A river runs through colorful exhibition
Colombian curator José Roca doesn’t want visitors to bring too cerebral of a mind-set to the exhibition “Waterweavers: The River in Contemporary Colombian Visual and Material Culture.”
“I think in exhibitions there is too much imperative on understanding things, whereas you should be experiencing them,” says Roca, who curated the show with Alejandro Martín, a fellow Colombian. “Waterweavers,” now at the Art Museum of the Americas after runs in New York and Madrid, is “meant to be experienced by the body,” Roca said in a Skype interview before the show’s D.C. opening.
Hence the immersive, sensory rich nature of the exhibition, which features Colombian drawings, ceramics, graphic design, furniture, textiles, video and installations that relate to two themes: rivers and weaving. A room near the beginning of the show illustrates the approach. Upon entering, you pass beneath dangling fibers that suggest clumps of yellow, brown and orange Spanish moss. Depending on your height, the fibers — part of Susana Mejía’s “Color Amazonia” — may graze your head.
On a wall ahead plays a video of a wide, tranquil river whose glassy surface reflects the sky and clouds. Suddenly, machine-gun shots ring out. Spray spurts up as bullets tear into the water. This river is not so tranquil after all.
Artist Alberto Baraya shot the video, “Rio,” while documenting the journey of a naval patrol boat down the Amazon River and a tributary, the Putumayo. At one point, the troops aboard amused themselves by shooting into the water.
The video, Roca said at the “Waterweavers” opening, drives home the fact that “the Amazon is not just an idea.” Because of Colombia’s topography, rivers have been critical transportation channels throughout the country’s history. They also have played a key role in criminal enterprises and in the armed conflict that has racked the country for decades. Waterways, Roca said, are “the axis of the conflict.”
Colombia’s natural environment is reflected throughout the exhibition. Clemencia Echeverri’s video installation “Treno” projects the rushing Cauca River onto the walls of an upper-story room. In the center of the room stand curvy chairs that architect Marcelo Villegas crafted from the roots of a variety of bamboo that grows near the Cauca. Visitors are encouraged to sit on the chairs.
“The furniture here is meant to be experienced,” said Roca, who is artistic director of Flora Ars + Natura, an independent space for contemporary art in Bogota, Colombia.
Elsewhere in “Water weavers,” ink-and-watercolor drawings by Abel Rodríguez, a member of the Nonuya community, depict subtle seasonal changes in a flooded rain forest. “Luz Blanca ( White Light),” a tapestry of plastic ripples by Olga de Amaral, suggests a waterfall. Hanging lamps by indigenous Colombian artisans incorporate traditional weaving techniques (the lampshades) and discarded plastic bottles (the lamps’ central supports). Spanish designer Alvaro Catalán de Ocón came up with the template for the lamps as a way to recycle bottles that might otherwise clog Colombian rivers.
Mejía’s “Color Amazonia” installation reflects a seven-year study of pigments derived from rainforest plants, its dangling fibers having been dyed with those pigments. The installation also includes a cabinet containing mono type prints of the original plants.
“Waterweavers” originated when the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York recruited Roca to curate an exhibition. He came up with the show’s theme, having noticed that much Colombian art and design were related, practically or thematically, to rivers and weaving.
He decided that the exhibition would include works of art and design as well as pieces that might traditionally have been defined as crafts. The approach is an attempt to preserve more of the real-world context that gave the works their original meaning.
Roca also resolved to leave off explanatory text so as not to distract from the art. (A small guide to “Waterweavers” includes artist information.) “You can go through the exhibition without reading anything,” he said, “just have the experience of the art.”
Fibers dyed with pigments derived from rain-forest plants dry in the Amazon. Visitors to the Art Museum of the Americas’ multimedia “Waterweavers” exhibition, an immersive look at intersecting aspects of Colombian culture, will see such fibers up close as part of the “Color Amazonia” installation.