As a way of marking 500 years of Utopia, MaMa produced a highly visible intervention in the centre of Bogotá. Joining forces with the curators/artists Santiago Rueda and Olga Robayo we selected 26 Colombian visual artists to design a flag that conjured up their own view of utopia. In time, 2016 might be considered a watershed in Colombian history as it moves from five decades of armed conflict to a more peaceful era. The flags were flown for the last three months of 2016 within the grounds of the Central Cemetery, along one of Bogotá’s main roads, the Avenida 26.
and even if we re-position our flags,
It will always be like the beginning of time.
Perhaps there has not been a better time like the present to re-think the patriotic symbols, the flag, the national anthem, the crest, that is, the image and the idea of the fatherland. At this time, the need to forgive and to be reasonable, the hope for peace, and, at the same time, the fear and anxiety that envelop the whole negotiation process with the FARC guerrilla, which is apparently coming to an end, have become more present than ever, at least for the generation that did not experience the peace processes leading to the Constituent Assembly of 1991.
The Re Bandera project, which started before the final signing of the ceasefire, and in a perhaps premonitory way, leaped forward to the future, questioned the flag and the national colours, and highlighted the very notion of the fatherland –not of the traditional fatherland, but of one understood as Michael Hardt and Toni Negri suggest in Empire, that is, a homeland built based on solidarity, friendship, common feelings, bonds of affect and communication, of love to the land.
The background to this project to inquire into what the national flag represents can be traced back to the reinterpretations of the national crest in the history of Colombian art. This history begins perhaps with Alfredo Greñas and his iconic and fantastic Crest of the Regeneration (1890), a woodcut that was published in the newspaper El Zancudo on 20 July 1890, the day the nation was commemorating 80 years of independence. In this version of the crest, a vulture replaces the condor, skull and crossbones replace the Phrygian cap, an alligator is taking a bite at the Panama Canal, and nine skulls replacing the stars frame the symbol and correspond to the victims of the Regeneration, the conservative regime that started off with President Rafael Núñez.
In the twentieth century, the crest was reinterpreted many times, always with a critical vision, by artists such as Ricardo Rendon, a great caricaturist of the first half of century, the painter Juan Cárdenas, the cartoonist Pepón, and the conceptual artist Bernardo Salcedo with a work called First Lesson. Salcedo’s version was reinterpreted by Jaime Tarazona, one of the artist participating in Re Bandera. Of course, that the national crest has also been subjected to re-interpretations by other artists participating in the Re Bandera project, such as Fernando Arias and Chócolo. The flag has also been a motive that has been questioned and re-worked by artists. The paintings of Edgar Silva in the mid-1970s as well as the flag submitted by Augusto Rendón to the National Salon of Artists in1994 come to mind, although the national tricolour figures recurrently in countless recent works, but not as the single motive, which is what makes Rebandera so different.
On this occasion, the 26 (flags) on (calle) 26 are responding to a call to imagine Utopia, in commemoration of the 500 years of the first publication Thomas More’s book. Perhaps it is not surprising that most of the artists have decided not to work on a proper utopian vision of a better future but have rather concentrated on the serious problems of the present.
Interestingly, the group of artists participating in this intervention are not particularly interested in the commercial illusion of the so-called boom of art in Colombia, and their work takes a distance from the canonical and mostly harmless good taste of Colombian art. The artists who contributed with their work to Re Bandera have defied conventions with courage and have dealt with difficult issues such as racial exclusion, illegality, the production, trafficking and consumption of so-called illicit substances and the forbidden plants, gender issues, sexuality, pornography, the Catholic dogma, political oppression, and corruption. Some of them have been censored and not infrequently ignored, repudiated, made invisible, and avoided by the not so freethinking milieu of Colombian art.
They are artists who live in a country in which the economic model is based on mining and energy extraction, which is producing irreversible damage to the environment. And this will not change in a post-conflict situation, in spite of the peace negotiations, and will only deepen the real reasons for the conflict: the historical exclusion, expulsion, and marginalization of the population; in a country in which the government has announced that not only will it maintain but that it will increase the military force, without knowing very well what it will be doing with it. They are artists who live under a state that cruelly represses almost any form of civil protest, not infrequently using clandestine organizations; a country in which social, peasants, labour organizations are punished and every effort is made by people of power and extremists to supress them; a country in which the state has taken action against new forms of resistance, such as LGBTI communities, political opponents and dissidents, young people, artists that make parodies of colonial monstrances, organizations for the defence of women and those who do not profess the Creed.
Furthermore, all of these current dynamics must be seen in an international context, and specifically continental, as we witness the return of the extreme right, from the bloodless coup in Brazil, staged against civil society and to favour the particular interests of multinationals to the new Argentine government, which has allowed the establishment of US military bases on its soil.
Thus, the utopia of these Colombian artists is pierced by indignation, which translates into outright rejection of State symbols and rituals. Utopia is displaced by a complaint against the monstrous economic power of multinationals associated with the national elites, who see the natural and human resources of the country as spoils of war that will be released and available after the final signing of the peace agreements. The flags are questioning the collapse of the Colombian justice system, perhaps the greatest cause of the permanent civil conflict in which we live. The flags look to the past with nostalgia and to the future with scepticism. They engage with causes calling for justice and recognition of so-called minorities, whether ethnic, social, and/or cultural. Others start off with the primary colours of the banner and go on to inquire about the historical background of the tricolour and its past, and with these very plain elements they play with and reorder something as basic as the primary colours. Other flags code religious, biological, or political messages which are not easy to decipher in a first reading. Some others use words to make compelling statements, at times quite enigmatic.
At the same time, these flags, in their diversity, indicate that the long night towards peace may contain and display some semblance of hope which perhaps is not entirely utopian and may indeed have real bases. The call to choose the of the Good Life and the remembrance of our legendary heroes are part of this feeling of pride and hope, and it draws strength from our enormous capacity for endurance, flexibility, as well as from our critical capacity in the face of the different forms of violence and criminalization of which we have been victims, inside and outside our borders.
Hopefully, in the uncertain future ahead, this strength generates a new reality and pushes the social forces, which have been punished for so long, to occupy a dignified and true place in our country. Let us hope that soon these social forces are flying the flags and creating new symbols, geared not only towards retaliation and blame, but also to laying the foundations for the creation of a new conception of reality, unleashing repressed forces, and encouraging our best feelings to flourish in our links and relations with each other, as they are the very essence of coexistence.