by Rafaela Alford
Cover Image: Desplazamiento by John Quiroga
John Quiroga, also known as “YonQui”, is a Colombian-born artist who creates paintings, illustrations and murals to convey the experiences of displaced peoples, aiming to capture not only their social struggles but also their social triumphs. Through his work as an independent artist, and as part of the street art collective, Monstruación, Quiroga has worked with various NGOs and social institutions to call attention to the personal and private suffering that large-scale conflict can have on a community on both a national and local level.
The focus of Quiroga’s artwork has its roots in a conflict that is inextricably intertwined with the history and current reality of Colombia. Over the best part of the last century the civilian population has suffered the effects of warfare between different opposing factions, namely the Colombian government, the army, guerrilla groups, and various paramilitary groups. This violence, combined with years of political, governmental and economic corruption and negligence has contributed to the mass displacement of the Colombian population, with 8.1 million internally displaced peoples (IDPs) since 1985. The worst affected are the marginalised; the farmers, the indigenous tribes and the Afro-Colombian population. In 2017, the latter two groups accounted for 10% and 3% respectively of the total amount of IDPs in Colombia. In addition to this long standing issue of internal displacement, over recent years Colombia has also been a destination for Venezuelan refugees, whose country’s continuing human rights and humanitarian crisis has provoked the largest migration crisis in recent Latin American history.
One of the effects of this mass displacement is the creation of makeshift communities on the peripheries of major Colombian cities. These ‘slums’, having previously been rejected and ignored by the local governments, have only recently been officially recognised and awarded legal status in an effort to offer some form of social cohesion. Born out of desperation and necessity, these communities are Quiroga’s muse in his drawings and illustrations, in which he explores their intricate architecture through combinations of natural and urban imagery. While slums are often portrayed as places defined by violence, drugs and poverty, Quiroga views them as structures in which these displaced communities form their own unique aesthetic, as ‘strange and beautiful at the same time’.
In 2008, working together with two other Colombian artists, Quiroga set up Monstruación, a street art collective that aims to utilise urban spaces to create meaningful art. With their roots in Bogotá, they aim to expand the initiative to a national and even international level, appearing at various art festivals in the US and Europe. In order to create these murals, the collective first established a dialogue with the locals to discover how the community itself wants to be presented in art. This often involves a repurposing of a previously unused or mal-used urban space, as Quiroga puts it, “our goal is to create a new context in an old construction; an artistic rejuvenation”. One of their first projects involved a community composed of the very first waves of displaced peoples who had arrived in Bogotá in the 1960s. Collaborating with the local residents they painted an open-jawed snake on a set of stairs that had been used as the local hang-out for drug dealers. Another mural brought together men and women who had fought against each other, ex-members of FARC and paramilitary groups. Together with their civilian neighbours they cleared the location of refuse and helped create a new piece of art .
The signing of a peace treaty in 2016 left Colombians hopeful for the future however, despite a brief lull the higher levels of violence have now returned . Quiroga also maintains reservations about the new government and its apparent right-leaning ideology. Despite the popular demand for justice, it is Quiroga’s opinion that the current government ‘is certainly not interested in knowing some of the truths about this war, especially the ones that would threaten its own position’. The more recent stirrings of violence in the country mark, for Quiroga, ‘a new era of extreme violence’ for Colombia.
From Colombia, Quiroga took up artist residencies in France and then Edinburgh, where he is currently studying classical art to develop his mural technique. Living and working in Edinburgh, Quiroga says, has made him aware of the disturbing parallels to the Colombian migrant crisis that exist on this side of the Atlantic.
See more from John here: