press release

"I was drowning in words." With that, Juan Manuel Echavarría walked away from thirty years as a writer of serious fiction. Echavarría didn’t look at the art of his own time until 1995 when he began to spend month-long sojourns in New York, often in the company of artist friends, one of whom put a camera in his hands. Those who have read his books speak of the difficulty his writing poses: dense, impenetrable, tangled, other worldly. Whereas those who come upon his photographs and videos call up other words: pared away, clear, sophisticated, of this world.

On February 11, 2005, Echavarría’s videos Bandeja de Bolívar / Bolívar’s Platter, Guerra y pa / War and Peace, and Bocas de Ceniza / Mouths of Ash were shown in New York on the opening night of MOMA’s Documentary Fortnight. In June Mouths of Ash opened in the Latin American pavilion of the Venice Biennale and Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post wrote (June 15, 2005):

“Some artworks call up tears by jerking you around until your eyes can’t help but water up. They’re sentimental and manipulative, like melodrama, and relatively common. Others, much rarer, get you crying by honestly displaying how tragic a place the world can be. A piece by Juan Manuel Echavarría, . . . brought a lump to my throat. I didn’t feel as though some operatic artist had put it there.”

The day before Roderick Conway Morris wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “Unaccompanied voices are starkly presented in the Colombian Juan Manuel Echavarría's video sequence at the Latin-American pavilion. These moving songs, composed by the Afro-Colombian singers themselves, relate incidents of oppression, false accusation, murder and massacre, and through the channel of these video recordings, a living art form is able to reach an audience unimagined and unimaginable to its creators.”

In the fifteen-minute video Mouths of Ash seven Colombians, in the oral tradition of Colombia’s Pacific region, sing into the camera songs they have composed after surviving massacres.

Echavarría’s work speaks to the pervasiveness and the frightening ‘normality’ of violence in Colombia after fifty years of civil war. By turning his camera to the blind spots in the social fabric of Colombia, Echavarría creates a record of violence everywhere. Among his works are Retratos/Portraits—lush, formal depictions of decaying mannequins from a city marketplace who become stand-ins for Colombia’s embattled peasants. A close examination of the “botanical illustrations” of Corte de floreo/Flower Vase Cut reveals compositions of human bones, each print an allusion to a formalized body mutilation. A dark beauty also informs Echavarría’s newest work N N (no name). This large photographic montage speaks to the decay and destruction that inevitably accompanies violence against both the individual and the larger collective society.

For almost ten years Echavarría has made art about this violence, usually one series a year, first in photography, later interchanged with video. On August 13, the accumulated work will open at the North Dakota Museum of Art in Echavarría’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States.

The 160 page full-color catalog is published by Charta in collaboration with the North Dakota Museum of Art. Written and edited by Laurel Reuter, it also contains Echavarría’s interview with seven women who were kidnapped along with 160 others from the church of La María in Cali in 1999. Additional essays are by German critic Thomas Girst; Uruguayan critic and artist Ana Tiscornia; and María Victoria Uribe, anthropologist and historian who lives in Bogotá where she serves as director of The Colombian Institute of Anthropology (ICAN).


Juan Manuel Echavarria "Mouths of Ash"
Kurator: Laurel Reuter