post-modern view in which “everything goes” into “what is the role of the artist”, how artists live their world, how we are actually political beings.   In this regard, I feel inspired by the politically committed work of Doris Salcedo; during the last two decades she has been documenting and denouncing the traces of violence in the very fabric of our lives: her disjointed tables talking about displacement and disappearance; the falling chairs as terrible omens of the assault of the Palace of Justice in 1985; even her work at Tate Modern “Shibboleth” bears witness of her unbreakable responsibility with the Other.  She draws upon Emmanuel Levinas on the responsibilities with those many others… and who are those others…

So what peace looks like for me.  Personally, and following my quest for an art for sustainability, I would like to celebrate the magnificent richness of our country in terms of bio-diversity: the amount of birds, lizards and other animals is something so valuable to be left to “foreign investment” dynamics.

“Colombia is one of the world’s “megadiverse” countries, hosting close to 10% of the planet’s biodiversity. Worldwide, it ranks first in bird and orchid species diversity and second in plants, butterflies, freshwater fishes and amphibians. With 314 types of ecosystems, Colombia possesses a rich complexity of ecological, climatic, biological and ecosystem components…  This varied richness represents a significant challenge for implementing sustainable development initiatives.” (1)

In both my life as an art and as educator, the topic of sustainability is paramount. While living in Colombia I travelled upside the country, working with communities and brave leaders in the intersections between social development and environmental responsibility.  Consequently, my art is very influenced by such natural and social richness, hence my affinity for botanical projects. I have been slowly starting a collaborative project with ethnobotanist and anthropologist Martha Lucia Prado, about her life-work about the relationship between indigenous communities and plants in the Amazon.  Alongside my quest for finding my voice and celebrating who we are (including the fancy fans and my botanical paintings), I aim at using my art in order to envisioning “peace” in Colombia. What does it look like? I see the colours of the rain-forest, the diversity of our people, I picture the diversity of plants and birds, and the magic around us; my brushes dance with our music and cultural heritage; and with them I sketch the fragility of our dreams, the tenacity of our women, and I delineate the need for forgiveness, and celebrations… and that my friends, is what an artist does!

 

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