Throughout history, people have utilized art as a medium of capturing human reality. The idea of conflict art has evolved in recent years as an art form produced by artists who respond to the consequences of war. From Peter Paul Ruben’s Consequences of War painting (1638), showing the struggle of the Thirty Years’ War, to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), illustrating the destruction of the Nazi bombing in this Spanish town. However, the most recent use of conflict art was during Colombia’s armed conflict. Following the signing of the Peace Agreement in 2016 between the FARC and the former administration of Juan Manuel Santos, art became a pillar in the conflict’s aftermath. This is because art is an unpolarized instrument in which victims’ feelings and experiences during the war can be acknowledged. It further allows one to regain dignity while building national identity and collective memory, eventually preventing these atrocities from happening again.

Conflict art and national identity

The traits that define our social and personal identities are frequently explored in art, helping us create a sense of who we are as people, as a society, and as a nation. Violence and identity are concurrent in Colombia. Indiscriminate violence and degradation of the conflict led to the spread of fear, hatred, and retaliation but also an increasingly close relationship between political violence and organized crime. This marked the nation’s history for more than 54 years. Violence at this time influenced people’s behavior by governing their present and future action. It was the sense of unease alongside an absent government that led Colombians to develop a sense of community in which they supported one another to overcome the traumatic aftermaths of war.   

Art is key in transforming conflict into culture and identity. Colombian artists took the challenge of portraying this historic moment from different perspectives, showcasing how it impacted Colombia and Colombian lives. As an example, consider the work of photojournalist Jesús Abad Colorado, who in his exhibition “El Testigo” used photography as a peace-building mechanism, capturing unspoken traumatic historic moments from the victim’s perspective. “The Bride”, his most surrealistic image, was captured in 2000 during the FARC’s occupation of Granada, Antioquia. The photo depicts a bride who is getting ready for her wedding, but the magic of the image relies on her portrayal of normalcy amid the disaster. The rest of the village was distraught as she walked into the church; they were searching among the wreckage, caused by the explosion of a bomb a few hours earlier, desperately for their loved ones. As a result, the image expresses optimism for a peaceful future and issues a call to action to the residents of the town, saying, “From the war, we all lost. Let’s help to create a peace process.”

“La Novia – Granada” (Abad Colorado, 2000)

Building historic memory

For decades art has been used as an instrument to recall history, given its inherent ability to use symbols to convey, evoke, and denounce the various viewpoints on a single conflict. Its function in times of armed conflict is to serve as a reminder of our fundamental nature as social, emotional, and rational beings while also providing a forum for discussion on how to rebuild society and improve the circumstances that it refuses to repeat. An example is Fernando Botero’s “The Bird” statue, which was donated by the renowned artist to the country as a symbol of peace in one of the most violent cities, Medellin. However, its meaning changed in 1995 when an explosion hit the monument, leaving more than 29 civilians dead and 2000 others injured. As a result, one of the birds was destroyed and the government opted to leave one of the birds destroyed to create historical memory and demonstrate a transition in symbology (from peace to war).

Botero’s Birds Statue in San Antonio Park (Tripadvisor, 2015)

However, memory and art are constantly evolving, thus showcasing conflict in multiple stages. For instance, in September 2022, Fernando Botero designed another peace pigeon, white in color with a gold peak, exhibited in Colombia’s National Museum not only as a symbol of peace but also as a symbol of collective responsibility towards maintaining it. Art has become a channel in which intimate narratives are transformed into collective voices thanks to empathy, symbols, and metaphors.

Restorative justice through art

Lastly, artistic movements played an essential role after the peace agreement was signed in 2016, as it became an element of transitional justice, to overhaul victims of the suffering caused by the war, thus returning to them their dignity, and allowing them to move on. Doris Salcedo’s monument “Fragmentos, Espacio de Arte y Memoria,”  is an epitome of restorative justice via art. Created in 2017 with the arms that the FARC handed to the government after the agreement was settled. The artist melted them to create various metal plates, which then women victims of sexual violence through conflict-hit with hammers, therefore letting their anger and pain faith away as the plates were shaped. Additionally, the marking of the plates symbolically alludes to the cessation of the power relationship imposed by weapons, an important message when talking about restorative justice.

With the plates used as floors and walls, alongside the combination of diverse symbols, the artist conceived a space that, instead of presenting an epic version of history traditionally, proposes dialogues based on the ruptures that the conflict has generated, recognizing the extreme experiences suffered by Colombians. Hence, simultaneously creating a living work of art, a place of memory, and a space for artistic creation, which indicates how art, peace, and conflict intertwine.

“Fragmentos” by Doris Salcedo (Museo Nacional, 2017)

Overall, it can be concluded that art plays an essential role in Colombia’s armed conflict since it allows the voices of victims to be heard while building national identity, historical memory, and restorative justice. It is important to keep incentivizing artists to show their version of the conflict, not just in Colombia but in any other conflict around the world, as art is one of the best resources we have to connect as humans and transition to a more peaceful future.

Featured cover image: Desde abajo

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