“Expression without culture is flat”
— Fernando Botero
Nothing has done more to cement an image of Colombia in the current popular consciousness than the binge-worthy Netflix series, Narcos. It’s not a flattering portrait of the country. Mention it around a local and you’ll be met with an eye-roll. The docu-drama chronicles the exploits of Pablo Escobar in a war-torn Colombia as it might have appeared in the late 70s and 80s. Over 30 years since those events transpired, that obsolete impression is still how many on the outside imagine the region. Things have changed. The Colombia of today, the one I photographed, is a burgeoning economy with world-class cuisine and thriving scenes for art and music. Colombians know it. The friends I made there were proud to show me their vibrant culture. I’m proud to pass along a few excepts here.
Walking along the Rio Quindio, a river beside a small village called Boquia in Salento, my partner and I stopped at the curious sight of a home with a facade crafted to resemble a clown’s face. Bells for eyes. A round window for a nose. A mouth that opened into a garage, where a man strolled out to meet us. He introduced himself as the architect and proudly divulged the significance of the clown, a memory from a circus he visited as a child. He noticed our intrigue and ushered us into his garden to show more of his handiwork. He pointed to an elaborate pond that he had engineered to farm fish, filter water and irrigate his garden. A sustainable ecosystem. He waved to his second house and explained how he molded each brick himself from a compost of recycled refuse. No waste. He guided us through the small inn he was constructing to host travelers. Posada del Cucù, the sign read. He’d been developing his eclectic ranch for more than two decades. Once a practicing architect in Bogota, he was now a polymath in pursuit of his own vision of ecological utopia - one with a clown-shaped facade. He spoke with the zeal of a lone revolutionary. For an afternoon, we were his audience.
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There’s vitality in the air flowing through the mountains around Salento - a perfect composition of nitrogen, oxygen, argon and water vapor, warmed by the temperate sun and thinned by altitude. Call it a spirit. It manifests in the plants, animals and people. Wax palms grow taller there in the Cocora Valley than anywhere in the world, reaching up to 200 feet. The coffee plantations sprawling across those hills produce arabic beans globally acclaimed for their tart acidity. The trout caught in the Rio Quindio is unparalleled, fresh from the mountain water. The people I met there were diligent stewards, excited to share the abundant wonders of their country with me.
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Harrowing gorilla warfare once earned Comuna 13 the grim distinction as the most dangerous neighborhood in the world. That history is being reclaimed as inspiration for art and music that now emanates from the community. There’s a distinct tone of optimism and integrity unique to the painting and poetry being created in those hills near the outskirts of Medellin. It reminded me of Chicago. As a college student, I lived in Pilsen on the border of South Side, the murder capital of the United States during that time. Beneath the gang fighting runs an undercurrent of cultural diplomacy — built on the ash of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, just 6 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, the blueprints of that city manifested an idealist vision of congruent metropolis in the segregationist era. Over a century later, the city was marred by violent discord. As artists, designers and young idealists, we believed part of the solution was in creative renovation of public space. Walking though Comuna 13, I was surrounded by evidence of the capacity for art to supplant violence, a model we can learn from to fix our own broken cities.