Hugo Zapata’s monumental works define the Colombian landscape and invoke the beauty of his native Antioquia. Known for his black stone sculptures that are as ubiquitous as his reputation, Zapata’s sensitivity to the particular qualities found within the earth reveal an uncompromising relationship between form and space. This month a major exhibition of his works opens at the Bogotá Botanical Gardens José Celestino Mutis.

The City Paper (TCP): Let’s start with the origin of your artistic career.

Hugo Zapata (HZ): I was born in La Tebaida, Quindío, in 1945. My parents were “nomads” and at one point ran a pharmacy. My father was admired across the region, and known for having sensibility with alchemy. As the fifth of 15 children, I went on to study Visual Arts at the University of Antioquia, but felt that “it was going nowhere.” I felt a duty to respond to my family and decided to take up architecture. In 1972, I graduated as an Architect from the Universidad Nacional in Medellín. My work has always had a strong relationship with the urban and as I am a keen observer of physical spaces, I am guided by this.

TCP: The question man ask is why work stone when there are so many artistic formats out there?

HZ: Ever since I was a young boy, I collected stones for their beauty and textures. I would find stones in my garden with certain characteristics and study them. I felt drawn to the mysteries of the earth, the forces of nature that surround us and impact our lives with often very tragic consequences, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. All these manifestations of nature’s fury are written – literally – in stone, as quartz veins and fossilized remains.

TCP: In one of your series, Cantos de La Tierra, black lutita stone is carved to incorporate natural elements, namely fire and water. There is also animal symbolism in the works.

HZ: Yes. I wanted to represent the facial expressions of howler monkeys with their mouths extended. It is like one can hear their roar emanating from the bowels of the earth. In Central American civilizations, the monkey “aullador” protected the temples, and were revered as intermediaries between the natural and spirit worlds. From the hollow space of the sculpture, there is a chant that reaches toward the sky. I am just the interpreter of what the stone wants to say.

TCP: This brings us to another series that has defined your artistic career: Ojos de Agua. In this series, there is a direct cultural reference to the Incas, and how they studied the cosmos in the reflection of water.

HZ: The Incas mastered a mirror effect, by which they studied the stars, their landscapes, by gazing into chasms of water. Water represents the giver of life, and when certain celestial bodies were aligned in the sky, by reading the ring of light that shone at the edge of the water’s surface, they knew when it was time to sow or harvest. This duality is what I call “paisaje rescatado” (rescued landscape). In Ojos de Agua the landscape around us reveals its inner nature, as well as the forces that created everything we see.

TCP: Why are you so drawn to haul giant Lutita stones from the Río Negro River in Cundinamarca?

HZ: The richness of the black, and the oxidized ore in these stones allow me to develop infinite ideas. Every time I work the surfaces from my orchard of stones in the garden, I discover a visual language: a physical presence that comes through as a gesture or rhythm. Art critic Eduardo Serrano once told me that even though my aesthetic isn’t the most contemporary, “the stones are because their aesthetic is enriched by the elements.” This idea is embodied in my work. In the universe, Earth is just another element.

TCP: Your elongated stone flowers, known as Las Flores allude to the poetry of a titan of French literature, Charles Baudelaire. Was this intentional?

HZ: When you touch these sculptures, they emit sensuality. It was only after I created them that I recalled the poems of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil). I now have Baudelaire to blame for their beauty and eroticism.

TCP: Your artistic repertoire spans both the infinite and the finite. Regardless of size, there is an emotional charge people connect with. How do you perceive this?

HZ: Many artists refer to their work as “conceptual.” I don’t manage these terms well. What moves me is when people talk about the landscape. The metals they use in their creations. When the landscape is elevated to new levels of artistic interpretation, regardless of the medium or technology, I am drawn to this. In my work Río de Mercurio, I recreated the emotions I felt one evening seeing the Cauca River from a plane. I didn’t have any intention to create a “conceptual” work, rather one based on personal experience. The Cauca River has been the focus of gold extraction throughout centuries, with mercury widely-used to extract metal from rock. When I saw how mercury was being used by artisanal miners on the banks of the river, I recalled the shimmering apparition of what looked like a snake winding its way through the Cordillera. As I said once in an interview with gallery owner Luis Angel Parra: “There is certain intentionality of respect and love for Nature that slips down your artwork.”

TCP: Many of your large-scale works grace public spaces in Medellín and were designed with people in mind, rather than making a political statement.

HZ: There is art that serves a function, art that denounces, and art that makes a political statement. I don’t look in my art to have any function other than provoking happiness, even if that happiness is fleeting. For me, artistic creation is akin to playing an instrument, because my stones have age, history, and structure behind their evolution.

In Medellín, people appreciate artistic intervention that is inclusive and sculpture that is respectful of the urban context. My work, Agora at EAFIT University is an example of this. It genuinely is a meeting place for students and has been renamed by them as La Plazoleta de Los Estudiantes.

TCP: In your series “Escrituras” the artist is time itself. Does the relationship between art and geology erase your role as a sculptor?

HZ: No matter how you look at it, Colombia is a land of rock. If you scrape a layer from the surface, the country emerges as one rock. A stone has its secrets and my role is to decipher them. When I cut through hard lutita, I find markings, written by nature, and with the fingerprints of time. This is when the romance begins. Stone is a very expressive material, and as I like to say: “Before mankind, Earth was writing.”

TCP: This fascination with “unseen” worlds originates from your connection with a department known for having a long and torrid history with mining?

HZ: When I was a child, I remember my family visiting the town of Amagá, close to Medellín, and one with a troubled past with coal mining. I recall my father saying: “Don’t you find it strange that there are houses, farms, cows, horses and beautiful trees on this surface, while underneath us, everything is on fire? We are walking on a furnace.” This comment has stayed with me because I learned to respect the power of the elements.

TCP: Similar to Las Flores in terms of creative power and dimension are your stone totems and a series known as Testigos. What do these monolithic structures witness?

HZ: Across all cultures and civilizations structures have been erected to mark mankind’s presence on Earth. Many of these structures are at the center of cities, cut from stone and now monuments to humanity. Many of these prodigious structures are phallic in form, and symbolize man’s need to exert dominion over nature. When I created my first Testigos, I wanted to capture the power of being in the presence of an ancient civilization, not unlike the attraction a totem exerts in North American indigenous cultures.

Many years ago, a group of young, male dancers from Burkina Fasso visited Medellín and they asked me to stage their performance with serigraphs of my Escrituras monograph. When I invited them to lunch at my house, they stood in front of the Testigos and refused to touch them. No human power was capable of getting these handsome, athletic dancers to touch my sculptures. It was as if some ancestral magic had them spooked.

TCP: Maestro Zapata, your work is as much about the origins of time as it is about living memory. Having experienced the darkest moments of Medellín with the Cartel, what do you think of the decision to demolish the Edificio Monaco?

HZ: The Edificio Monaco had to be demolished. It was long overdue and necessary to erase any reference of a place that represented so much horror and suffering. One should never forget, I say, but temples to a religion of evil have to disappear. Along with artist Cristobal Gaviria, I participated in the campaign Medellín Abraza su Historia, an initiative by the mayoralty to make victims the protagonists of our history, and not the perpetrators. The work in question is called Valientes and involved 100 stone cubes given to 100 victims of the cartel. These cubes will be interred later this year as part of a monument I have been asked to create.

TCP: This month, you return to Bogotá with an important exhibition called UBICUIDADES, on the grounds of the botanical gardens José Celestino Mutis and curated by visual artist Juan Haag. How does it feel to receive this tribute in a city where so many of your works are recognized as important urban landmarks by the public?

HZ: I am at the age of retirement, but this is the one thing that doesn’t enter my mind. I wake up every day with the same curiosity I had as a child. I have to keep on searching among the stones, not knowing what I will find, and this pure wonder. This is my communion with the stone, and as long as there is discovery, there is creation. To return to Bogotá is a real treat and a city I hold dear. There could be no better setting for my work than nature itself.

UBICUIDADES: Jardín Botánico de Bogotá. Calle 63 No.68-95.

Until November 17, 2019.

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