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Colombian Artists Rescue Coca Heritage

Colombian Artists Rescue Coca Heritage

You're unlikely to see Milena Bonilla's artwork on display in a New York gallery. Just mounting one of her installations inside the United States could land the 30-year-old artist in jail.
That's because, instead of oil on canvas, Bonilla's preferred medium is coca leaf, the base ingredient for cocaine. Classified as a dangerous substance, importing the plant is a felony without U.S. Justice Department permission.
The stalky shrub, which Bonilla planted in 12 two-liter plastic Coca-Cola bottles sheared off at the spout, is getting a makeover by a cadre of artists who want to wrest coca's millennial heritage and aesthetic appeal from the teeth of the war on drugs.
But the main target of so-called coca art may be Colombia President Alvaro Uribe, who has become the plant's chief eradicator as caretaker of the United States' $4 billion war on drugs.
Amid an upsurge in anti-American sentiment, several leftist leaders in the Andes have embraced the virtues of the much-maligned leaf even as the conservative Uribe _ Washington's staunchest regional ally _ has committed himself to its annihilation.
When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice first met with President Evo Morales of Bolivia in Chile, the former coca grower presented her with a charango _ a Bolivian ukulele _ decorated with lacquered coca leaves. To avoid a run-in with U.S. customs authorities, the diplomat left the present behind. President Alan Garcia of Peru, who is a relative moderate in the region, suggested to foreign journalists that the calcium-rich leaf tastes great in a salad.
Bonilla's installation, "Legal Consumption," was one of a handful invited last year to partake in the 40th National Salon of Artists, a showcase of Colombia's most innovative artists. She calls it a meditation on the hypocrisies of a marketplace that commercially exploits a plant most countries ban in its natural form.
"The worst part is that in its artificial form, used in a sugary soft-drink, coca carries a lot of health risks and none of the medicinal benefits traditionally associated with the plant," complained Bonilla.
Coca's scientific name, erythoxylon novograntense, refers to the Spanish viceroyalty of Nueva Granada, which spanned Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. Across the Andes, the plant has been chewed as a hunger suppressant and stimulant for millennia, and the legal cultivation of small quantities is still permitted in Colombia for medicinal and ceremonial purposes.
But under Uribe, the plant's namesake habitat has been under constant assault by U.S.-supplied crop duster planes that chemically eradicated a record 445,000 acres of the plant last year _ 31 percent more than in 2005, also a record year.
In a parody of this aggressive pursuit, Wilson Diaz exhibited "Uribe: The Eradicator," his drawing of the hunched-over president uprooting a coca plant with his hands, as part of a photo exhibit documenting the many places where the coca shrub can still be found in Diaz's native city of Cali, from ornamental hedges in upscale gardens to wild growths just outside an army barrack.
The aim, Diaz says, is to "deconstruct our understanding of the thin line between what's legal and illegal."
Diaz, 43, personally opposes the legalization of drugs _ a result of his upbringing in the southern city of 2 million, which suffered more than most the cartel-driven violence of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But for its shock value, he says coca is unrivaled for its deviant symbolism.
Since 1996, Diaz has tried everything from handing out free coca seeds to unsuspecting horticulturists in Liverpool, England, to a videotaped performance in which he replicated the journey of a drug "mule" by swallowing 30 coca seeds, boarding a plane and voiding the seeds on foreign soil.
In 2004, New York-based e-flux, an online art forum, published Diaz' answer to "The Anarchist's Cookbook," the once underground bomb-making manual that was required reading for the anti-war movement in the 1970s. Called "How to obtain one kilogram of high quality cocaine in twenty steps," it is a precise and ultimately impractical instruction manual for making the narcotic at home from 1,500 pounds of coca leaves.
"To date, I don't know anyone who's tried it," said Diaz.
Unlike Diaz and Bonilla, Miguel Angel Rojas' coca artwork is based less on art theory and more on personal experience _ or survival. The 61-year old artist, whose mixed medium work is well-known abroad, narrowly escaped from a drug addiction that claimed the lives of many of his friends in the reckless, sex-crazed Colombian art world of the 1980s.
In 1999, he used hole-punched pieces of coca to re-create the title of Richard Hamilton's iconic 1956 pop-art work "What makes today's homes so different, so attractive?"
The shared responsibility between producer and consumer for Colombia's drug-fueled violence is the subject of his latest work, a diptych featuring the words New York and Medellin _ the former comprised entirely of confetti dots of dollar bills and the latter of coca leaves.
"It's like throwing salt on an open wound. I want to force the coke consumer to fess up to their share of the blame," said Rojas.
The odyssey Rojas underwent trying to exhibit his work in May at Houston's Sicardi Gallery, where it sold for $4,000, is a parable of the drug-stained stigma any Colombian must face when traveling abroad. Held for days by U.S. customs officials, four of his canvases were returned, hours before his show's opening, full of tiny holes from probing.
Ironically, although officials routinely search artwork for false bottoms and coca-impregnated canvases, they failed to notice the illegal substance when it was in plain view.
"This is the reason why I work with coca _ there's nothing romantic about it," said Rojas. "I want to show the world the violence we Colombians must face daily as a result of their drug habit."


Updated : 2020-11-30 13:26 GMT+08:00