Johanna Calle

1965 | Bogotá, Colombia

Colombian visual artist, archivist and researcher.

Johanna Calle studied art at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá (1984-1989), and then, thanks to a scholarship awarded by the British Council in 1992, at the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London. Her first productions were assemblages and paintings made with chemical compounds such as rust and acid. Through the use of these media, she forged core elements of her practice, such as exploration, investigation and process. She uses drawing as a language that allows her to combine these three aspects, an idiom that she in turn uses to express the concepts of observation, freedom and silence, referring to the position of the educated Latin American woman brought up in a traditional patriarchal family. For her, drawing became a kind of Swiss Army Knife that could serve in a variety of media and materials to create shapes and outlines – using sewing, ink, photography, die casting, wire and typewriting, among other things. It also became an object of study in its own right, in which she found a private, secret and subtle language that is also concrete and subversive.

The themes running through her work have to do with conflict. However, even though Colombia has experienced civil war for many decades, her visual works are focused not on combat but on the kinds of violence that emerge from within a society in crisis. Nombre propio [Proper name, 1997-1999] is a series of embroidered portraits of abandoned children, copied, at scale, from photographs published in several Colombian periodicals by the state-run children’s agency, the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (ICBF), under the heading “Children seeking a home”. This work required two years of investigation and then production. Obra negra [Black work, 2008] is a construction term referring to uncompleted buildings, and J. Calle’s work with this title is a series of drawings done with wire on cardboard. These pieces signify the rudimentary housing and poor conditions in which marginalised people are forced to live, with special emphasis on the role played in this social and economic situation by women and girls, who carry the weight of the household’s functioning on their backs. Several of the drawings portray young people with their body replaced by a house, and caged female figures.
Another tool in J. Calle’s arsenal is language. For example, in Baldíos [Vacant land, 2007-2008] she employs texts to create a drawing, turning handwritten transcriptions of scientific research papers on the effects of herbicides on plants and soil into an image of knitted foliage. Lluvias [Rains, 2012-2013] is a phonetic representation on columnar paper of the 97 words indigenous tribes use to refer to rain. This piece is a reflection on the imposition of one language on another – in particular, Spanish over native tongues.

Among the most notable of the awards and prizes J. Calle has won are the grant bestowed by the Colombian Ministry of Culture in 2013; the Honourable Mention in the fourth annual Premio Luis Caballero in Bogotá in 2007; the Cultural Ministry’s Premio Salón Regional de Artistas in Bogotá in 2000 and the Mention conferred by the same Salón in 2005. She has been featured in outstanding solo shows such as the 2017 Dibujos at the Maison de l’Amérique Latine in Paris, and the retrospective Silentes 1985-2015 held at the Museo de Arte del Banco de la República in Bogotá in 2015, which travelled to the Museo Amparo in Puebla, Mexico in 2016.

The public collections that have acquired her work include those of the Banco de la República in Bogotá (2005, 2010), the MoMA in New York (2011), the Museo de Arte Moderno in Buenos Aires (2004), and the Fundación ARS TEOR/éTica in San José, Costa Rica (2008).

Karime García Martínez

Translated from the Spanish by Leo Stephen Torgoff.

A notice produced as part of the TEAM international academic network: Teaching, E-learning, Agency and Mentoring

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