Ruby Rumié: The artist of our living patrimony

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It begins with a ceremony. Thirty Afro-Colombian women, all in their seventies, and dressed in plain white frocks are having their feet washed in a ritual by the Cartagena-based artist, Ruby Rumié. The women sit patiently in a row, a dilapidated hall of one of Cartagena’s colonial mansions the setting and culmination for a photography-art installation that celebrates the hard work of women who everyday “weave the street” of a walled city by selling fruit from metal bowls perfectly balanced by headscarves and experience.

The women are all matriarchs of an ancient lineage that can be traced back to when Cartagena was a slave port, trading in another perishable: humans.

The legacy of the first free town of escaped slaves in the New World, San Basilio de Palenque, is indelibly linked to the streets of Cartagena and 500-years on; tourists visiting the historic Old City will often stop to ask “palenqueras” – dressed in their bright colors– for a photograph, a token of a holiday experience in a city marked by class and ethnic divisions.

Growing up in a privileged Cartagena home, for Rumié, the palenqueras were part of an extended family, working as nannies, laundresses and cooks. In many ways, they were the “other mothers” who would accompany her to school, wait patiently to bring her back from piano lessons. As a member of Cartagena society, part of her duties was to preserve the social fabric by maintaining a gracious relationship with the “other Colombia”.

So when artist Ruby Rumié met her muse Dominga Torres sitting one afternoon on an expanse of Bocagrande beach, there was an immediate connection and unspoken understanding. Dominga agreed under one condition: her pink headscarf could not be removed. The artist then made her own concession: if the picture didn’t look right, then the scarf may have to come off. Eventually it did, revealing that most intimate for a palenquera: white hair.

'Dominga' by artist Rumié
‘Dominga’ by artist Rumié

After Dominga, others followed: all carefully selected by the artist, for their personal stories of endurance and dedication to Cartagena’s living patrimony. Over two years a series of powerful portraits emerged and Rumié decided to take the project further, mapping the paths each and every street vendor would take in a day, criss-crossing the hot cobble stones with bench and bowl. Patterns emerged, each one different to the next, each walk an endurance and daily ritual, covering many kilometers, and this without considering the hours spent reaching the Old City by boat or bus.

Rumié’s visual odyssey became “Tejiendo Calle” – or Weaving Streets – an artistic roadmap for an exhibition of thirty immaculately-worked portraits; video installation of a foot washing ceremony; miniature stamps series; and monograph of her thoughtful muses captured in cardboard oval frames.

Inside a small-renovated house in Getsemani and facing one of the narrowest alleys in this working-class neighborhood, Rumié creates her installations that deservingly recognize her as one of Colombia’s most important contemporary artists. Represented by Nohra Haime, owner of her namesake Fifth Avenue gallery, Rumié has exhibited around the world and last summer joined the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency Program for her socially oriented work.

I meet Rumié in the main exhibition space of NH Gallery Cartagena dwarfed by a wall of imposing portraits of white-haired dames. Dominga, warding-off the chill of the air-conditioning decides to takes her place in the sun, on a sidewalk, facing the stone ramparts that for decades has accompanied her on walks, selling fish caught in nearby Tierrabomba.

For the vendors having their portraits exhibited seems in a day’s work; protagonists of a Cartagena rarely captured with such compositional clarity and humanity –but above all– decontextualised from the carnivalesque visibility of the street. “By asking them to wear plain white linens, I am restoring their ancestral traditions,” remarks Rumié. “This work attempts to capture memory and dignity.”

As I look at “Tejiendo Calle” I am transported to an age of innocence, crafted by living entities, rather than a subject matter to be prized by collectors, or examined as anthropological research. Dominga and her fellow vendors are all too real, puffing away at filterless tobacco, laughing at strange accents and why we, their audience, find their faces so mesmerizing. While the artist takes on the psychology of inclusion and alienation, for these palenqueras, life remains a perfect balance between the sacred and profane.

From dawn to dusk, this balance is best exemplified by a loyal companion, a large metal platón, floating almost weightlessly above their covered brows as they stroll the squares of the Old City. But they are the real tropical riches of this nation, not the fruit.

And even though their universe revolves around Cartagena, Rumié taps into an inner world, one that’s secretive and is only revealed through personal objects. Good luck charms, twigs of herbs to ward of evil spirits, a family snapshot, rosary, leather purse in which “the hand of God” (the $1,000 peso bill) is neatly wrapped, are all part of the palenqueras’ daily circuit and documented within the “Tejiendo Calle” project.

As descendants of human cargo hauled to these shores from Africa, Palenque is the ethno cultural epicenter of a proud peoples who have preserved ancestral ways and a unique language tradition. Even though Palenque is territory-specific, for Cartageneros it is a way of life, part of the Gordian knot that binds this city together, and in broad daylight of the social ills that plague any port city.

The issue of gender and gender-related violence is an important theme in Rumié’s works and encapsulated in a 2014 community-involved art installation called “Hálito Divino” (Divine Breath). In this project, women and men from the Getsemani barrio were asked to measure their level of personal abuse by choosing a specific ceramic jar, and in which suffering was symbolically placed. The vessels identified with the initials of her participants became the centerpiece for group therapy, an arts workshop grounded in personal experiences and photo essay. With each “crowned” vase, adorned with metal figurines and de- signs, Rumié was making a direct reference to the importance of pottery in pre-Columbian burial rituals.

Schooled in painting and drawing at the School of Fine Arts of Cartagena de Indias, the David Manzur Academy in Bogotá, Rumié’s work transcends the traditional canvas and often-forced informality of the portraiture. What we see in her hyperrealism, is a reflection of life itself, or in the words of Haime: “a search of how to manage social and psychological problems through creation.”

With exhibitions in Barranquilla, Santiago de Chile, Valparaiso and New York to name a few, Rumié’s elegant aesthetic breaks the mold of the “contemporary” artistic process and one in which far too often it’s the artist, rather the subject, that receives acclaim.

“Tejiendo Calle” moves from Cartagena to New York and a book project is in the works with a leading Italian publisher.

With all eyes on Cartagena this month, visitors to this colonial enclave can appreciate the work of an artist who makes visible, those relegated to the “invisible.”

“I have the deepest admiration for these women, for their indomitable spirit, their capacity for resistance and endurance,” claims Rumié. And I agree, for Dominga and her fellow palenqueras, are proof that patrimony is not an object from our common past, but a living entity, as fragile as life itself.

The ceremony of "Tejiendo Calle" by Rumié
The ceremony of “Tejiendo Calle” by Rumié

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