The voices of the Colombian people and communities often remain unheard in their country and across the globe. Because of this Colombian activists, social leaders and organizations across the world are working to raise awareness and create needed social and economic changes to combat racial discrimination, a lack of fundamental human rights, lack of access to clean water, healthcare, education, and activist intimidation across Colombia. These activists are building power by reclaiming cultural identity, human rights, and dignity in the face of oppression.
What Has Occurred
Indigenous and Afro-Colombians have long inhabited land rich in resources. However, free-market capitalism and trade between Colombia and other countries, including its largest supporter – the United States – has aided and abetted the displacement of many communities in Colombia by allowing multi-national corporations to seize land already occupied for extractive projects (gold, oil, gems) and tourist ventures. Valuing prosperity over people’s lives, these businesses, supported by national and foreign governments, often use unlawful, immoral tactics to take land. As a result, many small farmers, indigenous peoples, and Afro-Colombians have been displaced from their land, disconnected from their economic livelihood, and often robbed of their cultural identity.
In addition, supported by the United States’ ongoing “war on drugs” framework, the Colombian government often claims that innocent communities – with valuable land – are growing coca, one of the ingredients used to synthesize cocaine. This narrative works to justify a return to aerial fumigation tactics used to eradicate coca. However, this tactic leaves rivers polluted, has caused birth defects and kills subsistence crops. These medical and environmental effects often force Colombian communities from their land and their economic livelihoods, opening up their territory to occupation by other business or illegal interests. This tactic has been pressured for and supported by the U.S. who has contributed over 10 billion dollars of mostly military aid over the past 18 years. U.S. aid has strong links to increases in human rights abuses and displacement in Colombia.
As a result, Colombian activists continue to advocate for change, often linking with activists across the globe to help increase public awareness and pressure big businesses and the U.S. and Colombian governments to adjust their socio-economic policies to respect the rights of the most marginalized. These same communities are among the most affected by the decades-long internal armed conflict, and by the stagnation of the construction of stable and lasting peace.
From the Artist
I was first introduced to the efforts of the nationwide humanitarian organization Witness for Peace Southeast through the work of my daughter-in-law, colleague and fellow delegate Chelsey Dyer, an anthropology PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University.
In July 2017, as part of a volunteer peace delegation with the Witness for Peace organization, I had the opportunity to visit Colombia South America. During my ten-day stay I witnessed first hand a very personal and revealing account of how conditions under an oppressive government have created violence, displacement and economic insecurity, particularly for Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people in the communities of Cali,
Buenaventura and Bogota.
Despite these insecurities and vulnerabilities, I was very impressed with the strength, determination and dignity of the people that I met, ate and stayed with. During my visit and upon my return home from this emotional journey, I asked myself how can I help make a difference? How can the power of art initiate a dialogue with the world? How can my art become a voice for these people and make the invisible, visible?
The strength of these people became the driver that dictated my artistic direction for the next year. I hope the paintings in this exhibition tell the stories of these citizen’s hardships, highlight the strength and dignity of Colombian activists and community leaders as well as their vulnerability as they work for social justice. Through the power of art, I hope to initiate a dialogue with the viewer that will encourage others to recognize the interconnectedness of struggle for racial justice across the globe.
Donna S. Slade
Award–Winning and Published Colored Pencil Artist
The artwork produced in this exhibit was created with the explicit permission of each individual (or parent of the individual) represented. In addition, in-depth narratives accompany each image, often written in consultation with the activist or community mentioned. The purpose of this exhibit is to raise public consciousness about the impact of foreign policies on the lives of Colombian residents, inform others as to how Colombian residents are advocating for change and the risks they face in doing so, and to bring to life an often depersonalized narrative of political events in the country. Activists depicted in this exhibit are kept informed of the exhibit’s travels, fully support and encourage its goals, and have even spoken at exhibit openings. As activists Nidiria Ruiz Medina said (depicted in exhibit) “We are not Victims of the Conflict, but Protagonists of Peace”. We hope learning about these protagonists through the exhibit is a starting point for continued learning and advocacy around Colombia.