Antonio Caro is more than a little concerned about the progress made in his home country since his seminal work Colombia / Coca-Cola hit him like a bolt of lightning in 1976. Intelligent and humorous, his politically charged commentary on the country’s development has built him a reputation as the father of Colombia’s conceptual art movement through five decades.
This wild-haired and wild-eyed wanderer has been fascinated by the local impact of economic and cultural colonisation since his days as a student in the early 1970s at the Universidad Nacional de Bogotá.
Thirty-four years after he first painted Colombia onto the red strip of the Colombian flag, representing the blood spilled in the nation’s violent history in the unmistakable typeface of the only company legally allowed to import coca to the U.S., he has been one of the most concise critics of Colombia’s fragile and self-destructive society.
“Facing the reality of globalisation in Colombia, we haven’t been able to make a little village let alone a nation and that’s tough,” he says exhaling heavily as he signs another limited edition retrospective book of his works in his Bogotá gallery Casas Riegner.
Always thoughtful in his answers and subtly subversive in his arguments, the book is a reflection of the first ten years of a career that has witnessed withering transformations in both the Colombian art scene and the rest of society.
As a recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and someone who has left an indelible trail through Colombia’s art history, Caro appreciates that there was a large dose of good fortune in the moment that the inextricably linked fortunes of Coca-Cola and Colombia first came to him ‘like a flash’ in 1976.
The “fortunate” artist, he says, “is one that can produce a piece of work that surpasses his own discourse. I can explain my own discourse, but this went beyond that. I did not try it, it just came out, totally intuitive.” He adds, “It’s like the Tao or the Zen act. They say that when you try and hit the target you miss, and when you don’t worry about hitting it – bulls eye!”
He worries that too many artists are fearful of even trying to define the period in which they exist. Too many cling to the anachronistic obsession of showing in galleries. He urges his successors to take a leaf from those musicians creating and playing music in their bedrooms and selling online.
“Before photography, artists were called on to record the period. While this function still exists today, there are perhaps sciences that register the moment better than us, but maybe that is just an excuse,” he says, before musing and carefully inscribing my own snapshot of his early retrospective, Antes de Cuiaba with my very own dedication – “To Mr. Nice Name.”
The book explores his early years long before anyone had coined the term ‘global village’ or he had arrived at the Brazilian city of Cuiaba, in the Mato Grosso, a place that had a profound impact on his artistic development. Since the 1970s, he argues, it is alarming how much the world has turned for the worse, still a central theme in his biting critique of contemporary culture.
In almost half a century, Caro has probed Latin America’s social injustice and a collective contemporary amnesia to draw attention to the injustices meted out to indigenous people in the region through different media including painting, posters, public installations, lectures and ambiguous yet politically charged materials such as salt, the first commodity to lure the Spanish conquistadors into the Colombian mountains.
In works like the Homenaje a Manuel Quintin Lame, a forgotten indigenous leader from the beginning of the 20th century, and Matas de Maiz he never tires of championing the cause of unconventional heroes like Augustin Agualongo, the Indigenous leader from Pasto who famously fought alongside Spanish colonialists against the Republican forces of Simon Bolivar.
During Caro’s celebrated career spent in various locales throughout the country, he has had plenty of time for reflection on a nation that he describes as a “mishmash” of regions.
“Colombia unites so many post-modern things that it all gets mixed up in your head. It’s a question of nation and the state but I think at this moment we are in the process of fusion that is going to produce just one Colombia, a real Colombia,” he says. “Before it was a mishmash of the regions that were united only by power, first of the colony and then the power of the Republic, but only now are we seeing a true fusion.” Facilitated by modern-day communications: radio, TV, the Internet and air travel, barriers are being broken down and the cultural colonisation of which his work often speaks greatly accelerated.
His Colombia of 1976 has been dismantled, the national economy “sold to foreigners” and the regions “unable to resist the contemporary economy” are being united by new forces that offer an unexpected dose of optimism to his deeply critical recipe for success. He sees much hope in a younger generation that adapts effortlessly in one corner of the country (and the world for that matter) or another.
In Colombia’s flourishing art scene, he also sees someone prepared to carry on with his role, prodding away at the collective conscience. Caro believes he has a natural successor in the form of Jaime Avila. “It might sound very pretentious, but he is the one that is following me,” he says with one of his mischievous, lopsided smiles. “He’s marvellous and he has the feeling of his entire generation. There is something beautiful about him in that he has an Angel but he also has the Devil. Very few have the Angel. Even fewer have the Devil.”