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Canvassing for Colombia

Written for issue 5 of Suitcase Magazine

I am extending a formal invitation to my favorite place on Earth: the place where palenqueras – dark, beautiful women clothed in colourful skirts and dresses – carry deep trays filled with fresh fruit on their head; the ancient entrance to South America that was once the object of desire of every pirate in the Caribbean; the old, walled city where vallenato is heard at all hours and a mix of sweet, delicious coconut pie, ocean and ceviche fill the air. This, my friends, is Cartagena de Indias, the most magical place in the world.

In the past ten years this city of stories and legends, lust and love has become a cultural hub in Latin America. Next year, the name, Cartagena, will be ringing in your ears even more as from the 7th February until the 7th April 2014, the city will play host to the first biennial in Colombia: the International Contemporary Art Biennial Cartagena de Indias (BIACE). With the purpose of promoting contemporary domestic talent, a range of 150 to 200 local and international artists will participate with works in new media, video, performance art and installations that will be displayed and housed around the old, walled city, the neighboring barrio popular, Getsemani, and local museums. Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum’s renowned curator, Bertha Sichel, will lead a group of eight curators as the biennial’s overall artistic director. Two main exhibitions, “Colombia Hoy” and the Sandretto de Rebaudengo collection on loan from Turin, will form the biennial’s main attractions. These will sit alongside with a series of installations in the cobblestone plazas contrasting with the city centre’s rich, colonial façade. What a sight for sore eyes that’ll be.

So, are you surprised that there’s more to the Latin American art world than a surrealist Roberto Matta painting or a Frida Kahlo self-portrait? Latin America is the land of opportunity. In recent years this art market has grown due to increased confidence and interest in the local art market by Middle Eastern, Russian and European collectors in particular.

Take Brazil, our samba-infused regional powerhouse that is currently the sixth largest economy in the world even surpassing that of the UK. Their solid local and international art infrastructure based in Rio and São Paulo has given way to a project dedicated solely to the internationalization of contemporary Brazilian art. The Brazilian Association of Contemporary Art (ABACT) composed of dealers, museums and other local galleries such as Galeria Vermelho, Luisa Strina and A Gentil Carioca launched the endeavour. The unprecedented avalanche effect has placed the Brazilian art market on the big boys’ table alongside New York and London and boosted the careers of artists such as Cildo Meireles, Mira Schendel, Ernesto Neto and Carlito Carvalhosa. Moreover, Brazil is home to the São Paulo Biennale, the second largest biennale in the world and Art Rio, the only Latin American art fair (for now) that has managed to attract blue chip international galleries such as David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth and even White Cube who decided to permanently set up shop.

But Latin America is a very big region, my friends, and having Mexico as our second largest and in-demand powerhouse is a matter of celebration (cue the champagne!). The emergence of new wealth and high net worth individuals supporting the local art market such as the irrefutable Carlos Slim Helú, has injected the Mexican art scene with resonating shots of adrenaline and tequila. Mexico City-based galleries such as Kurimanzutto, Labor and OMR are active participants of the crème-de-la-crème art fairs such as Art Basel and Frieze, showcasing the works of Gabriel Orozco and Teresa Margolles. Additionally, Mexico’s own Zona MACO contemporary art fair has become an important date for international collectors (usually held in April) as it gives them the opportunity to visit distinctive collections and museums such as the Jumex collection, curated by Eugenio López, the Cisneros collection and the Tamayo Museum. Skip the blinding, metallic mushroom – otherwise known as Slim’s own Soumaya Museum – as I can guarantee that a six-year-old would amass an art collection with better quality than that.

Although in ‘point-blank’ market terms Colombia’s art trade falls behind that of Brazil and Mexico, this distinctive country has taken a positive 180-degree turn in the last twenty years due to its diminishing violence and positive economic outlook that is allowing it to swiftly catch up. Colombia is on fire! A combination of a wave of Venezuelan wealth entering the Colombian economy due to Venezuela’s own political instability, and the quality of the annual contemporary art fair, ArtBo, held in Bogota has contributed to a global appetite for Colombian art. ArtBo, which promotes art in the primary market and is going strong in it’s ninth year, is further benefiting the country by featuring the works of young Colombian artists such as Esteban Peña and Danilo Dueñas while others such as Oscar Murillo, Gabriel Sierra, Ivan Argote and Fernando Botero continue to make headlines around the world. On a similar note, Colombia’s good name has also been upheld internationally by visionaries such as José Roca, the Tate Modern’s curator for Latin American art, who in addition to his work abroad has founded Flora, a contemporary art space in Bogota and an artist residency program in the little town of Honda, located along the banks of the Magdalena river in Colombia.

My ‘cherry-on-top’ for this invitation to the most magical place in the world, dear readers, is simply that whether you are just an art lover, just a fashionista, just a travel-aficionado or any combination of the three, if you venture with me to BIACE you will leave Cartagena with several souvenirs: an immaculate tan, a new-found love and vision of a country and an art scene that has infinite amounts to offer, but more than anything an extreme, out-of-this-world desire to return. Mark my words.

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