With TV shows like Narcos and films like American Made, Colombia may evoke images of the drug trade and the infamous Pablo Escobar for some viewers—but a recently released documentary series is giving audiences a glimpse into the beauty of this South American country.
After visiting Colombia for the first time in 2010, Toronto-based photographer Che Kothari discovered the country’s thriving art scene. At the time of his visit, the nation was still in the middle of a civil war, but young creatives were using art—including music, murals and fashion—to help heal their communities.
Kothari has spent much of his career bringing art workshops to youth across the world through his non-profit organization, Manifesto, and he decided he wanted to do something to help Colombia. He’s now done just that: as host of the short documentary, When in Roam: Colombia, Kothari is showing viewers a vibrant side of the nation that’s often ignored.
When in Roam is a multi-part docu series produced by Fido and VICE that explores what it means to connect in different cultures across the globe. FLARE was at the premiere in Toronto and sat down with Kothari afterwards to talk about why he wanted to bring attention to Colombia’s art culture.
What was it about Colombia that made you want to get involved in this doc project?
Anything I’m going to be a part of has to resonate with me in terms of the integrity of the program and its authenticity. A lot has happened in the political world in Colombia in the last seven years, and I wanted to know what impact that peace treaty had between FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the government [which was implemented in 2016], and how it affected the young leaders and the community artists that were from there.
It was an amazing experience for me to witness the growth, as well as meet new people and see where Bogotá is at. There are very rich narratives, but stories are being perpetuated to paint a picture of a violent drug-ridden community. There are so many other stories that need to be told.
While filming the documentary, was it hard to narrow down whose stories you wanted to tell?
This is the first time I’ve played the role of a host. Some of the decisions were definitely collaborative, but there was an amazing director, Dylan Reibling, and two amazing producers on this as well. They allowed me to have a journey and connect with the people that I wanted to, but also helped facilitate who were the most important voices to capture. We were focusing on what’s going on right now, and the amazing organizations.
What is it about Colombia’s art scene that makes it different?
Art is a reflection of the people and their stories and the environment. What’s so unique about Colombia, first of all, is when you drive in from the airport to Bogotá, the scope of murals is just phenomenal. Everywhere you look there are either tags or a mural. The messages within these murals are telling stories. They’re talking about displaced people, the lives that have been lost. There are huge murals of the Indigenous people and reflections of the human spirit, as well as nature and animals making the concrete jungle a little bit more friendly.
How would you say the artists featured in your doc are inspiring the next generation of Colombians?
I can give a great example of two of the organizations. One of the organizations is in Bogotá, the APC Collective. I do an interview [in the doc] in front of this large APC Collective mural—that organization is about all street artists from different areas. They work together and have common visions about bringing the power of the animal spirit into the public domain and the importance of putting art in public spaces.
Another organization in Medellín, Son Batá, is doing this work in Comuna 13. It’s in neighbourhoods where people were afraid to go, where the reign of Pablo Escobar was. Son Batá has a recording studio, music programs and workshops going on all the time. When young people come to these spaces, they become incubated through art.
You work with a lot with marginalized groups and young people through your organization, Manifesto. Why is it important for young people to express themselves through their own forms of art?
Culture, at the end of the day, is the way we live. I think that we don’t take enough time to reflect. We’re born into systems now where at four years old you’re in pre-school, five years old, you’re in kindergarten. In these spaces, we don’t actually teach kids how to live the way in which they want to live. You have the power to actually create your life. We’ve been stripped of that [idea] because we’re in these systems that are built for us to follow suit. I think that once we teach young people to really recognize who they are, they have to start unpacking that.