top of page
The Sect of Forgotten Artists


Lucas Ospina, Bogotá 2014


It is possible that these three artists, and the many other hundreds and thousands, belong to the legion of disdained people in Colombia. Without attempting to mythologize them, or to award them a diploma for being rare and anonymous, the three are part of a generation that we must redefine in order to speak about the present.


An artist is converted into a footnote. The only calls he receives are from young researchers asking him/her about the past. Curators, gallery owners and collectors also seek him/her out to ask him/her about the fate of his iconic pieces or to create precarious, agonistic, or above all, retrospective homages. Nobody seems to care about what he/she does in the present. He keeps on living, carrying his/her five or six decades on his back, cornered by this uncomfortable and premature posterity.


It is clear that there are more artists who are unknown than known, and that there are more untold stories than those that have been told. But the forgotten works are much more. It would be worthwhile to create a brief encyclopedic anthology of this marginal art and the class of singular creators who have the possibility of a second opportunity on Earth. We could begin this hazardous, unwarranted, and inopportune exhibit with three artists born in Colombia in the middle of the last century: Miguel Ángel Cárdenas (Espinal, 1954), María Evelia Marmolejo (Cali, 1958), and Alicia Barney (Cali, 1952).


Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” In the past, every artist had their quarter-century in the avant-garde, and many of the forgotten worked elbow-to-elbow with the main figures to whom we now recognize as owners of the franchises of video, performance or conceptual art. The supposed dynamism of each new scene of star artists will always contain something of the novel, but it is always enriching to return to their parents and grandparents to connect their heritage and give a sense of dimension to the change.


In the middle of the 1980s, while the discussion about “new media” started to appear on the Colombian scene and when video was viewed as a novelty (as it still is for many), Miguel Ángel Cárdenas, in Holland, where he has resided since 1962, said goodbye to this foundation and returned to the solitary creation of drawings and paintings in his workshop. In 1985, he presented a final live performance, in the open, before an audience of two thousand people, with twelve dancers and the best equipment and editing technology at the time. His tendency to exaggerate and emphasize movement brought him, in 1983, to put on a full, 24-hour day of television, a telethon with interviews, dance, song, motorcyclists, actresses, and chess players. In a previous incursion into television, in 1981, he transmitted a twenty-minute video titled ¿¡Somos libres!? [Are we free?!], a scheme of theatrical sequences, symbolism, humor, and love based on the situation of two homosexuals who cannot find their place in the world.


This is not an attempt to pay homage to Cárdenas, or to repatriate him, or to recognize him with guilty orphan hood as the precursor of Colombian video art. No, Cárdenas is quite all right where he is. It is clear that a reading of his work in the light of video could be advantageous, but maybe more so if conducted through his interest in movement, in sex, and in the limbo of being from neither here nor there.


In the work of Cárdenas, the medium is not the most important thing, nor technological novelty, but gesture, and as with many other artists, a capacity to put the gestural impulse ahead of the personal, stylistic brand. This is a state of exaggeration difficult to categorize: Cárdenas uses cameras and more cameras, and fosters more and more movements, filming himself, his feet, his hands, and others; while his colleagues make long and monotonous pieces, he makes short films and films of his films, attempts to arrive at the truth from different perspectives, a mix of the cubist view with a futurist attitude, a masterful foolishness that brings him to drink soup, filming himself tasting it and saying, “The soup is delicious.”


There is also Cárdenas as professor. For his video class, he conducts exercises like walking with his students through the city and the country using a heart drawn over a cartographic map as a guide, a friendly dérive for a whole day that includes high doses of performance and gin, teaching outside disciplinary limits. For lack of lived-experiences and without many flight hours, artists in other latitudes only learn to make art by staring at screens, and solemnly speak of the media of the media of the media, while their art speaks of the art of the art of the art.


The political is often spoken about in art, but these discussions appear to be stuck in classrooms, virtual forums, or in the gallery-art fair-auction-museum-collection circuit. The political in art consists only of the fidelity to uncertainty, to the experience of the experimental, that is where problems are, the incessant experiments of trial and error that make possible a constant dialogue with the world. Maybe one must observe the gestures these artists use to speak, their gestural politics, before political art becomes a trite and predictable formula.


The actions of the artist María Evelia Marmolejo show that, more important than making “political art,” is making things politically in the vulnerable public sphere, an almost conceivable, anonymous balance outside of the protecting net or the glamorous umbrella of what we call art, or the strong support of a major institution. The lack of documentation of her work is telling. It would seem that in her case it is more important to do than to record, exactly the opposite of what occurs with those actions that only begin when someone yells: “Lights, camera, action!”


While the maternity of performance and long-duration political performance in Colombia is attributed to other, more recent artists, in dates as well as actions, what Marmolejo did came before. Marmolejo, at the end of the 1970s, in the sculpture class at la Escuela de Bellas Artes presented Tendidos [Hung up], a clothesline on which used and clean sanitary napkins were hung, along with a cloth diaper with a meat-hook as an anchor. For her drawing class, she stuck cardstock to the wall and attempted to use her blood-smeared finger to draw a continuous line, despite the discontinuity between the two surfaces. Both pieces were not accepted as art and she failed both courses. Marmolejo abandoned the Escuela.


However, beyond who did what first, in Marmolejo it is important to outline the places and moments of her actions. In 1981, in the Municipal Administration Plaza-Center of Cali, she forms a large line of white paper and upon it she marches barefoot and covered in bandages. She makes small cuts on the soles of her feet, walks, leaves a trail of blood, covers her injuries with gauze. She continues marching until the 20th minute, when a clock alarm brings her out of her trance. The action is observed by a group of police officers. The action is not observed by the government of the time, that of Turbay Ayala, more worried about maintaining a state of security which uses the body of dissidents as part of the works of the state: intimidation, unwarranted detention, interrogation, torture, and exile.


Marmolejo travelled in 1982 to Bogotá with Rosemberg Sandoval, another artist from Cali. In the San Diego Gallery, invited by Rita Agudelo, they made Actos y Situaciones [Acts and Situations], an action that lasted three days in plural and singular. The artist plans the show to coincide with the ending of her menstrual cycle; sanitary napkins were stuck to her body but her genitals are nude, leaks blood while she walks and marks several of the walls with pubic gestures.


Later, in Spain, in 1985, Marmolejo, two months pregnant, went into exile in Madrid, and more than making art, interposes legal actions and denounces the social situation in Colombia. Her departure coincides with the celebration of the arrival, five hundred years before, of the Spanish to the Americas. The artist heads to the Monument of Colombus in Madrid, hands out leaflets to passers-by with A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, breaks a full-size mirror and puts the pieces in a basket, which then she gives to passers-by before slicing her finger and writing the word “América” on the base of the statue of the Genoan navigator. She gets arrested.


It is clear that the destruction of art only accomplishes one thing: more art. The work of Alicia Barney, which is distributed by galleries, printed materials, and art salons, is a mixture of tendencies difficult to sift into a single formal category. Barney studied in the United States between 1969 and 1977, and in contrast with the vast majority of local artists, she had the opportunity to see live and personally many of the works which here could only be seen in reduced versions in magazines, slides, and explained by professors: works by André, Christo, Dibbets, Long, Morris, Oldenburg, Caro, Frankelthaler, and Smithson.


At the end of her university years, the artist collects the detritus in her walks through New York and in her visits to Colombia, acting as a hunter-gatherer, grouping together wrappers, ticket stubs, caps, jars, wire, pieces of rubber and other pieces of a similar size and random nature packed in plastic and hung so that the eye can pass over them in a linear manner. The artist called this series Diario-Objeto [Object-Diary] and for her presentation in an exhibit in Cali, she added a descriptive pamphlet to the piece, an aside: “The diary can be read thanks to its threads which each form a “story,” however, its meaning is sufficiently evasive that it is distinct for every one. The human experience is mysterious.” The diaries contain local variations: the countryside, a beach, and a mountain. They were exhibited in Bogotá in 1979, in the Atenas Salon curated by Eduardo Serrano.


In 1980, the artist made Yumbo, a series of thirty glass cubes which were sealed every twenty four hours in order to capture the gradients of the particles of grime and dust that float on the periphery between a rural zone and a growing industrial zone.


Barney’s work has an affinity for landscape. Her dérives cross the border of the natural and human nature, her drive to classify is material rather than theoretical, she confronts that which is difficult to name. Her low profile, the formlessness of her practice, serves as a contrast with the notions of many artists, young and old alike, who, under the banner of what they call conceptual art, think that it is enough to show that they are thinking that they are thinking. It is an art of “If it walks like a duck...” useful as a communication strategy but useless for feeling through thought.


It is possible that these three artists, and other hundreds and thousands, are persecuted by history, by the economy, and by mythification. Possibly thanks to a distant personality or a beautiful indifference, they manage to escape the siren’s song of public recognition. The sect of the forgotten artist is more than generous with those who dare to navigate the solemn traps of style.

bottom of page