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Born in 1963, in a coca-growing region of rural Colombia, Wilson Díaz grew up in close proximity to the armed conflict that has dominated the country’s political stage—and visual culture—for over half a century. Based in Cali since the mid-1990s, he has utilized painting, performance, installation, and video to explore the tangled web of Colombian history and its constantly shifting protagonists and ideological positions. Indeed, his vast, eclectic body of work approximates the practice of visual art making to that of cultural history writing with its refusal of epic, linear narratives promising resolution and progress. (Even as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, prepare to demobilize following the ratification of a peace accord late last year, a recent surge of assassinations of grassroots leaders and activists shows just how tenuous this agreement still is.)

In a series of documentary-style videos made with a cheap, hand-held video camera while visiting a demilitarized region of southern Colombia during the (failed) 1999–2002 peace talks, Díaz recorded the daily, leisure time activities of guerilla soldiers, representing them in an empathetic manner that contrasts with more conventional media caricatures of a one-dimensional, absolute enemy. Baño en el cañito, 2000, voyeuristically shows two adolescent boys quietly bathing in a stream, then carefully grooming and dressing themselves in their camouflage while Los rebeldes del sur, 2002, documents a concert by Julian Conrado y los compañeros: a FARC band whose lead singer was a rising vallenato star before joining the revolution. Although typically associated with love and heartbreak, vallenato has long been a musical genre that articulates the daily struggles of rural people, thus functioning as a subtle form of popular protest. It is also intricately connected to the culture of drug trafficking but perhaps, most importantly, has become an important symbol of nationalistic pride and self-definition.

A subsequent body of work titled La flor caduca de la hermosura de su gloria, 2011, further elaborates upon the role of popular music in configuring a political subject and discourse. The work departs from Díaz’s massive LP collection, including singles recorded by well-known musicians for presidential campaigns between 1970 and 1998 and albums whose cover art represent a gangster/guerilla aesthetic product of both the U.S. film industry and the Cuban Revolution. Presented as an installation with a soundtrack that includes rancheros, boleros, and vallenatos, the album covers are interspersed with large-scale copies rendered in acrylic paint as well as drawings made with charcoal derived from coca plant—a culturally loaded material used by Díaz as both medium and subject matter in much of his work. Likewise Quimeras, 2015, utilizes album cover art spanning several decades to narrate a cultural history of how government institutions, private corporations, the guerilla, and even the cartels wielded their economic interests and ideological positions through popular cultural forms.

In addition to his individual practice, Díaz is a founding member of Helena Producciones, an interdisciplinary collective best known for organizing the International Performance Festival in Cali, Colombia, which, since 1997, has provided an important forum for both emerging and established artists from Colombia and abroad.

Text: Michele Faguet

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