Antonio Caro was more than a little concerned about the progress made in his home country since his seminal work Colombia / Coca-Cola hit him like a bolt of lightning in 1976. Intelligent and humorous, his politically charged commentary on the country’s development built him a reputation as the father of Colombia’s conceptual art movement during more than a half-century.
This wild-haired and wild-eyed wanderer was fascinated by the local impact of economic and cultural colonization since his days as a student in the early 1970s at the Universidad Nacional de Bogotá.
Fourty-five years after he first painted Colombia onto the red strip of the Colombian flag, representing the blood spilled in the nation’s violent history in the unmistakable typeface of the only company legally allowed to import coca to the U.S., he remained one of the most concise critics of Colombia’s fragile and self-destructive society. “Facing the reality of globalization in Colombia, we haven’t been able to make a little village let alone a nation and that’s tough,” said Caro in a 2014 interview with The City Paper. Always thoughtful in his answers and subtly subversive in his arguments, the book is a reflection of the first decade of a career that witnessed withering transformations in both the Colombian art scene and rest of society.
As a recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and someone who left an indelible trail across Colombia’s art history, Caro appreciated that there was a large dose of good fortune in the moment that the inextricably linked fortunes of Coca-Cola and Colombia first came to him “like a flash” in 1976.
The “fortunate” artist, he said, “is one who can produce a piece of work that surpasses its own discourse. I can explain my own discourse, but this went beyond that. I did not try it, it just came out, totally intuitive,” he added. “It’s like Tao or Zen. They say that when you try and hit the target you miss, and when you don’t worry about hitting it – bulls eye!” In his 1978 series “Todo esta muy Caro,” the artist nuanced his surname with a popular expression “everything is very expensive” to question the noe-Liberal economic model.
Caro worried that too many artists are fearful of even trying to define the period in which they exist. Too many cling to the anachronistic obsession of showing in galleries. He urged his successors to take a leaf from those musicians creating and playing music in their bedrooms and selling online.
“Before photography, artists were called on to record the period. While this function still exists today, there are perhaps sciences that register the moment better than us, but maybe that is just an excuse,” he said, before musing and carefully inscribing my own snapshot of his early retrospective, Antes de Cuiaba with my very own dedication – “To Mr. Nice Name.”
The retrospective explored the artist’s early years before anyone had coined the term “global village,” or he had arrived at the Brazilian city of Cuiaba, in the Mato Grosso, a place that had a profound impact on Caro’s artistic development. Since the 1970s, he argued, it was alarming how much the world has turned for the worse, still a central theme in his biting critique of contemporary culture.
For more than five decades, Caro probed Latin America’s social injustice and a collective contemporary amnesia to draw attention to the injustices meted out to indigenous people in the region through different media including painting, posters, public installations, lectures, and ambiguous yet politically charged materials such as salt, the first commodity to lure the Spanish conquistadors into the Colombian mountains.
In works like the Homenaje a Manuel Quintín Lame, a forgotten indigenous rebel from the beginning of the 20th Century and Matas de Maiz he never tired of championing the cause of unconventional heroes like Augustin Agualongo, the indigenous leader from Pasto who famously fought alongside Spanish colonialists against the Republican forces of Simón Bolívar.
During Caro’s celebrated career, spent in various locales throughout the country, he had plenty of time for reflection on a nation that he described as a “mishmash” of regions.
“Colombia unites so many post-modern things that it all gets mixed up in your head. It’s a question of nation versus state, but I think at this moment, we are in the process of fusion that is going to produce just one Colombia, a real Colombia,” he said. “Before it was a mishmash of the regions that were united only by power, first of the colony and then the power of the Republic, but only now are we seeing a true fusion.” Facilitated by modern-day communications: radio, TV, Internet and air travel, barriers are being broken down and the cultural colonization of which his work often speaks greatly accelerated.
His Colombia of 1976 has been dismantled, the national economy “sold to foreigners” and the regions “unable to resist the contemporary economy” are being united by new forces that offer an unexpected dose of optimism to his deeply critical recipe for success. He saw much hope in a younger generation that can adapt effortlessly in one corner of the country (and the world for that matter) or another.
In Colombia’s flourishing art scene, he also envisioned someone prepared to carry on with his role, prodding away at the collective conscience. Caro believed he had a natural successor in the form of Jaime Avila. “It might sound very pretentious, but he is the one that is following me,” he said with one of his mischievous, lopsided smiles. “He’s marvellous and has captured the feeling of his entire generation. There is something beautiful about him in that he has an Angel, but also, the Devil. Very few have the Angel. Even fewer have the Devil inside.”
Antonio Caro died Monday at age 71 in a Bogotá hospital from heart failure. His body will lie in wake inside the gallery that represented him Casas Riegner.