Ciudad Bolívar builds its own history in one-of-a-kind museum

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Photos of Ciudad Bolívar's Museo Atoconstruida. Photo: Lex Treinen.

José Herrera, a dancer and resident of Ciudad Bolívar, remembers going hungry often during the strict lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Residents of Ciudad Bolívar with little means relied on government deliveries of staple products like rice, lentils, and flour to get by. They hung red clothing or rags outside of their homes to signal to passing government food distribution trucks that they were going hungry.

It often wasn’t enough.

“If I ate in the morning, I wouldn’t eat in the evening,” he said. “It was a hard time.”

That difficult period for Ciudad Bolívar’s long-marginalized residents is now memorialized in an exhibit on the ground floor of the Museo de la Ciudad Autoconstruido, which opened one year ago on Monday.

The piece, We, the South: hunger, the perennial pandemic by Jerson Murillo, shows a wood table set with plates filled with dried bread. Set next to the table are miniature red t-shirts and dresses. It’s just one of the many impactful pieces in the south of Bogotá’s first museum that can hit visitors with an startling immediacy.

Several of the works at Ciudad Bolívar’s museum include quotidian local products, like discarded camcorders, cooking pots, and even human hair. Several of the pieces focus on water, which has a special resonance for the highland community that is the source of Bogotá’s water, but where some people still don’t have access to potable tap water.

Several videos in the museum highlight Ciudad Bolívar’s history of political activism, including footage of the 1993 community uprising in which residents blocked major roadways into Ciudad Bolívar to demand attention from a government that had long neglected them.

An art installation on the ground floor of the Museo de la Ciudad Autoconstruido representing the informal education systems of Ciudad Bolívar. Photo: Lex Treinen

On the rooftop terrace next to a small vegetable garden, workers have been building an addition to the museum’s facilities. It’s an indigenous-inspired room circular room built from guadua, a native species of bamboo. Tentatively called the Circulo de la Palabra, or Circle of the Word, the room is intended to host ceremonial gatherings particularly for the dozen or so indigenous tribes that form part of Ciudad Bolívar’s diverse community.

A worker with the Mayaelo Collective works on the Casa de La Palabra on the rooftop of Museo de la Ciudad Autoconstruido. Photo: Lex Treinen.

So what is a “museo autoconstruido”?

“It doesn’t really translate to English,” said ceramic artist and museum guide Christian Cely, who grew up playing soccer and immersing in the hip-hop culture of 1990s Ciudad Bolívar. “Something like ‘self-constructed.'”

The museum was funded with government money, but was led by local artists and activists who were in tune with community needs.

The museum is the only museum in the South of Bogotá, and the only “autoconstruido” museum in Colombia, according to guides.

“There are other models in Argentina, Mexico, but this is the only one in Colombia,” said Andretti Menjura, a community tourism advocate.

The museum regularly hosts community events and is a site for artists and documentarians to record and create. The museum opened a year ago, and will host a celebration of its anniversary on December 3, with programming yet to be determined. Visitors are invited to the celebration, and can arrive on Transmilenio to the Portal Tunal station. From there, they can ride the scenic TransMiCable to the third and final stop at Mirador del Paraíso.

. Visitors pay the standard Transmillenio fee to take the cable car to the last stop in a tranquil and scenic ride above Ciudad Bolivar’s colorful neighborhoods and abundant graffiti. Photo: Lex Treinen.

The museum is one of the ways that Ciudad Bolívar has started to reinvent itself as a dynamic and artistic center in recent years since the arrival of the TransMiCable in 2018. The cable cars opened up possibilities for residents of the higher-elevation neighborhoods of Ciudad Bolívar to work in Bogotá, while also opening access to tourists.

That opened up possibilities for guiding companies to form to take advantage of tourists curious to get out of the well-trodden paths of Candelaria and Chapinero. With that idea Andretti Menjura founded Ruta de la Esperanza, which provides daily tours around the city with reservations.

Andretti said at first some residents were skeptical of the idea, fearing it would lead to voyeurism for rich Europeans wanting to ogle at the poverty of the city. Since opening in 2018, he said residents have come around the idea.

“People were worried about the effects on the land, or that people would come for ‘pornotourism’ to see the poverty, but we showed them that we can do tourism in a different way so that the community benefits,” he said.

The idea for the community tourism venture was inspired by Medellín’s experience with Comuna 13, the former stronghold of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar that has now become one of Medellín’s main attractions.

Like the museum, he said Ruta de Esperanza is working to reimagine Ciudad Bolívar’s image of itself on its own terms. The routes range from 3 to 6 hours, and can include visits to local community organizations, artists collectives, street art, and natural landmarks. They also can include stops at community orchards and sampling of local cuisine, like Ajiaco (chicken soup with corn, avocado, and potato) or rice and eggs.

“We give people the opportunity to see how Ciudad Bolívar isn’t how people paint it, it’s how Ciudad Bolívar’s own citizens paint it,” he said.

Kevin Clavijo skateboards in a park overlooking Bogotá. Photo: Lex Treinen

Menjura and others cautioned that just like anywhere, tourists should be careful if they decide to come to Ciudad Bolívar.

Statistics show that Ciudad Bolívar is one of the more dangerous places to live within Bogotá, particularly for women who experience high rates of domestic violence, though there isn’t data related to visiting tourists.

Menjura recommended tourists travel in groups, and if they are traveling solo, should be sure to contact Ruta de la Esperanza over Instagram to set up a tour.