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Art

Abel Rodríguez Recreates the Rainforests He Used to Call Home

Portrait of Abel Rodríguez by Sandra Vargas. Courtesy of the artist and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

Portrait of Abel Rodríguez by Sandra Vargas. Courtesy of the artist and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

’s highly detailed drawings of the Amazon rainforest have long been valued by Western botanists. In recent years, however, as the fragility of the natural world grows in the public consciousness, their extraordinary beauty has also garnered the attention of the art world.
Rodríguez, whose native name is Mogaje Guihu, grew up in the Muinane community near the headwaters of Cahuinari River in the Colombian Amazon. He owes his extraordinary understanding of the rainforest and its inhabitants to his uncle, a sabedor (man of knowledge), from whom he learned so much that he became known as el nombrador de plantas (the namer of plants).
“This knowledge is very rare—only a few members of the indigenous group have it,” explained Irene Aristizábal, head of curatorial and public practice at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Arts in Gateshead, England, who organized Rodríguez’s first institutional solo show. The exhibition, which opened just as the U.K. began its COVID-19 lockdown, is now viewable online.
Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

“I learned about the forest the hard way,” Rodríguez states in the show’s catalog. “I had to be awake for long hours at night; I had to lend my ears to the elders and make special diets. Our learning was a spiritual process; that is why we consider knowledge as very valuable.”
It was this exceptional expertise that first drew Western scientists to Rodríguez’s work. In the 1980s, he became a guide for researchers in a project sponsored by the Colombian branch of Tropenbos International, a Dutch non-governmental organization whose mission is to study and protect the tropical rainforest.
Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

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Rodríguez understood that these researchers had a scientific rather than holistic approach to learning about the plants and took pains to explain matters in a way he thought they would understand. This precious exchange was nearly lost forever in the 1990s when Rodríguez’s community was displaced by environmental exploitation and the guerrilla operations of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Rodríguez and his family were forced to permanently relocate to Colombia’s capital, Bogotá.
Fortunately, Tropenbos decided to approach Rodríguez with the idea of translating his remarkable storehouse of wisdom into drawings. These drawings would not only benefit science, but would also provide Rodríguez with a living.
Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

“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,” Rodríguez stated in the exhibition catalog.
He clearly had an innate talent and was soon producing astonishingly precise drawings entirely from memory. “He did drawings of particular trees in which he describes the color of the bark, the color of the leaves, at what time of year the fruit comes out and which animals eat the fruit, whether for food, or as a pest,” explained Aristizábal.
Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

Although the early drawings were done in felt tip pen, Rodríguez soon switched to Chinese ink, which transformed his work. “You can see the texture is very different,” said Aristizábal. “The color becomes very vibrant. There is such a sensibility and his knowledge is so rich.”
The lusciously vibrant greens in a work such as Terraza Alta II (2018) explode from the page in a joyous celebration of the beauty and wonder of nature. Rodríguez’s profound engagement with the unique ecosystem of the rainforest is evident in everything from the intricately observed shapes of leaves to his depictions of birds perching in trees and animals foraging on the forest’s floor.
Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

His work began getting attention for its artistic merit in 2008, and in 2014, he won the Prince Claus Award, which honors those in the cultural sector who make a positive impact on society. His inclusion in Documenta 14 in Kassel in 2017 further bolstered his reputation.
Rodríguez, however, does not see himself as an artist—at least not in the Western tradition. “We don’t really have that concept, but the closest one I can think of is iimitya, which in Muinane means ‘word of power,’” he explained. “All paths lead to the same knowledge, which is the beginning of all paths.”
Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

But there is a limit to how much knowledge he is prepared to pass on—much of it is restricted, even within his own community. “Only those who go through the initiation can access it,” said Aristizábal.
It is impossible to know exactly how much Rodríguez has chosen to reveal. He no longer works with NGOs and instead produces work by request for museums and collectors. According to Aristizábal, “he started to realize he could make more money producing works for the art world than with grants from Tropenbos.”
Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

Abel Rodríguez, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2020. © 2020 BALTIC. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

This may come as a surprise to those who would like to romanticize Rodríguez as an outsider artist, but Aristizábal has made it a point not to promote him as such—the exhibition even draws a distinction between the earlier work for Tropenbos and his later commercial work.
Though his profile as an artist continues to rise, it’s clear that Rodríguez has never lost sight of what is truly important. With his community rapidly dwindling, he is trying to pass on his intimate knowledge of the forest as best he can to his son. Tragically, it is still unsafe for them to return to the Amazon, so his son’s knowledge will always be incomplete. Until they’re able to return, Rodríguez’s work is the most comprehensive record we have, making it all the more vital and precious.
Cath Pound