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Standing over ashes


That smell has not gone away and will probably never be left behind. The desolation and pain incubated in those streets has been so great - and the memory of what happened so vivid - that the ruins and rubble cry out. For decades the Bronx, one of the most unlikely sectors of Bogota, sheltered thousands of marginalized and absent people who found in the old houses a temporary home and a safe haven. Like an asphalt stage, the Bronx naturally contrasted the dignified and relentless struggle of men and women against adversity and the brutality of survival in its most ruthless and criminal form.

Then came political declarations in the form of backhoe machines. The Bronx, having become - at last - a public issue deserved absolute rehabilitation. The "important" men of society came to the area to close the misery. They believed that words would be enough; they always believe it and always will. By an uncomfortable randomness for the power, while those convinced sorcerers were talking, a couple of inhabitants were kissing with desire and hallucination lying on the floor a few meters away. An image that would become Héctor Fabio Zamora's famous photograph and later our mural El Beso de los Invisibles (The Kiss of the Invisibles). The image described the whole story for what it portrayed but also for what it silenced: humanity flourishing before being banished. To be banished again. For months, hundreds of people and families would wander the streets around the Bronx in search of a new roof: it would not be long before they found it. I was told that now there is not just one Bronx but a dozen Bronxs scattered throughout the city.

However, the idea that emerged from the devastation was interesting and pertinent: to build in those ruins a physical space where hundreds of artists, creators and managers would gather to develop the vast imaginative potential of Bogota. Another roof and another shelter in the heart of the city: the historic Tenth and Ninth Streets. The Bronx Creative District arises as an opportunity to honor the past of those debris and the backs that carried them. Several years have passed since that impulse, and although there are a couple more until the project is completed, music, theater, performance and mural have been present in the Bronx as a gesture of memory and hope. It's moving in the right direction, I guess.

The new Bronx includes in its facilities a majestic building: an icon of columns, wide portals and long windows. What used to be the former medical school of the National University and later a military battalion will become the main headquarters of Bogota's creativity. Wide corridors and illuminated halls will be channels for ideas and creative workshops. Just imagining it is mind-boggling. Of course the building has undergone modifications: decades ago the machete of Caracas Avenue cut it almost in half, leaving in its path an immense facade that for years was guarded by young men doing military service. A wall that for years would remain silent.

Months ago I received a call from a student who took one of my classes at the Universidad del Rosario. I remember her as a cheerful and disciplined young woman from Valledupar. For years I lost track of her. She told me that she had been in London for some time and was now working at the Colombian embassy in cultural affairs. A few days earlier she had received a call from a British NGO (Youthful Cities) asking if they could contact someone in Colombia who did murals. Fortunately for me, Rosario -that's the young lawyer's name- immediately remembered her teacher who for years had been seeking personal and professional answers through graffiti. The call with Rosario was short and substantial: they wanted us to talk to Youthful Cities to investigate the possibility of traveling to Coventry, a city in the center of England whose historical reference is to be the place where the famous Lady Godiva, in the 11th century, protested against her husband's greed by riding naked on horseback. My answer immediately was a determined yes. But it would not be that simple. It is never that simple.

Plans to travel were interrupted with the arrival of the pandemic. The Youthful Cities program, called Coventry City of Culture 2021, would undergo considerable modifications. For months we held conversations in confinement evaluating alternatives so that the program that would unite five cities in the world (Nairobi, Denver, Bogota, Beirut and Coventry) would have an outstanding representation by the Colombian team. The mural would now be located in Bogota. The conditions were demanding. The program would pay all the costs but we would have to put together a team of five young artists who would be in charge of creating the image. Fortunately, Santiago Castro, the artistic director of the project, collected a series of lists of artists with the potential to be part of the mural. We interviewed almost twenty young people; most of them without extensive experience but almost all of them with the best disposition to work. The result of this search could not have been better.

The other critical issue to resolve was to find the wall that would house the work. Although there are many spaces to paint in Bogota, the paperwork for permits (and even more so now that advertising agencies pay buildings to illegally disguise graffiti ads) can be cumbersome. Santiago told me an improbable idea: the wall of the old battalion building - which Caracas Avenue had left in its path - would be ideal for the mural. I answered him that since it was an asset of cultural interest, the process could be delayed and would require the technical concept of the Ministry of Culture. And with this probable difficulty arose another of the fortunes of the project: the participation of the Gilberto Alzate Avendaño Foundation. A public institution in charge of arts and culture in downtown Bogota.

2021 would not only be a year of pandemic in Colombia but also the year of immense mobilizations in the public space. For months hundreds of thousands of young people and non-governmental organizations would march through the main cities demanding resignations and retractions of power. The chaos was unleashed on some days and the violence and destruction caused by the bad decisions and actions of the police force and a certain minimal and mischievous citizenry provoked a devastation whose magnitude is still unknown today. After a period of shaking, the streets would recover their habits and although they did not return to normality, the favorite rumor in Colombia would run again: although everything had happened, nothing really happened.

Chulo (Sebastián), Alucina (Ana Lucía), Plasma (Daniela), Micromomentos (Tatiana), Meraz (Mauricio) and Naranjita (Paula) were the selected artists: talented young people under 25 years of age who lived and participated intensely in the days of the mobilizations. I remember that the first meetings of the project were full of emotions and uneasiness. The inexplicable was becoming unintelligible. Fortunately, the discussion would take months and would also bring together artists from the host city of Coventry. The dialogue with the British served to mold and shape all the emotionality of the days of the strike. (The British also painted a huge mural in their city). The reflections and distances between ours and theirs, allowed us to clarify many issues and to begin to prowl a fertile and determining idea: "Young people are defined by their inhabitation of the public space". Moreover, an additional question would help to round out the circumstances in which the image would be born: what really happened during 2021 in our streets?

The Ministry of Culture took its time. It had to. It was a wall that was part of a building of great architectural importance. And after discussing and debating it, it decided to give a favorable concept. One of the most important reasons is that this wall was not an old wall or part of the original construction, it was a wall built when the Caracas roadway was widened to allow Transmilenio to pass. The official letter 415-2021 of November 10, 2021, signed by the Director of Heritage and Memory of the Ministry of Culture gave way to the desire for the mural. The weeks-long wait had been worth it.

- Vogue? what is that? I asked them. I felt old and out of context as the young artists began to discuss the subject. From there emerged one of the personal conclusions I drew from all this: the profound generational change we are living today will transform almost everything among us. I for one remembered Madonna's famous eighties song but not much beyond that. Patiently, the sextet of artists explained to me that Voguing was a dance born in New York and originated in the trans community that embodied in its movements a form of resistance and peaceful occupation of public space. Voguing had also been a fundamental and surprising part of the marches in Colombia in 2021 and thanks to it the Trans community was one of the main protagonists. Everything started to come together. The ideas sprouted and without hesitation the young people began to draw and look for references of Vogue dances. The story was complete: the working formula that has worked for us at Vertigo Graffiti for years was bearing fruit again. In our interventions the narrative precedes the plastic. Stand Up Hard.

Last Thursday, January 27th, the Gilberto Alzate Avendaño Foundation and its project Bronx Distrito Creativo invited us to pay homage to the wall and the six artists who created it. In one of the corners of the Tercer Milenio park, which offers an exceptional view of the mural of almost two hundred meters, they placed a small stage to talk about the work and inaugurate it. Of its details and origins; of its imaginary and secrets. We arrived on time and excited. We knew that before our words there would be a presentation. Three leaders of the trans community network of Bogota, sex workers and dancers from Vogue, part of the Toloposungo collective, would give a show: their show. Amidst festive music, they made very serious and angry denunciations. Between loud dances, they lamented the abuse that society exercised against them. Behind the voluptuous make-up lay the furrows of tears festering from years of violence and exile. We were all grateful to them: it is not every day that you can open your eyes. With them, the mural became much more meaningful and fulfilled its purpose: to occupy the public space with a celebration of resistance. To occupy in order not to forget. To occupy in order to know how to stay. To transform the city with the compassion of the creator.

The mural was born and stood in the ashes. It honored diversity and inclusion. It recognized the virtue of cooperation between allies and antagonists. The six disciplined and caring young men knew how to confine reality within their strokes. The image will travel to Coventry and the story will knock on its doors. The wall will not remain silent; it will remember. Everything that happened in 2021 was not in vain. Something definitely happened.

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