Creativity in a quake-torn city
Memory in Cardboard
In Bogotá, a group of people displaced by violence describe their experiences through drawings and prints. In this way, they attempt to heal their wounds and prevent the past from repeating itself.
The first time that Rolando Paz, a peasant from the Department of Huila in southwest Colombia, arrived at the Centre for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation (CMPR) in Bogotá, he was given a piece of paper and a pencil and told to draw something related to his place of origin. He didn't quite know what to choose, but eventually a few stone statues pierced by the Magdalena River and surrounded by seeds and crops of coffee, cotton and rice began to appear on the piece of paper. For Rolando, this was what best represented his native land, the town of San Agustín.
This is what he remembers of the place he was obliged to leave for the first time in the year 2000 with his wife and four children. The same place to which he would return a couple of years later and which he was again forced to leave in 2007. On both occasions, armed groups were responsible for the displacement. Rolando is one of the 6.9 million people in Colombia who have had to flee their homes because of a war begun over half a century ago between state military forces, Communist guerrillas and paramilitary groups. According to the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, Colombia is the country that has the highest number of displaced people in the world, followed by Syria and Iraq.
Constructing memory to avoid history repeating itself
In 2013, Rolando Paz and 39 other victims of the Colombian conflict began to draw their houses, villages and families from their memories. These exercises gave birth to the project entitled Cartongrafías de la Memoria (Cartongraphies of Memory): an independent publishing house dedicated to constructing memory through drawings and words on cardboard. The same people who suffered the direct consequences of the war devoted themselves to telling their stories, moreover commemorating other victims of the Colombian conflict. Above all, as Rolando tells us, this is a space that aids recovery and healing.
Three years ago, Rolando was selling coffee, pastries and handicrafts – necklaces and bracelets he made himself; today, he runs the publishing house. When this short, dark-skinned man with strong features, invariably dressed in a waterproof waistcoat arrived at his first Cartongrafías workshop, he wasn't sure what he was doing there or what to expect. “At first, nobody wanted to talk. Now that people know they've already told their story, there's no fear,” he says softly though convincingly. The idea of founding a publishing house first arose in victims' organisations in Bogotá that saw how important it was for those who have suffered as a result of the war to tell the facts.
“We haven't had a proper account of the story. We realised that what has been written does not represent the people affected by the conflict,” says Marcela Ospina, founder and member of the publishing house. For this reason, they wished to break with the imaginaries surrounding the conflict created by the academy and the media, shedding light on narratives that are not heard. Victims' associations suggested that the Centre for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation (a space created by the government for reconstructing the Colombian past) organise workshops on social cartography, symbolically restoring the ties with the victims' places of origin.
In search of self-sufficient work
The first drawings produced at the workshops were traced, printed on linoleum (a sort of rubber), carved with a burin (a hand-held tool used in carpentry), coated in ink and finally rendered on paper with a lever-operated iron press. The objective was to handcraft the first publication: notebooks containing four different stories, cardboard covers decorated with black-ink drawings. Although the present team consists of only seven people who haven't been directly related to drawing or sculpture (Rolando, for instance, only attended primary school for three years), the idea has been substantiated. So far, three editions have been published, all of them handmade, and two projects are currently in process of publication.
The appearance of the notebooks in 2013 was followed in 2014 by Goloza, a cardboard box that contained eighteen short stories created from the accounts of child victims of the conflict. Similarly, in 2015 the publishers produced the first copies of Jorgito, a book that describes events in the life of a young boy from Samaná (Caldas): he lost his brothers to forced conscription and his father was murdered by the guerrilla. Jorgito, the main character in the book, didn't survive either, but Marcela Ospina, Jorgito's childhood friend, didn't want him to be forgotten. She wrote the story and today, after telling it in a shaky voice, her eyes sparkling, declared, “I never thought I'd write a book. I'm glad to have done so, because at the end of the day memory is all we have left.”
“Members of the Cartongrafías group, we are convinced that this is an archive to prevent history from repeating itself,” says Genis Marca, another member of the publishing house. Yet it is clearly not just a tool for the construction of memory, but a self-sufficient work project. “Cartongrafías could strive for a more entrepreneurial vision that is not just based on the accounts of victims. We want them to identify participants by the quality of the products, not only by the stories. If this isn't the case there is no transformation, and we fall back into the revictimisation discourse,” says Arturo Charria, responsible for knowledge management at the Centre for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation.
The idea, therefore, is that members should also be financially recognised: the publications can be found in bookshops in Colombia and abroad, and were displayed at the International Book Fair of Bogotá (FILBO) these past two years. In addition, the members of Cartongrafías received the title of Educators of Memory awarded by the District Secretariat for Education in Bogotá for showing their work. In this way, the group has acquired another source of income to sustain the project: offering workshops to other victims and students at district schools. “We teach them how to construct memory, and explain our experience to those who have had difficulties, telling them that we're here. And that we must carry on,” observes Rolando.