27 October 2015 When I met Bill Rolston, Sociologist and Emeritus Professor at the University of Ulster, over a dinner in Bogotá, I knew I couldn’t let him leave Colombia without a visit to the Nacional University. A fan of political murals and an international expert in them, Bill has sought them out all over the world , travelling from his home in Northern Ireland to Palestine, the Basque Country, Chile and Iran. He was coming to the end of a month’s visit to Colombia documenting murals in Buenaventura, Toribío, the Comuna 13 in Medellín, Montes de María and Barancabermeja, among other places that have been figured prominently in Colombia’s five-decade armed conflict. He had many preliminary thoughts on what he’d seen, saying that each place had a different style of political street art, which connected to their experience of the conflict.
Bill came with me to the Bogotá campus of the Nacional University of Colombia, known as ‘La Nacho’, where I teach a class in political anthropology. It’s a closed campus in the middle of the capital city, and many of the buildings are painted white – it’s sometimes called la ciudad blanca. The white is a convenient canvas for paintings: exquisite murals, crass tagging, political slogans, radical calls to arms, humorous sketches and identity politics, all combine.
Many of my students had mentioned the ‘walls debate’ in class, as an example in some of the theoretical discussions we were having. One of them, Uriel, showed us around the campus. He turned up with a friend, Álvaro, an engineering undergraduate, who he said was part of a movement called Reparcheo (parche is Bogotá slang which roughly translates as ‘crew’), that was against political graffiti. They wanted to tell Bill about both sides of the debate.
Álvaro said that Reparcheo began when the Engineering faculty building had been renovated. The Nacional is an under-resourced public university, and many buildings are falling down due to lack of funding. In Colombia, public universities contrast starkly with private universities, with students coming from much poorer backgrounds, and the Nacional’s crumbling walls seem a thousand miles from the river boats, outdoor cafés and concert stages of La Sabana, or the state-of-the-art technology in the lecture halls of Los Andes. And yet the Nacional has retained its recognition as a centre of academic excellence.
When the Engineering building was finished, with gleaming new walls, a group of graffiti artists came and painted all over it. The Engineering students became indignant, said Álvaro, and decided to start a movement for white walls. “There are different positions within the group,” he said. “Some people are against any kind of painting on the walls. They think that it’s an invasion of public space. Other people, like me, are just against the tagging [writing phrases or slogans in spray-paint]. It’s ugly. I don’t mind the murals, because they are art, but the student community of the faculty should agree where they are going to be painted.”
Uriel wanted to put the other side of the debate. “For some people,” he said, “the graffiti are about freedom of expression. They say that if you don’t allow them to express their political statements, including the tagging, then you are censoring them. They say that the university should permit freedom of political expression.”
We stopped in front of a colourful mural depicting campesino farmers on one side and city dwellers on the other, with the message, “sow, fight, create, dream, don’t just grow, flourish!”. Around the corner a more sombre piece, apparently by the same artists, displayed a big fist and a face contorted with suffering, over the words “No forgiveness, nor forgetting” and “for our dead, not a minute of silence!”
Bill told us that all over Colombia, despite the differences from place to place, memory was a universal theme; and this was something he had seen in other conflict and post-conflict countries he’d visited. The students nodded, and took us over to a huge black wall portraying a shadowy female face with a hand covering her mouth, next to which was written in white letters, “Let’s make memory”. “I don’t mind these,” said Álvaro. “I think they’re beautiful”.
We went on to the Sociology department. Bill’s eyes widened as we entered the building. “I’ve worked in a Sociology department for thirty-five years,” he told us, “And I’ve never imagined anything like this. Including the marihuana smell outside.” Uriel and Álvaro laughed. They are used to their university. Perhaps they sometimes forget how unusual it is, or perhaps they don’t realise.
On the walls of the ground floor were several iconic figures in the history of the Left in Colombia. Bernardo Jaramillo, presidential candidate for the Union Patriótica (Patriotic Union), an opposition political party which was wiped out in the late 1980s and 1990s. The Sociology building is named after Orlando Fals Borda, a sociologist who developed the method of Participatory Action Research and has been recognised worldwide for advocating research which values the grassroots knowledges of campesino communities. He also was one of the authors of the first historical account, published in 1962, of the civil war known as La Violencia which took place 1948-58.
In another classroom the walls were covered in black spray-paint lettering. “FARC-EP Bloque Sur”, said one. (Southern Bloc of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército Popular, Revolutionary Armed Forced of Colombia-People’s Army). “Movimiento Bolivariano 14 años, junto al pueblo”, said another (Bolivarian Movement 14 years together with the people). The Movimiento Bolivariano is one of several political expressions of the FARC. “I don’t think this should be allowed,” explained Álvaro. “It’s violent, and it’s inside the classroom which is distracting for people who are trying to learn.”
Bill was surprised to see political slogans of armed groups in the university, and asked more about them. “There are many student movements in the Nacho [the Nacional],” explained Uriel. “Some of them are non-violent and autonomous, but some of them are connected to the guerrilla groups. Sometimes there are violent riots by hooded protestors. They throw home-made ‘potato bombs’ at the riot police. The police aren’t allowed to enter the campus because there was a lot of repression under the Uribe administration in the early 2000s, there were violent incursions and many students were killed. So now they aren’t allowed in. They stand at the edge of the campus and throw tear gas grenades. Many of the students don’t agree with the riots. It creates a stigma about the Nacho which affects us all.”
Rioting in the Nacional, as well as in other public universities in Bogotá happens for many reasons. Sometimes it’s in sympathy with civil workers’ strikes. Other times it’s to mark an anniversary, such as the creation of the FARC. Sometimes the reason is not very clear at all. But when there is a riot the university campus is evacuated, the neighbouring roads are closed to traffic, and classes are suspended. The political slogans in the sociology classrooms are not just about freedom of expression – in some cases, they are incitement to violence.
We went up a floor, stopping frequently while Bill snapped photographs of quotes from Marx and Gramsci on the staircase. On the second floor we found a series of detailed, colourful spray paintings depicting indigenous identity. One of them commemorated the genocide of rubber workers in the Amazon in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
“I’m from Leticia, in the Amazonas department” said Uriel. “I came to Bogotá to study in the Nacho in a programme providing support to students from distant regions to come to study in the capital. I have indigenous blood. My grandfather went to the Amazon from the coast in order to work in the rubber plantations. Several of my older family members remember what happened during the rubber genocide. They would put anyone who refused to work in the plantations in the malokas, traditional indigenous houses, and burn them down.”
It was clear that Uriel and Álvaro were as excited to meet Bill as Bill was with his personalised tour of the campus. The students were making a documentary about the graffiti in their university, and they filmed Bill on their phones talking about their ‘walls debate’: white walls, lettered walls, or muralled walls. Bill told them that one of the most interesting discoveries from his Colombia trip was the reaction when he said he was researching ‘political’ murals: in response people would ask ‘what is political?’
It’s clear that this question connects deeply with the ‘walls debate’ in this university. The Colombian armed conflict does not just belong to the last fifty years, but is rooted in historical dynamics which go back to the colonial period. Some people say that the Nacho is a microcosm of Colombia. Many of my students have heart-rending stories about growing up in war-torn rural areas, or in poor neighbourhoods in Bogotá affected by violence and discrimination. The peace process in Havana is about ending the war between the FARC and the state. But the process of peace-building calls for a much broader gaze, and for Colombian society as a whole to ask, ‘what is peace?’
Gwen Burnyeat is a British anthropologist and writer doing postgraduate research and teaching in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar. She has worked in Colombia on and off for six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International in the Urabá region. As well as academic articles she also writes short fiction, and is currently producing a documentary called ‘Chocolate of Peace’.