Sitting on a staircase, a young woman supports her son’s body on her legs, wraps her arms around his torso, and caresses his bloodied face. We don’t hear what she whispers to him, and through the mask we can’t read her lips either. There are no words.
This scene is a performance carried out by the cultural organization Young Creators of Chocó in front of the mayor’s office building in Quibdó, Colombia, to denounce the massacre on youths in the city. Using all the means at their disposal, the artists raised a cry for help with the determination of those who refuse to beg; instead they demand.
This took place in April 2021, a few days before the national strike erupted in Colombia. Seen from Quibdó however, the act was not a prelude to the mass mobilization, but rather the continuation of a cultural movement that has been strengthened since the powerful civic strike of 2017. The movement has a strong presence in the main capitals of the western part of the country, where the demands of the black and indigenous population to the State are part of a long list of popular anti-racist and decolonial demands, to guarantee good living and sovereignty over their ancestral territories.
The territory is much more than the picture-perfect area n the banks of the Choromandó River in Quibdó. In the words of Afro-Colombian leader Francia Márquez Mina, it is a place that
“offers a real possibility of bringing forth freedom, autonomy, self-determination… With our sense of community and through the development of our collective and individual identities, the territory has allowed us to be black people. This territory is the space for Being; here, we put into practice the ancestral knowledge of our culture, which is transmitted from generation to generation”. (Essay in “Futuro en Tránsito” (Future in Transit), 2020)
Collectives such as Mareia, Andamio Teatro, Mojiganga, Dementes Conscientes, Nepono Werara, Made in Chocó, Orika, Black Boys, Young Creators of Chocó, among others, make up the first line of artistic action against the death machine that is the Colombian armed conflict. Their work goes beyond the consolidation of safe environments and training for the youth of Quibdó. Moreover, in a place where Colombian state institutions, international cooperation, non-profit organizations and private cultural companies instrumentalize even the most spontaneous of human gestures, their vital commitment manages – at times – to escape the calculation of policies that, following market rationality, undermine solidarity, reproduce colonization and sponsor the dispossession of life.
In a constant exercise of negotiation for the sense of the common, their work is the manifestation of the perpetual human strike that reaffirms life above all else and resists necropolitics. Theirs is the art of creating and defending freedom.
Even so, as long as a centralist administration continues to be allowed to handle the financing and management of culture and its public outreach, the results of the experiences and experiments that take place in Chocó will continue to be exploited to reinforce a logic of competition and exhibition. This type of logic marginalizes collective artistic work from transnational, Afro-diasporic and global south networks of exchange and support. These collectives struggle not only for economic (and therefore political) self-determination, but specifically for the consolidation of a counter-hegemonic front that contributes to closing this historical cycle of marginalization that racism engenders.
“Pacundino Chalá… during the evenings, when the croaking of the frogs sets in, he is prepared to listen to the hesitant voices of the elders who speak to him of how they were torn from their lands and subjected to the iniquity of merciless despotism; how they were forced – like beasts – to hard labor. The young man, stupefied by the ‘terrorist’ narrations, thinks that he must take advantage of and enjoy the divine gift of freedom in order to improve himself and become part of civilized society. For the moment it seems almost impossible for him to achieve his ambitions, seeing that ‘illegal slavery’ in Colombia has not been completely eradicated but, in its sly and deceitful way it still amuses itself with acts of humiliation – trying to eclipse all values proceeding from the black race by means of its aberrant elitism…” (Teresa Martínez de Varela, prologue to Acuarelas del Chocó. Book reviewed in En honor a la verdad: Teresa Martínez de Varela (1913-1998), by Úrsula Mena Lozano, 2019).
Nicolás Vizcaíno Sánchez (1991) is an artist, writer and researcher working from the mountains of Colombia.
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen