Photograph courtesy of LA SEMILLA
The land of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia is stewarded by four Indigenous tribes: Arhuaco, Wiwa, Kankuamo and Kogi. Earlier this month, three Kogis—Mamo Juan Conchacala Dingula, his wife Java Teresa, and their son Marco—left their territory for the first time to travel to Europe. It was a significant moment for them, but also for those they met along the way. Steeped in traditional wisdom about the natural world, they had come here with a warning.
The Kogis began to notice that the land and water around them in the Colombian mountains was changing many decades ago as a result of mining, construction, deforestation, and other harmful practices. They knew that this was disrupting the Earth’s careful balance, and that doing so would lead to catastrophe after catastrophe. Over time, in the West, we have gained knowledge about climate change through scientific study, through data about the Earth’s temperature, the sea’s acidity, the air’s pollution levels, but the Kogis intuit these changes through their active relationship with the world around them. They have long been telling us what a dangerous path we are pursuing—and yet we continually ignore them.
On a sunny afternoon in mid-August, Mamo Juan Conchacala Dingula, Java Teresa, and Marco sat on low chairs in a bright, airy room of the Hayward Gallery on London’s Southbank in front of one of the displays of Dear Earth, an exhibition about the interdependence of ecologies and ecosystems. Though these particular works were not for sale, some artist friends of the Kogis have collected a number of art pieces that are available to buy as part of the Jàka Project, an auction that will raise funds to build a crucial piece of infrastructure for the Kogis: a bridge over the Rio Ancho.
Artists Gene Closuit and Pascal Rousson first met the Kogis during a trip to Colombia after they were introduced to fellow artist and longtime friend of the Kogis, Jaime Correa. They came to learn about the perils the Kogis faced when trying to cross the river, which cuts through their territory. They need this bridge to travel between the 11 villages that make up the Kogi community, and to transport their animals and produce.
Some twenty years ago, the construction of a bridge began, but fighting between the paramilitary and the guerrilla group FARC put an end to the works. Now, Closuit and Rousson, along with many of the Kogis’ friends and fellow artists like Correa and Maria Elvira Dieppa, hope to raise enough money to build the bridge that will allow the Kogis to continue their way of life safely. The auction includes art donated by the likes of Ackroyd & Harvey, Cornelia Parker, and Nicole Frobusch among many others, and is set to take place online between September 21 and October 1.
The Kogi people have long been telling us what a dangerous path we are pursuing—and yet we continually ignore them.
The raging waters of the Rio Ancho are by no means the only threat the Kogi face. Much of their ancestral land has been bought up by private owners and capitalized on. The Kogi have been buying back some of this land, and it’s clear that when they are once more its stewards, it recovers from the destruction wreaked upon it by us: the “little” or “younger brothers” as they refer to us (they are the “elder brothers”). They attune the land and water to the needs of nature as they see it, making spiritual offerings and creating harmony once more.
At the Hayward Gallery, friends and admirers gathered together to hear from the Kogis with Correa predominantly speaking on their behalf. He gave a rundown of some of the core beliefs of the Kogi people, imparting wisdom that transcends our own so significantly it’s almost impossible to reconcile it with our way of thinking and existing. Correa explained how the Kogis conceptualize the world as having been built on a sacred web, meaning that everything is connected through threads de vida—of life.
This interconnectedness exists within ourselves, too. The Kogi concept of aluna refers to the intangible life force of thoughtfulness, a kind of cosmic consciousness that underpins their world view.
Their beliefs are often manifested through physical practices. The men, for instance, carry with them a squash-shaped item with a hole at the top from which they pull a long stick covered in a white powder, which they proceed to rub onto the outside. Correa explained that this object is called a poporo. It’s given to a boy when he reaches thirteen to signify becoming a man. Made from a gourd, the powder inside comes from heated and crushed up shells that make lime. The shells are significant because they connect the sea to esuamas—points of natural authority in the mountain. And Kogi men chew on coca leaves, which they say creates a heightened connection to nature and to their thoughts. As these thoughts come to them, they eternalise them by rubbing the lime powder onto the outside of the gourd with the stick.
In a similar practice, women begin weaving bags at a young age, and they weave constantly—while they walk up and down the mountain; as they sit watching their children; during any moment when they don’t need to otherwise engage their hands. This, too, represents a solidification of thought, an ongoing and never-ending process of connection. Connection to nature, the interconnectedness of thought and the natural world, and the interconnectedness of all living beings with one another and the Earth underpin Kogi traditional wisdom. It’s this wisdom that they have been trying to get us to understand.
Clearly, we are failing. The Kogi offer us profound knowledge and we continue to ignore them. They’ve opened up their land to Western media, they’ve given talks, done interviews, shared their wisdom with those who ask, and now, in 2023, they still feel called to try and encourage us to do better; to be better.
The small Kogi family had not come to London to promote the art auction or even to discuss art, but when they spoke at the gallery it was clear that their understanding of art holds further wisdom. “Artistic expression of the Kogi includes traditional art like weaving, but we can also consider art in the way they build their homes,” said Correa. “Everything is linked to the cosmos.” Like thought, art is not a separate entity: “It’s bound by nature.”
The Kogi believe that everything has meaning, colors in particular. Black represents the power of the unconscious, of “nocturnal thinking,” whilst red is the color of the heart and of blood. It’s also emblematic of a time before our current existence. “The union between red and black is the union between this primitive animal idea and the construction of thought, of communal order, of [the] rituals and responsibilities of each person,” said Correa. To this, Marco added that “white signifies the weaving of the skin.”
“Art is a pathway to connecting with the principal creator. The greatest artist is the sun, the creator of all form.”
In Kogi culture, and in Indigenous culture more widely, Correa described how art is threaded through every aspect of life. From the Kogis’ homes and their weaving to the offerings they make to Mother Earth, there is no distinction between art, people, and nature. “Art is a pathway to connecting with the principal creator. The greatest artist is the sun, the creator of all form. If you want to achieve divinity, you also have to be an artist, a creator,” said Correa. For this reason, art is not something that needs to be exchanged, but Correa and Marco acknowledge that this can come into play as well. When it does, as with the auction, what’s most important is holding onto spiritual connection with the creative forces.
This trip to Europe won’t be the Kogis’ last—the transcendence of their wisdom and the gravity of their warnings remain urgent. Speaking of the many waters they traversed and oversaw with spiritual practice, Marco’s commitment to returning is simple. “It calls us, it sends for us, so we’ll come back.”