CASA DE LA CONVENCIÓN, RIONEGRO, ANTIOQUIA, COLOMBIA: AN ENTRY FOR THE VISITOR'S BOOK
Updated: Jan 24, 2019
Part 1 of a series on the sacred city of Rionegro.
“If a museum is first of all a place of things, its two extremes are a graveyard and a department store, things entombed or up for sale, and its life naturally ghost life, meant for those who are more comfortable with ghosts, frightened by waking life but not by the past”.
(Robert Harbison, Eccentric Spaces (MIT Press, 2000)
It is customary, isn’t it, having visited a museum, to write a few carefully chosen words in the visitors’ book? To say ‘nicely curated – keep up the good work!’ or ‘will be sure to come again soon’. Sometimes people write about the gift shop, or ‘how they had a lovely cup of tea and an excellently baked slice of cake in the garden patio’. My own entry for the visitor’s book of the Casa de la Convención, Rionegro would neither fit inside the small and leather bound book, nor would it likely be deemed socially acceptable. Either way, I now write it here instead.
El Oriente Antioqueño, September 2018.
Dear Casa de la Convención,
I write this letter to you as though you were a person. Why shouldn’t a building be an entity, after all? Anyway, I wanted to thank you for causing me to ask this question:
‘what, or who, is a museum?’
In fact, the first, and arguably your most important exhibit at the Casa de la Convención is not an object, but the ghost who acted as my guide. He executed his duty as museum guardian in the same manner as would the wisest oral storyteller of ancient Egypt, and he seems to have a soul age of something like two-hundred-and-nineteen. Not unlike a medieval bard, his narrative is a mixture of tiple and the poetry of Julio Vives Guerra (José Velásquez García), and when he remembers instances of the destruction of Rionegro’s cultural heritage, he makes a double fist at his heart and shakes his head to sky the same way a man would remember the unjust death of his most beloved betrothed. He never tires of disseminating his knowledge about the history and social anthropology of his people, and although he must have recited similar words to swathes of visitors both national and international, his giant residing eyes gallop at the mention of José María Córdova, or manifest themselves like fireflies when his light illuminates a painting or a bayonet. As he speaks, his hands conduct a contemporary retelling of something quilled by José Cascante, but he is unaware of himself, and has not the slightest idea that his hands are perpetually drawing out the Antioquian landscape.
This ghost symbolizes - no is - one of the ways by which Colombian culture endures. As buildings are mutilated and massacred to build ugly shopping malls and blocks of apartments, it is persons such as he who are the real transmitters and the continuation of a culture under threat. The threat comes from inside. The threat comes from outside. You know this, Casa de la Convención, but I have lived in this country long enough to be careful about to whom I talk about politics. ‘If you’re not prepared to die for Colombia, don’t mention her injustices’, this is what I have come to believe. And because I have yet to decide whether I can surrender my life for this soil, I had better not get too arrogant about these things. What have I done to protect Antioquia, after all? Saved a few native trees? My sacrifices are nothing compared to the likes of José María Córdova.
But resistance comes in many forms. This is why my ghostly guide continues to use vocabulary dating back hundreds of years, words never uttered in the plaza of Rionegro anymore but out of his own lips and with a simmering rage about their disappearance. As he shapes words such as querendón and caserón inside his mouth, he takes delight in language of his mountain-dwelling ancestors, and to listen to his voice is to absorb the kind of Spanish that belongs here and to be changed by those sounds permanently. He is the embodiment of cultural resistance and what it is to have inherited the same shape of soul as the persons who have fought to keep Antioquia Antioquian. At times he is the Gata Golosa, but this can quickly switch to a melancholy and nostalgic torbellino. In fact, I had misunderstood the torbellino before I met him. I had thought it was a simple country dance for simple countryside people, but no, the torbellino is an uninterrupted longing for Colombian lands such as Antioquia before they were spoilt by a misunderstanding of what progress was, and when spontaneity and bravery was valued above cautiousness and missed opportunity.
As a house, you also represent what has happened in Colombia. You have been partitioned in two, and you go on surviving with what little you can. Outside your walls there is the ever throbbing sound of drills and their violence sends dust all over you, making cracks in the your walls like the forever scars of an impossible love. Still, you go on, Casa de la Convención, and now you are part house, part museum.
When I came to see you in August, you were being reorganized. I had visited you before, but it was different then, and everything had seemed to have been in its place. This time the atmosphere was entirely different and I had the feeling everything could explode at any moment. Maybe it still will. Many of your exhibits were leaning against the walls on the floor, and somehow, these treasures were all the more beautiful for their being there, and not hung like stations of the cross for forced and organised contemplation. Wabi sabi curation. Auspiciously peculiar.
I love your tiles. I love the colour of them. The texture is crumbly but they don’t look like they are going anywhere anytime soon. They held me up, and I appreciated them for it. Like all Spanish houses, the temperature inside of you is a kind of trick; it can seem cool, cold even, but it’s all a fantasy taught by the Moors of North Africa. Outside of you it was hot, and without my hat, I would have become glutinous, or even a spontaneous fire. Inside of you, I regained the strength to breathe, albeit with the dust of the workmen to fill my nostrils. But even this dust I did not mind. Why? Because the dust is old Rionegro! It is what is left of this glorious place and if those bastards are going to destroy everything then I would like to develop an illness by inhaling its relics!
In the room with the loveseat, I imagined some local woman desperately tossing her hair around to attract some poor soldier out of the window. There would not have been a lot for women to do then apart from sew the name of her beloved onto a cushion or a handkerchief, but the sight of her chosen one from a distance walking down the road would have perhaps been sufficient to sustain her until they wed. How many months would she have waited, or years?
In Antioquia, we know what it is to be cut off from the rest of the world. I like it that way, and I don’t want that to change. I want us to be us and everyone else to be everyone else. Things got into our valleys by mule and via bongo and champán, and I don’t like the lorries that now pollute our mountains. Why did progress happen like this? We human beings are so revolting, that we decided to transport things by burning oil to achieve it. As couples sway together on motorcycles on the bends of mountain roads, I see these trucks blow black filth into their faces and into their love. It makes me angry, but all I can do is remember how it was, and cherish that instead.
You give shelter to many beautiful and important objects, but they are not really objects to me. An object is a thing that you objectify. How can I do this to a portrait of Córdova, for example? How can I see these paintings as ‘things’ and not ‘him’? When your guide and I spoke of him, together in one of your rooms, Córdova shook, and even the stabbing above his head into the canvas felt recent. Córdova, however strange this might sound, is the man that brought me to settle here. My first journey to Antioquia brought whispers of him and his unjust death and the search for that story goes on inside of me. For peasants, he may be an airport, or a carpark, but in a way, what’s wrong with this? He is everywhere in this place and we do not forget him. Those that need to know, they know.
Yes, Casa de la Convención, you are alive with ghosts. The donated bust of Miranda and the painting of Bolívar reminds us that there are no political messiahs. And I love the frame with the little leaves. It has the colours of glossy mud. I love your crumbling walls and whilst I don’t want them to fall apart I don’t want to miss out of the joy of touching the cracks either.
Being not a Catholic, I don’t know what these are. Can you tell me? Because they stay in my mind, and there they will remain. When I see things like this, I wish I was a Catholic. Catholicism has a majesty and a symbolism that no other religion has. If I could truly convert to a religion, it would be to Catholicism, but I have converted to a religion before and it was a mistake that I do not trust myself to repeat. Nevertheless, this object reminds me that I believe in meaning to all of this – that I believe in destiny, and that I trust in it.
And that pretty reticule, who did that belong to? I now believe it was more recent in age than I had first thought. What treasures did she keep in it? What keepsakes? I do not understand why so many women resist being women. In Antioquia, I think it is easier to become more aware of your womanhood, perhaps because of the historical dangerousness of just surviving here. And also, because in Antioquia I am more aware of the brave struggles of men. Men who fought battles for us women. Men who never came home to us, but whom we never forgot, and never ceased to love.
In your library now sit your progeny. They try to decipher your secrets and some will never be decoded. These men I ask you to protect, for they are endangered in their work given the economic interests of the many in this part of the world. Colombia is the most exquisitely beautiful and essentially peaceful place on earth, and yet, because of the cycles of karmic greed, she continues to experience these violent attacks which are oddly foreign to her true nature. This is represented by your conquistador’s sofa, but I forgive the Spanish because if I had seen Colombia I too would have wanted to devour all of her! What can I accuse the Spanish of? Me – a foreigner! Only time will tell if I deserved my place here. Colonialism, narco-trafficking, plastic surgery in an attempt to get the other person to look at you in a different way to what their gaze demands of them; it’s all the same thing. Ego! Coca is a sacred plant which can be abused. The body is a sacred vehicle which can be abused. We can all make very odd things out of what is sacred when we lose sight of love for what is true.
A museum is a place, yes, but it can also be a person. The museum is the white tapia, the museum is this man. A museum is a testament to what happened, and why; and similarly so it is that a historian comes to be anointed by his spiritual ancestors with his life's vocation.
VISITOR: Emma-Louise Jay
DATE: August 23rd, 2018.
FROM: Oxford, England? No. Antioquia, Colombia. Always and forever.
This article was dedicated to C. A. Z. M., who kindly captured all images reproduced here.
♥ The Museo Histórico Casa de la Convención, is where the federal Convention of 1863 was signed. It can be located in Calle 51 Rionegro, Antioquia, Colombia.
Getting there: Take the camino real from El Retiro and bring plenty of water for your mule as you embrace the intense sun that greets you as you descend into the Valle de San Nicolás Valley… But seriously… I parked my 2013 Japanese barouche close to the outskirts of Rionegro in a dubious looking carpark with overly friendly attendant. It’s a 5 minute walk from the José María Córdova shopping complex – just follow the hustle and bustle up and into the village and take a left turn past the relics of the house of Liborio Mejía so as to make your entrance via the rear of the plaza principal. There are, of course, other ways in, but if you want to experience the splendor of Rionegro then this is the way to arrive. Side streets are populated by billiard halls, the sounds of heavy guasca, and tempestuous romances kicking off in the streets. Once you find yourself in the main square, dance a solitary bambuco underneath blankets of pigeons in the direction of the house of arms and make a left following the sounds of roadworks and belligerent drilling. At the corner, take a right, and you will pass a discreet and yet offensive bust of Bolívar obscured by the branches of an obliging tree. Keep walking forwards until you see the Casa de la Convención, she is white and brilliant and unmissable in front of you with her Moorish-Spanish weighty door. A security guard will let you inside. A dust mask is optional to protect against Rionegrosis (fatal adoration of the spirit of the city of Rionegro).