Rafael Gómezbarros’ Bogotá studio resembles a Tim Burton fantasy. There are larger-than-life ants on the walls. Ants all over the floor. Ants on shelves. On the artist’s sunny terrace, next to crisp white patio furniture, are hundreds more, stacked like corpses underneath a large plastic tarp.
That these are sculptures and not live insects doesn’t lessen the sensation of being inside an especially frightening entomology exhibit. Gómezbarros cradles them as if they were babies as he discusses his Casa Tomada art project, which in English means “Taken House.”
The artist, who possesses an infectious laugh and smile, explains that what interests him about ants is their “duality,” which he represents in his work by creating ants with two different skulls, made from glass fiber and tied together with cotton. On one hand, as tenacious, hardworking insects, ants symbolize the resilience and good spirit of Colombians.
Gómezbarros uses ants to explore the negative issues that affect Colombia, such as displacement and migration. As insects that are constantly on the move, “ants live displacement,” he says. It is unclear whether the ants are the invaders or the invaded, another “dual” aspect that appeals to the artist.
With the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Gómezbarros’s ants have migrated to many art shows in Colombia. As a native of Santa Marta, his ants have consumed the façade of the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the hacienda where Simón Bolívar spent his final days. In Barranquilla, they nibbled at the exterior of the customs building. In Bogotá, Gómezbarros brought 1,000 creatures inside to take over the Alonso Garcés Galerry, and created a surreal invasion of the national Congress’s stone façade.
Casa Tomada has been the most visible work in this artist’s career. Although his father hoped he would become an architect, Gómezbarros knew at an early age that he wanted to dedicate himself to the visual arts. In 1991, he left the coast and moved to Bogotá to pursue his dream of studying art. After a difficult few years in which he slept on the street and worked in a studio replicating the work of famous Colombian artists such as Luis Caballero and Fernando Botero, Gómezbarros finally graduated from the art department of the Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano in 1995.
In early series such as Hasta la Tierra es Mestiza (Even the earth is mixed race), Urnas (Urns), Sonajeros (Rattles), and Carbono 14 (Carbon 14), the artist shows his affinity for working with distinctly Colombian subject matter and materials. The quasi self-portrait paintings in Hasta la Tierra es Mestiza (1999) recall pre-Colombian masks, updated with modern features like nose piercings. In Carbono 14 (2006), the artist layers sand from different regions of Colombia and coal from the Cerrejón on top of his oil paint.
Beginning with Sonajeros (2004), Gómezbarros started dabbling with three-dimensional work as well as painting and drawing. While the artist considers painting to be more “intimate,” he also finds it to be limiting. Painting “is what happens to me in private,” he explains. “I enjoy sculpture because I’m always outside… I was looking for the freedom that installation and intervening in architectural spaces gives me.”
The series Paracos consists of 17 wasps’ nests taken from the areas of Colombia that have the highest levels of people displaced by the armed conflict. On the nests, which are hung from the wall, the artist painted maps of the corresponding regions. The nests are collected in the season when the wasps leave them empty – nature’s own readymades- and resemble abandoned houses, the artist says. The title is also a verbal pun – “paraco” is a coastal word for wasp nest, and a slang term for a paramilitary fighter.
The presence of paramilitaries in Gómezbarros’s native coastal region is one of many reasons he is careful to avoid being viewed as partial to any group in his work, despite the political nature of his subject matter. The artist, who witnessed the violence of the conflict in his youth, says, “Colombia is like a big box of matches. In any moment it could ignite.” Instead, he seeks to preserve collective memory, and thus has chosen national monuments for Casa Tomada, which he says are not frequently visited by Colombians.
The use of such symbolic locations is fraught with risk, the artist feels, and burdens him with a great responsibility. It also poses a huge logistical challenge. First, there is the matter of convincing local authorities to let him infest their historical buildings. His attempt to use a cathedral in Cartagena, for instance, was frustrated by a conflict with the annual beauty pageant. For the installations in Santa Marta and Barranquilla, Gómezbarros purposely designed each ant to be between 60 and 70 centimeters so that they could be easily packed. He also made sure to hang them high, to avoid potential theft.
The images of the stately colonial buildings crawling with giant insects are undeniably surreal. However, despite a shared iconography with the Surrealist masters – ants appear frequently in the paintings of Dalí as well as in a famous sequence in his and Luis Buñuel’s classic film “Un Chien Andalou” – Gómezbarros denies such influences in his work. “I’m too much of a hermit,” he offers by way of explanation. The artist is more likely to cite architectural and literary references, such as Gabriel García Márquez. He does admit to being a fan of the renowned Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, although her installation on the façade of the Palacio de Justicia means that that landmark is unlikely to see an ant infestation anytime soon.
Gómezbarros credits his interest in ants to his youth in Santa Marta, when he would draw the insects that routinely took over his patio. A desire to recapture that experience had horrific results when a large quantity of ants brought to him from the coast escaped from their jar and invaded the entire building. He didn’t have a doorbell at the time, the artist says, “so people would say follow the ant path from the front door to my apartment.”
Gómezbarros dreams of being a Colombian Christo and Jeanne-Claude, setting his ants free on landmarks all over the world – the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the Washington Monument. Doing so might require some explanation of the particularly Colombian significance of his ants – from their political symbolism to their status as a local delicacy. On the latter issue, though, Gómezbarros can’t bring himself to align with his countrymen. “I’ve never tried them,” he says. “ And I’m not going to.”