Though it wasn’t so long ago that Gabriel García Márquez described Colombia’s plague of right-wing death squads, left-wing guerrillas, and narco-trafficking thugs as a “biblical holocaust,” even a cursory walk around Bogotá these days shows the Nobel laureate’s words to be more Old Testament scripture than contemporary gospel. After the government’s crackdown on terrorism and in the midst of a now booming business environment, visiting the city has gone from intriguing oddity to viable reality. Still, I wasn’t expecting to stroll into the lobby of my hotel one morning and spot the legendary Manhattan literary agent Lynn Nesbit.
As it turned out, Nesbit’s presence was less serendipitous than I’d first imagined—her daughter Claire Gilman is a New York curator, and Nesbit was joining her for some studio visits before heading north for a beach holiday. The draw for both Nesbit and me, though, was the same: Bogotá’s dynamic art scene, fueled by an intergenerational community of locals and émigrés from New York, London, and Berlin that is not only reinventing Colombian art but also transforming the city into a destination on the international art circuit.
Beatriz López, 35, a vivacious dealer who, together with Katy Hernández, opened a new three-story white-cube space called La Central in October, told me that “when the diaspora of Bogotá artists returned from studying and living abroad, they brought new life to the city.” She’d experienced both the flight and the return firsthand. A former literature student who at 20 found herself a successful but unhappy soap opera scriptwriter, López embarked for London to study art and came back to Colombia five years later to embrace the life of a curator-slash-gallerist.
Before the city’s turnaround, “collecting was a social problem,” said Carlos Hurtado, 31, the director of Galería Nueveochenta, which he established five years ago with César Gaviria, who had served as president of Colombia in the early nineties. Many viewed the business of art, in particular, as either a front for money laundering or an excuse to churn out Botero-style knock-offs.
The biggest cheerleader for this newfound art scene is Catalina Casas, Bogotá’s highest-profile dealer, who runs the six-year-old Casas Riegner gallery. Over the past several years, Casas, 39, has commanded a successful campaign to lure a who’s who of international curators—including Klaus Biesenbach, of New York’s MoMA PS1, and Jens Hoffmann, of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco—to the city. “I knew that they had to see all this fantastic work themselves,” Casas told me when I visited her gallery. Downstairs, one of her artists, Leyla Cárdenas, was scrambling to finish an installation of her photographs. “So I pestered them until they did.”
Biesenbach and Hoffmann were merely following the example of another curator, Hans-Ulrich Obrist—and as a result of his attention, they discovered the work of a number of Colombian artists, from the interactive drawing projects of Nicolás Paris, 34, to the cheeky architectural innovations of Gabriel Sierra. “It’s such a strong, young scene, with such a particular language,” explained Hoffmann, who first visited the country a decade ago. “And it’s as if it suddenly came into being. There are a lot of continuities with an earlier generation that wasn’t very well known outside of the country—interests in form, in social issues—but it’s very subtle, which is fascinating.”
When I met Sierra, 36, a rising star with a boyish mien, he gave me a crash course in modernist Colombian architecture, a touchstone for many of these artists. The bookshelves of his apartment in downtown Bogotá were lined with vintage copies of Domus and hand-me-down Spanish-language architecture magazines, and he pointed out that even the building we were in was modeled on the art deco of 1930s San Francisco. Then, of course, came the coup de grâce: “When I tell people my rent is around $400 a month,” Sierra said, “they don’t believe me.”
His current work takes the form of direct, on-site sculptural intervention. “I was just invited to participate in a project for the High Line,” he tells me—one of two New York showings this winter (the other is at the New Museum’s current triennial)—“and it makes me nervous.” The High Line curator may be anxious as well: Sierra’s contribution to last summer’s Lyon Biennial consisted of excising a large section of the gallery’s floor and suspending it perpendicularly.
To visit Bogotá is to experience a city where architecture completely transformed both landscape and social space during a construction boom in the fifties and sixties. In the historical district of La Candelaria, brutalist poured-concrete buildings sprawl out among colonial-era stucco homes and rococo churches. As Sierra walks with me to check out a new gallery space, N-ce arte, and its soaring interior filled with concrete pilasters, we stroll past the masterwork of Colombia’s best-known architect, the Le Corbusier–apprenticed Rogelio Salmona, whose Torres del Parque apartment buildings are a compass point rivaled only by the bleached-white steeple perched atop the peak of Monserrate, on the city’s eastern flank.
Artists are channeling this legacy of modernism in a wide range of mediums. Andrés Matías Pinilla’s recent installation of free-floating monochrome panels is like a walk-in formalist painting exploded into dozens of vibrant shards. In his studio in the hills above the boho Macarena district, meanwhile, Nicolás Consuegra, 35, who returned to Bogotá after getting an MFA from New York’s Pratt Institute in 2007, showed me his latest work: a reduced-scale diorama of a Bogotá interior, reconstructed from a 1962 Paul Beer photograph. This might seem like an empty exercise in nostalgia if not for Consuegra’s other projects, which include capturing the ghostlike traces left on buildings after their vintage signage has been removed.
This fascination with the particular, often hidden resonance of Bogotá—and Colombia, more generally—figures in others’ work of varying disciplines: The haunting photographs by Juan Fernando Herrán, 48, of abandoned architecture in the destitute outskirts of Medellín were shown in the last Venice Biennale; 34-year-old Mateo López’s sprezzatura drawings, meanwhile, are elaborate maps, including one of his cross-country trip by scooter, which he self-consciously titled Motorcycle Diaries. (“It was like Che’s, but without the attitude,” López said.) Because of its mountainous geography, Colombia has never been easy to traverse; plenty of Bogotanos have never seen much of the countryside.
The next night, I made my way to La Central’s grand opening featuring Mexican artist Yoshua Okón’s videos and photographs and local Mateo Rivano’s fantastic Henry Darger–esque landscapes and psychedelically hued wall tapestries. The gallery was packed with many young artists, and we all trooped north around 11 p.m. for an impromptu party at a riotous spot called El Coq, a crowded scenester bar built around a living tree. The DJ played a loud retro mix of disco, and save for the aguardiente that we liberally drank, the whole experience felt less South America than South Williamsburg. We toasted the success of the new gallery. “Now, Bogotá has everything,” one of the artists shouted back over the cries of salud! “Even hipsters.”