The hostel I was staying at in Bogota was in a pretty convenient location. It was just five blocks from the Plaza de Bolivar and surrounded by historic buildings and museums. One day I attempted to see as many of them as I could. My focus during the trip had been street art. The experience so far had been immersive and full of discovery, but I was also interested in checking out some of the art that fits in buildings and frames.
The Plaza de Bolivar is where the National Capitol, Catedral Primada, and Palace of Justice are located. One of the most infamous incidents in the war between the government and leftist rebels occurred in 1985 when M-19 guerillas invaded the Palace of Justice, taking 300 people hostage and eventually killing 12 of the Supreme Court Justices. In total, almost a hundred people died, including five of the rebel leaders, and the building was left in flames.
Walking towards the Plaza on Calle 11, my first stop was at the MAMU, or Museo de Arte Miguel Urrutia, which adjoins the Botero Museum. The first building I entered was given over to interactive exhibits, that combined physical objects, sculpture, and projected images and videos. The theme, which had come up over and over again on my trip, was the country trying to come to grips with its violent history and the people and communities that have been uprooted over the years.
The first room documented various massacres that had been committed during festival occasions, the centerpiece, being a large whip on a mechanical tripod. Another room showed desolate images of a neighborhood that had been abandoned and then later deconstructed. A third exhibit traced the madness of a minerologist who’d been sent to New Granada during the colonial era to oversee the extraction of gold from the land. The last room I entered showed scenes from a movie, wrestlers in drag battling women from the Amazon. I’m not quite sure what the point of the last exhibit was, but it was entertaining, to say the least.
The MAMU also has a permanent collection that I walked through next. The images that once again got my attention were those featuring violence; an abstract of a disemboweled corpse, a fist clenching a dagger, a torso, like a mountain, with a river of blood running down it. There were also black and white photos from the conflict. Armed rebels looking down on Bogota from a hilltop. Peasants waving sticks, their faces covered by bandanas. A caravan of fighters on donkeys, making their way through the jungle.
The Botero Museum, itself, comes from the private collection of Fernando Botero, whose paintings and sculptures of oversized subjects can be found around the world. I’d seen much of his work in the Botero Plaza of Medellin, and recognized similar pieces here. In addition to his own work, the museum also houses works by other famous artists, such as Picasso, Dali, Chagall, Monet, Matisse, and Miro. Artists have always been my heroes, but what I loved, more than the art they produced, is the way they lived. Some of them, like Picasso, had great success in life, and I found hard to relate to. The mad ones who suffered for their art and often went unheralded were my role models. Van Gogh. Gaugin. All the Romantic Poets. Syd Barret. Nick Drake. It seemed to me that they had made a religion out of their art, and fought, like the early Egyptian desert fathers, in their barren crawl-holes, for a firsthand encounter with the divine.
There were many museums to visit. The Military Museum had a collection of guns, swords, and different period uniforms, as well as a courtyard with a helicopter, fighter plane, rocket launchers, a boat with mounted machine guns, a few missiles, and a statue of a soldier, crouched low to the ground, detonating an explosive.
At the Colonial Museum there were traditional oil painting on the first floor, but the second featured some conceptual pieces, a man with a white Clorox jug for a face, a large peso with the front-piece being a child in a gas mask amidst an industrial wasteland, a third showing a tribesman, trapped in a burning jungle.
By the time I made it to the Museum of Independence, I was beginning to suffer from museum burnout. After appreciating a statue of two gentlemen in Victorian dress engaged in a fistfight, I could no longer pay attention. It was time to get back to the streets.
Carrera 7 is the main pedestrian thoroughfare that runs through Bogota. It was Sunday, so it was crowded and there were many street performers lining the way. One man had a large speaker behind his bike and was blaring salsa music, with a few old homeless men doing most of the dancing. Another wiry shirtless man was walking on a pile of broken bottles while smoking a cigarette. A boy with no hands was playing the piano with his feet. A group of costumed characters were paying to pose for pictures. Spiderman saw me aiming my camera in his direction and admonished me from a distance, waving his finger, no, no, no.
Later, I ended up in a popular student neighborhood where every building was adorned with murals. There I witnessed a woman growing from vines, an elder made happy by a bowl of chicha, an Indigenous child, holding his heart in his hand, a gap-toothed rapper, smiling from beneath a baseball hat with a hornet on it, two nude women, swimming through a golden sea, parrots, hummingbirds, superheroes, meteor showers, and next to a basketball court, a series of fantastical beings that could only have been summoned from a psychedelic trip. This was just a very small sample of the street art I encountered in Bogota, block after long block of it.
My conclusion? I love art in all its manifold forms, but the most interesting art I’d seen on this trip, and in many of the trips I’d taken preceding it, had all been street art, done by anonymous artists, in most cases driven by a passion for creating alone. Going to a museum can still be something of a chore. You’ve paid to get in, so feel you have a duty to pay attention. You can only keep it up so long. At one point you find yourself walking faster and faster, almost groaning out loud when you find there’s a whole wing or floor left that you didn’t know about. Street art is nothing like that. It picks you up and carries you with it. Seeing more of it only drives you on. I can walk through streets that are covered with art all day, and never get bored.