Walls of Hope / School of Art and Open Studio in Perquin, El Salvador

Art Created with the Association of Victims of Violence in Cocorná, COLOMBIA

“A NOSOTROS NOS HAN HECHO TANTO DAÑO/
THEY HAVE DONE SO MUCH HARM TO US”
Doña Carlina

Art Created with the Association of Victims of Violence in Cocorná, COLOMBIA

By CLAUDIA BERNARDI

In August of 2008 while working in Huehuetenango with ECAP and with a group
of indigenous women survivors of sexual violence, I received an email from Jorge Julio Mejía Mejía, telling me that he had seen a documentary about my work (“Artists of Resistance” directed by Penelope Price) in Switzerland. He saw that the work of art designed and facilitated by the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin was “exactly” what the communities in Antioquia, Colombia, needed.

Would I come to Colombia to work in an art project?
During the past year many emails were exchanged trying to secure funding, thinking about ideas of what this new collaboration could be like, who was going to participate, how many people? Children, youth or adults?, all of them?, etc.

On July 31, 2009, Claudia Verenice Flores Escolero, Rosa del Carmen Argueta and I arrived to Corcorná located in the highlands of Colombia, one hour way from Medellín.
In Cocorná AVVIC, Asociación de Víctimas de la Violencia in Cocorná/ Association of Victims of Violence of Cocorná gathers more than 50 local people, families, youth, children and adults, survivors of violence, of imposed poverty and displacement. We were going to be working with them and we would meet them soon and learn from their strong desire to rebuild their communities and their remarkable organizations skills.

This new collaborative and community based art project with AVVIC, Asociación de Víctimas de Violencia en Cocorná / Association of Victims was designed to record the Colombian voices of civilians who, for more than four decades, have suffered the effect of an armed conflict. The Colombian army, the guerrilla forces FARC and ELN, the paramilitary and the drug trafficking have tormented and terrorized the civilian population in the area.

According to Overview of Human Rights Watch in Colombia

Colombia has for decades been embroiled in a brutal internal armed conflict involving left-wing guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), paramilitary death squads (previously known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC), and the Colombian armed forces. The guerrillas and paramilitaries are on the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The paramilitaries have for years been deeply involved in drug trafficking and it is believed that the guerrillas
increasingly profit from drugs as well. All the armed groups commit abuses against civilians. As a result, more than 3 million Colombians (out of a population of about 40 million) have been forced to flee their homes. Colombia has the second-largest population of internally displaced persons in the world after Sudan. Thousands have been killed, forcibly “disappeared,” kidnapped, raped, and tortured. The consequences of the internal conflict are disastrous for the civilian population. They estimate that every year 73,000 people are driven from their homes, 2,600 are killed and more than 500 others are taken captive.

According to Amnesty International: THE BLOODY CONSEQUENCES OF THE CONFLICT

All the parties to the conflict – guerrilla groups, the security forces and paramilitaries – have been responsible for widespread and often systematic human rights abuses and violations of IHL mostly, but not exclusively, committed against civilians. Such abuses include threats against and killings of civilians; enforced disappearances; hostage-taking; forced displacement; torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against the civilian population. These abuses constitute crimes under national and international law.

KILLING OF CIVILIANS

Civilians account for the vast majority of the more than 70,000 people killed in the armed conflict over the past 20 years: In recent years the number of civilians killed in the context of the conflict has fallen, from some 4,000 in 2002 to around 1,400 in 2007 (which was a slight increase on the at least 1,300 civilians killed in 2006). Over the last 20 years, paramilitary groups – acting in co-ordination with, or with the acquiescence of, the security forces – have been responsible for the largest number of killings of civilians. However, especially since the start of the paramilitary demobilization process in 2003, there has been an increase in reports of extrajudicial executions carried out directly by the security forces. Around 330 extrajudicial executions, 33 by the security forces were reported in 2007, compared to some 220 a year in 2004-2006, 130 in 2003, and around 100 in 2002. Most victims have been either campesinos or community leaders who the security forces have falsely claimed were guerrillas killed in combat. The victim is typically taken from their home or place of work in front of witnesses and taken to another location to be killed. The body is presented wearing army fatigues by the security forces, although witnesses testify that the victim had been wearing civilian clothes when detained. Many of the victims are buried as unidentified individuals despite being identified by family members. The bodies also often show signs of torture.

Our work in Cocorná:

We arrived to the airport of Rio Negro en Medellin, where we first met the people with whom we had exchanged a lot of emails: Teresa and Andres who, very kindly came to pick us up to take us to a beautiful lodging in Cocorná. The following day, Saturday, August 1, we met the participants at the Casa de la Cultura/ the Culture House where we were received with singing, dancing and poetry. We were hugely moved and instantly felt at home. Cristina Martinez and Carlos Arturo were two of the leaders behind the organizing of the events and they continued to be our most diligent logistic experts. It needs to be said, that Carlos Arturo is only 17, and at 31, Cristina is a mother, a community leader, a local economic expert and a “one woman only” developer of ideas and missions.
I was/ am! Hugely impressed by their commitment, work capacity and willingness to assist us at all times. We could have never done this work in this allocated time (2 weeks) without their help.
We painted two community based and collaborative murals:

 

  • One located at the Casa de la Cultura/ Cultural Communal House, created mostly with adults and the elderly, although some children and youth were welcome
  • One created at the Educational Institute of Cocorná, created by youth ages, 11 to 17.

All the participating youth had been directly affected by violence. In some cases their parents had been murdered, in some other cases they were victims of land mine and war related violence including abductions and sexual violence. Claudia Verenice Flores Escolero, Rosa del Carmen Argueta and I , worked with children, youth, adults and the elderly, survivors of displacement, survivors of massacres and violence and of “anti-person” land mines/ “minas anti-persona”. The participants were committed to tell their personal and communal stories as part of their journey towards the demand of justice.

Mural: “Solo la Mitad de Mí”/ “Only Half of Myself”, painted at Casa de la Cultura/ Cultural House.

Children, youth, adults and the elderly, all survivors of violence created this first mural between August 1 and 7. As always, the creation of the mural was preceded by a workshops in which the victims congregated and shared their personal histories in order to create a common base for a central narration, a subject matter that would be pertinent and accepted by everyone who was part of the process. This step is fundamental for the designing of the main ideas that would become the subject matter of the mural.

Everyone drawing ideas selecting ideas

Claudia Verenice Flores Escolero, Rosa del Carmen Argueta and myself, artists/teachers of the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin, El Salvador, are accustomed to witness the narration of violence while creating murals in El Salvador and in Guatemala. However, we were unprepared to learn about the constant violence inflicted to civilian population in the region of Antioquia for over four decades. Disappearances, killings, murders, massacres and displacement happen constantly. They happen “today”. Unlike El Salvador and Guatemala where fragile yet determined Peace Accords were signed in the 90’s, in Colombia the military, the guerilla movements (FARC and ELN) the paramilitary and the drug trafficking are still in uncontrollable tension placing a constant danger to the civilian population.

The drawings that the participants created were visual indictments. They talked about what they had lost, what they had seen and what they still do not wish to see happen again. This was the first time in which children, youth and adults worked in constant collaboration showing a remarkable inter-generational understanding and a comfortable way of working together. The children had the same voice and the same place within the group that the youth or adults have.



The children helped us preparing colors for the first layers of the mural “to be born”.


We applied large fields of abstract colors on the wall with to diminish any possible shyness about working on such a large surface. It should be remarked that no shyness was ever reported or seen in this group! The children, youth and adults were ready and willing to paint at all times.




We marked the most important directions of composition.


Malena and Fabio

The participants of the mural started transporting their ideas and their selected drawings to the wall.



Jose and Ines

Blanca


Selecting final images for mural

The mural started taking shape within the original columns escorting the existing wall at the Culture House. Luz Dary, a 36-year old mother of five, grandmother of one and survivor of violence and displacement, proposed to paint herself in the mural as “half of herself”. She shared with the group that her father had disappeared when she was a baby. She never knew him nor had she ever met anyone of her father’s relatives. She grew up with a deep longing for him causing uncertainty about whom she really was. Added to that, she had lost homes, family members and most of the meager possessions that she once had.


Luz Dary

Luz Dary said: “The war robbed me of half of myself”. And that was exactly what she painted. In the very middle of the mural there is a half woman who has only a half of herself. The other half is wrapped in a deep dark green shadow. Luz Dary painted the half woman extending her hand to a Virgin Mary, who is less Saint and more Woman for Mary, the Virgin, had also lost a son killed by violence. This Virgin Mary has a hand amputated as result of an anti-person land mine. 

Inside the shape crated by these two women, the viewer can see a scene:
A mother bird comes to feed her baby birds in a nest. An armed man shoots the mother bird, which falls to the ground in agony and is taken by the Red Cross in an ambulance. The Mother bird dies leaving the babies unprotected and alone. A rabbit is taken to jail in another segment of the same central area of the mural.



These vignettes were painted by Maria Doris, mother of Carlos (17), Christian
(12), Maria Camila (10) and Laura Valentina (8). When Laura Valentina was 8 months old, Maria Doris’s husband, Arturo, went to a near by village to buy few things he needed for farming. He never returned. He disappeared. Few months ago, the Judicial Court of Medellin, contacted Maria Doris to let her know that a mass grave had been found quite accidentally, and the remains of one of the buried victims appeared to be that of her “disappeared” husband. His ID card was found within the clothing. DNA testing is pending to further prove that this skeleton found among 10 others, is that of Arturo’s.


Maria Doris, Christian, Carlos Arturo, Camila and Valentina


Andrea and Eladio who are in their late 60’s had 21 children in their loving 50year long marriage. Only five daughters are still alive today and they are displaced living far away from their parents. All other sons and daughters died young, were killed, abducted or disappeared. None of them ever had any contact with the guerrilla or the army. They were farmers and they were poor. Andrea and Eladio not only lost their sons and daughters. They also lost their land. When they were displaced they were forced to live in the coast for few years. When they returned to Antioquia nothing of theirs was still standing. Nothing had survived.


Andrea

In the “conflict area” there are people rendered with missing limbs. This is a reminder of the threat of being injured by land mines that are placed in rural areas. Unlike other war torn countries in which I worked as an artist or as a human rights advocate, in Colombia there have been very little national or international efforts to find, detonate or neutralize land mines. Thus, the danger is constant and recurrent. Community members record reports of mines exploding at contact and the injuries that they produce in order to identify dangerous areas around Cocorná. 

The artists of this project shared the memory of horses coming to town with corpses. Those dead men, women and even children had been brutally killed. Most of them showed signs of torture and abuse. They lamented that they did not know who the responsible of their deaths was since the army, the guerrilla, the paramilitary and the drug trafficking could have originated this level of violence. The survivors remembered that even the horses would collapse of grief after they had delivered the dead to their families.


Most of the people that participated in this collaborative mural had been displaced. They had been told to leave everything they ever had, their homes, animals and crops within “an hour”. If they would not obey, themselves and their families would be executed. In the left side of the mural, a campesino carries the weight of his heart on his back. 


While this image was being painted the participants shared their own personal stories of displacement. In few cases, the displaced people returned to their homes after many months, to find their homes robbed, infrequently still standing, the cattle taken, the crops burnt and the land poisoned, they believe with some kind of strong chemical unknown to them. Don Fabio told me that he was surprised about how the violent forces wanted to kill even the earth. As campesinos they had learned how the earth talks, and how “she”, la Tierra, can sing and produce for everyone to be fed.

Why would anyone want to kill the land?

The moon travels to the sun becoming one full day and life is splendorous beneath the open sky. There is a serpentine like river born in the mountains that becomes a water fall where people gather happily, bathing, while other people, also in an evident happy mood prepare food by a camp fire. Cristina painted this scene while telling us that is a common custom for families and friends to meet by the river and eat “sancocho”, a thick soup of meat, yucca and potatoes. 


All these stories appear in the mural amid bright and beautiful colors that render the magnificent landscape of the area, the mountains and the local church, because they have not forgotten God, although sometimes they fear that God may have forgotten them.


Artists from Cocorná


Father Jorge Julio, Mejía Mejía came to Cocorná on August 12. It was wonderful to finally meet him and to have the opportunity to share with the participants of the mural the subject matter and how it came about. The artists, eagerly, showed Jorge where each of them had painted.


Cristina

Don Fabio


Don José

Doña Laura Rosa

Claudia Verenice, Claudia, Doña Carlina, Rosa del Carmen

At the end of the first week, Cristina, Carlos and the rest of the friends from AVVIC organized a wonderful outing, that started by catching the local bus, called “la Chiva”/ The Goat (don’t ask me why???) 

It is a colorful, hand painted vehicle to which we all climbed with great sense of celebration. 

After a short ride, we arrived to a natural pool of water where the children were followed by most of the adults, swimming and playing while some of the women prepared the “sancocho”.



People sang, played instruments, danced, the children adored their time in the water and we all ate copiously. We had seen this scene in the mural. Cristina painted it while telling us how much people enjoy coming together as a community to celebrate and to support one another. For a brief while we all forgot that AVVIC brings people together who have suffered unnamable pain. We were friends, colleagues, artists that were celebrating the birth of a beautiful mural.

Participating artists wearing the AVVIC T-shirt

Mural: “Las Dos Caras de Nuestra Realidad/ The Two Faces of Our Reality” painted at Educational Institute of Cocorná by Youth, ages 11 to 17.

 


The first meeting with the participating youth was focused, intense and reviling. They all had been directly impacted by violence. Their mothers or fathers, or in some cases both parents, had been killed in recent years. The youth had suffered displacement and forced relocation.


First meeting with youth at the Education Institute of Cocorná

After drawings and discussions, the subject of the mural was selected. This group of 35 young men and women, ages 11 to 17, were about to make a visual statement of their personal and communal histories on a wall located in one of the main areas of the existing school. 

The mural features two portraits facing one another and a central figure. This ancient one-eyed indigenous wise Shaman that anchors the mural in the middle area is rooted in the earth that contains the knowledge of the ancestors that the youth fears their generation has lost. The Cyclopean character looks within him for wisdom. He looks to the past and to possible ways to achieve Peace and to distribute a sense of Justice. 

The right side of the mural departs from a profile of a fox-like animal who is crying while it sees the destruction of life shown in the death of the environment, the pollution of waters with garbage, dead animals and weapons that travel a dirty river. A land mine explodes at the river bank while an over sized marihuana leaf represents the risks and fears that the youth have when they think about drug trafficking and the war of drugs in Colombia. The mural renders a young man, addicted to drugs unable to come out of the loop of addiction, crime and danger.


While creating this mural the participating youth spend a lot of time talking to us and among themselves about the upcoming proposition of a new law that would de-penalize the selling and consuming of small amounts of marihuana and cocaine as a way to weaken the drug trafficking (narcotráfico) economy.

The youth evaluated the ramifications of this possible new legislation trying to imagine the risks involved. They were concerned, scared and confused about the few options they seem to have. They expressed a sense of hopelessness while addressing that the only strong economy in Colombia is the one generated in drug trafficking. If they do not consume drugs, they still fear that they may be forced to sell them.

In the left side of the mural a young woman’s profile frames a sunny and open landscape where there is farming, there are mountains, an unpolluted river runs from left to right bringing life and prosperity. People of all ages and backgrounds enjoy a possible state in which the lack of conflict is a not a dream but a reality.

This mural was painted between August 8 -13. On Friday, August 14, we crated a special workshop about “color” and techniques. The youth involved in the last mural and many adults participating in the first mural were so moved and happy with the outcome of their work that they proposed that they would continue painting murals after our departure.


The “School of Muralism of Cocorná” has been born.


We left on August 15 with the promise to return and with the renewed conviction that art makes a significant difference in the life of communities that have suffered violence, state terror and wars. We witnessed the impact that the restoring activity of creating communally has for the victims of violations of human right and in the public who will, in time, comprehend the personal histories of the victims through their own personal narration using the language of visual arts.

At the end of August 2009, I feel that is impossible for me to detach from Cocorná. Many dreams evoke what we all shared in this month in Colombia. I am happy to recognize that the dreams depict reality! It is not a coincidence that this happens in the birth country of Gabriel García Márquez where he already walked us through the magic of Macondo.

Borrowing Luz Dary’s powerful image of her “half woman”, I would say that I returned from Colombia with a “half- woman more”. A new territory grew within me. I am inhabited by the new beloved friends with who we created two murals. I am moved by the beauty that they were able to generate even after so much suffering. People’s experiences are monumental and varied. When simple strategies of art making are presented to them, they find their way towards their sadness as well as to their militant hope that embroiders a surprising tapestry of history.

I would like to express my deepest thanks to Jorge Julio Mejía Mejía, Teresa Gómez Duque, Andres Acosta, Cristina Martinez, Carlos Arturo, to my dear cousin Florencia Roulet who placed the magic of a sparking idea in motion. Above all, I would like to thank with great admiration and love, each and all the participants of these two projects.

On behalf of the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin, THANK YOU!!!!!

Rosa del Carmen Argueta, Claudia Verenice Flores Escolero, Claudia Bernardi
School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin, El Salvador
Berkeley, August 30, 2009
Claudia Bernardi

Comments are closed.