On a quiet corner in the neighborhood of Teusaquillo, there is a house that stands out. From afar, it looks as though it’s been visited by some disaster. Where the windows should be is nothing but black and bilious matter. A monster of sorts is eating away at the tree. Upon closer inspection, you realize it’s just trash – lots of it and everywhere. Scattered about the yard, hanging from the trees, pouring out of the windows, draped from the roof. Welcome to Bogotá’s ‘Museo de la Basura.’
Good intentions aside, it is less of a museum than a creepy backyard from a depopulated American suburb after the factory shut down and went to Mexico. Headless dolls and empty whiskey bottles dot the yard: it is the stuff of dystopian dreams. Had it not been sunny and warm when I visited, I might have been less keen on entering this dark, musty den that serves as the museum’s “reception.” But the door – a tattered, gray plastic trash-bag – was open when I arrived, and the voice inside invited me in.
Down one set of makeshift stairs and up another, you still have to climb a ladder to get to the second floor. Your correspondent is a relatively large individual, so this was no easy task. Among the waste bins, clocks, cardboard boxes, broken brooms, beads, dirty bras and rusty bug repellent cans it is hard to distinguish between so many discarded and meaningless objects.
That is the point of the “museum”: to warn people of the infinite stores of objects that are produced and consumed without a second thought. At the rate we’re going, the museum’s founder and chief inhabitant claims, before long the entire planet will resemble the Museum of Trash.
Upstairs the air is foul and cramped. Two men are sitting in the dark: one is young, bespectacled, clean cut and playing the guitar. It feels like he’s cutting class to hang out with the cooler, older bad kids. Across from him is a man with dreadlocks streaming from his head and beard. His glasses are broken and ducktaped back together; he wears them upside down.
Francisco Antonio Zea Restrepo, is the founder, owner and chief curator of the Museum of Trash. Legs spread, tummy out and bottom firmly sunk into the couch, he and the battered sofa appear as if one. It’s early on a Wednesday afternoon and Zea sips warm whiskey and soda. He offers me one. How could I say no?
Born in Medellín, Francisco moved to Bogotá at 18 to study business ad- ministration at a prestigious university. Though – in his words – a privileged descendent of marauding Spaniards, he grew weary of a “neoliberal education. Determined to “live a different kind of life,” he dropped out and moved to Paris at age 23. For seven years, he took classes at the Sorbonne and the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs and squatted in abandoned factories around town. When he came to the realization that if he stayed in Paris, he would “never be more than a poor and mediocre painter,” he returned home.
The idea of amassing other people’s rubbish dawned on him over time. A child of the ecological movements of the 1970s, Francisco also found inspiration in the work of “that Franco-American,” (Henry David) Thoreau.
Returning from France in the 1980s, he first opened a tertulia – a literary salon of sorts – in La Candelaria. The moment he started hanging trash from the win- dows, however, the neighbors had him evicted. From there he tried his hand for several years in Medellín and Cartagena. Run out of the first by paramilitaries, he was driven from the second by local government authorities: no one in Colombia’s pristine cities seemed to like the scent of hot, discarded plastic roasting in the sun. Ever headstrong, he returned to the capital.
By no means were things easier in Bogotá. Home to the local offices of many political parties, two Evangelical churches, the Colombian Confederation of Workers and a generic English- language institute within a block of the trash palace, in 1995, someone set fire to the museum, nearly burning down the entire house. Luckily, Francisco was out that night. Since then, there have been 3 more arson attempts. Only a fortnight ago he received verbal threats in the middle of the night. “Did you ever find out who burned down the house?” I ask with some reluctance. “Of course not. If I did, I would have to kill him. And that wouldn’t lead to any good.”
Whatever violence the neighbors were willing to inflict upon the Museum of Trash, it wasn’t enough. Nor could the courts bring him down. After years of legal struggles, his lawyer managed to convince a judge that this really, truly was a museum. As an object of cultural preservation, it belonged to the public and deserved the absolute support and protection of the state. Perhaps he had learned a thing or two in France after all.
A giant, old, cordless phone rings. He asks me to hand it to him. “Oye, huevón! What do you think I’m doing? Sitting here with a glass in one hand and this goddamn telephone in the other.” He hangs up and offers me another drink. It’s hot and I haven’t had lunch. “You know, I’m similar to Martin Luther King in many ways,” he says as he pours from a near-empty bottle always within an arm’s reach. “He say, ‘I have a drrream,” taking a stab at English. “I say, ‘I have a drrrink!’ ”
Zea acquired the house in Teusaquillo from an aunt who’d been a nurse for many years in Miami. “So she was on board with the idea of the museum?” He pauses to refill his whiskey: “No.” What about the objects surrounding us – which is the most indicative of wasteful and harmful consumption? He pauses for a while, takes a sip but doesn’t answer. Hoping to break the silence, I ask him about the last item of trash he added to the museum. Without hesitation he turns to me and smiles “You!”