Art and Microfinance

This is a repost from my blog on Kiva Stories from the Field. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

By Rob Packer, KF10 Colombia

When I first became a Kiva Fellow, I never imagined that one day I’d spend a cold, rainy afternoon in Bogotá discussing the merits of art-as-expression against art-for-profit with an aspiring artist and Kiva borrower.

The Nevera (the fridge as Bogotá is known to costeños for its chilly climate) has a very feel from Colombia’s Caribbean coast where I’m based. Partly this is because you need a coat and an umbrella; but it’s mainly because of Bogotá’s urban charm, which sometimes reminds me of European cities like Madrid; and the more formal and reserved nature of the cachacos (people from the interior of Colombia). Bogotá is also a city of revolutionary urban projects, such as Ciclovía—other cities might boast at closing their streets on Sunday mornings so inhabitants can go cycling or running, but the roots of this began in Bogotá 30 years ago—and the TransMilenio, the urban transportation system of running buses in dedicated lanes—admittedly Curitiba was the pioneer, but Bogotá’s version is often cited as the model when yet another Latin American city opens a network. As the capital, it’s also a national centre of art and on a previous trip to Bogotá some Colombian friends had shown me around La Macarena, a bohemian barrio of the city admiring the street art and imaginative restaurant concepts.

On my next trip one of Bogotá’s credit officers, Luis Carlos, and I headed to the south of the city to visit Germán Gustavo Garzón, a self-taught and aspiring artist as well as Kiva borrower, who lives in a barrio called La Macarena de los Alpes: like its namesake it’s perched on the side of the escarpment overlooking Bogotá, but lies at quite a different end of the socioeconomic scale. As we arrived at the point on the hillside where Bogotá ends and the mountains begin and the rain began to fall, I was struck by how unexpected the situation was: I’ve realized I’m far more used to meeting artisans than artists (for more on the difference in perspective, check out Suzy Marinkovich’s 2009 poston the same topic in Peru).

Germán in his studio in Bogotá.

The view out over the rainy skies of Bogotá.

Germán’s parents moved from the countryside to Bogotá many years ago and began setting up businesses very similar to the microbusinesses that I see on a daily basis: his father worked as a shopkeeper, his mother as a seamstress. Germán told us that “A muchos de los papás de mis amigos era impensable que su hijo pueda ser pintor, o poeta (To a lot of my friends’ parents, it was unthinkable that their son should become a painter or a poet).” As if to express the irony of this view, all of their children developed an artistic streak of one kind of another; Germán told us that during his childhood, the house would be dominated by his two sisters dancing on the staircase—both are now contemporary dance and performance art teachers—while Germán painted and his brother wrote poems and short stories on a typewriter. For much of his childhood and adolescence, he had no formal artistic training and only started taking courses in the past few years. It was at a woodwork class at the Escuela de Artes y Oficios—an organization with links to FMSD—where he attended an information session with two Bogotá credit officers and became a borrower with FMSD.

Paints, paid for by Germán's Kiva loan.

In my experience of microfinance, it can often be difficult to support a family member in their dreams as an artist: I have come to learn that it’s an incredible luxury for a Kiva borrower’s child to attend music or ballet classes and a sign that their business is going well. Germán’s response to these needs has been to bridge the gap between microentrepreneur, artist and artisan, and to do both: he used his first loan to invest in materials, which he uses to create artisan works (art-for-profit) and it’s the proceeds from these artesanías that then support him in his true passion, art-as-expression, either as work for friends, for art shows or socially-minded projects such as murals in the local community or performance art with marginalized groups in Colombian society.

As the conversation continued to a rainstorm and background music from Beirut, Sigur Rós and Björk against a view over southern Bogotá, adding to the magic, it emerged that both Luis Carlos and I were frustrated artists—he a painter or sculptor, I a photographer or writer—beaten as we both became to realize that art wasn’t for us.

Germán as artisan, showing us a lamp that he makes to be sold in artisan shops in Colombia.

Germán as artist. This painting representing his grandmother was one of his first paintings and was what made his realize he should follow the path towards becoming an artist.

Meeting people like Germán is one of the most rewarding parts of being a Kiva Fellow. It makes you realize that in spite of the difficulties that borrowers might experience, sometimes vocation is vocation. It made me thankful to know that microfinance provides people like him with the means to pursue their dreams.

Rob Packer is a Kiva Fellow currently working with the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo in Barranquilla, Colombia. There are borrowers from Colombia with FMSD who you can help by contributing to a loan today, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world on the Kiva site.

Two Museums in Bogotá

By Rob Packer

Bogotá’s Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold) is one of the biggest in the country and although the name is deceptive—there is a fair amount that isn’t gold—it gives a very thorough, if poorly explained, rundown of Colombia’s pre-Columbian cultures. Rather than trying to explain, I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.

The balsa muisca, the Muisca raft, one of the museum's most famous exhibits.

These (tiny) figures reminded of Fritz Lang's masterpiece, Metropolis.

The other museum I’ve visited in Bogotá is the Botero Museum, which is a showcase of Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero. Just like the Museo del Oro, this museum is run—rather strangely—as a subsidiary of the Banco de la República, Colombia’s central bank. The overwhelming feeling you have while looking around the museum is that nothing’s thin in there: his “proportional exaggeration” (podginess) extends beyond the body. Until I’d seen his still-lifes, I never knew that fruit could be fat. The reason for it is beyond even the artist: “An artist is attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why. You adopt a position intuitively; only later do you attempt to rationalize or even justify it.”

After rooms of proportionally exaggerated men and women, I couldn't work out it this was a podgy hand.

There was something beautiful about this very curvy Leda and Zeus.

Living in Two Worlds at Once

This is a repost of my blog on La Vida Idealist. Check out the site for more stories and resources from Idealists in Latin America.

By Rob Packer

One side of volunteering sometimes not spoken about is the desire to see the country you’re in—it makes you sound like a tourist and you came to Latin America to do something more. I personally think that it’s fine to see the country in your time off: you’ve chosen Latin America over another part of the world and if you’ve paid for the ticket yourself, they don’t come cheap.

The view over the weekend version of Cartagena.

Life as a volunteer makes things difficult though. Most volunteering on the continent will involve visits or contact with lower-income areas; however, it’s more unlikely that these people are going become your friends while you’re in-country. They will likely be higher-income locals or tourists. And your desire to see the country will take you to more sanitized parts of the country. As a friend who’s just finished with Kiva in Ecuador said, it’s “like you’re living in two worlds at once.”

Over the past week, I’ve seen completely different faces of Bogotá and Cartagena. After a weekend with friends in some of Bogotá’s nicer barrios, I spent a morning in the foundation’s office there before heading to south Bogotá to meet Kiva borrowers. There was something exhilarating about riding the TransMilenio, Bogotá’s metrobus, to areas a lot of bogotanos and even fewer tourists would ever enter. Cartagena, though, was much more extreme. I stayed with a Colombian friend in an area by the beach more like Miami than Colombia, and spent an afternoon wandering around the beautiful old city. The contrast couldn’t have been greater with what I’d seen during the week in Cartagena: meeting a displaced woman in a squatter settlement and hearing stories first-hand in former guerrilla areas outside of the city.

This divide takes a lot of getting used to and I’m not sure how to reconcile them. When I arrived back in Barranquilla, I grabbed dinner at the local pizzeria and started talking with the owner. He told me that the lack of contact between the parallel societies is what contributes to Colombia’s subdesarollo (underdevelopment, a word repeated all too often here). I don’t agree with his theory: there are too many examples of this in developed countries. What is does say, though, is that looking the other way is not the way to get used to the divide.

La Macarena

By Rob Packer

I spent Saturday morning nursing a terrible hangover (enguayabado in Colombian Spanish) after a night of rumba, barra libre and fondo blanco, and hoping that I’d feel able to eat something by the time my friends Sasha and Rodrigo were supposed to pick me up for lunch. By the time they arrived to pick me up, my recovery had begun and I was feeling able to face the day.

Sasha and Rodrigo took me to the area they live in, a barrio of Bogotá called La Macarena, which is one of the more Bohemian areas of the city. Full of world restaurants and with an artistic vibe, it reminded me more of some areas of Brooklyn than my concept of Bogotá. It was worth getting over the enguayabado for.

Churrasquería gaucha, an Argentine restaurant in Bogotá's La Macarena.

A gorilla with wings.

The car park for La Juguetería, a restaurant in La Macarena. The toys over the walls give it a circus-gone-wrong quality.

When toys aren't cute.

Another, less scary, car park.

Streets of La Macarena.

Streets of La Macarena after the rain

A blue building in La Macarena.

La Hamburguesería, part of a chain of premium burger restaurants.

The burger at La Hamburguesería. I love papas criollas (small yellow potatoes).

Life in the freezer

By Rob Packer

What is it I like so much about Bogotá? Compared to what I’ve got used to on Colombia’s coast, Bogotá’s altitude makes its nights cold at 8°C—this is admittedly not much to complain about when you’ve lived in Bishkek in nights of -20°C and no heating—but if you’ve come to Colombia with no jacket, this is pretty cold. And apart from the colonial era area of La Candelaria, it’s a modern city of non-descript buildings and highways. But there’s something about its urban intensity and human energy that sneaks up on you as you’re driving in a car along the rollercoaster-like Carrera 5 and sucks you in.

Rain and the TransMilenio, Bogotá's rapid bus transit system.

A street in central Bogotá. I'm a big fan of this kind of architecture for some reason: yellow and concrete.

One of the things that strikes me about Bogotá is its on-the-streets civic culture. When I first told people that I was applying to come to Colombia, the country’s notoriety for guns, cocaine and danger made a lot of friends ask me if I was sure what I was doing. This sits strangely with a capital city that closes 120km of its main streets for seven hours every Sunday so that Bogotanos can go cycling, running or rollerblading: an innovative civic initiative that’s been in existence since 1975. If the crowds gathering around the street theatre on the Parque de Santander are anything to go by, the ciclovía initiative does encourage people to come out onto the streets on a Sunday morning for exercise.

Ciclovía in Carrera 15.

A (quite ugly) Christmas tree in Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá's historic centre. Taken on my first trip to Bogotá at the beginning of January.

Like so much of Colombia, though, it’s the people in Bogotá that mean that I enjoy spending time in Bogotá. There are few places in the world where you can have more friends to meet up with than you can fit into a weekend after only three weeks in the country: that’s true testament to Colombians’ friendliness (and to my own friends’ friendship matchmaking skills).

Street scene, Parque de la 93.

Graffiti, central Bogotá.

A balcony in Bogotá.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,158 other followers

%d bloggers like this: