Text by Valeria Posada Villada
Take time to reflect on the imagery in the artworks before moving on to the description.
When it comes to the illegal drug trade, nothing is as it appears. Criminal power is maintained through hidden codes, rules, symbols, and double messages designed to deceive those outside of the network, leaving the facts suspended between fantasy and reality. The lives of those directly affected by the drugs industry and the artists, who, in their attempts to go beyond the mirage, reflect upon this issue, and present an alternative to the sensationalist newspaper clips of shootings, and international pop culture products glamorizing and exoticizing gang members, assassins, and cartels. The goal of witnesses and artists is to portray the disruptive effects produced by the mirage of the drug trafficking business and point out the absences and contradictions it generates within their societies.
For this article I have chosen three Latin American artists, from countries which are part of the drug supply chain, particularly cocaine, who have lived through successive waves of violence as a result of the disastrous attempts to eradicate the illegal drugs business through hard knuckle policies; their countries are Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico. While the list of artists from this region who have produced and are producing audiovisual reflections on the subject keeps on growing, I have decided to present these particular artworks because their approach responds to or exposes the murky character of drug violence. They explore the themes and symbols which reveal its overlooked individual and social consequences, giving importance to the account of those individuals who are usually portrayed as secondary characters in a script routinely belonging to the powerful: politicians, policemen, and narcos.
Huellas de la Memoria (Traces of Memory)
Alfredo López Casanova
The first shoes that form part of Huellas de la Memoria belong to Irma Leticia Hidalgo. This woman from the state of Nuevo León has been looking for her son, Roy Hidalgo, since January 11, 2011, a teenager abducted from his house by individuals in bulletproof police jackets, who, like other Mexicans, became a victim of the complicity between members of the State and drug trafficking organizations. While assisting in some of the search rounds organized by women like Leticia, which traveled to different ministries and locations in the search for their loved ones, the sculptor was inspired by their shoes. For him, their worn out appearance was both an expression of their love and of the hardships of their journey. López decided to set up an open call for relatives to donate their footgear and, by engraving the names of the disappeared in their heels, transformed these objects into uncomfortable pieces of art whose political statement confronts the official neglect on the topic of the over 32,000 disappearance cases registered since 2007. Joined together, the shoes are a collective embodiment of the absences produced by drug-related violence, and a visual stamp which emphasizes the lack of justice. Exhibited at the Museo Casa de la Memoria Indómita (Memory House of Indomitable Memory) and other cultural centers in Europe, the shoes are not arranged chronologically, translating the relatives’ inability to establish a dividing line between past, present or future while the disappeared cannot be claimed. Until the whereabouts of the abducted are known, their lives, like the shoes, will be left hanging in the air.
Celda #16 (Prison Cell #16)
Like López, Alma Leiva is a collector of the mundane objects that speak of the individual and collective effects of drug-related violence many Centro Americans flee from when emigrating to the U.S. The pieces are later used to construct site-specific installations, which stand as allegories of criminal acts or locations, and depict the immigrants’ feeling of estrangement from that which used to be intimate. Beds, sofas and kitchens stand alongside football courts, playgrounds and graveyards, displaying the overlap between the private and public sphere as a direct consequence of the shattered sense of security many immigrants cannot escape from and which continues to weigh upon them. In this sense, Celda #16 represents the memory of a criminal act responsible for transforming a familiar space into an emotional prison. The photograph refers to the 2013 massacre which occurred in San Pedro Sula’s preschool Mi Segundo Hogar (My Second Home). This violent event took the lives of five adults (David E. Rivera, Delmi R. Rivera, Helen A. Rivera, Carmen Valdivieso) and one child (Daniela A. Martínez), at the hands of Barrio 18 members, one of the biggest transnational gangs, or maras, of Central and North America. Newspaper reports cover the walls of the classroom but their contents are whitewashed, since the motivations for the attack remain unknown. Instead, the dripping wall paint serves to highlight the icon of xibalba which surrounds the room, and which is associated with the Mayan “place of fear” or underworld. Victims reveal themselves not only through their photographs but through the messages written on the blackboard, leaving traces of their presence by replacing the phrases “El colegio es tu seguridad/school is your safety” and “Do not leave the house. You’ll stay at school” with a persistent “No.”
El Bloc del Narco #9 (The Narco’s Bloc #9)
At first glance, Restrepo’s work may seem to stand in stark contrast to López and Leiva’s, since it does not approach the subject from the victims’ viewpoint or deal with the psychological aftermath of violence. However, this series shows the impact of the illegal drug trade on the nation through what the artist has called the ‘narcotization’ of social life. That is, the infiltration of terms, objects, and events in the daily life of Colombians, which are connected to this problem but whose influence remains hidden in plain sight because they are codified through the use of aliases, acronyms, and words with double meanings. By compiling a list of all the quotations that have appeared in the daily El Tiempo newspaper referring to this issue, and displaying them alongside mocking headlines, Restrepo makes evident pervasive reach of the War on Drugs and the social phenomena that have appeared as a consequence of its presence. For example, in Issue #9, the black headline advertises narco-shirts that have been used to smuggle liquid cocaine as ‘the latest trend in Italy’ while, at the same time, pasting newspaper tags that refer to recent corruption ‘carrusels’ (Carruseles de contratación), Express Kidnappings (paseos millonarios), and Social Cleansings (limpieza social). Restrepo’s childish drawings render Colombia’s social reality even more outlandish, in a similar way to Leiva’s naive but alienating installations, and expose a world in which individuals such as ‘Winny’ and ‘The Justice League’ have enough power to rule over the fate of many, and controversial figures such as George W. Bush or Don Berma (AUC paramilitary and leader of Envigado), are regarded as exemplary figures quoted in the “narco-comment section”. Without doubt, the artist’s’ poignant humor overturns criminals’ cryptic vocabulary, transforming his artwork into a confrontational act through which truths are disclosed. Therefore, it is no surprise that his piece was published under the name of ‘Bloc’, alluding to a military denomination used to classify paramilitary groups, one of the armed actors with strong historical ties to the illegal drug trade in Colombia.
These three artists expand the vantage point through which the War on Drugs is portrayed by helping viewers understand, tangibly and emotionally, the individual and social phenomena produced by this campaign that remain abstract to many. Objects, spaces, and vocabularies become imprints translating phenomena associated with criminal power, such as disappearance, displacement, and corruption, in a skillful yet raw manner, without resorting to voyeurism or overexposure. Borrowing Leiva’s exhibition title, these artworks stand as ‘counter-archives’, not only because they distance themselves from the criminal figures or melodramatic tabloids by focusing on the ‘renegades’, but primarily because the agency of those who live alongside violence is made present. Victims and witnesses do not passively react to violence, they protest, resist, disturb and mock. Their life experiences and opinions expose the paradoxes generated by a campaign that aims to end violence through the same means it supposedly stands against, leading audiences to reevaluate their position towards the images and stories that the media disseminates about this topic, which transform Latin American geographies and populations into a contemporary Wild West scenario in need of assistance and foreign military intervention. It is never too late to start wondering whether the consumption of these products should not be considered part of the reason why the War on Drugs continues to be seen as a feasible option, despite its evident failure to reduce both drug production and consumption.