Revealing Medellin Through the Power of Art

Julio Cesar Bedoya, left, and Viviana (VITA) Osorio Sanmartín, center, were among the Colombian artists who spoke Wednesday evening at the Duke Colloquium panel discussion. Bailey Sincox, right, and two other undergraduates joined Dean Steve Nowicki in
Julio Cesar Bedoya, left, and Viviana (VITA) Osorio Sanmartín, center, were among the Colombian artists who spoke Wednesday evening at the Duke Colloquium panel discussion. Bailey Sincox, right, and two other undergraduates joined Dean Steve Nowicki in interviewing the artists. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

Their city is often misunderstood by Americans and others around the world, but a much truer, if more complex, reality underlies their own photos, videos and other forms of art, a group of young artists from Medellin, Colombia, told a Duke audience Wednesday evening.

"I chose art so I could explain my story," said Julio Cesar Bedoya, whose work explores the "aesthetics of death" in Medellin cemeteries. "My town is full of color and sound and death. You can only convey that through an image. The best way to transmit these ideas is through photography. They show that this really exists. This is Medellin."

"When I look at the sky, I think of all the people who have died in Colombia," said Viviana (VITA) Osorio Sanmartin, a photographer whose father was killed by two Medellin gunmen. "When I use my father's camera, I feel like I can see the world through his eyes."

They and other artists from Medellin came to Duke this week to present their work at the Fredric Jameson Gallery on East Campus. Seven participated in the panel discussion on Wednesday, the second of three campus events highlighting their work. A gallery showing on Tuesday attracted 120 people and included a live connection to Medellin. A lunch discussion is planned for today (Thursday).

The events were organized by the Duke Colloquium, a university initiative organized by the provost's office in 2009 to develop leaders and promote multidisciplinary interactions that inform the professions.

"We hope the art in this space will motivate everyone to action," said Tamera Marko, who initiated the project, now known as Proyecto Boston-Medellin-Durham, seven years ago while teaching a first-year writing course at Duke. She has continued to guide it since then through Duke Engage Columbia, collaborating with other Duke campus units, Emerson College in Boston and Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

Art provides a specific way of telling stories and motivating social action, Marko told the audience at Perkins Library. She described the Medellin project as a "model of unconventional civic engagement," saying, "This is the only way we will be able to change our world together. We’re not here to just passively show; we're here to engage. ... Everyone in this room is part of this art and everyone is part of these crises."

"Art has the capacity to make someone feel something inside themselves," said Andres Felipe Salas Carmona, one of the Colombian panelists. "A work of art is capable of awakening sentiment in someone. It makes you realize we are human beings."

Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education, moderated the discussion along with three Duke undergraduates: Bailey Sincox, a junior from Houston studying English and theater studies; Gayle Powell, a sophomore from Easton, Conn., majoring in public policy; and Vaibhav Penukonda, a sophomore from Fort Myers, Fla., pursuing a Program 2 alternative major. The conversation unfolded in both English and Spanish, with images and video from the exhibit flashing on two screens behind the panelists.