Edwin Rodriguez couldn’t bring the Colombian mountains, so he brought the sky.
It was, of course, not the actual Colombian sky — cotton ball clouds hanging over colorful, birdhouse-sized versions of people houses on pedestals at various heights would have to do in the Chapman Gallery in K-State’s Willard Hall, thousands of miles away from the country. They symbolized the rolling landscapes and rural towns, much like Kansas’, in the South American’s home.
For as much as the sky told a story of peaceful serenity, the houses hid a more complicated history that Rodriguez shared in his exhibit, “Memories in Color.” Sporadic but intense violence between government and guerilla forces has left over 200,000 people dead in the past half century, and frequent, hostile guerilla takeovers have ransacked the country’s rural towns, including Rodriguez’s hometown of Vegalarga in the Huila department, or Colombia’s equivalent of American states.
Over the course of the violence, Vegalarga was taken over 25 times, and Rodriguez himself lived through 17 of them until he was given no choice but to flee his home for his safety in 2004.
But that’s not the story that the exhibit’s colorful houses tell. In starting the project, Rodriguez said he wanted to tell a new story — one of forgiveness, peace and reconciliation.
(The reporter conducted the interview in Spanish, translating Rodriguez’s words).
After he left his town, he started to ask what he could do for his town and other communities like it. He also asked himself what drove him to get out of bed every morning, and when he realized that the answer was a drive to influence or change lives through art, he knew what he had to do.
The towns in his region each had different stories and identities. Each had its own difficulties with hostage situations, assassinations and other repeated violence. Common to the towns, though, was the fact that they had been stripped of their sense of safety, place and home.
Rodriguez wanted to restore each town’s pride and safety, so in 2013, he returned home and developed the “A Thousand Colors For My Town” project, in which residents empower themselves by painting their houses bright and beautiful colors, he said. The painting allowed the residents to reclaim their towns, and after painting almost 7,000 houses in 27 towns, Rodriguez said the project has created new identities for these towns where tourists had previously been warned to avoid under threat of death.
When the fighting forces came to these towns, they left behind complicated legacies, where the lines between victim and perpetrator were not always clear. In his tour of the 27 towns in the region, Rodriguez said he had found 120 former guerrilleros, or members of the rebel guerilla forces, who had dropped their weapons and returned to civilian life.
“We (say to) them, if you could hold a gun for 20 years, you can hold a new weapon,” Rodriguez said. “I have a saying that says, ‘Let art be the only weapon to shoot the soul.’ It’s through art that we give the people new weapons to take on life. We first taught them carpentry, and they learned how to make chairs, tables and other furniture.”
That led to the next phase of Rodriguez’s community rebuilding project. These reformed guerrilleros would create small, wooden shoebox-sized houses to send to the victims of their violence.
“When you ask a victim what they miss most, it’s their home,” Rodriguez said. “But if you also ask the perpetrators what they miss most, they’ll also say it’s their home, so the homes are something that unite the people. A home is not something with four walls, but a place.”
The houses came with paint kits and letters from the reformed guerrilleros, and the victims were encouraged to use the paint and houses to tell their stories, with a focus on healing any lingering wounds of time. Throughout the process, the guerrilleros also talked about how they had been stripped of regular lives when they were forced to pick up guns at 13 or 14 years old and forced into war.
“Understanding it is complicated, but when we stop putting labels on each other, we begin to understand that we are all human beings who share the same space,” Rodriguez said. “It also became an individual process, with the idea that although they might’ve previously taken up arms, they had to approach the victims not as perpetrators but as human beings trying to start fresh.
“The two groups started to understand each others’ realities without looking back,” Rodriguez continued. “They started walking toward a brighter future.”
From that project came 120 houses, with 30 of them on display this past week in the Chapman Gallery.
Rodriguez also recruited other Colombian artists to help tell the stories in less literal but more direct ways. One of the houses is made up of colored and regular pencils, with the latter making up the roof. Rodriguez said the house’s colorful walls symbolize the various ideals of the country supporting the regular pencil roof, which symbolizes education.
On another pedestal, a house tells of a massacre in a small, rural town called Montes de Maria.
Rodriguez said paramilitary forces there killed about 1,200 people and in some instances cut off the victims’ heads and kicked them like soccer balls on the town’s streets.
About 80 women who survived the massacre came together to talk through their experiences, and after each woman told her story, they wrapped a string of yarn around the house. An orb at the front of the house shows Arachne, the Greek weaving goddess.
“In Colombia, we’ve become numb to the violence,” Rodriguez said. “Through this project, we take that numbness and declare that no, death is not a part of our daily lives. It never has been, and we can’t let it become our constant. On the contrary, these projects allow us to start speaking and thinking differently with new outlooks on life.”
K-State’s Spanish department hosted Rodriguez for his first visit to the U.S. through a grant from the Center for Engagement and Community Development. Over the past few years, students in Spanish professor Laura Kanost’s classes helped translate the project and its description for the gallery display, and they helped interpret for Rodriguez.
While Kansas has not seen anything like the violence that’s been common in Colombia, Kanost said Rodriguez’s universal message of peace and understanding resonates globally.
“Every society has issues and conflict, and I think that through art, creativity and collaboration in projects like this are a way to bring people together,” Kanost said. “It helps us cope with our pasts, even if they don’t involve civil conflict like in Colombia.”
The houses also paint a picture of a hopeful future, Rodriguez said.
“We might live amid terrible violence, but these houses let us take back our lives,” he said. “They let us live, not for fear, but for happiness. They’re our hope.”