Though she stands straight and tall, Ana Mercedes Hoyos’ auburn bun does not quite reach the top of the bronze African head in her hallway. Hoyos, with the gentle wrinkles and delicate demeanor of a grandmother, says she was once known as the “woman who paints baskets of fruit.”
Critics attacked her, calling her work — while high quality and deservingly expensive — safe, easy. Now, the Colombian artist is renowned for her depictions of a world governed by slavery.
Hoyos grew up with respectability; her parents, architects, whisked her to New York, Paris, Barcelona. She attended Marymount School in Bogotá, a private all-girls academy taught by New York-based nuns. Her family never dreamed she would be an artist. Affluent and cultured mid-century Colombians did not pursue art, nor live a self-professed “bohemian” life. But Hoyos broke the mold.
She became an artist in her own right, although she considers herself primarily a “constructor”— perhaps a consequence of being surrounded by architects her whole life. Forty-seven years ago, she married now-famous architect Jacques Mosseri at New York City Hall.
Arguably her most famous work, and “if not [her] best—one of [her] best,” she says, hangs in her Bogotá living room, its plantain-yellow and pastel-blue jumping out of a frame-filled wall. “That’s Zenaida,” she says, pointing at the dark brown face amid the tropical hues. “She’s my best friend in the world.”
In person, Zenaida might stand just a half of a head taller than Hoyos, but the overflowing bowl atop her head and billowy, layered red skirt exaggerates her already-commanding presence.
Before moving to coastal Cartagena 30 years ago, Zenaida was born 60 kilometers inland, in the dust bowl village of Palenque. Meaning “walled town” in Palenquero, a language handed down from West Africa, this hidden pueblo in the banana groves and foothills of Bolivar department once served as refuge for escaped African slaves. Founded mid 1600s, Palenque became the first Freetown on the continent, and the only one that still remains intact.
Despite being “free”—struggles remained and still remain in the integration and acceptance of African Americans into Colombian society, Hoyos said.
Hoyos was born into privilege; Zenaida, born into poverty. Hoyos sells art in the best galleries of the world; Zenaida sells mangoes on Boca Grande beach. Hoyos received a world-class education; Zenaida can’t read. But they chat on the phone for hours nearly every other day. Zenaida, from her crowded Cartagena apartment, Hoyos, from either her comfortable NYC or Bogotá home. They talk about life and love and what their children are up to; they share intimate secrets and usually dish about the latest scandal in the soap operas they both watch — Zenaida via the television Hoyos gifted her.
As Colombians with contrasting backgrounds, they embody a type of friendship that breaks boundaries. But Hoyos is careful not to project an image of her best friend to the world. “I am not a portraitist,” she insists, “I show Palenque through her.”
Palenque, then, is personified by a woman with tired feet, strong arms and a heart as warm as her enveloping hugs. She carries a crippled past with her always — a past and a presence that Hoyos does not want Colombia to ignore, forget or trivialize.
So she attempts to “create a really positive image of the tragedy of slavery.” While it may sound like an absurd undertaking in theory, Hoyos’ goal is to not glorify a horrific part of history. Instead, she hopes to portray a people who overcame it.
“My vision [of the Palenqueros], is a very friendly one,” Hoyos said, “showing the benefits that they have produced with all of their work, and their happiness, and how in all of America their influence is so great.”
In part, Hoyos says she paints the bowls of fruits, found by the dozens in Palenque alleys and Cartagena beaches, because “the fruit made them visible. We see them because of the bowls of fruits.”
Without the “blanks”, Hoyos fears that a culture, already once beaten, rejected and ignored, would be invisible. In fact, Hoyos said she first “met Zenaida through a bowl of fruits.”
“She was sitting at the beach, and wanted to take a picture of the fruit I was carrying,” Zenaida recalled. “So I said, ‘con mucho gusto.’”
Hoyos would return for more pictures and more conversation, and eventually a relationship once based on purchasing fruit and taking photographs became an enduring friendship.
Arms rested on the table next to a porcelain teacup and plate of brightly colored macaroons, Hoyos explains their enduring bond, even though they haven’t seen each other in five years due to the distance. “We love each other. She’s my comadre, mi amiga — my soul mate.”
Zenaida sits at one of hundreds of white plastic chairs along the beach, a flimsy cup with the mint residue of a mojito likely left by a tourist on the table in front of her. “I love her,” she says of Hoyos. “And I feel as though she loves me too…she’s my soul mate.” Eighteen years younger than Hoyos’ 71, she refers to her “like a mother.” She clutches her chest, adorned with ruffles, closes her eyes and seems to escape from the bustling beach for a moment. “She’ll always be here in my heart.”
Little does Zenaida know her friendship with Hoyos has transformed her into an Afro-Colombian emblem. She doesn’t understand that her oil-painted face has graced stamps, posters and book covers try or that her profile personifies an entire culture. She does think the picture is “very good.”
Some might draw conclusions about the breadth of knowledge of a woman who is illiterate and scarcely traveled, but Hoyos says she has a lot to learn from Zenaida. And, while seemingly fitting into the confines of a 10-minute long stretch of sand and shore and the 20-minute walk to her house and back, “her world is much wider than mine,” Hoyos says.
Palenqueros view water as the soul of life, and rely on few other inanimate objects for happiness. Through Zeneida, Hoyos learned about happiness. “They’re not contaminated with culture,” Hoyos says. “They’re happy. Free.”
Meanwhile, Hoyos claim that general Colombian society is one of the most resistant in the world. Fifty years ago when she began depicting African American culture, people would sometimes say, “I love your work. But why do you paint these people?”
“And I would say ‘because I respect them more than anything,’” Hoyos said.
Hoyos sticks to bronze as her sculpture material of choice because it is enduring as she hopes the history of the African American tradition to be. “To really create a work of art, you have to be very careful,” Hoyos warns. “You have to respect your ‘lenguaje’—your language, your medium, your technique.”
Looking at any one of Hoyos’ works, razor-sharp exactness is observed in every ebb and curve, ending in geometric harmony. When Hoyos began researching cubism many years ago, she found inspiration in its origins: African masks carved by Nile and Congo tribesmen.
Then, when she discovered Palenque, she found her own “source of cubismo.”
And she does not plan to stop portraying Palenque any time soon. While many artists deal with numerous themes over their career, Hoyos commits herself to the culture.
Right now, she’s working on a project with her friend Danillo, a Palenquero and friend of Zenaida who also lives in Cartagena. Danillo takes photographs of Palenquero culture every day, constantly striving for the “magical moments,” which now sum more than 10,000 images to be archived.
Danillo describes Zenaida as sincere, a humanitarian, and a defender of a cultural identity that is not even her own. She may be an award-winning artist who does not need to involve herself with anything other than high-class society, but Hoyos said she discovered herself in the Palenque people. “I cannot separate my life from the life of Palenque,” she said. “First I am a Colombian, then I am a South American, then I am an American. Then I should be a citizen of the world because I can communicate as a person who was born in an underdeveloped country like Colombia, which is a wonderful country – and I can represent a subject that covers the whole world.”
The subject is slavery, which she says, “we cannot ignore the phenomena of. It’s very old, and still is ‘muy vigente.’ You cannot say that slavery is over.”