Cartagena, Colombia – Art and the City

May 2014 – Anesthesia numbs the body by obstructing sensory perception. The banalities of daily routine induce this same detached effect, as if we’re living everyday life under a steady dose of anesthesia that numbs our awareness of the surrounding world. Colombian artist Oswaldo Maciá introduces this topic in his piece for the The International Biennale of Contemporary Art in Cartagena de Indias.

Oswald’s piece highlights the relationship between anesthesia and aesthetic as a commentary on the flavorless monotony of daily routine. The Greek roots of the word aesthetic refer to the sensitivity of perception via our senses, yet today’s application of the word relates almost exclusively to our sense of vision and perception of outward form. Numbed by anesthesia, our relationship to everyday life is reduced to the disengaged experience of a peripheral observer. We become trapped by the little rituals of our daily habits, prisoners of our repetitive thought patterns and held captive by our entrenched emotional reactions. Desensitized and disconnected, we turn into passive viewers of our own contracted existence.

Banality has a distinct appearance and a unique personality in each culture but the remedies for monotony are nearly universal.

Art is one of these universal remedies.

Art alleviates us from the heavy burden of daily existence. It frees us for the weight of our day-to-day responsibilities and breaks the monotonous patterns that limit our openness to the beauty of each passing moment. Art infuses daily life with new perspectives and unexpected experiences that breathe color into our otherwise uninspiring routines. When art is embedded within the DNA of our cities, urban life is no longer simply a series of commutes, work obligations and social encounters – urban life is a vibrant and exciting phenomenon, inviting our participation.

Cartagena’s Biennale is free to the public and open six days a week for two months. The art festival’s longevity provides the opportunity for high school field trips, group visitations and serendipitous encounters with galleries and events. The sustained availability of the festival allows the Biennal to engage not only international visitors but also, and most importantly, local Cartageneros. This is critical because there has been a growing detachment between the daily lives of most Cartageneros and the historic city center which is being rebranded as a top Caribbean tourist destination rather than a serviceable downtown. The Biennal has the power to reconnect Cartagena residents with their downtown and with the legacy of their city.

Hosting an international art festival gives a city and its people the opportunity to revisit their history and proudly retell it to a broader audience. Art provides a new lens through which to view one’s historical roots while the festival itself is a platform to demonstrate this reimagined history in a contemporary context.

I was fortunate enough to stumble upon India’s first Biennale art festival in Kochi, Kerala during my travels in 2012. One of the most striking pieces in the festival was assembled from an assortment of large spice grinding stones that spilled out from an old shipping warehouse. These enormous stones could be found in nearly every home in the region before modern lifestyles reinvented household traditions. The artist collected the abandoned stones and used them in his piece to draw attention to Kochi’s legacy as a major port city for India’s colonial spice trade. The grinding stones cascaded across a dock along the water as a symbol of all the spices that have left India’s shores to be shipped across the world to foreign kitchens. The piece highlighted the importance of spices in India’s culinary traditions while recalling a history of European colonialism and exploitation.

In one particular piece of street art in Kochi, the artist painted the heads of Shiva and Jesus alongside a temple and a church within a single mountainside. This piece alluded to Kerala’s history of mixed spiritual identities as a result of British colonialism in a traditionally Hindu region. Although the British Empire arrived on the Indian peninsula with the intention of expanding trade and spreading Christianity, the British also built hospitals and schools which have, over time, elevated the standards of living in Kerala and have made it one of the most educated provinces in India today. The Biennal moderators repeatedly accredited Kochi’s legacy of intercultural interaction and continuous support for education as crucial factors for its selection over Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata as the host city for India’s first Biennal.

The International Biennale of Contemporary Art in Cartagena de Indias also gives Cartageneros a chance to reflect on the impacts of their own European visitors and how their influence came to form the Cartagena of today. In fact, the official symbol of Cartagena is of a beautiful young woman named India Catalina who served as the native interpreter for the Spanish conquistadors. The three principle symbols of modern day Cartagena are India Catalina, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia who founded Cartagena and the colorful grandeur of Spanish architecture.

The Spanish Empire arrived in the Caribbean with more than just beautiful architecture. The colonizers brought a particularly harsh brand of evangelical Christianity and a steady supply of African slaves to perpetuate their colonial economy. Both have come to shape a significant part of Caribbean culture in Colombia.

An incredibly powerful piece in the Cartagena Biennal called Veil of Memory by artist Terry Berkowitz addresses the Spanish Empire’s brutal siege on non-Christians in both the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. The Iberian Peninsula was once a thriving center for religious diversity and cultural tolerance where Christians, Muslims and Jews supported a rich endowment of universities and cultural institutions. This ended in the late 15th century when the Catholic Spanish monarchy embarked on a mission of cultural expulsion meant to rid the Iberian Peninsula of Jews and Muslims. Launched through the Holy Office of Inquisition, this severe crusade gave non-Christians four months to convert or risk facing a violent eviction. Veil of Memory portrays the tragedy of coerced displacement by honoring the solidarity of the last supper before exile.

These days most Cartageneros follow Catholicism as an uncontested cultural norm. Cartagena’s historical city center is decorated by elaborate churches, lavish plazas and the splintered memories of those forced to surrender their faith to the Spanish Empire.

Terry Berkowitz’s piece was installed in the Palace of Inquisition creating the perfect setting to contemplate how history in The New World could have been different if the more accepting version of the Spanish Empire arrived in the Americas rather than the intolerant Spanish conquistadors of just a few decades later.

The violent displacement of those forced to secede their local way of life isn’t just a historic relic of the past for many Colombians. The country’s ongoing struggle against internal guerilla military organizations has caused a collectively endured trauma within Colombian society, particularly in rural areas where the majority of the conflict takes place. The unkempt and impoverished fringes of urban centers are inhabited by those who have been forced to surrender the country life their families have known for generations. The unfamiliarity of city life offers little consolation for shattered communities robbed of their land and their dignity.

A striking piece by the Colombian artist Libia Posada illustrates the tragedy of this pain. Signos Cardinals includes a collection of black and white photos depicting the trail of displacement walked by those fleeing their homes in search for safer territory. A map drawn on the legs of los desplazados, the displaced, with black markers indicates the routes traveled by the victims of Colombia’s tragic internal conflict. The heartbreaking legacy of los desplazados will not easily be forgotten in Colombia’s national memory, especially as communities continue to be uprooted by violence and illegal narcotics continue to fuel instability in vast regions of the country.

As powerful and evocative as these Biennale works are, art doesn’t have to be a sophisticated social commentary on contemporary events or be some complex demonstration of historical symbolism – art can simply be an acknowledgement of the world around us. Art reminds us that our world is much more beautiful and vastly more profound than the monotony of our daily routines would have us believe.

With art in our lives, daily life is no longer a blurred image, slowly dragged across our peripheral each passing day. Art awakens our senses, it breathes significance into the smallest details and it connects us with the richness of the present moment. Our world becomes an interactive landscape, begging for our participation.

The streets of Cartagena are alive with the diverse portraits of everyday life – men sprinkling water on carts of stacked fruits to give them that irresistible shine, plump women seated behind arrangements of coconut sweets, a teenage girl selling cell phone minutes and small candies, an endless display of empanadas and other fried varieties, animated discussions accompanied by equally enthusiastic hand gestures, promotional slogans shouted by ambitious street vendors, a small group of strangers beneath the shade of a tree enjoying small plastic cups of café tinto while sharing brief moments of companionship, pedestrians crossing in every direction, partially in a determined stride and partially dancing as music fills the streets with a festive energy typical of daily action in Cartagena. Urban life becomes a living and breathing piece of art, painted by society’s collective participation in everyday life.

Sí, dos mangos por favor, para llevar. Smiles exchanged.

Our cities themselves are complex works of art, colorful and unique in their own way. When we open our eyes to the intertwining relationship between art and city, we awaken to the absolute beauty of the world all around us. We discover a heightened perception of life and an elevated sense of interconnectedness. The relationship between art and the city is one demanding to be recognized.

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