Miguel Ángel Rojas’s Chapinero studio is enveloped in greenery. Trees, vines and cacti sprout creatively to form a soft countryside oasis that insulates his cosy three-story working space from the harshness of “the city of nomads,” as he terms Bogotá.

It instantly reminds visitors of his artistic identity lodged in the troubled backwaters of Colombia. It is also a personal source of inspiration that has clearly worked. A small scattering of the pieces produced over 35 years in the studio adorn the walls and floors, all of which positively ooze with Rojas’s deep-felt concern for marginalized peoples, indigenous groups and pretty much anybody else who has fallen on the wrong side of the many conflicts to have raged through the mountains, jungles and cities of Colombia during his lifetime. “Conflicts produce strong art” opines the silver-haired artist as he reflects on his life’s work.

Broadway, Miguel Angel Rojas

The artwork of Miguel Angel Rojas critiques Colombia in a fresh way, such as using ants carrying coca leaves to mimic the mindlessness of the drug trade.

It is little wonder that Rojas can convincingly relay such a heavy dose of social concern in his work on consideration of his difficult upbringing. He calmly sits at his coffee table to tell how his family huddled with a wireless at the back of the very same building, at the time his father’s radio shop, as Bogotá descended into an orgy of violence in 1948 following the murder of liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.

Vision forged in fire

As the shop was burnt in the melee, his family fled to the rural safety of Girardot, where a young Rojas inherited his love of nature from his campesino relatives and spent afternoons gleefully touring the countryside in his father’s Buick. Safety was a scarce commodity in 1950s Colombia, however, as violent political struggle that had been inflamed in Bogotá spread across the countryside.

Back in Bogotá for studies, Rojas felt somewhat of an outcast and first developed his art as a form of personal expression, deciding to “adopt my own reality as a form of art”. His homosexuality would inspire his first professional forays into artistic production, using his creativity to fill “the sordid spaces of my darkest desires”.

Fascinated with portrait photography since gaining his first camera as a present from a family friend, the artist shot to prominence in 1979 with a series of photographs of gay encounters in the historic Teatro Faenza on Bogotá’s Calle 22. Rojas regards the series as his favourite piece, and rightly so as the pioneering hyperrealist work established his position in the vanguard of Colombian art that he has kept until this day.

He enthuses with a glint in his bespectacled eyes as his hands twist to explain how by leaving the shutter of his camera open for 30 seconds and not using a flash the photographs gained an obscure, ghostly character. One gets the feeling that this is a man who has not lost any of the passion for his work in 30 years since this piece was produced, and it is easy to imagine a young Rojas emerging from hours of tinkering in the darkroom to describe his technique with the same verve. “I had a lot of luck with the way they turned out,” he then modestly professes with a chuckle.

The conflict through a new lens

At ease with himself as a man and an artist, Rojas increasingly drifted away from dealing with his own identity to examine the complexities of Colombian society. He claims that it is “impossible to do art, completely ignoring the reality of a country submerged in struggles for decades”, although judging by the tangible sense of empathy that pervades his work it would be fair to assume that any compulsion was equally the making of his own deep conscience.

His most striking social comment is provided by a 2004 photographic series in which a soldier strikes a similar pose to Michelangelo’s David with a classical handsomeness brutally contradicted by the raw sight of a mutilated left leg. A giant canvas of one of the hallmark photos towers from a column close to the entrance of the artist’s studio. The images are relatively uncomplicated yet immensely powerful and Rojas enthuses about the symbolism of the piece before explaining how all his charm was required to beg military high ranks into allowing an injured foot soldier to pose in the name of art.

Miguel Angel Rojas

Not one to shy away from touching on themes of violence and marginalization, Rojas embraces the artistic value of Colombia’s conflict.

The most sophisticated aspect of Rojas’s work is that not only does he document the horrors of his home country but uses his art to provide his own detailed explanation of their causes. “Us artists are philosophers working with materials” beams Rojas. Central to his philosophy is a critique of the impulsive thinking that leads to the consumption of illegal drugs and attracts Colombians to traffic them. A 1996 piece Broadway was the first of many in which Rojas creatively made coca leaves his material of choice by recreating a trail of ants carrying the leaves, a comment on the witless manner in which narco-traffickers ply their trade.

Rojas continued using coca leaves by creating a series of murals and paintings that take their shape from hundreds of small circular segments of the leaves. Most of these form icons or spell out phrases, the names of cities or celebrities synonymous with the U.S and Europe. The same technique is deployed to form Colombian images and place names with segments of dollar bills, offering the incisive comment that the drugs trade is propelled by a pair of desperations – that of Americans and Europeans to get high combined with that of Colombians to get rich. Camino Corto is the name of the series, a comment on the ‘shortcut’ to consumerist contentment that leaves innocent Colombians metaphorically trampled into the undergrowth.

An art of ideas

All these messages are very worthy but what does he hope to achieve with his work? “I aim to make people think,” replies the postmodernist: “if people can come along to my exhibitions and change their way of thinking, if minsters can come, I am happy. Education is absolutely everything, everything.” Fortunately there is no lack of opportunity for those wishing to see Rojas’s art with their own eyes, as well as regular showings in Colombia his next international date is a personal exhibition at Houston’s Sicardi Gallery in May. And what kind of materials does he plan to use in his next projects? “I work with ideas, not materials.” A somewhat mischievous response, as Rojas is currently continuing his experimental instincts by trying his hand at video art.

As we enter the top floor of the studio we pass Daniel, a young apprentice with slicked-back hair, carefully poking a glue gun at a fragment of paper with the kind of attention more typical of a molecular biologist. As Miguel diligently follows the instructions of our photographer, Daniel lifts the minute slice of a dollar bill and places it onto paper to join a dozen others in a nascent montage.

Rojas continues to chat away whilst posing for the camera on topics ranging from the effect of religious doctrine on the development of personal consciences, the war on drugs and how paper can be made from coca leaves. On each and every theme he is convincing and insightful. You really get the feeling that Rojas could talk for a whole month without coming close to boring a listener, which is probably why Universidad Nacional anthropologist Natalia Gutiérrez decided to do just that and document it. Miguel Ángel RojasEssential, available now at bookstores, is the fascinating result of a month-long series of interviews with the artist. Fully illustrated with Spanish and English transcripts, it would enthral anybody interested in modern Colombian art.