Time out for culture in Bogota

Culture in Colombia

Ettica, whose son is a doctor in Knoxville, picked us up at our hotel the following morning. She and her husband, Isaac, also a doctor, were born in Colombia but their grandparents emigrated from Central Europe early in the 20th, contributing to the multicultural mix that makes Bogota so vibrant. They had once lived in New York where Isaac was in residency and later working at a hospital. One does not have to be in her company too long to find out she is a multitalented energetic woman. When they returned to Bogota, she realized there were many things about New York she had enjoyed which were not available in Bogota. She convinced the editor of El Tiempo, Bogota’s most respected newspaper, to allow her to write a restaurant review column, which turned out to be so popular she continued it for nine years, while writing a cookbook that is awaiting translation. In New York, she realized how important the availability of prepared food was to working mothers and upon her return to Bogota, she advised the largest grocery chain on how to set up salad bars and cooked food for takeout. Living through the worst of times when people feared leaving their houses, she is passionate about Bogota’s revitalization and wanted to share her city with us.

Our first stop on Ettica’s tour was a craft cooperative featuring items made by local crafts people. It is located in an old colonial building renovated for modern use. In addition to this retail store, they send people out to work with the Indians, advising them how to turn their traditional skills into merchandise appealing to today’s market. They also provide the necessary organization enabling crafts to be exported under a “made in Colombia” label.

The more we found out about Bogota, the more it appeared to be a paradox. At one time it was known as the murder capital of the world, but has been known much longer as the “Athens of South America”, due to the traditional respect for education and the large numbers of universities and colleges, 106 to date. We drove past several universities, most of which had urban campuses, and walked the side streets past interesting hip cafes and coffee shops catering to the college crowd. Bogota, a perfect place to be kidnapped and held for ransom, was declared by UNESCO in 2007 the “World Book Capital”, thereby acknowledging the city’s promotion of libraries and literacy. Ettica took us past the Luis Angel Arnago Library boasting more visitors per year than the New York Public Library. Apparently, the world has been watching Bogota closely and in 2006 the city received another international award, this time the Golden Lion Award presented to the city for the manner in which their architecture, city planning, and concern for the environment has met the socio-economic needs of the people.

Ettica brought us to the Gold Museum, which in addition to its fabulous display of gold objects also houses the world’s largest collection of pre-Colombian artifacts. Gold, the driving force behind the Spanish conquest and their relentless search for the mythical city of El Dorado, held no monetary value for the indigenous cultures. For them, gold was the physical embodiment of the sun god, the source of life sustaining energy. We had the opportunity for a two hour tour with a docent who was excellent and as we looked at the objects, she explained how they functioned, either for funerary purposes, to propitiate the gods or as traditional adornments for the leaders.

After the Gold Museum, we spent quality time in the Botero Museum. Fernando Botero, born 1932 in Medellin, is Colombia’s most famous artist, known for painting and sculpting what he refers to as his “fat figures”. In 2004, he donated 123 of his own works of art along with his personal collection to the city with the stipulation that he would take charge of the installation as well as the selection of the building. He chose a colonial era building renovated to his needs close to the Luis Angel Arango Library. Before he became an artist at age 18, he had been educated by the Jesuits and then spent two years in a matador school, which accounts both for his religious references and his love of bull fighting.

He paints like an old master with hidden brushwork, concern for lighting and perspective, which at times he is willing to distort, and hierarchy of size to indicate importance. His large figures are the protagonists in his tableaux whereby with wit, irreverence and the occasional homage to artists such as Velazquez and Leonardo da Vinci, he analyzes the condition of man within a Colombian context. After we spent more time in Colombia, we realized that his figures, especially the women with their large frames encased in clothing much too small, were not so much a creation of his imagination but just his observation of what was going on around him. He is still an active painter and recently completed a series of painting portraying his concept of conditions at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

On the way back to the north side of town, we passed through the Macarena neighborhood, a kind of small village, which is in the process of becoming increasingly trendy as artists are moving in and setting up studios. As the calles and carreras began to climb the hill, we noticed the one story stucco houses were being freshly painted in a wide variety of enriched colors and if you know where to look, sculptures have been placed on the roofs, looking down on what is going on below.
We learned that for the Spanish speaking world, Bogota is truly a cultural destination. It hosts at highly respected literary festival, a theater festival and an international movie festival. Its Rock in the Park is the largest rock festival in Latin America attracting up to 300,000 people. Unfortunately, we were not able to attend any of these events but did have the opportunity to observe Bogota’s street art, human drama passionately expressed on vacant walls. Graffiti, a form of vandalism, making marks on someone else’s property, is as old as ancient Egypt. But in Bogota, it is organized by university trained artists whose styles are discernible and is being carried out with the acquiesce of the city government with its concept of making urban spaces more friendly to its people. We immediately noticed the use of bold colors and were impressed by the skills of the artists, working not only with brushes, but using mediums such as spray paint, stencils and chalk. At times, the artists are being witty and having fun but often vacant walls in the roughest neighborhoods contain a social commentary, an artistic intervention, decrying violence, prostitution and the drug culture. The artists have organized themselves into a cooperative and have elevated themselves to an international level by inviting artists from all over the world to come and “Deface” in Bogota.

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