Very few people know that Colombia has had a black president: Juan José Nieto Gil (1804-1866), Caribbean, constitutionalist politician, abolitionist and writer. He was in office for six months in 1861, during what was then the Republic of New Granada, but fell into oblivion for more than a century and a half.
In 2018, the governing president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, conducted a ceremony, long overdue, to bring the portrait of Nieto into the Colombian presidential palace. This portrait of the first Afro-Colombian president however, embodies the story of how a nation whitened and erased his image.
Nieto’s original portrait, created before his brief presidential term, was sent to Paris in order to give it a “more distinguished” appearance; in other words, to lighten the tone of his skin and modify his features somewhat.
When the painting returned to Colombia, it was kept in the Historical Museum of Cartagena and, after a restauration in 1974, abandoned in the Palace of the Inquisition. The whitening and the oblivion of this portrait tells the story of a collective destiny repeated far and wide throughout Colombia.
In 2016, 155 years after Nieto’s presidential inauguration, the director of the National Museum of Colombia, Daniel Castro, commissioned a new portrait from the painter Justiniano Durán to be included in the collection at the presidential palace. After a public auction, the portrait arrived at the palace, but was never included in the gallery in the Tapestry Salon next to the other presidents.
This new portrait marks the point of departure for the exhibition ¿Suficientemente negro?, organized by the American-Colombian Center in Cali, during the Black History Month in February 2019. The exhibition, which includes reinterpretations of the portrait by eight different artists, is a collective effort to vindicate Nieto’s memory. At the same time, it opens a debate on raciality, identity and representation as well as the methods of whitening that have permeated the country.