"Escuela Nueva," Mar. 26-May 22, 1999 at Up and Co., 257 Church St., New York, N.Y. 10013.
Colombian photographer Juan Manuel Echavarria drives a bulletproof Toyota and never travels without a bodyguard. His caution is more practical than paranoid. The decades-long civil war between the Colombian army, paramilitary armed forces, guerrillas and drug lords has made terror a daily part of Colombian life -- for ordinary people as well as for social critics like Echavarria. Currently on view at Tribeca gallery Up and Co. is "Escuela Nueva," a haunting series of photos documenting the threat of paramilitary forces in Chicocora, a small Colombian fishing village.
"Escuela Nueva" consists of about 30 black and white documentary-type photos and four color photographs displayed in light boxes. The unframed photos are artfully scattered throughout the gallery, like a stream-of-consciousness photo essay.
"Escuela Nueva" -- or "New School" -- is the name of the village's only school. Given the regular cycle of Colombian violence, the school has probably been rebuilt several times -- hence the name. Several black-and-white images show the school's wreckage strewn about the tropical terrain, like documentation of hurricane damage in a newspaper.
But Echavarria's photos of paramilitary graffiti on a cement wall imply human rather than meteorological damage. Before destroying a village, the paramilitares warn the inhabitants to vacate or be killed, staking their territory with spray-paint. Forced internal migration is a regular part of rural Colombian life -- there are currently 1.5 million internal refugees -- and these are not the first villagers forced to flee Chicocora. Layers of graffiti cover the wall, some faded beyond recognition.
The show also includes close-ups of the graffiti itself. Fragmented from the sentence, the individually photographed letters are reduced to purely formal elements. Their illegibility works as a metaphor for the villagers' own incomprehension in the face of terrorist irrationality, and as a symbol of the illiteracy to come from the destruction of the school.
There are no pictures of people. Rather, images of handwritten text stand in for faces. Encased within light boxes, the four color photos show pages of children's handwriting exercises from workbooks left behind in the rubble. The naive script immediately recalls the graffiti. In a foreboding comparison of child to criminal, one workbook contains the same spelling mistake made in the paramilitary graffiti.
The conflation of child and criminal seems an inevitable one in Colombia -- the cocaine trade is the only industry that promises power and wealth to impressionable youth. One child writes over and over again, "my aunt has a suitcase," and eventually "the suitcase has coca (cocaine) in it." In another workbook, coco (coconut) is repeated until eventually transcribed as "coca."
The highlight of the show is photos of bald, dismembered mannequins standing outside of shops. The figures have furrowed brows, tweaked lips and eerie, longing stares, as if in protest of their overuse.
Finally, photos of squash remind the viewer why the inhabitants didn't fight for their village. Each piece has been carved out and its interior replaced, sometimes with other squash innards, sometimes with a foreign substance. The random, yet intentional carvings are analogous to the careful mutilation of human bodies -- a tradition in the Colombian murder circuit.
Born in Medellin, Colombia, in 1947, Echavarria attended college in the United States, then returned to Colombia to write. He worked as co-editor of the El Zumbambico newspaper in Medellin and published two novels in 1981 and 1991. He now divides his time between Bogotá and New York.
In Echavarria's first art exhibition, held in 1998, he showed photos of human bones arranged like flowers in botanical prints. "Corte de Floro," as it was called, was based on a series of massacres in rural Colombia in the 1950s, in which corpses were mutilated and rearranged according to particular codes, or "cuts."
Echavarria's project is horribly depressing, but morbidly fascinating. He manages to recreate the horror of Colombian life without being moralizing or sensationalistic. The viewer isn't force-fed the tale of the oppressed, but allowed to construct his or her own narrative. Left to the imagination, the story of Chicocora is darker than any newspaper could report it.
MEREDITH MENDELSOHN is associate editor of Artnet magazine.