In Colombia, Cameroonian artist Justine Gaga has found new inspiration for her art, which explores themes of isolation, migration, and exile.
“My work is about solitude, people who are alone and in need of protection,” she told Colombia Reports. This theme of loneliness is highly personal for Gaga, springing from her feelings of isolation as a young woman trying to make it as an artist against the wishes of her family, who wanted her to become a doctor. “I lived by myself for a long time,” she explains, “and not because I wanted to.”
But in Colombia, where Gaga is currently working, these themes take on a larger significance. The huge number of internal refugees – 4.9 million, by some estimates, out of a population of 45 million – gives her exploration of alienation and exile a very concrete social meaning.
Gaga was funded by UNESCO to come to the country and carry out workshops with children and women living in Nuevo Amanecer, a poor and predominantly Afro-Colombian barrio on the outskirts of Medellin. Many of its inhabitants are “desplazados” – the displaced, people who have been forced from their land by one side or another in Colombia’s tortuous ongoing armed conflict. They mostly come from departments such as Choco or Quibdo, where Afro-Colombians have been disproportionately targeted by illegal armed groups.
Before she arrived, Gaga knew little about Colombia and its troubled history, but the children of Nuevo Amanecer taught her about their country.
“They were very sad, they told me that where they come from there is war.” Many of the children had lost their parents, and seen terrible things. Gaga’s project aimed to use art to heal these wounds, “to remove violence from their minds by helping them to express themselves,” she explains. “If they draw something, perhaps they will learn that life is not only violence.”
For two days Gaga talked with the community. They told their stories, she told her story, and then they all set to work. She supervised the people of the barrio in making paintings, ceramics, and macrame inspired by everything they had talked about, helped by four artists from the local University of Antioquia.
The results are on display at the Centro Colombo Americano in central Medellin, alongside Gaga’s own work.
Much of her art is based around a particular icon, a slim, elongated, featureless figure which is painted against various colorful backgrounds, or represented in sculpture. She chanced upon this anonymous figure one day, she explains, when she was experimenting with sketching different human forms. She realized that a figure representing solitude doesn’t need to be a man, woman or child – “to show solitude you only need to be a presence.”
The anonymity of the faceless form expresses the universality of the experience of being alone. “Everybody is alone, everybody must find their own identity, everybody must find their own way. Even people playing football together are alone when they score,” she says.
One striking sculpture on show in the exhibition is a group of these tiny figures painted white; identical and crowded together, and yet each alone and somehow human.
Gaga’s arrival in Colombia was a piece of serendipity. After displaying her work around Europe and Africa she wanted to discover South America, and without really knowing why, she chose to travel to Colombia to carry out these workshops.
The chance to work with Afro-Colombian communities in what the Colombo Americano center calls “an intercultural Afro dialogue” was exciting for the artist. “I know that in Colombia there are blacks and whites living together, for me it is interesting to see how this works.”
She was given the chance to work with the Neuvo Amanecer community as part of the country’s Afro-Colombian month, and has also carried out artistic workshops at ten Medellin schools.
Gaga says that she has learnt as much from the children in these workshops as they learnt from her. “They are so spontaneous and natural, it reminds me of when I first started to paint. I used to be like that, but now to paint I need to think first.”
The themes of isolation and exile continue in her work, perhaps with a new depth after her experiences in Colombia. She was shocked when she first saw people sleeping on the streets of Medellin in the middle of the day. “Everyone walks past, people share the area but everyone is in his own world. Maybe in Cameroon I will make some art about this.”
“What is solitude? I’m still working on it after five, six years.”
Justine Gaga’s work, and that of Medellin residents, is on show at the Colombo Americano until June 25.