I spent my first days in Medellin, Colombia depressed and a bit afraid of my surroundings. The depression is a regular companion on my travels; when I arrive somewhere new, the unfamiliarity is so striking it seems to sting, and it makes me feel utterly alone. Why did I choose this life for myself? Why didn’t I wait for someone with whom to share this adventure? Why, after twenty-eight years of life and two years of solo-travel, do I still feel the need for someone to come with me? The travel-depression typically wanes the first day, but in Medellin, Colombia, fear deepened this depression.
It wasn’t simply my fear—fear of being mugged or somehow pulled into the cocaine trade by a 15-year-old boy—it was also the fear that others bestowed on me. Parents, friends, co-workers, and random people I spoke to: other people feared Colombia for its past and expressed that fear freely, handing me their fear like a baton I was meant to carry.
In the time it took me to realize Medellin was not the scary place others would have me believe, I went on my first tourist adventure to a gallery opening at the Museo de Arte Moderno, which seems appropriate; I used art to move pass my apprehension about Medellin the way Colombians use art to surpass their pain.
The exhibits in the gallery varied greatly from one room to the next. One wall was dedicated to sketches of humans and animals co-existing while another listed books by author in a bizarre order that carried no logical order—that I could fathom—except stream of consciences. The most powerful work lined the walls of the main room. A dozen, four-foot, LED tube-lights were propped up against the walls every few feet. At the base of each light was a different household item—a hammer, a baseball bat, a wrench, a meat tenderizer, etc. It was a work about domestic violence, drawing attention to everyday items that had turned murder weapon.
Museo de Arte Moderno was much more crowded than I expected. As I wedged myself through the crowds, bumping into strangers and apologizing with a smile, I realized something glaringly different from any art gallery opening I’d been to in the States; the Paisas weren’t lingering near the bar, chatting about work; they were wondering around the multiple rooms, silently considering the art and whispering to those nearby.
The Paisas focus on art as an expression and not just decoration. If you need a clear example, simply visit Parque San Antonio where two Fernando Botero statues stand. One statue is broken in eerie disrepair, the remnants of a bomb that exploded in the parque during a family concert in June 1995, killing 30 people. And the other one was made new: perfect, polished and whole. The large, abstract birds—in Botero’s signature style—reflect the dual purpose of Paisa-art: to memorialize the things that happened so they won’t be forgot and to make things bright and strong.
In what was once the most dangerous area of the most dangerous city, art is the culture. Comuna 13, a northwest community of Medellin, is home to large masterpieces in spray paint that stretch the width and height of buildings. Even the homes not lending their exteriors to graffiti artists contribute to the colors of the community, bearing hues of pink, green, orange and blue.
The comuna’s location at the edge of the city made it a desired location for guerilla groups and cartels that wanted access to Medellin but also an easy path to escape into the mountains. Comuna 13 was the battlefield between the government and these groups, and the government wasn’t playing the role of the “good guys.” Hundreds of people in the comuna simply disappeared. In the aftermath of the 2002 Operation Orion, the community banned together to reclaim their homes and throw off the title of “victim.”
Their reclamation is nothing short of a social revolution, and a big proponent of this revolution is art in the form of hip-hop.
Before I went to Colombia, I thought hip-hop belonged to Missy Elliot, Dr. Dre, and Kendrick Lamar. I thought hip-hop was a musical form started in “the rough” neighborhoods of the United States. I didn’t know a lot about hip-hop because hip-hop was something I only listened to with others; it was angry and angst, it was written and performed by people whose experiences in life were different than mine, and I struggled to relate.
And that’s because I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand, but I’m beginning to.
Hip-hop is widely considered a social and political movement that uses art to reclaim human rights. It was started by the Latin and Afro communities of South America, derived from lessons learned from the Black Panthers, from Martin Luther King, Jr., and from Malcolm X. There are four forms of hip-hop—rap, breakdance, graffiti and DJing—and community organizations in Comuna 13 dedicate themselves to teaching and developing their practice.
Hip-hop has led to huge community projects such as the library parks, which provide computers and skill-workshops for free and provide a safe green-space for sports and children at play; such as Cada Vida and similar centers that help women become financially and emotionally independent; such as the famous orange escalators of Comuna 13 whose outdoor, roofed stairs turned an exhausting 35-minute hike up the mountain-side into a 10-minute excursion.
On a tour through the narrow streets of Comuna 13, I was told about the violence; I saw art that showed little girls covered with nature and art that showed enlarged hands of the government throwing the homes of Comuna 13 like a pair of dice; I saw children playing; I saw other tourist posing for pictures in front of their favorite graffiti pieces and smiling with locals.
It was interesting.
And then it was inspiring.
The message of their art to the world is that Medellin’s violent history—that those frightening facts and figures—does’t define its citizens. It signifies what has happened there, letting those inside and outside their communities know that they are not alone in whatever they face. Their art—art painted, danced, spoken or remixed—is defiant against fear; art does not demolish fear but stands against it.
Similarly, I can’t abolish my fears of the world and my fears of being alone; these things must become part of my journey and my art.