The Devil in Cali

In a city once notorious for drug cartels, many of Cali’s artists mine the dark side of its history of violence, economic inequality, magic and salsa

By Stefanie Hessler

Fernell Franco, Untitled, 1970, from the series Prostitutas, 1970. © the artist’s estate. Courtesy International Center of Photography, New York Fabio Melecio Palacios, Bamba 45, 2000, from a performance in the exhibition Terror y Escape. Courtesy Lugar a Dudas, Cali Ana María Millán, still from Film Shock, 2002. Courtesy the artist Fernell Franco, Untitled, 1970, from the series Prostitutas, 1970. © the artist’s estate. Courtesy International Center of Photography, New York Gabriel Sierra, estructuras para transición #10 (que hora es afuera), 2013. Photo: Oscar Monsalve. Courtesy Casas Riegner, Bogotá Cerro de las Tres Cruces (Hill of the Three Crosses), Cali, 2010. Photo: Momentos Fotografía

The air in Cali is thick and humid, and it gets dark at 6pm every day. The old part of town is framed by one-storey buildings into which small shops are squeezed, offering plateau-soled shoes and freshly cut pieces of pineapple in plastic cups. And then there is the occasional strikingly more ‘bling’ building, richly embellished yet not referencing any particular style. Ornamental abundance itself is the theme, from architecture to plastic surgery, of which Cali is Colombia’s hub. My favourite piece of narco arquitectura, a genre that has emerged since the 1970s, is Parque Jaime Duque. It was erected by a pilot after he mysteriously came into the possession of large sums of money. Any resemblance to the Taj Mahal is not by chance.

Outside of Colombia, the capital of the Cauca Valley is perhaps best known for the notorious Cali Cartel. Also referred to as Cali’s Gentlemen, the group made itself a questionable name and dragged that of the city down with it

Outside of Colombia, the capital of the Cauca Valley is perhaps best known for the notorious Cali Cartel. Also referred to as Cali’s Gentlemen, the group (active in Cali between 1977 and 1998) made itself a questionable name and dragged that of the city down with it. Too often, though, depictions of the country focus only on crime and drug violence, and do not pay tribute to its rich cultural past and contemporary art scene. Many artists today address the conflict-laden history and hierarchical society that is deeply ingrained with socioeconomic inequalities. The figure of the Devil has become a synonym for these problems and a fascination at the same time.

In 1980 Michael Taussig published The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, a study of the magical beliefs among the sugarcane cutters in the Cauca Valley. In the seminal piece of fictocriticism, he describes how male proletarianised plantation workers enter into a secret contract with the Devil to increase productivity. However, the money made from these deals is barren and cannot be turned into productive capital. According to local belief, it has to be spent immediately on alcohol and other luxury goods, bearing malign consequences and causing illness and premature death. The barter with the Devil, an ‘exchange that ends all exchange’, is synonymous with an economic system replacing use value with exchange value and communality with self-interest, and in which people are ultimately forced to trade their souls for commodities.

The Devil and the legends surrounding it have entered many works by artists from the region

The Devil and the legends surrounding it have entered many works by artists from the region. In the feature film Pura Sangre (1982), Luis Ospina depicts a powerful sugarcane magnate suering from a strange disease, forcing him constantly to transfuse blood in order to survive. The blood is obtained from young locals, whom he and his helpers hunt and let bleed to death. While analogies to Taussig’s analysis and the metaphor of capitalist plantation owners as bloodsucking vampires are striking, the film can also be seen in relation to historical trauma in Colombia and the sociopolitical unrest known as La Violencia (in effect a civil war spanning the decade between 1948 and 1958). The trashy aesthetics make one think of Nigeria’s Nollywood splatter movies, another troubled country with a tropical climate.

Similarly, writer Andrés Caicedo’s obsession with horror films and authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Cyril Connolly and H.P. Lovecraft permeates his own texts. His short stories feature female cannibals as futuristic prototypes devouring the traditional caleño masculinity. As Joseph Conrad did in Heart of Darkness (1899), Caicedo depicts the monstrosities and fears of the tropical driving people mad, yet he does this in the counter-cultural spirit of the 1960s and 70s, and as an appropriation of the pulp literature and vampire films of the time. Alongside Ospina, Caicedo is considered one of the founders of Caliwood and the Tropical Gothic genre. Younger generations of artists have continued the legacy, such as Helena Producciones, an inter-disciplinary collective that regularly organises the International Performance Festival in Cali, and in 1999 dedicated the exhibition Terror y Escape to the topic.

Legend has it that the Devil had resided in Cali long before industrial capitalism arrived. In 1837 three crosses were erected on the local mountain overlooking the city to get rid of Satan, after he had been dancing in fire circles disguised as a giant bat, causing more mischief than the archdiocese was willing to tolerate. However, the exorcism allegedly had the opposite effect: rather then being kept out, the Devil was locked into the region forever. Giovanni Vargas’s La Oscuridad No Miente (Darkness Does Not Lie, 2008) consists of found footage ranging from jittery views o the hill, to narco arquitectura neighbourhoods illuminated by festive Christmas lighting and scary Internet curiosities. The video is backed by eerie music and fade-ins of text fragments recounting the Devil legend, transmitting a feeling of terror and suspense. In Film Shock (2002) Ana María Millán stages dramatised situations in a colonial building in Cali, referencing cult Italian horror-film director Mario Bava. One morning while waiting for a taxi, I spotted the headline ‘Buenaventura criminals make use of witchcraft to escape the authorities’ prefacing the local newspaper. Wondering what public opinion on such causalities may be, I asked the concierge for advice. She concurred that indeed black magic was in play, and recommended an almost Goethean precaution (à la ‘the spirits that I summoned up’ from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 1797) using white magic instead, before calling up her brujo to book me in for an appointment. Sorcery of different sorts is widespread in the valley, as is yagé, a psychedelic brew ingested during shamanistic ceremonies. My fascination lies in the different views these experiences may enable, and what knowledge can be accessed via the chemical changes in our brains, concerns that are also present in bogotano artist Gabriel Sierra’s design elements such as bent walls or mural cuts as means of passing into other worlds.

Aside from a fascination with the sinister, Cali has made a name for itself through salsa and excessive parties. In the downtown clubs, the air is thick and electric from live music and the ecstatic energy of dancers. The late Fernell Franco’s series of silver-gelatin prints Prostitutas (1970) bears witness to these notorious establishments. The photojournalist documented women working in a brothel in Buenaventura, the formerly prosperous port city near Cali, sensitively capturing urban precariousness and destruction. Franco’s initial exhibi-tion took place in 1972 at Ciudad Solar in Cali, the country’s first alter-native space. The building is located downtown in an alley next to the Archaeological Museum and Cultural Centre, the latter of which was built by Colombian modernist architect Rogelio Salmona in his signature red brick.

Artist-run spaces have played an important role in the city, which boasts only one public art museum, and one private gallery

Artist-run spaces have played an important role in the city, which boasts only one public art museum, Museo de la Tertulia, and one private gallery, Jenny Vilà. Lugar a Dudas, whose name translates as ‘space for doubt’, was founded in 2006 by Oscar Muñoz, another artist whose career began in Ciudad Solar. It functions as exhibition space, research centre and residency programme with a separate building in the bohemian neighbourhood San Antonio. It was an exhibition I curated at Lugar a Dudas, combined with a residency, that first brought me to Cali. During this visit I also learned about La Nocturna, a recent initiative organised by Hernán Barón, Herlyng Ferla, Ericka Florez and Mónica Restrepo. It takes place at the initiators’ homes and promotes a discursive for-mat rooted in the local sociocultural context. I experienced a session my-self, starting with Florez’s project Hegelian Dancers (2014), which aims at teaching dilettantes how to move by overcoming the Cartesian gap between mind and body. Salsa is usually not danced by the upper class and thus is symptomatic of class divisions and racial prejudices. This project symbolically stands for the socioeconomic struggles and cultural hybrids of the city, which, alongside local mythologies, have shaped Cali’s diverse and energetic artistic scene.

This article was first published in the January & February 2015 issue.