In 2013, the exhibition “¡Mandinga sea!” sought to visualize through art, the immense African legacy in Colombia. Remembering that exhibition today is crucial in a country where violence against people of African descent has become commonplace. As have the manifestations of resistance.
Heriberto Cogollo, untitled, 1985. Serigraph copied from the exhibition catalogue of “¡Mandinga sea!”, Museum of Antioquia, 2013.
View from the exhibition, copied from the exhibition catalogue for ¡Mandinga sea!, Museum of Antioquia, 2013.
Rodrigo Barrientos, Black family, 1958. Oil on canvas, 134x85cm. Collection Museum of Antioquia.
Liliana Angulo, Portrait of a black woman, 1974. Collection of the National Museum of Colombia.
In the sixties, the great Afro-Colombian painter Heriberto Cogollo, born in the coastal town of Cartagena and residing in Paris, was asked both by the French and by Africans “Who are you? Where are you from?” The questions confronted the artist with a feeling of abandonment towards Colombia and towards his own historical and cultural past. Later, the questions led him to vindicate the great African cultural heritage in his work.
Almost as a response to a feeling like that of Cogollo, historian Luz Adriana Maya Restrepo and artist Raúl Cristancho Álvarez organized the exhibition ¡Mandinga Sea! África en Antioquia in 2013 at the Museum of Antioquia in Medellín. According to the exhibition catalogue, the exhibition was curated as “an aesthetic and chronological journey departing from the coast of West Africa and reaching Antioquia, delineating a territorial and artistic journey from the sixteenth century to the present.”
With a selection of 537 pieces, the exhibition intended to “visualize, dignify, value and disseminate African legacies in Antioquia”, as a cultural policy against the various forms of discrimination, exclusion and segregation towards people of African descent in Colombia. Among the pieces were, for example, an installation by Fabio Melecio, drawings by Hernando Tejada, paintings by Enrique Grau, sculptures by Ana Mercedes Hoyos, watercolors by European travelers in the 19th century, textiles by the Women’s Group of the Association for the Dignified Life and Solidarity of Mampuján, engravings by Heriberto Cogollo and masks and ceremonial objects from the Bertrand collection of the National Museum of Colombia.
Within the framework of African-American studies, the focus of the curatorial research was a critical examination of the perpetuations, appropriations, mutations and exchanges of cultural heritage that Africans, enslaved by Europeans, brought over during the transatlantic trade in the region between the current republics of Senegal and Angola to New Granada (Colombia), from 1540 to 1810.
On the one hand, reviewing this exhibition can be a way to reopen the debates on stereotype, invisibility, racial discrimination and cultural violence towards people of African descent. These debates are indispensable in a country experiencing an escalation of violence in the collective territories of “the black communities”, who defend themselves against dispossession by economic interests, and who are being assassinated, as in the case of the leader of Tumaco, Maritza Ramírez Chaverra, or social activist Temístocles Machado who was murdered in Buenaventura a little over a year ago.
On the other hand, a new look at this project could also be an opportunity for a historical assessment of the self-liberation and the resistance to enslavement on the part of Africans and African Americans, as forebears and determining forces for the libertarian struggles in America, drawing off the 2019 commemoration of the bicentennial of the Colombian Republic.
In the same way as the show ¡Mandinga Sea! emerged within the independence celebrations in Antioquia, the birth of the republican utopia in our country may act as context for rethinking our present as a “multi-ethnic and multicultural” nation. I propose to take a brief look at four pieces from ¡Mandinga Sea! that allow us to reflect on the structures of (self)representation of Afro-descendant individuality in the country in times of new historical accounts.
In the first part of the exhibition, dedicated to geocultural cartographies over the areas of origin of the African people who arrived in Antioquia; between Tshokwe, Yaka and Pendemasks, was the work Angola: Objects and Connections (2009) by Mercedes Angola. The work is a series of four photographs of the homonymous archive which the artist developed during the process of compiling documentary information. In the piece, two photographs of wooden carvings of female bodies are contrasted with two other images in which the artist herself and her two sisters assume a pose identical to the wood carvings. The connections that are suggested here paradoxically respond to the fact that the name Angola, given to many of the slaves according to the record books in America, is an African toponymic – not a family or ethnic ancestry in that territory. As such, the piece is a critical comment on the imaginaries that tie together the historical origins and the construction of identities of Afro-descendants in the diaspora.
The second piece, an oil painting Familia Negra (Black family, 1958) by Afro-Antillian artist Rodrigo Barrientos (1931-2013), renders a matrilineal family with a raw and warm chromatic palette. Two adult women, one portrayed from the back and carrying a baby, and the other, under an umbrella facing the camera. The women appear, perhaps, as mother and aunt of two other infants in the foreground of the composition. In the words of art critic Eugenio Barney Cabrera in his book Geografía del arte en Colombia (Geography of Art in Colombia), the “hieratic frontality of the figures” suggests “a particular way of being” which can be related to a number of portraits of black people in the plates of by the Chorographic Commission from 1850 as well as watercolors by European travelers in the XIXth century.
Here, the representation leads us to ponder the “creolization” of African families as a result of a demographic policy of reproduction of slave labor in mines and on haciendas since the eighteenth century. This policy contributed to a reinforcement of the leading role of women in extensive kinship networks, above all on the Pacific coast.
The piece Retrato de Lucy Rengifo (Portrait of Lucy Rengifo, 2007) by Liliana Angulo, continues on the path of the representation of Afro-Colombian women’s space. Staging the watercolor of Henry Price for the Chorographic Commission, Retrato de una negra. Provincia de Medellín (Portrait of a black woman. Province of Medellín 1852), Angulo’s series of photographs accentuates the features of a non-anonymous woman. The portrait by Price, created in the very year in which the abolition of slavery was declared in Colombia, is then questioned as a historical document and reinterpreted as an act of memory and not of a granted freedom, but of the multiple ways in which enslaved descendants of Africans managed to free themselves from captivity. The names of self-liberation activists come to mind such as Paula de Eguiluz, Pedro Antonio Ibargüen, Barule, or of course the Biohó dynasty.
Finally, the engraving by Heriberto Cogollo, Untitled (1985), is perhaps the piece that best allows us to conclude this brief panorama. The portrait of a naked black body, suspended in a vacuum and crossed by lines and spaces in different colors, refers to the gaze of the Nohor, a creature that – as referred to by Cheik Anta Diop in Nations Négres et Culture – is known in Senegal and Uganda as a “sorcerous medium which, endowed with supernatural vision, can easily contemplate the viscera and entrails of its conspecifics”. Heriberto Cogollo came to define himself in France as a ‘Nohor’, and to a large extent it is this vision that we lack in Colombian art in order to unravel the traits that we have yet to recognize in our African genesis.
Nicolás Vizcaíno Sánchez is an artist, writer, curator, political scientist and/or historian in training. He lives in Colombia.
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen.