When Inty Maleywa was 23 and still in art school, she went to visit Colombia’s largest guerrilla groups with a sketchpad and colored pencils in her backpack.
What was supposed to be a brief trip into the jungle where she hoped to finish her thesis turned into a lifetime project. She spent the next 14 years capturing images of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — which she ended up joining — dodging bullets as she sketched her fellow fighters, moonlit landscapes, still lifes of AK-47s and propaganda posters.
One thing Maleywa never had, however, was much of an audience outside her revolutionary comrades. Now that the FARC — Latin America’s oldest and largest guerrilla group — is demobilizing in the wake of a historic peace deal, Maleywa’s work is finally emerging from the wilderness.
Talking to reporters on a recent weekday, Maleywa, 36, said the act of showing her work is making it feel “finished” in a way that has surprised her.
“When they were stored away and I couldn’t share them they were ‘unfinished,’” she explained. “But now I know what people think about them...It’s been very interesting and it has given me motivation to keep working.”
Since January, Maleywa and more than 200 other FARC fighters have been gathered on a dusty plot of land in Colombia’s northeastern Guajira department. It’s one of the 26 concentration zones where the combatants — some who have never known life outside of the FARC — will learn how to be civilians and prepare to be reintegrated into society after more than 50 years of conflict.
Maleywa’s camp, called Pondores, has all the charm of a construction site. The government is scrambling to put up houses and common areas for the rebels who will live there for six months. But amid the swirls of red dust structural steel are dozens of Maleywa’s paintings printed on sturdy vinyl, flapping in the wind.
The camp’s pièce de résistance is a sweeping 12-part mural that tells Colombia’s turbulent history, complete with guns and gore, and menacing figures emerging from the U.S. Pentagon and a nuclear mushroom cloud amid Vietnam war imagery.
If Maleywa’s subject matter is a reflection of her ideological surroundings, her artistic decisions — including the vinyl — were dictated by necessity. In the jungle, her unit was often on the march or running from army ambushes, she said.
“All my old work has been lost,” she lamented. “And I don’t have many original paintings because I either gave them away or they were lost because we had to leave somewhere quickly.”
About midway through her 14-year career as the ultimate guerrilla artist, she got a hold of a digital camera and started photographing her work as an act of preservation. When somebody could get into a city, they would have her paintings printed out on durable, waterproof vinyl.
Her chaotic lifestyle also made colored pencils her go-to tools. When she tried painting with oils or acrylics, invariably an ambush would force her to leave the wet painting behind, she said.
“The ones I did in colored pencil were easier to put away immediately,” she explained. “The oils and the acrylics were lost...I lost so much work.”
Botero to Juanes
Colombia has long been an artistic powerhouse. It’s as if the half-century civil conflict put so much pressure on the country that it reacted with an artistic explosion.
The nation boasts one of the hemisphere’s most famous authors, the late Gabriel García Marquez, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1982; one of the world’s top-selling painters, Fernando Botero, and enough pop stars for a continent, including Shakira, Juanes and Carlos Vives. And almost all of them have found inspiration in the decades’ long bloodshed.
Now, as the 7,000-strong FARC begin to demobilize, previously unknown artistic talent is emerging from the jungle. During the FARC’s final “conference” last year ahead of the signing of the peace deal, participants were treated to a raucous dance party led by a FARC band called Los Rebeldes del Sur, or the Rebels of South.
It’s far from certain whether the former guerrillas can have an artistic future in such a polarized nation. Decades of violence (not all guerrilla-generated) has left more than 220,000 dead and forced millions to flee their homes, creating deep resentments.
Last year, Colombians narrowly voted down an initial peace deal, in part due to fears that it was too lenient on the guerrillas. And although Colombia’s homicide rate has dropped to its lowest point in 40 years, social leaders — particularly those loosely associated with FARC ideals — are being murdered in worrisome numbers.
When Maleywa reenters society, she said she hopes to provide art education in rural areas. But she also wants her 14 years of archived work to reach a broader audience and help spread “the truth” about the guerrilla movement, she said.
“I would like to share all of my work,” she said. “I want to share our dreams and our history so that people can know us in another language — the language of art.”