CARACAS — The forced displacement of Venezuelans due to violence and hyperinflation continues every day, occupying headlines in the West and discussions internationally. The seriousness of this crisis affects the whole region, so it is not a coincidence that two established Latin American artists from different generations, Beatriz González (born in 1938, in Bucaramanga, Colombia) and Teresa Margolles (born in 1963, in Culiacán, Mexico), represent people crossing the Venezuela–Colombia border in their recent work. They seek to capture the pain and loss of the migrants and border workers, while unveiling the political and economic mechanisms that cause them, namely, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s regime.
The radicalization and collapse of the Bolivarian Revolution has led to the exile of millions of Venezuelans, separating families and causing enormous economic loss to the country. Since 2014, people have been crossing legally and illegally into the Andes on foot and to the Caribbean islands on rafts, resulting in the worst migration crisis ever in South America. According to the United Nations, 2.6 million Venezuelans have migrated since 2014 to other countries in South America. Projections indicate that by the end of 2018 it will total three million. There is talk of granting them the standing of refugees; in an interview, the exiled opposition leader and former mayor of El Hatillo, David Smolansky, said, “All the conditions already exist to give Venezuelans refugee status, which allows for concrete guarantees of assistance from the international community, providing protection and working permits.” He also added that the Venezuelan displacement crisis is only surpassed in magnitude by Syria, but it is happening “without being in a war or a natural catastrophe.”
The displacement of poverty-stricken people from Venezuela is part of the larger consequences of the brutality of Latin American governments, which has been a longtime subject for both González and Margolles. González constructs a historical memory of her home country, Colombia, through paintings based on journalistic photographs. Margolles does fieldwork in conflict areas, engaging with victims and producing videos, photography, and installations.
Since the mid-1960s, González has addressed the specific public experience in Colombia and constructed a pictorial representation of her country’s history, depicting political events, violence, and loss. The point of departure for her works are journalistic photographs published in Colombian tabloids such as El Tiempo and Vanguardia Liberal, from which she extracts images of human bodies and paints their silhouettes. Through gestures, postures, and props in bright, vivid colors, taken from local popular culture, she creates a visual language that reflects her deep knowledge of Colombian idiosyncrasies.
In 2015, González began to consider the forced displacement of Colombians after Maduro ordered the expulsion of more than 6,000 Colombians residing in Venezuela. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Venezuela was the place of refuge for Colombians fleeing drug trafficking and terrorism. In my conversation with González, she addressed this reversal, saying, “Paramilitaries used to take people out of their homes, and nowadays it is Maduro’s government”; ironically, Colombia has become the place of refuge.
Paintings such as “Zulia, Zulia, Zulia” (2015), in which González depicts “Maduro’s displaced,” consist of a procession of immigrants crossing the Táchira and Zulia Rivers, the geographical borders between the two countries. In other works in this series, she includes depictions of European refugees as well as Colombians displaced because of natural disasters. She compares the condition of being a refugee in Europe and in South America and highlights their parallel need to bring their belongings. According to the artist, “Venezuelans bring everything they can, such as mattresses and refrigerators.” She renders their oversized, amorphous silhouettes holding these objects. Due to the proximity of her hometown, Bucaramanga, to the border, she has lived very closely to the flow of Venezuelan refugees.
Since the 1980s, Margolles’s body of work has operated as an archive of contemporary violence. She has produced video installations that record the symptoms of societal breakdown in her home country of Mexico. After studying forensic medicine in the late 1990s and working in a morgue, she has inserted the notion of death and its role in Mexico’s economy and society into the majority of her art. In her shocking installations, Margolles uses bodily fluids to produce objects steeped in violence and pain, comparing them to the flow of immigrants crossing the Mexico-US border.
In 2017, Margolles was invited by the Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo de América del Sur (Bienalsur) to travel to the Colombian border town of Cúcuta and develop several actions that engage with the sites and subjects of the forced migration in Venezuela. She documented and interpreted realities from the border through installations, performances, and photographs. The artist presented some of these works in the exhibition A new work by Teresa Margolles at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam this past summer. In one of the actions, she hired Venezuelans to carry stones across the river that geopolitically divides the border with Colombia; for another, she hired the migrants to knit their narratives into fabrics stained by the local soil. Margolles also bought used, sweat-stained T-shirts from the immigrants, which she later used to create an installation about the fluids of labor and border crossers. For another action, she documented women carrying heavy merchandise from Colombia to Venezuela, a task that was previously executed exclusively by men. Given the growing shortage of labor and increasing socioeconomic crisis, women have started to take on what was traditionally men’s work. During all of these events, the manual labor was remunerated and accompanied by conversations and documentation by the artist, giving jobs to people in need.
Beatriz González and Teresa Margolles identify and challenge the brutality of Latin American governments through their art, ensuring that the flickering embers of protest and social dissent are not extinguished. Both give a hopeful view of joint protest by citizens and artists that could lay the foundations for the recovery of civic institutions and democratic practices in the future.