Pilgrimage of Faces

By Lina Alonso

Roving Reporter

April. Popayán. On the corner of 11th and 4th a particular crowd gathers: black women, indigenous women, young people, transsexuals, peasants, dogs, a girl with a watch that she herself drew on her wrist, a skinned old man, another woman with a dead fish in her hands, another with an exorbitant look, another child lying with his 60 centimeters of tenderness on the wall, an old woman with as many wrinkles as an ancient tree, more and more children, in short, if Ismael Rivera had passed by he would have left his proclamation “The beautiful faces of my black race are full of tears, sorrow and pain”, as he saw them, like a parade of molasses in bloom, like this crowd on Friday, April 8. 

There are only a few days left to start the traditional Holy Week pilgrimages, after whole months in which the pandemic has quelled the fervor of the Catholics, the streets can’t wait to celebrate the opening of the festival: all the corners smell of fresh white paint, street vendors of camandulas and religious figures are flying from side to side, stalls with flowers and small altars, which adorn the Virgin of Sorrows, glitter on the corners and several shops in the city with their newly lacquered doors shine among the people; the gesture of enthusiasm of the workers who live from tourism stand out in the streets and it is not for less. While every payanés waits with eagerness to shine his personal Christ the corner of 11th and 4th Street continues with its motionless crowd, in fact all and all the people that are in this corner are still, paralyzed, suspended, monolithic in the wall, but they are not silent: they are more than 200 portraits of different people of all the Cauca, portraits in black and white printed in bond paper of 135 x 90 meters. In the photographs the faces of Caldono, Monte Redondo, Tambo, Guapi, Buenos Aires, Sotará, Silvia or San Andrés de Pisimbalá accuse the passers-by with their history, with their earthy look, with their scars of war, with their tattoos, gray hair, ornaments or looks, they speak of everything that the white neutrality of Popayán does not speak of. It is the project Celebremos Cauca, territory of hybrid identity, that speaks.

This project was born from the students of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Cauca and the portal Voices from the Void. It came to light this Friday, April 8, all because of a joint and neighborhood work. From 10 in the morning more than 30 volunteers, summoned by internet groups, put on the commemorative T-shirt of the wallpapering and with paste and papers in hand went to these streets to put the images taken by Michael Ben and Lady Chavez. Local artists. The enthusiasm could not be less given the call and the encouragement that an intervention of this caliber implies in a city with the precedent it has. Currently Popayán, capital of Cauca, not only has the nickname of one of the most godas (conservative) cities, but was also a protagonist in the days of the National Strike (2021) for its repeated violent actions against the indigenous and student demonstrators, in addition, according to the Risk Map of vulnerability of the black communities, the capital has one of the highest rates of affectations for the Afro community, without counting the historical rejection of the capital to the indigenous population where every now and then meetings of the Minga are convened, part of the ethnic community that in Colombia are about 1’905. 617 people whose concentration in Cauca is 16%, in this same city had another sign of incommunicado communication and rejection when the Attorney General’s Office of the nation got up, in the same city, from the dialogues that it proposed to solve the violent actions that occurred in the department for the same day of the strike.

Lady Chavez, one of the photographers, was emphatic in the impact of the city on the young people when justifying the recurrent presence of their faces in the intervention: there are also several young people in these portraits because they are the ones who are in constant resistance, and their affirmation is not lacking in substance: They live in the same Popayán where the student leader Esteban Mosquera was assassinated in the days, a month after the severed head of the young Santiago Ochoa mourned with horror the department of Valle, added to them are the 19 wounded that left in a single day one of the mobilizations and the hunger that does not give truce, their city is fourth in the ranking of the capitals of Colombia with more extreme poverty. 

In addition to the figures, there is a violent symbolism. In the tourist ideology of the country this city is promoted as the exuberant and colonial White City. In fact ALL the streets of the native city of the grammarian president, who wrote a poem to an animal that does not exist in Colombia, are painted white, white madhouse, white institution, white homogeneous, white settler, white racist, white classist, white exclusionary. On its walls there is no space for diversity, for graffiti, for that voice of time and of the people that so often are recorded on the walls. Several of the wallpaper volunteers recalled with sadness and resignation the amount of murals and graffiti that were erased during the strike, murals that were made not only by the demonstrators but also by children, neighbors, street vendors, and all kinds of people who found the opportunity to participate in the heated mood of those days through color, strokes, and the gathering that involves intervening in a public space. After all, the streets are the agora of youth, the walls are the pages on which cities write their stories. But such writing is forbidden in Popayán. How good it will be for the manufacturers of white paint.

Photo by Michael Ben

In the evening of this same April 8 and after the entire collective danced their fatigue on the dance floor of La Iguana the final tour of the mural was made, Harold Sescué, counselor of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, broke the night with some words in which he emphasized, not only the way in which each face told a story, but the persistence of the paradox that when someone from outside Popayán makes this type of intervention people applaud, but when the indigenous make their art biennial they are totally ignored by the city that is, in his words, classist and racist.

The next day the surprise, not so much surprise, was the same: many of the portraits placed both on the mural and on the cover of the ruins of the ANARCOS theater had been torn, someone even managed to capture a white woman tearing the portrait of a black boy, to which the caricaturist DIABLO responded:

However, something controversial also happened, -to me beautiful-, the main wall, the one at 11th and 4th dawned with other superimposed posters, the posters read: “Where are they?”, “Dignified life” or “We want them alive”, little known phrases in the country of the 6402 false positives, that is the disappeared and murdered in the government of Alvaro Uribe Velez that they passed off as combat casualties in the war against the FARC guerrillas, civilians killed by the army. In effect, the majority of the population assumed that all the people depicted were dead, missing or recently killed.

Photo by Lina Alonso

Michael Ben managed to identify who would have put the images up and asked them the reason, the answer, like that of many passersby was the same “So they are not dead?” and well no. Each one of the people in that effervescent crowd is alive, many are even friends or relatives of the artists, but in the vacuum of information comes the unfortunate necrotic assumption of Colombians. Death for us is a landscape and that is why when we see an unknown face on a poster we assume directly, as the custom of the newscast says, that this person died or is desperately missing. The other collective interpreted the faces in their own way and put their decals to what other people responded, printing that same day, signs such as “We are alive”, “Cauca lives” or “We are not part of the disappeared”, paper that would have been saved if they had put the title of the project at the bottom of the images.

However, the final result was a dialogue that was built on the wall, first the faces spoke, then the spectators responded, then the collectives and the tough talkers counterpointed, they had no choice but to tear off parts of this conversation, to amputate the conversation that was taking place in the white city.

So what happened to this conversation? Some were annoyed, others, especially one of the energetic foreigners who made the supposed offense his own, began to respond, others began to document with images or interviews the responses and doubts raised by these interventions among the walkers, the audiovisual producer Fanny Aparicio was always attentive to capture these reactions, even the documentary filmmaker Fernando Restrepo took some images of what happened, yes, everyone monitored the response of the Payanese people to the intervention. 

Second day of wallpapering

At night we went another combo to cover a missing wall of the Anarkos theater. That night the magic happened.

An Afro collective passing through the streets recognized one of the Guapi children. Their reaction, unlike what had happened at the wall of the parking lot, marked a turn of the screw. The gesture of celebration was not long in coming, and when asked what they thought of the wallpaper, one of the young girls responded:

Video by Fanny Aparicio

For them the portraits claimed a space in the city that has been denied to them, the image of their neighbors on the white walls that many times has expelled them was a conquest, the symbolic has the power to twin imagination and logic, possibility and reality and before the photographs the gesture of this Afro collective was that of joy, of recognition, of identity and convergence. For the moment captured by the lens and for the moment that their words filled the fragment of the night with joy, it was finally understood that Cauca lives! In the face of death, the imposition of war and the systemic inequality of the State, in the face of hunger and repression, fear and the marginalization of so many faces, in a few minutes some of them sang “Let’s celebrate diversity too!”


This was the log of the days of the wallpapering carried out by the Voices From The Void collective, in partnership with Inside Out and the artists, students and inhabitants of Popayán.