Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fading Colors: Indigenous Body Painting

Two members of the Orejones people in traditional dress. 
Haunting, tender, beautiful and also very sad, is the work of British documentary photogapher Piers Calvert, which is on display at the Cero Gallery just south of the Zona Rosa.
The century-old photo which started Calvert on his trek.
In another century, will they still be here?

Calvert had seen a century-old photo of indigenous girls with their skin painted, which spurred him on an oddysey thru Colombia's most remote places to photograph the ever-fewer number of indigenous people who continue the practice.

The Cero Galeria's Director Leonor Uribe Joseph said that Calvert had had difficulties finding a place to show his photos, but that she leapt on the opportunity because "We love Colombian subjects," she said.

The photos are beautiful, but also haunting to me. My mind gives them a ghostlike quality because
Fearing the future? An Embera woman covers her eyes.
the lifestyle and cultures of these people almost inevitably have their days numbered: one generation? Two? Perhaps a century? The reserve status of their lands won't likely protect them from 'modernity's' multiple invasions - will hunters and oil and gold prospecters kill off their prey animals, poison their waters and bring in new diseaes? Will climate change and deforestation eliminate their habitats? Will the false promises of an easy life lure them from their jungles to town, where alcohol, drugs, disease and a nearly incomprehensible Western culture await them?

Indigenous people, selling handicrafts or begging, are a common sight on the avenues of Bogotá and other cities. Far from their culture and traditions, what sort of future can they expect in the city, whose language, ways of life, vices and temptations are so new and strange for people who may have just left a stone age existence?

I also wonder what these unsophisticated people thot of this strange-looking white man coming to point his machines at them. Why did they pose? Were they just trying to be nice? Or did they also want to leave a record of their threatened culture?

Or, perhaps, many are westernized, speak Spanish and watch telenovelas on TV, but painted themselves and pulled out the old costumes to please the photographer.

Calvert's photos are scheduled to be displayed in Cero Gallery until May 24, after which they'll go to the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) in La Candelaria, and then to the Museum of Regional Dress, also in La Candelaria.

An indigenous girl in traditional dress, and also in western dress after outlaw armed groups forced her family to take refuge in Bogotá. According to the gallery, the family was forced to flee after the girl's father, the community's leader, refused an armed group's demand that they plant coca leaf, the base ingredient for cocaine. 

Emerging from the jungle - or taking refuge?
Orejones wearing elaborate headdresses. 

Embera girls. Many of the indigenous people seen begging on Bogotá's street are Emberas, forced from their traditional lands by violence. 

A Wayuu girl. The Wayuu people live on the desert Guajira peninsula, which is divided between Colombia and Venezuela. The Wayuus, who are great traders, are among the indigenous people who have fared best in Western society. 

Cero Galeria Director Leonor Uribe. 

A Cubea girl in Western dress. 

A Nukak girl. The Nukaks are a nomadic people, and the lines on their faces are said to help them penetrate the jungle. 
The Nukak had their first contact with Westerners in 1988. Since then, Colombia's armed conflict, Western diseases and other impacts have reduced their population from about 2,000 to only about 500.

A Wayuu girl. 
The photo on the left shows the back of an Embera girl. 
 The Cero Gallery also exhibits other styles of art:

The Cero Galeria also displays very different kinds of art, including this painting of a corner on Calle 13, in Bogotá's cell phone district. 

A winged chair and two photos of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


mauricio forero l said...


Awesome post.

I love this post, Mike. Let me tell you, I HATE those assholes. They force the indigenous people to leave their lands. It should be a special punishment for this kind of crime.

Mauricio Forero.

Miguel said...

Thanks Mauricio.


city said...

nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

Minka Kell said...

Nicely done. thanks for shearing it with us. keep it up.
Liquid Latex

Daniele Lim said...


I would like to request for your permission to use one of your photos on this website for a school project purpose. Please let me know as soon as you can if you grant me the right to. My email is, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you,

rahul said...

Excellent body painting.