Colombian Artist Seeks Justice for the Natural World

In Carolina Caycedo’s images, rivers and streams seem to rear up on hind legs. Waterfalls flow backward and sideways, or fan out into kaleidoscopic formations. Her “water portraits,” as she calls them, come with an aesthetic agenda: to reject the convention of the horizontal landscape format as a way to represent nature, a format that she believes has placed humans in a superior position outside of our natural ecosystems.

By giving water sources a multidimensional presence in her videos and images printed onto fabric, the Colombian artist hopes to reorient our relationship to the natural world and the earth’s water supply.

“It’s not just a mineral, or a ‘renewable resource,’ as some people still call water; it’s actually a political agent, a living entity with a soul, with a cobra grande,” she says, invoking the communities that live along the Xingu River in the Amazon, who believe the river’s path has followed the serpentine traces left by a great snake.

Her hanging sculptures — which she calls cosmotarrayas, or cosmonets in Englishalso propose a softer approach to the planet’s natural resources. Made from fishing nets that she sources from riverside communities, primarily in Latin America, then takes to her studio to sculpt and embroider, they resemble sea creatures, dream catchers, or cosmic rings of light.

The sculptures will receive a dedicated exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in January, her second solo show at an American institution.

Ms. Caycedo sees the cosmonets as universes unto themselves; with names like “Big Woman" and “Osun” (after the Yoruba deity), they are the carriers of stories and embodied knowledge — of weaving and fishing techniques, of personal narratives about their makers.

“The net was fascinating to me from the beginning,” she said. “The technology of it. The big wooden needles,” which are used in fishing communities around the world to make the nets. “When it breaks, it doesn’t compromise the functioning of the whole net, it can get repaired. I started to think: How good would it be if our society started to function more as a fishing net instead of the wall of a dam?”

Hydroelectric dams, which have proliferated across the world over the past couple of decades, often leaving lasting damage to ecosystems and communities in their wake, also feature heavily in her artwork. “Be Dammed” is an ongoing series — composed of images, installations, performances, presentations and books — that examines the social and environmental impact of harnessing rivers to generate power.

“The dam is corporate-made, impenetrable, unmovable,” Ms. Caycedo says. “It cuts the body of the river in two. It cuts the flow of the ecosystem. On the other side you have the fishing net, which is man-made, small-scale, porous, flexible, malleable. It lets the water through but catches the sustenance.”

Ms. Caycedo’s work speaks to calls from around the world for the establishment of legal protections for the rights of nature. But bodies of water have long been active participants in Ms. Caycedo’s life and work. When she was 9, her family moved from Bogotá to a town on the Magdalena River, and her father went from an office job to growing crops like rice and sorghum. She remembers “ludic moments” during daylong pot lunches by the river.

The artist has since committed to issues and ideas around water as the primary subject of her art, and works with grass roots groups like Movimiento Rios Vivos to protest dam-building in Colombia and to advocate for the rights of the rivers and communities they threaten.

At the Chicago Architecture Biennial recently, she presented “The Collapse of a Model,” two massive photomontages made of composite satellite imagery of three major dam sites — two failed mine-tailing dams in Minas Gerais, Brazil. One of them, Brumadinho, collapsed in January, leaving some 250 people dead or missing and destroying the Paraopeba River ecosystem. The other, the Hidroituango dam on the Cauca River in Antioquia, Colombia, has been on red alert for over a year.

If the title of her piece, “The Collapse of a Model,” suggests a hopeful nod toward the end of the capitalist model of resource extraction, she sees it more as a call to action. “We think of architectures as only constructing or imagining new possibilities, but I think it’s important to also think about deconstructing things that are not working. Are we going to wait for these infrastructures to fall on top of us and kill hundreds of people? Can we think about dismantling dams and liberating rivers?”

Jeff de Blois, the curator of Ms. Caycedo’s upcoming show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, sees the artist’s work as offering crucial “models for thought” that can help overturn asymmetrical power relations between multinational dam-builders and riverside communities.

“The average person thinks that dams are kind of benign,” he says. Her work “is an important corrective.”

Latin America may be one of the world’s centers of dam-building, but the region has also been an environmental pioneer. Bolivia and Ecuador have now enshrined the rights of nature in their constitutions. Any citizen there, Ms. Caycedo says, “can denounce an ecocide of a river, of a mountain, of a forest.”

In another sign of progress, Rios Vivos lobbied for an environmental truth commission following Colombia’s peace agreement with the FARC in 2016, contributing this year to Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace, declaring nature a victim of the guerrilla war.

“We believe that nature has also been a victim and a prize, a booty of the war,” Ms. Caycedo says. “Like any other victim of this war, it needs reparations.”

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