On ViewSugar Hill Children’s Museum Of Art And Storytelling
Because of a growing understanding of their importance to world climate change, the tropics of South America loom large in the popular imagination of Americans but still feel as remote, to most of us, as the bottom of the sea. Not so for Tatiana Arocha. A native of Bogotá, she has traveled widely in the Amazon basin. Her anthropologist father gave her a strong appreciation of the role indigenous people play in preserving the many wildernesses in the north Andes and the Amazon threatened by commercial interests—mining, logging, agriculture. Respiro un bosque is an operatic tribute to her love of these lands, featuring three panoramic multi-panel paintings of different ecosystems, as well as photographs and prints of plants, and plant pressings.
As part of her practice, Arocha will take a dried plant and use it to make a mark on paper, which she then converts into a digital file. She has built a vocabulary of distinct, finely detailed gestures with these files which she recombines into shapes and patterns representing objects from nature. An entire wall of the gallery at Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling has a series of C-prints of different plant and leaf shapes, plus a study of some rocks. Each work is painstakingly built from multiple repetitions of her digitized gestures. The three panoramic paintings follow the same process, but the files number in the thousands.
The longest of all the paintings, El sauco de Anase, (The sauco of Anase), 2019, 63 × 157 inches, shows a sauco tree, a member of the elderberry family, surrounded by ferns. Sauco trees, ranging from the Andean countries of Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia to the mountainous areas of Costa Rica, have a long history of human use, with berries that are both edible and have medicinal properties. The tree in the painting is a particularly regal specimen, spreading the feathery leaves on its branches the length of the piece. The ferns bunched in groups around the tree look like so many foppish courtiers bending their heads together to exchange the latest palace gossip. Swirling all around are the mists of the Andean highlands, giving this painting the feel of a Northern Sung dynasty mountain landscape, but also, in its vivid detail, another traditional Chinese genre, bird-and-flower painting on a monumental scale.
A densely packed piece, El rio en el que no los bañamos (The river in which we swim), 2019, 444 × 108 inches, shows a tropical riverbank. The title refers to a trip Arocha took with her family to the Amazon, where they stayed with an indigenous community. The image gives a good sense of the sheer abundance of life in the rainforest. The entire periphery of the canvas is filled with ferns, shrubs, grasses, flowers, bromeliads, vines and so forth. At the center of it all is the river water, which Arocha has painted in gold. Its brilliant surface makes for a big shift from the monochromatic vegetation, but, in the case of this painting, it works. It mimics the light-reflecting qualities of water and gives the eye a place to rest in an otherwise hectic composition. Arocha activates the glittering expanse by almost bisecting it with submerged logs, as well as placing grass leaves on top of it in the foreground. The gold also adds a hallucinatory touch, adding to the mystery of the scene.
The most poignant painting, from an ecological point of view, was El valle de los frailejones (The valley of the frailejons), 2019, 360 × 108 inches. It depicts a landscape unique to the north Andes known as paramó, tropical moors consisting largely of grasses, shrubs, and the startling plants known as a frailejones, which means “big friars.” Oddly anthropomorphic, they have rosette-shaped heads of bunched leaves that sit on multiple layers of dried husks built up from previous years’ growth. They are an essential component of the region’s water cycle: their spongy columns trap the mountain fog, condensing it to tiny streams that flow from their roots into rivers and lakes. They are under threat both from farming and climate change. In this painting they dominate the center, standing at attention like mute sentinels. Tragically, paramó is an ecological niche that is under imminent threat from the earth’s warming. Those in the other paintings, tropical rainforest and highlands, are not that far behind, assuming present trends continue. As lyrical as these paintings are, they also stand as warnings about climate collapse. Are we listening?