We can tell the story of the practice of Abel Rodríguez, an Indigenous Nonuya artist born in the Colombian Amazon who has been gaining notoriety on the international contemporary art circuit, in contrasting ways. On the one hand, his drawings are a valuable resource for botanical studies of flora undergoing decimation for decades. His illustrations show detailed processes of change in forest life after flooding (as in Ciclo annual del bosque de la vega [The Annual Cycle of La Vega Forest], 2009–10) and myths about the origin of the world (as in Árbol de la vida y de la abundancia [Tree of Life and Abundance], 2012). The flora is often portrayed in contact with the local fauna, indicating the food of the region’s animals.
On the other hand, it is possible to speak of Rodríguez’s drawings from an artistic perspective, and this has very much been happening. Especially after his participation in documenta 14, in 2017, his work has gained a strong presence at art exhibitions. He also participated in the 34th São Paulo Biennial in 2021 and in the 23rd Sydney Biennial in 2022. And Rodríguez is represented by the Instituto de Visión Gallery, one of the most important in Colombia.
What connects these two stories began in the 1980s at a meeting between Mogaje Guihu, Abel’s original name, and Carlos Rodríguez, a biologist who heads the Colombian branch of the Dutch NGO Trobenpos, which was looking for local guides to identify plants of Amazonian botany. According to the 34th São Paulo Biennial presentation text, Abel Rodríguez, trained since his childhood by an uncle to be a “namer of plants” and “a repository of the community’s knowledge about the various botanical species in the forest, their practical uses and their ritual importance,” was recommended as the ideal person.