BBC Radio 4’s The Arts Hour came to Bogotá on tour last month. We caught up with the show’s presenter, writer and curator Nikki Bedi before their recording in the capital, which is now available on the BBC website.
Featuring the likes of Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Laura Mora, the show, which visits a different city every month, doesn’t look at Colombia through the eyes of a traveller. Rather, The Arts Hour is an artist-led project that really gets under the skin of the city.
Recorded in front of a live audience at the Teatro Libre, the line up was an impressive and eclectic mix of cultural heavyweights.
Nikki says that the programme looks for people who are doing something different or have a story to tell. “You have to choose people who are using whatever’s going on at the moment to create their art. So as long as someone is responding in some way to the country’s or the city’s situation – or maybe a moral question in a place, they are of interest to us.”
“We always try to go to a city that is in a moment of change,” Nikki tells me. “Because that’s obviously the most fertile time for artists.” Bogotá and Colombia certainly are going through changes, and the show touches on themes of memory, conflict and reconciliation. But more specifically, Nikki is interested in the role that artists and storytellers play at this crucial time.
“We have the novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez,” she continues. “To my knowledge and in all the books that I’ve read, he always talks about or looks at the stories of Colombia’s history.”
In the show, Vásquez himself says: “The peace negotiation is not achievable without a real knowledge of the other’s experience so storytelling is turning out to be one of the most fundamental issues we are experiencing.”
Filmmaker Laura Mora, whose debut feature film Matar a Jesús – Killing Jesus – has recently received widespread critical acclaim, was also on stage. “I think what I like in filmmaking is the fact that we can make questions,” she tells the audience during the recording.
Like Killing Jesus, Netflix drama Distrito Salvaje – Wild District – addresses some of the issues that face Colombia right now. Nikki points out that producer Natalia Echeverri is “another person telling stories but this time it’s not Narcos, it’s not what happened during those drug wars, it’s now – the people coming back and trying to integrate into society who’ve been part of a guerrilla group.”
Get on the Culture Cab
In every city The Arts Hour visits, they do something called the Culture Cab, where one of the guests takes them to uncover some of the city’s hidden artistic gems. It certainly made a change from the usual Monserrate-Gold Museum-Paloquemao tourist circuit.
Aterciopelados star Andrea Echeverri – who Nikki said was greeted as a national hero everywhere they went – started by taking the BBC crew to the Auras Anónimas artwork in the cemetery. The well-known presenter described Beatriz González’ intervention in the vaults as “such a beautiful monument to all those unnamed, unclaimed people who disappeared or were murdered.” She added, “So there was a sort of theme about memorialising and not forgetting. But also moving forward.”
From there, and with a wave to the bar where Aterciopelados got started, Andrea took the programme to El Testigo. This graphic report by photographer Jesús Abad Colorado captures fragments of memory from the armed conflict. And finally, a way of bringing the fragments together in Doris Salcedo’s Fragmentos – tonnes of melted-down FARC munitions made into floor tiles. “All that metal was then hammered into pattern by women who’d been victims of rape and violence as a result of the conflict. And then this metal was made into tiles and those tiles are the floor in this building,” Nikki explains.
Andrea sounds almost tearful on the recording as she speaks about peace, “I think that every Colombian has mixed emotions about all this because we have great expectations, but we are scared that it doesn’t happen.”
Back at the Teatro Libre performance and Aterciopelados are not the only musicians on stage. The Arts Hour aims to present two contrasting bands every edition. Self-titled ‘Psychedelic African Tribe from the Future’, Ghetto Kumbe, say their song ‘Waré Warrior’ is inspired by the hunger in La Guajira. They certainly make for a very different sound. Mind you, the themes of their music are similar; Aterciopelados perform ‘Errante Diamante’, a song about displacement and the loss of land.
There’s some light relief in the form of stand up from comedian Andrés López. He tells the audience about Colombian Darwinism: “If you don’t learn to dance, your genes will not pass to the next generation.”
Another theme, and one that Nikki says comes up in many of the cities they visit, is gentrification. And as Bronx Creative District director Mónica Ramírez is on the show, Nikki and I finish by discussing gentrification versus regeneration and the human challenges of what happens to all the people when whole areas start to be transformed by art. “That’s one of the big questions that I have for Mónica Ramírez tonight,” says Nikki brightly.
Hear how Mónica responded – and the rest of the show – here
Visit some of the sites on their Culture Cab tour for yourself:
Carrera 20 #24-80
Museo Nacional – Candelaria site
Carrera 7 # 6b – 30
Claustro de San Agustín
Carrera 8 #7-21