THE WAR WE HAVE NOT SEEN is the title of the exhibition that takes our eyes to a country where thousands of inhabitants have been born under continuing crossfire, under an almost invisible corporation dominated by drug trafficking, and where thousands of families have gone into forced exile, fleeing their homes and lands the battlegrounds where guerrillas, paramilitary fighters, and the Army combat each other. This war, difficult to see in its total implications, is an armed conflict that has gone on unceasingly for the last 50 years and has generated a culture nurtured by violence. Nevertheless, we can not say that this war has remained isolated, nor can we pretend that many have not witnessed some of its aspects. My generation grew up with the phantom of assassination: The April 9, 1948, gunning-down of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, leader of the Liberal Party and candidate in 1946 for the Presidency of Colombia, when he lost the election despite being the people’s favorite. The assassination of Gaitán, everyone’s hero, caused an uprising by many his supporters and was the dawn of an age of violence. During the 80s, however, the war evolved into an even more sinister kind of violence –one caused by drug trafficking. Even the leftist guerrillas in Colombia lost sight of their idealistic goals once they received financial support from drug traffickers, who paid them to patrol and protect lands used to raise drug-producing crops. Thus, while previous generations had suffered what has been called a period of political violence –a war between Liberals and Conservatives–, the 80s saw the birth of a new economy (after marijuana production declined) based on the production of white powder. New mafias called carteles arose to dispute control of the cocaine market, the first of these in Medellín.
The exhibition we present today places us squarely in unexplored terrain, and the title makes us ponder a paradox: This war is difficult to find credible, but it is also a conflict appropriate to the world of fiction. Because it is occurring in a polarized country, THE WAR WE HAVE NOT SEEN leads us to question our own sense of sight: It places us in the midst of combat, where we are unable to see –we have been prevented from seeing by the government and the news media– and we find ourselves suffering from a kind of partial or total blindness or, perhaps, we find ourselves “with blindfolded eyes.” We are forced to experience a conflict we have refused to accept, one which we feel doesn’t touch us or interfere with our lives; one which fails to have an impact upon us. Could it be that we have become inured to violence?
The selection of works (which have not been corrected technically as this is not the purpose of the exhibition) by curator and artist Ana Tiscornia, allows us to examine the unknown stories of war, those never told before, either in academic treatises or by the press. These are the testimonies of the unofficial, unrevealed war and are presented for the first time here. They are stories told in first person and in ringing voices, voices that have not distanced themselves from the conflict even if they come from those who have put down their weapons and entered the phase of demobilization. These voices tell their stories with screams of pain. THE WAR WE HAVE NOT SEEN is the result of a selection of paintings created by ex-combatants in art workshops organized specifically for demobilized paramilitary soldiers of the Auc and ex-guerrilla members of Farc and Eln. The workshops were also offered for members of the Ejército Nacional who had been injured in battle and been released because of the gravity of their wounds. The fact that these paintings were created by persons who were directly involved in combat gives them special relevance and allows us to witness and experience intimate and collective events.
The authors of these works, participants in war, are anonymous persons who suffer from and bear the burden of Colombian history; they have no academic titles because they were too poor to obtain them, and they are not researchers who approach these topics in order to produce artistic or literary pieces. Rather, they have been the direct actors in the conflict, and their ingenuousness in transferring their experiences to canvas is evident in the childlike directness of their narratives. They tell us their stories, and the telling is basic to exorcizing their pain. We could say that these works have the innocence, colors, and composition of children’s paintings. Green, for example, floods the entire surface of some of the works. The blue mountains painted in the background actually portray an area that is full of color, sometimes unbounded by a horizon. These pictures reveal the confluence of an inexhaustible landscape, intimate experiences, violence in a rural setting, and –one can even say– a lack of hope.
The themes of these works center on personal histories; by painting them, the authors have narrated their own existences, what they have experienced and what they have been forced to undergo because of the limited options available. The themes, therefore, include induction into rebel groups, adaptation and recruiting of other followers, confrontations with the national Army and other insurgent bands, life at camp, improvised settlements, roadblocks to establish control of an area, kidnappings and their victims lost in the whirlwind, massacres, killings, torturing, and the killing off of victims to assure their silence as well as to frighten and intimidate their neighbors. Some of the pictures present mass graves –a fact which underscores the reality that in Colombia we may never know the exact number of people who have been liquidated– or portrayals of harvesting coca leaves. The evils caused by the production of cocaine are key subjects: the sale of huge bags of coca leaves, fumigation of coca plants by the government, lines of displaced persons forced to flee their lands, and whole towns surrounded and cut off to seal their tongues and subject them by terror.
These first-person narratives in paint reveal testimonials delivered as micro-stories that are unedited meta-histories, confessionals that reflect horror or the pathetic, running the gamut of all the perversity human beings can commit or suffer. Nevertheless, these reports simultaneously demonstrate the process of redemption experienced by the ex-combatants who have committed or witnessed the atrocities portrayed. By illustrating the events of what was their daily life –and leaving guilt aside– they have exposed their active participation in this conflict. Moreover, when we are told what happened in the countryside, in the jungles, we are told with complete frankness, as if with the intention of revealing the painter’s reality as part of the conflict in order to pursue a process of healing his own wounds. This is why, in this space, the authors are totally free; it is here that they can exorcize their demons and their lives and even their crimes by painting them for us. These artists are people who have lived in isolated from ordinary life, on the razor’s edge, where death caused by violence was a daily event, something “normal” carried out by unchallenged methods. Wanting an escape, as we see in some of the paintings, is a justification for being killed with a cruelty used to make the victim an example for others. The paintings are able to make the dead speak, scream, materialize before us, and show that in some way they have been returned to life because of their own assassins. They have been resuscitated through these drawings, and they speak to us so that we will never forget who they were, so that they will once again have names and also to make sure these stories will never happen again.
In speaking of the painters themselves, we should note that the Ley de Justicia y Paz offered many benefits to guerrilla and paramilitary members if they would lay down their arms and leave the battleground. They were offered workshops set up to help them reorganize their lives, end their participation in war, and obviously to be able to tell about what happened in the day-to-day conflict they had experienced. This is the reason we see the works of young men who joined insurgent groups when they were children, some forced to and some in the hope of easy money and an escape from hunger. During the 80s there were mothers in the slum communes of northeast Medellín who told their sons under the age of 18, “Bring money home, boy, any way you can good or bad but bring it!” This meant that adolescents had few options other than to get money for their families, and insurgent groups held out the promise of easy money, while drug traffickers were known to lead a life of big cars, motorcycles, liquor, women with plastic surgery-enhanced attributes, and a taste for guns as prolongations of the body.
We also see the works of those who are sensitive to the beauties of nature: vegetation and blue sky, trees in every color and hue, and the nostalgia produced by a lovely landscape. The contrast is notable with the paintings which show terror: one with six dead bodies, one of torture, one portraying the macabre methods used to eliminate a spy or a deserter or a stool-pigeon, multiple ways of killing an enemy, and the rituals inherited from the days of political violence (the dead body cut into pieces or filled with stones and thrown into a river or slashed with specific symbols). The vessel of life becomes a shadow that possesses the cadavers. There are also paintings of children jumping and playing as if nothing was happening to frighten them; a man is shown feeding the fish in an artificial lake; there are boats that skim the waters of forbidding rivers; and there is the sale of a bushel of coca leaves for about six dollars. We could establish a parallel between the paintings and the journals published in the 19th century: re-creations drawn from personal experiences in order to portray a specific problem in daily life.
Our history is laced with scars left by violence; it is a history that has been fragmented, cut into pieces, and silenced –like the mutilated and fragmented bodies left by victimizers and shown in these paintings. In truth, this is the war that no one talks about, and these works are the testimonials of collective memory. Despite the fact that each painting can be viewed individually, each one narrates an event for us which is also part of a larger sequence. The collection of paintings as a whole, created by different actors in the conflict, provides us with a complete narration of events that represent the terror and the horror that are present in our country every day. Thus, seeing them as a group brings us face to face with a war that is all too real in Colombia.
The exhibition places us in the midst of our rural countryside, in its fields and forests and valleys; a vast territory that includes isolated sites and impenetrable landscapes, far from urban centers. It is a land that is lush and green and overflowing with natural resources, and it is the land inhabited by guerrillas and paramilitary fighters: fought over and greedily grasped because it is so productive for a highly profitable business. The drug trade has produced the insurgent bands that have forced local farmers from their homes, turning them into refugees. In the same way, these lands have become the scenes of massacres, recruiting by force, expropriation of farms, and –of course– immense plantations for the growing of coca plants. The context of the paintings collected here corresponds to specific sites of the conflict: southern Córdoba, northern Antioquia, northern Boyacá, central Chocó, the coffee-growing provinces, the coastal plains, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Montes de María, and the provinces of Arauca, Meta, Guaviare, Caquetá, Putumayo, Nariño, Cauca, and Valle del Cauca. There are over 131 towns cut off by the conflict, prevented from communicating with the provincial capital cities either by armed groups or by their isolated locations.
The workshops organized and offered by the Fundación Puntos de Encuentro provided the opportunity for ex-guerrilla members, ex-paramilitary fighters, and discharged soldiers to speak out, to tell a story, and to paint the events hitherto ignored by the rest of us. Through their story-telling and painting, these actors have once again begun to think like normal human beings, and they have discovered that never again will they want to return to their former lives.
THE WAR WE HAVE NOT SEEN is an exhibition that “takes the blindfold from our eyes” and makes us come face to face with our country; perhaps it draws us closer to it, despite everything. These paintings are both testimony and memory, a vindication of being human, and their sincerity confers great value upon them. They bring to mind the writings of Primo Levi, who described his experiences in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, and they make us realize that all of us share the blame and the shame of crimes against Humanity.