A letter from Manchester to the headwaters of the Cahuinarí River | the Fourdrinier

An epistolary text for the Fourdrinier that responds to the work of Mogaje Guide, whose first solo exhibition opened at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead on 14 March 2020 and ran until 28 June 2020. The show is titled ‘Abel Rodríguez’ after the artist’s Western name, which he took in the 1990s. He grew up in the Muinane community who live near the headwaters of the Cahuinarí River in the Colombian Amazon. His uncle, a sabedor (man of knowledge) taught him the knowledge of plants and he became known as el nombrador de plantas (the namer of plants).

***

After a sedentary day of staleness – stale air inside stale lungs and stale thoughts through barely stirring – I shut my laptop and set out along the foot-carved path through the park near where I live. I walk in the direction of the River Mersey. (South-eastwards, perhaps, though I couldn’t say for sure without consulting Google Maps, and I’m trying to resist the phone in my coat pocket.)

As I walk, I try to detach from the constant stream of thought, and to listen. To place myself in the world outside my head. I hear the continuous murmur of the M60, the clank of a metal gate, kids playing, bare branches knocking in the wind, a runner padding by.Phone recording – 23 March 2020 

The birds are what stand out. They seem to have been building to a crescendo over the last few weeks as new leaves start to appear in neon shades of green. There are so many layers to the sound. So many voices singing together; to each other, at each other, weaving in and out in a constantly unfolding veil of song.

Mogaje Guihu, I wish I could tell you what birds are here, what trees I am walking past. But I can’t, beyond the coo of the pigeon, the caw of the crow, and perhaps the bobbing tune of the blackbird. I could only gesture towards the trees – there’s probably pine, beech maybe, no oak or conifer. That’s all I’ve got. My parents did try to teach me, based on what knowledge they had, but the names didn’t seem important as a child.

***

A few weeks ago, I stepped out of the lashing wind and into the ground floor gallery at BALTIC in Gateshead, where I was instantly shocked by your work. Shocked by the quiet tranquillity and feeling of peace it instilled. But also, by the roar, hum and buzz of teeming life that seemed to erupt from the surface of each page.

Your drawings are formed of coloured lines on plain paper, but sound is what I saw. The sound of the rainforest; or of what I imagine the rainforest to sound like. The noises of the unfamiliar animals, birds and insects that inhabit the branches and forest floor of many of your images; the flow of the river that snakes along the bottom of others. The crackle of electric greens, the sharp whip of the occasional burnt orange or deep purple. The thrum of thick humidity. These sounds seemed to fill the space and ricochet off the walls. I felt warm humid air against my skin, despite the coolness of the room.

Abel Rodríguez installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris © 2020 BALTIC
Abel Rodríguez installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris © 2020 BALTIC

***

Mogaje Guihu, I shouldn’t romanticise. The exhibition wall text told me that you no longer live in the place that you now draw from memory. The place where you grew up, within the Muinane community, near the headwaters of the Cahuinarí River in the Colombian Amazon. From where you were displaced – like so many indigenous people and people of African descent in your country – in the 1990s by the Colombian armed conflict and the exploitation of the land’s natural resources by multinational corporations. Google tells me that Colombia is home to the world’s second largest population of internally displaced persons.

Three decades on and in your late seventies, does Bogotá – the sprawling capital of Colombia, to where you and your family were forced to migrate – feel like home?

***

The story of how your new life in the city led to a chance encounter with Carlos Rodríguez, biologist and director of the Colombian branch of Tropenbos International, has a touch of magic realism to it. As I understand, he invited you to work for the environmental NGO after learning you had acted as a local guide for scientific researchers on a Tropendos-sponsored project back in the 1980s, when you still lived in the forest. What did it feel like when Tropenbos first provided you with paper and pens? (Bright felt-tips at first, then rich Chinese ink.) Or began commissioning you to create the beautiful and precise illustrations of the native flora and fauna of the Nonuya region that your large body of work now forms? Is it really true that you had never drawn before?

Abel Rodríguez installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris © 2020 BALTIC
Abel Rodríguez installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris © 2020 BALTIC

***

Today, your drawings are highly valued by western botanists, providing a precious inventory of a disappearing landscape as Colombia’s immense biological diversity becomes increasingly threatened – chiefly by deforestation for mono-crop cultivation and cattle ranching. (Indeed, this is what I thought your series Ciclo de la Chagra (Cycle of the agricultural plots), 2009, depicted, until I turned to the image caption, which cited the sustainable slash-and-burn horticultural systems developed by the Muinane people.)

But your work also reads as a form of activism. A refusal to let the Muinane’s ancestral knowledge of the plants, their names, their place within the ecosystem, and their traditional uses for food, healing, sacred rites, and other needs, die. How do you hold such an expansive archive – passed down by your uncle through oral transmission – within your head, Mogaje Guihu?

***

Until visiting your exhibition, I didn’t know that the thick white milk of the rubber tree could be used to make nappies, to settle an upset stomach, or for abortions. What are the ‘feminine thoughts’ that the yucca plant gives rise to when taken as a drink? The text panels accompanying each work were captivatingly Hemingwayesque.

***

Mogaje Guihu, when I was younger, I thought that French fries were somehow made of trees because my dad once told me that McDonald’s contributes to deforestation.

***

How is it that the name McDonald’s came so naturally, yet the nouns of the natural world were strange and unfamiliar? As an adult, I remain far from fluent in the disappearing language of dandelions, otters, brambles, acorns and larks that Robert Macfarlane celebrates in his ‘spell book’, The Lost Words (2017). In a stand against the damage inflicted upon nature in Britain, and children’s connection with it, he writes: “We’ve got more than 50% of species in decline. And names, good names, well used can help us see and they help us care. We find it hard to love what we cannot give a name to. And what we do not love we will not save.”

But then, you know this only too well, El nombrador de plantas (as they call you).

***

Perhaps it’s wrong of me to talk in such a way when your entire ‘mother-tongue’ is at risk of extinction. I found Muinane included on the UNESCO list of endangered languages, where it is categorised as ‘severe’.

***

Mogaje Guihu, should I call you Abel instead? Or even, El nombrador?I wasn’t sure which you would prefer, so went with what you describe as your ‘real, indigenous name’.

***

Abel Rodríguez installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris © 2020 BALTIC
Abel Rodríguez installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris © 2020 BALTIC

In the short film you made with artist Fernando Arias in 2014, that I watched several times over in the small room neighbouring the main gallery, you say: “I don’t know why the white man blocks the water springs and covers the earth with cement. That’s when water becomes scarce.” Here in the UK, cementing the earth has contributed towards the opposite problem of extreme flooding, which occurred across the country this winter. I could still see the traces on my walk through the park. Deep pools of murky brown water persist far from the river’s edge. The fields remain water-logged; the ground thick with mud. The heatwaves that have plagued Europe and Britain with growing intensity during recent summers feel implausible right now, yet they are sure to return in just a few months.

***

Does the Amazon Basin still follow the same rhythms you depict in Ciclo bosque de vega (Cycle of the flooded forests), 2009?

***

Mogaje Guihu, I think you know at least part of the answer to your question about the cement. You state it yourself in the video: “Where there is gold and money, money dominates the world.”

***

Can I ask, is it right to read your work as activism? The gallery handout says that drawing and sharing your knowledge with non-indigenous people has become a source of livelihood in Bogotá. People need to survive, not just their knowledge.

***

Abel Rodríguez installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris © 2020 BALTIC
Abel Rodríguez installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris © 2020 BALTIC

In recent years, your drawings have become highly valued by the international art community, as well as by scientists. A selection was presented at Documenta 14 in Germany and they have been shown across the world. But I get the sense all this bemuses you.

I enjoyed your discussion with Arias about this in the film. I hate to quote the conversation back to you again, but maybe it’s helpful to recap:

Arias: What does drawing mean to you?

You: Well, nothing. I simply draw images. As I’ve said, it’s not about sense or objectives, it just shows a simple image. That’s what I see. 

Arias: You see it as that, but other people give it a different value – botanic, scientific, artistic. What do you think about that?

You: That’s the way they learnt, were taught, experienced it. That’s how they measure it. Each person and each head is a different world. I draw things the way they are so they look beautiful. Other people say, ‘yes, this person drew it this way.’ But what does it mean? While others look at it with different senses, the way they feel, the way they learnt. Its sense and its importance can be seen as a luxury. Others use different standards, whilst I do it for fun. I don’t give the same values of luxury to the images I draw. I don’t reveal what I really value, I keep it secret. Other people value it in a material sense.

The – ‘But what does it mean?’ – category; that’s me. That’s how I’ve been taught to look. Conditioned. The question frames my experience every time I enter a gallery. It’s how I entered your exhibition. And now I feel slightly silly. Exposed.

How do we look? How should we look? What do images mean?

Abel Rodríguez installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris © 2020 BALTIC
Abel Rodríguez installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris © 2020 BALTIC

***

I ask, but I think you’re right to keep your answers secret.

Why should you give them away?

***

Despite this, I have just one more question.

Are the trees and plants of your drawings really so green? Or is their brightness the effect of memory? I can’t imagine living amidst such an intoxicating palette. The time I spent with your work left me giddy and drunk, only to be abruptly sobered by the greyness of the afternoon I stepped back into; the over-crowded commuter train home. 

***

Ps. Mogaje Guihu, I was fortunate enough to visit your exhibition before BALTIC – like most other museums and galleries in the UK and beyond – temporarily closed to the public in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. I long to stand before your vibrant drawings once again, just as I long to be back outside in the park. I first began this letter to you before the ‘lockdown’ that Britain has been placed under. We have been instructed to only leave our homes to take one restricted form of exercise a day, or for essential shopping. I have never missed trees so much despite being only a few days into this new way of life. I am without doubt that they are even more than the lungs of the Earth. Never has this felt so apparent.

Originally published on the Fourdrinier: https://www.thefourdrinier.com/a-letter-from-manchester-to-the-headwaters-of-the-cahuinar-river-in-the-colombian-amazon.

Abel Rodríguez. Photo by Sebastian Palacios. Courtesy of BALTIC
Abel Rodríguez. Photo by Sebastian Palacios. Courtesy of BALTIC

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