10 Colombian Artists Who Are Shaping Contemporary Art

Salomé Gómez-Upegui
Oct 27, 2020 6:10PM
Karen Paulina Biswell
Nama Bú (We exist), 2013
Instituto de Visión

Colombia is a place booming with a multitude of variegated landscapes and, by consequence, spectacular biodiversity. Though I am biased as a native myself, I believe that anyone who has set foot in the South American country can easily understand how it came to be the birthplace of magical realism. From Cartagena’s enchanting old city to the mystifying Pacific Coast and luscious Amazon Rainforest, Colombia’s ambiance is utterly spellbinding.

And yet, after suffering the longest internal armed conflict in the West and currently enduring a treacherous post-conflict scenario, violence and corruption continue to be all too familiar. At times, greatness blossoming from my country seems like nothing short of a miracle.

Considering the contemporary artists hailing from Colombia has filled me with a renewed sense of admiration for my homeland. I am astonished at the resilience of our people. I am in awe at how art can not only arise but thrive under such arduous circumstances. I am amazed at the manner in which Colombian artists are able to alchemize pain and difficulty into medicine and brilliance.

Maria Berrio
The Paradise of Others, 2019
Kohn Gallery

Below is a list of 10 Colombian artists who are shaping contemporary art. To reduce the vast pool of creators who make up Colombia’s expansive art scene into a list of this sort felt a bit excruciating, and at the risk of stating the obvious, I should clarify this list does not intend to be exhaustive.

Additionally, an enumeration of this sort is inevitably imbued with subjectivity. Diversity was a chief concern, as I strived to select creators across different mediums and various walks of life, but I especially chose artists I believe to be exquisite examples of authenticity, unafraid of pushing boundaries and expanding the concept of Colombian art. In naming them here, I hope to honor their magnificence.

Doris Salcedo

B. 1958, Bogotá. Lives and works in Bogotá.

Doris Salcedo
Istanbul Project I, 2003
Alexander and Bonin

Wooden chairs, rose petals, clothing, and grass are some of the many commonplace items Doris Salcedo employs as a way to bear witness to political violence, social marginalization, victimhood, and trauma. Melancholy is an ever-present theme in her oeuvre.

During the past four decades, her works have intervened iconic spaces like the Plaza de Bolivar in Bogotá and the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London. At times gargantuan, albeit understated, her sculptures and installations conjure painful absence, serving as symbolic elegies and sacred spaces for collective mourning.

Among many other accolades, Salcedo received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1995, and in 2019, she was selected as the inaugural recipient of the prestigious $1-million Nomura Art Award, the largest cash prize for contemporary art in the world. The winnings will be directed towards Salcedo’s ongoing body of work “Acts of Mourning” (1999–present), a series of large-scale collaborative works meant to assist Colombian communities in coping with the country’s history of violence. The artist hopes to bring these memorials to remote areas that have been particularly devastated by the internal conflict.

Oscar Murillo

B. 1986, La Paila. Lives and works in various locations.

Oscar Murillo (b. 1986)
Untitled, 2012
Creative Art Partners

Born in La Paila, Valle del Cauca, Colombia, Murillo emigrated to London with his family as a child and has since lived between continents. This personal backdrop influences his inventive art, which aims to interrogate concepts of cultural exchange, nomadism, migration, and the universality of the human experience.

Through a multifaceted body of work, including mixed-media paintings, sculptures, installations, and collaborative projects, Murillo is intent on exploring failure, ruin, and incompleteness. He takes undervalued debris, elevates its potential, and repurposes it into powerful work.

Oscar Murillo (b. 1986)
Untitled (Vita Coco ICA), 2013
Carmichael Gallery
Oscar Murillo (b. 1986)
Untitled (Drawing off the wall), 2011

In 2019, he was a co-recipient of the Turner Prize. Murillo was nominated for his major solo exhibition “Violent Amnesia”—which delves into themes of collective forgetting, displacement, and globalization—at the University of Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard, as well as his presentation at the 10th Berlin Biennale and his work in the two-person show “Oscar Murillo | Zhang Enli” at Chi K11 Art Museum in Shanghai. Murillo has quickly been dubbed as the golden boy of Colombian contemporary art.

Beatriz González

B. 1938, Bucaramanga. Lives and works in Bogotá.

Recognized for vibrant depictions of her homeland’s social and political reality, 81-year-old Beatriz González is one of the few remaining representatives of the “radical women” Latin American art movement.

Often associated with Pop art, González is a self-described transgressor. She turns to explosive color schemes and unexpected mediums to investigate Colombia’s violence and insidious sociopolitical climate, colonialism within the art world, and questionable representations of reality in the media. González alchemizes the profane into the iconic, which is beautifully exemplified in her most notorious work of art, Los Suicidas del Sisga (1965). In the piece, González appropriated a press clipping of a couple who committed suicide at a local dam.

Last year, the first U.S.-based retrospective of the artist premiered at the Perez Art Museum Miami, taking a rich look at her nearly six-decades-long career. The show encompassed over 100 works of art, including paintings, drawings, altered furniture, and other quotidian objects.

María Berrío

B. 1982, Bogotá. Lives and works in New York.

Maria Berrio
Knitting the Wind, 2016
Praxis Prints
Maria Berrio
A Universe of One, 2018
Kohn Gallery

María Berrío is reinventing the possibilities of collage with oneiric assemblies of intricately patterned Japanese paper and watercolor on larger-than-life canvases.

While she has often clarified her work is not based on real people, strong, vulnerable, layered women are most certainly at the center of Berrio’s devotion. Her oeuvre invokes utopian ideals and is heavily influenced by Colombia’s lush natural landscapes, thus riddled with flora, fauna, and mythical elements. Although Berrío has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, as she recently explained, a certain longing for her place of origin is frequently present in her creations.

Maria Berrio
The Dream of Flight, 2019
Kohn Gallery

Her latest body of work deals with women responding to catastrophe and is showcased at the exhibition “Flowered Songs and Broken Currents” at Victoria Miro in London until November 27th. Come 2021, she will have her debut solo institutional exhibition in the United States, at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Abel Rodríguez

B. 1941, Cahuinarí region. Lives and works in Bogotá.

Abel Rodríguez
Terraza inundable, 2018
Instituto de Visión

Invaluable ecological wisdom will reach new generations thanks to Abel Rodríguez. A Nonuya elder, he transmits his encyclopedic knowledge through meticulously elaborate drawings of the Colombian Amazon he creates from pure memory.

Before debuting in the commercial art world, Rodríguez (who is self-taught) worked for years as an expert illustrating and classifying flora and fauna for scientific research in the Amazon. In the catalog for his first institutional solo show at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts in Gateshead, England, in 2020 (which is also viewable online), Rodríguez beautifully reflects on the origins of his artistry: “I had never drawn before, I barely knew how to write, but I had a whole world in my mind asking me to picture the plants.”

His slow but steady recognition in the art world landed him a spot in The Artsy Vanguard 2020, a list of the most promising artists shaping the future of contemporary art.

María José Arjona

B. 1973, Bogotá. Lives and works in New York and Bogotá.

María José Arjona’s poetic long-duration performances focus on the body as a primary medium. Her choreographic art explores issues of process, memory, and power. She gained particular prestige after being selected as a “re-performer” for Marina Abramović’s MoMA retrospective “The Artist is Present” back in 2010.

Unafraid of pushing boundaries of mental and physical endurance, in her 2011 and 2016 performance, Right at the Center, There is Silence, she dissects the theme of silence by standing for six to eight hours surrounded by four stands that seem to be microphones but are actually razor blades, placed at a three-millimeter distance from her neck.

María José Arjona
The beauty of 4 legged animals | La belleza del animal de cuatro patas, 2008

Her work The Beauty of Four Legged Animals (2008) was recently showcased in Rolf Art’s online exhibition “Pensar Todo de Nuevo (Rethink Everything).” That curatorial endeavor reflects on COVID-19 and mandatory isolation through a careful selection of historically relevant artworks by numerous outstanding Latin American artists.

José Antonio Suárez Londoño

B. 1955, Medellin. Lives and works in Medellin.

José Antonio Suárez Londoño
Dibujo, 2016
José Antonio Suárez Londoño
N° 288 Baby K, 2014-2015
Lokkus Arte Contemporáneo

Over the past 40 years, José Antonio Suárez Londoño, or JASL, as he refers to himself, has produced meticulous illustrations of botanical motifs, color studies, landscapes, maps, anatomy, and portraits, among other subjects.

JASL is known for avoiding public life, instead devoting his days to drawing in solitude and silence at his home in Medellín. He has produced an impressive repertoire of small-scale prints, sketchbooks, and illustrations that function as a sort of visual autobiography.

He is most recognized for his ongoing body of work “The Yearbooks,” which began in 1997 after Colombian writer Héctor Abad Faciolince suggested they work together for a year. Suárez would draw every day, and Abad would respond with writing. Although the project never came to be, this initiated a studious unfaltering practice for JASL, influenced by his wide-ranging literary interests and mundane occupations. Since then, he’s produced more than 65 yearbooks containing over 5,000 drawings.

Gabriel Sierra

B. 1975, San Juan Nepomuceno. Lives and works in Bogotá.

By challenging the norms that govern our exchanges with built environments and how these rules can be altered through interventions, Gabriel Sierra explores the psychological aspects of architecture.

He experiments with concepts of reality, perception, habitat, urbanism, and community through various techniques, including minimalist interventions, colossal site-specific installations, paintings, and sculpture.

Sierra’s site-specific work shown at the Renaissance Society in 2015 featured sleek white constructions meant for spectators to stand in or walk over. According to the artist, the artwork’s title, which changed every hour to influence the specific moment of a visitor’s experience, was a chief component of the work. The piece was ultimately related to the concept of inhabiting diverse instants of space and time. Similarly, in “Before Present,” an exhibition on view at Kunsthalle Zürich in 2015, Sierra studied ideas of reality and perception by presenting the same installation three times in three different spaces, seeking to create a false déjà vu.

Oscar Muñoz

B. 1951. Popayán. Lives and works in Cali.

Oscar Muñoz is recognized as one of the most significant visual artists Colombia has ever seen. His seemingly phantasmagoric work is devoted to interrogating the passage of time, memory, and mortality through the appearance and dissolution of imagery.

Muñoz is particularly interested in utilizing unstable mediums such as water, light, and dust. His technique can best be exemplified in “Narcisos” (1995–present), a series featuring self-portraits in charcoal dust that ultimately evaporate after being transferred onto a water surface.

A recipient of the 2018 Hasselblad Award in Photography, Muñoz unveiled El Método Ludovico (2018) that same year at the Hasselblad Center in Gothenburg, Sweden. To create this piece, Muñoz installed a luminous, almost blinding, small screen between two forceps where, after much effort, the viewer was able to see videos depicting liberal guerillas in Colombia during the 1950s.

Karen Paulina Biswell

B. 1983, Aruba. Lives and works in Bogotá and Paris.

Karen Paulina Biswell
Achiba dai una panuma (They see us), 2013
Instituto de Visión
Karen Paulina Biswell
Laura, 2018
Instituto de Visión

Through exquisitely enthralling photographs that conjure timeless fashion editorials, Biswell seeks to explore and critique notions of femininity, morality, time, vulnerability, and destiny.

An up-and-coming force, the French-Colombian artist was born in Aruba to Colombian parents who fled to Paris during a time of heightened violence; that personal history inevitably influences her artistry. Uninterested in boundaries, her work is purposefully difficult to define. She’s intent on moving away from the obvious and delving deep into the invisible.

Her series “Nama Bu,” meaning “we exist” in native Embera language, is a set of portraits of Emberá-Chamí indigenous people from Colombia that intends to explore clichés and social constructs surrounding indigeneity. While, on the other hand, her notorious series “Ellas” is an entrancing investigation of desire and sexual identity in which women reign supreme and varied botanical elements are frequently juxtaposed as indispensable forces.

Salomé Gómez-Upegui
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019