Juan Manuel Echavarria had been a writer for three decades, when he realized that he was “drowning in words” while Colombia was overrun by violent conflicts between the army, guerillas and paramilitaries. He turned to photography and began to explore the political reality of his home country and the metaphorical possibilities of images by focusing his camera on the blind spots in the social fabric of Colombia.
In his work he unveils fifty years of civil war in an officially democratic society. Tens of thousands of people in rural areas have been killed in the massacres along Colombia’s Caribbean coast perpetrated by paramilitary groups or by the FARC guerrillas and millions have been displaced. Echavarria calls it “la guerra que no hemos visto”, the war which we have not seen, as the war zone in the middle of society has been officially ignored.
Using photography and video as artistic media Echavarria collects the stories of those who are voiceless and remain unheard. In his video Bocas de Ceniza Echavarria gives them a voice. Seven Afro-Colombian peasants tell their stories in songs rooted in the oral tradition of the Pacific region in Colombia. They sing about what they cannot put into spoken words. They express terrifying experiences and relate individual humiliation and suffering with the history of abandonment, displacement, plundering and murder of citizens in Colombia. The simple recitatives, which were composed by the singers themselves, are more than songs: they are prayers for redemption from the traumas endured.
Echavarria’s video-close-ups do not allow any distancing. For the length of each song the viewer is face to face with a full-screen-portrait of the singer, without any distraction. For Echavarria “the main concept was the eyes as the mirror of the soul”. Looking at these faces, listening to the tone of these sometimes monotonous, sometimes trembling voices the artist confronts the viewer directly with the naked human existence and its violation. Echavarria confronts. He insists: look! Listen! Echavarria does not simply show – he makes us feel. He does so without contributing to sensationalism, and without exhibiting violence.
The title Bocas de Ceniza refers to the name given to a point of access to the Magdalena River, where the Spanish army entered Colombia during an Ash Wednesday. The art critic Ana Tiscornia states that “penitence and resurrection have forever marked this geographical point. Today, the Magdalena River’s current takes and provides a way out for the bodies of many Colombians killed in these interminable episodes of violence. Colombians that die and are never resurrected”.
Bocas de Ceniza is, as Echavarria puts it, “a journey into the evil that has crept in to the soul of Colombia” alongside daily life. It is also a reflection on the power of words for those who have been violated and silenced by the deliberate ignorance of society.
Juan Manuel Echavarría (Medellín, Colombia, 1947; lives and works in Bogotá). A writer before becoming an artist, he published two novels. His first solo exhibition was in New York in 1998. Over the last sixteen years his work has been shown at the Venice Biennale, the Korean Kwangju Biennial, Daros Latinamerica, Zurich, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland, at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. He has had solo shows at Malmö Konsthall, Sweden, Josée Bienvenu Gallery, New York, and Galería Sextante, Bogotá. His first solo museum exhibition in the US was organized by the North Dakota Museum of Art and travelled to the Weatherspoon Museum of Art in 2006 and the Santa Fe Art Institute in 2007-2008. In 2011 his works have been shown at the 15th Tallinn Print Triennial, at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, at Sammlung Goetz at Haus der Kunst in Munich, at the Museo de Antioquia in Medellín, at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, at the Bienal Do Mercosul in Porto Alegre and at Le Mois de la Photo à Montreal in Canada. His videos have been screened at many festivals and exhibitions throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel and South America and more recently at Jeu de Paume in Paris and MoMA in New York.