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‘Sex work’ in Colombia: the other side of the coin

Creating a mural to reflect the perspective of women forced into prostitution by the armed conflict



Fundación Colibríes co-founder, Camilo Conde Aldana, worked on a collaborative mural project with the aim of representing the experiences and perspectives of a group of women in a state of prostitution due to the armed conflict. With a number of obstacles in their way, the foundation had to think creatively to get the group’s message across. Camilo here recounts the process, from conception to creation.

This is the story of a mural in Bogotá, Colombia, made in collaboration with PETRA Mujeres Valientes women’s collective and the Bogotano street art pioneers, Orfanato Graffiti Studio. Importantly, it is also a story about how we represent ourselves and define our experiences.

The story begins when we, at the Colibríes Foundation –a sustainable development non-profit that supports community projects around Colombia– met María Fernanda Arboleda, the leader of PETRA Mujeres Valientes women’s collective, while making a web series called Path of Resilience in collaboration with women victims of the Colombian armed conflict.

The PETRA Collective is made up of women who, as a result of the violence of the armed conflict, have ended up in a situation of sexual exploitation – most often in prostitution and human trafficking. María Fernanda, like the women in her group, lost everything in the war and had to escape from her hometown. When she arrived in Bogotá, with nothing, she was forced to live on the streets. Once in this desperate situation, and unable to provide support for her family, María Fernanda ended up in a situation of prostitution. 

When I met María Fernanda, I believed that the correct way to refer to her situation of prostitution was ‘sex work’, however, she immediately corrected me:

What kind of a job would that be, where they pay you one dollar to do whatever they want with you; to hit you, to humiliate you, to pass diseases onto you? No sir, that is not work. These people consciously save money from their salaries and spend it on abusing women. That’s not a job, do not be fooled.

I had never heard a definition like this, and so I asked María Fernanda if we could find a way to make this perspective, which was shared by the group of women, better known. 

The other side of the coin

In 2019, the 45th Salón Nacional de Artistas, an event that welcomes visual artists and their work from all over the country, was held in Bogotá. The theme of this edition was el revés de la trama: the other side of the coin. The aim was to share expressions and perceptions of the ‘worlds’ that underlie what we call reality. 

As part of the activities associated with the National Salon, IDARTES (Bogotá’s District Institute of Arts) opened a call for urban artists to create murals associated with the theme. María Fernanda and our team thought this could be the perfect opportunity to give visibility to her definition of ‘the whore’s client’, so we got in touch with the graffiti collective Orfanato, to pass on the proposal. 

Painting Bogotano graffiti traditions into the proposal

Our proposal sought three objectives associated with the tradition of urban art in Bogotá. Firstly, we wanted to create a wall painting that could be easily read. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Bogotanos became fond of reading graffiti put up by the student movements. These pieces were often just slogans written quickly to avoid detection, but using strong phrases that became topics of discussion among families in the capital. Faithful to this form of graffiti, we wanted the group’s message to be present in the mural, so the proposal read: ‘The whore’s client: a man who spends money on abusing a woman’. 

The whore’s client: a man who pays money to abuse a woman.

Secondly, we wanted our mural to function as a tag. When a second wave of the Bogotano urban art movement surged in the periphery neighbourhoods, graffiti gangs competed with each other to mark different territories. In line with this tradition, we wanted the mural to be painted in the Santafé neighbourhood, which is a tolerance zone: that being a place where prostitution is permitted. By painting our mural here, we wanted it to function as a territorial marker for the women’s collective, amplifying their message within the territory they inhabit. 

Finally, we wanted to enter dialogue with the most contemporary proposals of urban art, closer to illustration, and at the same time with muralism, the main vanguard of Latin American art of the mid-twentieth century. You can see the mural is designed in a contemporary style, incorporating modern illustration and traditional elements of muralism.

Representing the client

We wanted our representation of the ‘whore’s client’ to be prominent and precise, so to create the mural, we planned three workshops with a group of women from PETRA Mujeres Valientes. Here, the idea was further investigated and the proposal was tweaked to meet their vision.

Based on the definition María Fernanda had given us, we prepared a sketch of how the client could be represented. The idea was to take the sketch to the first workshop as a starting point, and for the group of women to tell us what we should add, change or omit.

However, the group’s strong reaction on seeing the drawing evolved into a process of catharsis. Instead of using the pencils to mark their corrections, the 50 women in attendance projected their anger onto the drawing, with some women wielding the pens as weapons against the depiction of the client, and many of them venting their anger at the atrocities each woman had had to suffer during their life on the streets. Each of the women then drew her experiences, and we recorded their voices recounting the repeated abuses they had suffered at the hands of their clients.

When seeing the proposed illustration of the whore’s client, the women in the group unleashed anger, scribbling on the drawing and recounting their experiences of abuse.

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Swapping a Nobel Prize winner for a whoremonger 

One of the walls allocated for the IDARTES project was on the north side of the National Police Rotary Fund building. Already painted on this wall was a large-format mural called MACONDO, a kind of Cubist representation of our Nobel Prize winner in Literature and national treasure, Gabriel García Márquez. 

When we presented our proposal for the new mural to the police, we received a resounding and firm ‘no’. They argued that they weren’t going to swap the Nobel Prize winner in Literature for an image of a whoremonger. 

Seeking to obtain approval for the wall, we consulted the group about the possibility of changing the wording to match a quote from García Márquez’ novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores. We hoped that this new representation of the client would still reflect the group’s definition and that it would also contrast with the romantic character of the Macondian narrative, establishing a dialogue with other forms of representation of the same theme. However, the police yet again refused to approve it.

After weeks of searching for alternative spaces and meeting with owners in the sector, we obtained approval to paint a wall located on the same corner as the Macondo mural. Don Álvaro, the building’s administrator, was committed to raising the visibility of the group’s message and gave us all 11 floors of the western façade of their building. However, we had to go with the Gabo quote.

Superimposing the message

In order to not completely disappoint the group, we floated the possibility of creating an augmented reality application, which, when you point your phone’s camera at the Macondo wall, would superimpose the image and the group’s message, and when pointing it at the approved wall, would censor the definition by García Márquez and invite you to point your camera towards the Macondo wall to instead read the group’s definition. 

We went for it and created the app, where you can also hear the group’s testimonies, and watch a video about the artistic process. To support the initiative, a sticker displaying the original artwork created with the group in the workshops, alongside a link to download the application, was distributed around Bogotá. 

After the mural was completed, we staged another workshop with the women’s group, in order to relay all the challenges and changes to the artwork. We told them everything that happened, installed the application on their mobile phones and went to the building to take a look.

One woman in the group who is over 70 years old couldn’t stop smiling when she saw the mural. All of the women smiled. They directed their phones to the Macondo wall and celebrated seeing how their image was superimposed. 

The work isn’t over

With their vision represented on a huge wall in the capital, PETRA Mujeres Valientes gained notoriety. Currently, María Fernanda and the group are preparing a report for the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, pressuring the court to open a case into sexual violence against them, as a consequence of the armed conflict.

If you’d like to support the group with their case, you can donate to their crowdfunder here:

To support the foundation in keeping the application live, please write to Fundación Colibríes to express your interest in donating to the project.

‘El sexo es el consuelo que uno tiene cuando no le alcanza el amor’, quote from Gabriel García Márquez’ ‘Memoria de mis putas tristes’ borrowed for the official artwork.

To learn about LAB’s ongoing Women Resisting Violence project in collaboration with King’s College University, head to