You walk into an air-conditioned building in Washington, D.C., and suddenly you're surrounded by rivers.
You can hear them, from the bubbling chuckle of a current to an unforgiving roar.
You can see them, foamy currents rushing past on video screens.
And when you take a break and sit down on a chair — carved out of reclaimed rainforest wood — you look up to see cascades of linen and plastic that seem to pour from the ceiling like flowing water.
Welcome to Waterweavers, an exhibit at the Art Museum of the Americas that represents the contemporary culture of Colombia with a focus on rivers (including the Amazon), woven art and life in the rainforest.
The exhibition was organized by the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York City, and curated by Jose Roca with Alejandro Martin. It appears at the AMA through September 27 thanks in large part to the support of the Colombian Embassy.
Rivers, I find as I walk through the show, have many meanings. In a mountainous country, they are an alternative to what museum director Andres Navia calls "one of the most inefficient land transportation systems." They can harbor violence, as their waters are used to move drugs, guns and money that fuel the armed conflict between guerrilla groups and the government.
And the rivers of Colombia also inspire the country's artists. Adriana Ospina, the collections curator of the AMA, leads me on a tour of the exhibition, describing each piece as we go. Some are simple: a tall blue waterfall of linen that cascades from the second to the first floor is meant to evoke water and is fastened at the top with a simple knot, as if the artist were about to begin weaving. A canoe—"you can put it in the water and it actually works!"— is covered in beads in traditional designs.
One of the most important pieces, in Ospina's opinion, is not tied directly to rivers but to the history of the rainforest. It's by the artist Alberto Baraya: a latex cast of an actual rubber tree, historically tapped for rubber in the Amazon. During the rubber boom from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the Amazon's resources were exploited. So were the native peoples who made up much of the labor force. The latex tree is scarred with indentations made by the rubber tappers.
To me, the most powerful work is a video installation, by the artist Clemencia Echeverri, titled Treno and subtitled "Funereal Song" in English. The room is dark, and two facing video screens are filled with the broad, dark expanse of the Cauca River. The sound of roaring water fills the space, first broken only by birdsong and jungle noises. As the short video plays, Ospina explains, "You see how the river starts growing and growing and becoming really violent." The water reaches more than halfway up the screen, and rapids become visible. "And all of a sudden you hear the scream of someone, it's like a fisherman asking for help," Ospina says. "If you pay attention to the river and screams, you'll see things that are floating out of the river." There are all sorts of things that can be found floating on this river, she says. Clothing. Garbage. Bodies. The calm of nature broken by human violence.
But if you stand there for a moment in the dark, watching the video, it comes to an end and then starts anew. The rapids calm, the water level sinks back to the bottom of the screen, and the sounds of tumult are replaced again by the singing of birds. That's the message I take home with me. Out of chaos, beauty.