Sol Bailey Barker

Mythologies To Follow

A gold-plated football. A bus shed. A spade made of bullet shells. An upended 300 year old tree root. What do these objects have in common?

Ascending a flight of stairs from a busy street to arrive at The Koppel Project Hive space in Holborn, London, one is struck by the feeling that the hard grey and glass facade of the city  just folded over onto itself, and you’ve happened upon another layer of the city, out of time. It’s an appropriate sensation of displacement before encountering an exhibition which transports you into the rich, complex, and colour-infused histories and storytelling traditions of Colombian culture, signified by a historic proximity to violence and folklore.

In 2014, British artists Sol Bailey Barker and Gabriella Sonabend travelled to Colombia to research the country’s mythologies, art and history. They share an interest in engaging with communities to re-examine lost stories, traditions, and identities, weaving together sociological and historical research. The artists returned to London with a collection of oral histories, recorded by Sonabend, to which Barker has crafted and an array of sculptural monuments to the local histories they encountered. Additionally, they invited seven contemporary Colombian artists to exhibit in The Koppel Project’s Baker Street space.

Sol Bailey Barker has generously spoken to the Pocko Times about the project, which is on display in London until November 15th.

Left: Bullets to Spade by Sol Bailey Barker, 300 Winchester Bullet Casings and Oak, 2015

Middle: The artist at work in the jungle

Right: Monumento a la Selva by Sol Bailey Barker, High Amazon Jungle, 2015

Hello Sol, you are currently part of two exhibitions at the Koppel Project in London, so I guess it’s natural to begin by asking what the origin of these exhibitions are, and why they have in the end become two exhibitions, not one?

Well in fact there is one exhibition in which I’m showing my own work with collaborator Gabriella Sonabend, that show is called From Myth To Earth (The Koppel Project Hive, 26 Holborn Viaduct) and there is a parallel exhibition called Mitologia de la Tierra (The Koppel Project, 93 Baker Street), which Gabriella and I curated, featuring the work of 7 contemporary Colombian artists who we discovered during our travel and research into Colombia.

We flew to Colombia in September 2014 and spent six months staying with different communities across the country. Colombia is one of the most ecologically diverse countries in the world and the way the Andes splits across it means many areas are extremely remote. This has lead to great diversity of culture. Due to the 52 year war, Colombia also has the world’s largest population of internally displaced people; meaning many people have left their native land and cultures have fused and adapted. Across Colombia I created a sculpture in every region we stayed in and these were left as gifts to the communities we stayed with or the land we passed through. Gabriella wrote a short story to go with each sculpture and these drew from local myths, testimonials, our observations and research. We were interested in discovering how stories wove into everyday life and how Colombia’s complex history could be understood from an outsider perspective, through the lens of their narrative traditions. In particular we wanted to create a project that mixed a very intuitive, sculptural response to research with new narratives written in response to what we discovered.

Echar la Cascara by Sol Bailey Barker, found football and gold leaf, 2016

And the second show, in Baker Street?

Both Gabriella and I felt it was extremely important not only to show our work, but also to give Colombian artists a platform to exhibit in London. These exhibitions coincided with the Colombian peace treaties, which are still under negotiation and the announcement of President Santos winning the Nobel Peace Prize. During our research trip we met some fascinating Colombian artists who had a very interesting way of talking about their identity and individual and collective histories. One artist in particular Ivan Castillo, we met at Lugar A Dudas artist residency in Cali. This residency was started by political artist Oscar Munoz and many of the artists who were working there engaged with challenging subject matter. Ivan’s work dealt with the 2000 massacres committed between 1982 and 2002 in Colombia, he was creating drawings of the night sky above particular locations on the nights after massacres. Gabriella and I were both humbled by this project, which will take him a lifetime to complete, we felt we had to bring this work to London. Ten works from this series are currently exhibited in Mitologia de la Tierra.

We received a grant from the Arts Council of England to support bringing the work of these artists and others to London, creating a parallel exhibition to our own. The sculptures, which can be seen in the current exhibition From Myth To Earth were made after returning to the UK and were created over the period of 2 year, during which time I continued to research and reflect on my experience.

Concealed Form by Sol Bailey Barker, charred ceiba and bronze, Lugar a Dudas, Cali, 2015
Gallery view with the artist

When we met, you said something lovely and striking about wanting to avoid, in an artistic capacity, doing “that colonial thing”. Could you please elaborate on what you mean by this, and how you as an artist feel responsible for the stories and cultures you engage with?

When working in other cultures there is always a risk of acting in a way that might be perceived as disrespectful and insensitive. Colombia is a country with such a complicated and violent history bound up in geopolitics, largely due to its abundance of natural resources, which are exported legally and illegally on an international level. As someone from Britain I am very conscious of our history of Colonialism and the way in which The British Empire historically has imposed their system of economic and cultural supremacy. In Colombia the Spanish Empire looms in the collective memory as do stories of European rubber barons who forced indigenous peoples of the Amazon into generational systems of slavery. This history is much closer to home than most would expect, for example Arana was a British company, which between the years of 1906 and 1911 was responsible for the population decline in the Putumayo region from 50,000 to 8,000 people. This decline was born from slavery, massacres, starvation, rape and torture under the guise of ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’.

History is full of stories of outsiders ‘discovering’ new cultures and believing it is their responsibility to ‘civilise’, disregarding ancient knowledge and disrespecting the people of the land, plundering and looting.

Offering to the Rio Cauca by Sol Bailey Barker, Rio Cauca river, 2015

Memory of the Rio Cauca by Sol Bailey Barker, redwood and bronze, installation view, The Koppel Project, London, 2016

When dealing with history as an artist there is a very fine line between creating work that imposes a narrative and narrows a perception and creating work, which honours a history and seeks to learn from it. This was a challenge throughout our journey and we were extremely careful not to prejudge, to listen carefully to many perspectives and to make it clear, that works being created in response to our research, were gifts intended to honour people and places, even if they were by nature, fleeting. One piece, which was particularly important was Monumento A La Selva this was a monument to the peoples whose ancestors had been enslaved to the rubber barons in the Amazon. The piece was carved from a fallen rubber tree, its cut marks reflect both the shape of the land and marks used by slaves to bleed trees in the past. As far as I’m aware this is the only monument to this history in the Amazon. There is now a replica standing the current exhibition in London.

The exhibition From Myth To Earth also has a number of works examining colonial history and the history of trade. For example United Fruit: Banana Republic is a sculpture of marble bananas on a copper tray, referencing the 1928 Banana Massacre in Colombia, whilst considering the exaggerated value of exported commodities. Bullets to Spade is a spade made from 300 bullet casings collected in Colombia, this piece refers to a rehabilitation programme in Colombia, which helps former child soldiers, rehabilitating through farming.  Germs and Steel is piece made from a M1911 Colt gun and an original Conquistadors Axe which have been split in half and fused together creating a redundant weapon, a symbol of a history of violence.

Germs and Steel by Sol Bailey Barker, M1911 Colt and Conquistadors Axe, 2016

What is the difference in your approach as curator and as artist, or perhaps more interestingly, what are the likenesses? Does your role as an “anthropologist”/outsider take on different meanings in the two roles?

I feel uncomfortable being referred to an as anthropologist in this context as historically anthropologists had a very colonialist perspective and rather shockingly often were being sponsored by certain corporations who had a vested interest in local people being described as savages or uncivilised (as this gave them an excuse to colonise their land and seize their resources). As both a curator and an artist I think I take a similar role in bringing together works that are each windows into a larger collective narrative. Mitologia de la Tierra is tied together by a certain sensitivity, which each artist possesses and a way of reconsidering history and time itself. In that exhibition the artists share interests and themes but each also has a very distinctive individual voice. Gabriella and I have both learned so much from curating this exhibition and bringing the artists to London–it has been a very profound experience.

Did you educate yourself as much as possible before going to Colombia, or did you purposefully avoid preconceptions, wanting your understanding of the place to originate in the people and geography you encountered “in situ”?

Both Gabriella and I researched extensively before going to Colombia and during our journey. It is still a dangerous place to travel across and being informed was extremely important as many of the rural areas we visited had only recently become accessible due to recent decline of conflict between paramilitaries and FARC. San Agustin for example, which is home to one of the biggest necropolises in the world (a UNESCO Heritage Site) has only recently become safe to visit, as it has been a major centre for cocaine production for decades. Though we were informed, we were careful not make judgements and our time in Colombia reinforced the fact that almost everyone has been affected by the complex violence, which has been born from multiple sources and nearly everyone dreams of peace. Gabriella’s stories were influenced by testimonials and shockingly the most extreme and unbelievable parts of her narratives are the most true.

Rubber & Rice by Sol Bailey Barker, mixed media, installation view, The Koppel Project, 2016

Uprooted by Sol Bailey Barker, oak, installation view, The Koppel Project, 2016

Medellin by Sol Bailey Barker, oak and gold leaf, installation view, The Koppel Project, 2016

Can you elaborate on the role of collaboration in the project?

The entire project was a collaboration. From the beginning our roles were strictly defined, I would create sculptures and Gabriella would write stories but everything came out of the same journey and everything was a dialogue. We read the same books and due to the dangerous nature of the trip we were in each other’s company constantly, we shared a perspective and often debated how best to explore and represent our experiences, through our respective mediums of sculpture and writing. We both shared the responsibility of documenting the trip photographically, these images can be seen in From Myth To Earth: Seeking Archetypes in Greed and Healing an artist book we created of our journey across Colombia featuring images of the sculptures in situ and a selection of key stories.

Could you offer your observations on artistic practice in Colombia? For someone with little or no prior knowledge, what is their relationship to their own history, and what is the current political situation for artists, for example in relation to repressed histories and censorship?

We did not feel the Colombian artists were particularly censored. Colombia has an extremely contemporary and exciting art scene and many brilliant artists who are political and deal with their history. It seemed there were perhaps 2 categories of artists in Colombia; those making work about politics and history and those making work that had nothing to do with it at all; artists who were fed up of being defined by their history and were seeking a new language to explore. Both were very interesting for different reasons. When speaking to our artist friends in Colombia (whose work is very political) they explained in the past more Colombian artists made political work but now there was a sense there was a new generation of artists who perhaps had a more international perspective and didn’t want to reflect on their own culture. Doris Salcedo who is perhaps the most famous contemporary Colombian artist is totally political and her work crosses over into activism. Within fine art and literature Colombians have a tradition of creating very self-reflective and perceptive work that plays an important role in helping to understand history and politics. 

San Agustin, Colombia

Do you think exhibition surveys such as ‘Under The Same Sun’ this summer at the South London Gallery are contributing to a shift away from the simplistic notion of a Latin American monoculture/history in Europe? What role do you think artists as yourself, and spaces such as the Koppel Project are playing in this?

A big part of our exhibition has involved engaging with the Latin American communities in London, in particular in Elephant and Castle and Haringey, these communities are bearing the brunt of the current wave of gentrification. Working with Mirca Morera who is a Peruvian activist campaigning to save the Latin Corner in Haringey we have learned perhaps why Latin American culture seems to be stereotyped or non present in Europe. It is in fact a misconception.

One of the interesting facts we discovered is that unlike in American where the Latino population are very visible and present and influence culture, in the UK there isn’t even a box for Latino in our National Census. If you are Latino you have to describe yourself as ‘Other’.

This may seem trivial to some people but it’s an enormous issue, as if you cannot claim your heritage and culture, how can you gain visibility? Gabriella Sonabend’s paintings in From Myth To Earth are a series of portraits of people from the Latin Corner community in Haringey and seek to bring awareness to the Latino Diaspora of London. The ‘Under The Same Sun’ exhibition certainly goes some way towards contributing to a shift away from the simplistic idea of Latin American culture as many of the artists represented there were responding to specific regions of Latin America. However, I think if we’re to broaden the perception of Latin culture we need more engagement with our Latino communities in London and exhibitions, which emphasise the wealth of contemporary Latino culture.

The artist in the jungle, Monumento a la Selva

Forms Shaped Through Time by Sol Bailey Barker, cedar, 2015 (on view in Holborn Circus, London until January 2017)

Finally, could you tell us more about the Koppel Project, your involvement with it, and what the future holds?

The Koppel Project is a very interesting and unusual space that focuses on supporting exhibitions that have a strong narrative behind them. They are particularly interested in working with international artists and showcasing work that can’t be found in other London galleries. They also have a very strong cultural programme and each exhibition has multiple affiliated events such as artist talks, workshops, literary evenings and book launches. Each show has a writer in residence who produces an original publication, our publication From Myth To Earth; Seeking Archetypes in Greed and Healing was produced through the Koppel Press.

The next exhibition at Koppel is a solo show of artist José Nava, an 80 year old Mexican painter who has a lifetime of unseen works that will be exhibited for the first time. 

From Myth To Earth is exhibited at The Koppel Project Hive, 26 Holborn Viaduct until 11th November, and Mitologia de la Tierra is exhibited at The Koppel Project, 93 Baker Street until 20th November 2016.


Installation view of From Myth To Earth sculptures by Sol Bailey Barker, The Koppel Project, London, 2016

Words by Håkon Lillegraven. Images courtesy of the artist and gallery.

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