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Updated: Jan 24, 2019

Colombia has come to be associated with magical realism - but what about surrealism? Kitsch? Are such notions about Colombia even...taboo?

The plaza principal of La Unión, Antioquia, Colombia. Yes! You saw right! That's a Virgin Maria on a tractor.

In the middle of the plaza principal of the small village of La Unión, Antioquia, Colombia, there is a sculpture of a Virgin Mary plinthed on a miniature tractor. The sculpture sits within a circle-like pathed area, the shape of a mikveh ritual bath, and it adorns the centre of the village with a mixture of pride in the countryside heritage and faith in The Holy Mother.

Utterly transfixed by this image, I took a small photograph of what I saw with my iPad, and it was a typical 'me' kind of photograph: taken in one second, out of focus, lacking light, and without any editing or filters. I feel no need to use filters when it comes to photographing Colombia, because I like the way everything about Colombia looks just as it is. If I take a photograph of something, it is because I find it beautiful. It is like holding someone's hand - you wouldn't do it if you weren't feeling it. Photography, like writing, is an attempt to preserve a moment of love, and so it came as a great surprise to me, after my visit to La Unión last Monday, that I received my first 'unpleasant' comment on Instagram. The person who had written it had concluded from my photographs of La Unión that I had not liked the village, and even went so far as to say I should try to study local history a little better before I post such pictures and captions.

A woman and a man sit on benches in La Unión, Antioquia, Colombia without exchanging a word. Is there any love greater than this? This is companionship when all is said and done: two souls in silent union.

A particular irony here was that I had been visiting the village with a local historian of encyclopedic knowledge of the region and her traditions - a person who had taken the time and care to draw my attention to the significance of the tractor for the village and her people. These kinds of historians are a rare find, because titles aside, their knowledge does not come principally from dusty books, but from memories of past lives, and secrets coded into their birthmarks and that kind of thing. We had played football with a small potato left over from the festival, and even sat together on one of the few balconies that remains overlooking the square from a considerable height largely to watch these tractors parked as they are about the square, dented from cargo and beautified with the totality of all her journeys and perhaps even all the songs their drivers had enjoyed inside of them. I therefore found myself thrown into deep reflection: I looked again at my photographs of La Unión, and I asked myself, 'why did this person think I had disliked the village'? I then came up with a few hypotheses.

Firstly, it occurred to me that unlike many people who I follow on Instagram who take photographs of Colombia and particularly village architecture and cultural, my own images are not retouched. I do not use computer software to add stars or lights or shades or donkey that were never there at the time, and so it is possible that my 'vision' of Colombia is not in sync with the collective brand Instagrammers seems to be co-creating when it comes to Colombia. I do not consider myself a tourist in Colombia, at least I haven't been a tourist here since 2011, and I have no interest in posting pictures of myself with a palanquera and a coconut in my hand, or jumping into the air in a Panamanian hat and flip-flops against a perfectly painted wall. Why not? Well, for me that just isn't my Colombia.

The 'magical realism' branding of Colombia for tourist promotion, is a choice made by the government largely to capitalize economically on the global fame of writer Gabriel García Márquez. In my view, this campaign tries to sell a very naughty idea of what the 'Colombian experience' might be like to a foreigner, because 'magical realism' is one of those things that everyone thinks they have some idea of what it is and in fact it is a very complex experience indeed. My own definition of what magical realism is would be something like the persistent presence of the 'ordinariness of magic', but I doubt this is what many foreigners are expecting.

Take this image (centre) above, for example. Here we see chapolero(a)s depicted harvesting in the epicentre of a coffee cup, the rustic hacienda of the zona cafetera behind him and in pristine condition, and a mule ready at his aid, also the idealized wife in traditional clothing only a few steps behind him down the path. Of course those of us who know about the state of farming in Colombia cannot fail to  be saddened by the contrast between this dream of the countryside and the reality. Coffee growers are going out of business. The farmhouses are crumbling only to be replaced with white cube houses and ten bedrooms for the two children who will be forced to study business administration or be disowned. The farmworkers are paid less and less for their toil and the wife has never stood way behind the husband in Antioquia, for this is a matriarchal culture and not a macho one like everyone pretends. The idea with the marketing poster is surely that in sipping a Colombian coffee on the farm where the beans are grown, you will have access to the history of the culture in a mere sip. Oh! I see... this is what magical realism is supposed to look like! But this is a lie. I wondered therefore whether my un-manicured vision was deemed as me mocking the village when in truth my photographs were reverence of La Unión's sublime authenticity. 

A CCTV camera watches Jesus, OR Jesus watches the CCTV. Who can say.

In reality, Colombian culture, and particularly rural culture, in the form of traditions, architecture, language, and even the memory of such things, is under threat. Rather, 'under threat' doesn't go nearly far enough, it is dying. The countryside is being carved up and parceled out into slices for the landowners (who by and large have also always been the landowners), these developments have names like 'Andalucía' and even 'Balmoral' (!!!) and the farmers scrape a living tilling a land they have little rights to access. The paisa language, to give an example, is giving way to increasing anglicisms of speech, and the youth are more likely to be overheard saying 'Baby, o-my-god' then they might be overheard to quote the heavenly music of Tulio González.

The Last Arriero by Tulio González

Secondly, I think that the villages of Eastern Antioquia, can be very surreal and even 'kitsch' places. For me, a Virgin Mary aboard a tractor is a very surreal sight indeed, however, for the person who disliked my Instagram caption(s), this was deemed a misapreciation of and lack of knowledge about the local culture. I maintain though, that as beautiful as a potato festival in June might be, whether something is surreal or not depends on your comprehension of the object. Similarly, an advert for a machine which provides every medical treatment imaginable and even sexual pleasure posted on the main square and fraying in the breeze, to my eyes, is extremely surreal.

You get the idea.

The juxtaposition of a socially conservative village, and a bed with switches which do nobody-knows-what to you I find bizarre. But I like it. I think Salvador Dalí would have liked it too. I adore this very alchemy about Eastern Antioquian villages. I love the mix of the catholic mass on repeat from day break until black of night and the women in tight lycra unashamed of their sexual allure. I love the men in their Wellington boots stuffed with newspaper propping up the bar with red cheeks and a snooker cue to reward them for all their devotion to the countryside.

A religious statue in the Iglesia Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, La Unión, Antioquia, Colombia. A sign beside it warns of the danger of electrocution.

And there is a third aspect. I like to photograph cultural decline, because for me that is a way to participate in cultural rescue and preservation. Ideally, I want the government to fund more restoration projects (not just architectural, but more broadly cultural - reading traditional Colombian poetry with school children, for example), but in my lack of hope that this might happen in any sufficient way, I want to capture what is left before it goes forever. These tiles from the church (see below), have been repaired with presumably all that remains of the original purchase of the tiling. Like a scar, or a Colombian version of kintsugi, they are the evidence that cultural tradition is not being sufficiently prioritized or valued. I love these tiles no less for being like this, but it doesn't change the fact that their presence is the outcome of centuries of corruption, and also a failure to value what is Antioquian, or what is Colombian.

Finally, I think my reader misunderstood what I had meant when I described La Unión as a spiritually heavy place. The 'atmosphere' of a place is something that is felt by the individual. There are some people that are immune to atmosphere. Others who are extremely sensitive. Amongst those who are sensitive, they may well experience places differently depending on many things, for example their pasts, who they are with at the time if anyone, and their state of spiritual consciousness. For me La Unión was like walking through rain made of incense. A hailstorm of the gifts bestowed upon Jesus by the Magi. As such, I felt slow; almost like trying to dance through treacle, or attempting to drive through a thunderstorm of pretty stars. Driving back via the similarly surreally-named route el Canadá - a road still offering a glimpse of the old Antioquia and her perfumes of manure and wood fires, I nearly slept at the wheel despite the rhythms of Joe Cuba Sextet's Mujer Divina, and that is saying something. I had already fallen asleep in the bathroom toilet an hour before, such were my fantasies of La Unión and her invisible frankincense in the form of an impending visit to her sacred butter factory, and her sculpture was a call to buy local - buy from your farmers' market - save the Colombian countryside in anyway that you can. And if you are a tourist, don't just visit Cartagena and the places you see in the Avianca brochures.

If you want to see what Wikipedia says about La Unión in English, here it is...