The Koppel Project’s recently launched exhibitions at their Baker Street gallery, ‘Mitologia de la Tierra’, and Holborn Viaduct gallery, ‘From Myth to Earth’, bring together a rich and fascinating voyage of personal discovery. Artists Sol Bailey Barker and Gabriella Sonabend travelled to Colombia to spend six months exploring its landscapes, and researching and responding to its bloodied history, mythologies and the current volatile climate. The results of this process can be seen in ‘From Myth to Earth’. In ‘Mitologia de la Tierra’, meanwhile, Bailey Barker and Sonabend have contextualised their journey and invited six Colombian artists who have never previously shown in the UK to exhibit their work.
In ‘Mitologia de la Tierra’, in the depths of the former bank’s vault, is a triptych – ‘Painting about time (Series 1 - 3)’ (2002 – 2005) by German Arrubla. The textural, weather-inflicted plastic canvases are something of an archive. Sunlight and dust have attacked the surface of the work, creating abstract compositions that speak of time and place. As a triptych, the works set up an air of foreboding. There is a rawness to the work that cannot be divorced from the tumultuous and bloodied history of the Columbian civil war, one that has yet to reach a peaceful resolution.
A counterpart to Arrubla’s work, a series of portraits painted by Sonnabend in the exhibition ‘From Myth to Earth’, depict Colombians living in London. In ‘Recuerdo La Selva’ a stocky man is seen from the waist up. His face is turned and his mouth is slightly open in a seemingly pained way. His eyes are wide and heavy. The background of the composition flutters in and out of abstraction. Areas of pink are dissected by streams of blue and overlaid by verdant leaves. On the left hand-side of the composition, the background dissipates into a staccato fuzziness of yellow and green foliage. The title of the painting translates as ‘I remember the jungle’.
Where the abstractness of Arrubla’s work might be read as a troubling confusion about Colombia’s current socio-political state, Bailey Barker and Sonnabend’s necessity to understand their perception of Colombia’s identity and history at a remove has resulted in a fusion between figuration and abstraction. The Colombian populations they encountered in London told a story of dispossession and anonymity but also one of cultural vibrancy and determination – as evidenced by Sonnabend’s colour palette. These stories and the pair’s continued research feeds into Bailey Barker and Sonnabend’s journey through Colombia. With time and distance, a narrative relating to a European history of colonisation has emerged.
In ‘Mitologia de la Tierra’, Omar Castaneda, who studied in both Bogota and London, explores the Spanish colonisation of Colombia, a context in which gold was seen by Europeans as mere material wealth. For Columbians it was a symbol within the natural world that evoked the magic of the cosmos. This shift between symbolic and material wealth displays the mechanics of exercised domination. This is evidenced in the work, ‘Beyond El Dorado’ (2016), in which a canned food lid has been yanked open to reveal golden statues bursting out.
What becomes clear throughout both exhibitions is an underlining absence of peace. In Bailey Barker’s ‘Germs and Steel’ (2016) at the Holborn gallery a Colt M1911 semi-automatic – the service pistol used by the American army from 1911 to 1986, and now used by the Colombian military – is combined with a conquistador axe dating from the 16th century. The barrel has been cut off and the axe protrudes. The work recalls ‘Flower Power’ (1967), a photograph by Bernie Boston in which a man daringly places a flower into the barrel of a rifle of a national guardsman during an anti-war protest in Washington. Bailey Barker’s work is powerful too. The work forms part of a poignant cycle of history being repeated. The Columbian President was last week awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, despite a shocking referendum result this month saw 50.24% of the population of Columbia voting against peace talks with guerrilla movement FARC. Violence is again emphasised in ‘Bullets to Spade’ (2016) in which Bailey Barker collected 300 bullet casings from the streets of San Agustin and transformed them into a spade by way of heating and hammering.
Cultural assimilation, heritage and the complexities of personal and political identities are a unifying factor within the artists’ works shown at both venues. What makes these presentations unique are the perspectives of those intimate with Columbia’s make-up (both individuals living in Columbia and those that now live in the UK) and Bailey Barker and Sonabend’s research undertaken from an external point of view. Nevertheless, the weight of the referendum result hangs heavily and the poignancy to be found in some of these works grows darker still.