A Day in the Life of Jacanamijoy

Entre los más cotizados y vigorosos artistas plásticos de Latinoamérica, el nombre de Carlos Jacanamijoy tiene un lugar privilegiado, al punto de que este sutilísimo pintor, repatriado luego de una fértil temporada neoyorquina, semeja a veces una prematura leyenda. La enorme exposición retrospectiva que tiene colgada en el MAMBO de Bogotá ha sido visitada por decenas de aficionados, especialistas y devotos. En exclusiva para Panorama de las Américas, el creador inga nos ofrece su inquietante testimonio.

By: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos: Lisa Palomino



Amid the uproar on the night of the triumphant opening of his retrospective exhibit, Carlos Jacanamijoy thought he saw himself in a quiet corner: solitary, immature, insubstantial, and anonymous, exactly who he was in this city more than three decades ago. Like something out of a science fiction story. But with all the guests and hangers-on, all the beautiful women and chattering critics gathered together at the legendary MAMBO, the Cinderella-like youth dissolved before the artist’s eyes like a kind of mirage.

Jacanamijoy looked everywhere but couldn’t find his double, perhaps another young artist just starting out in the Colombian capital who had bored into his consciousness during the heightened state brought on about by the triumph of the moment. He has been prone to these accidental episodes of life overloaded with symbolism since his childhood. Visions that last only seconds, fleeting associations capable of unleashing intense, subjective sparks. He likes to refer to them as epiphanies and this experience with the young “ghost” was one of them.

“Where did it all begin?” he asked himself as bright flashes of memory brought back visions of an abyssal existence, a daring aesthetic journey, an existential adventure filled with paradoxes, sublime moments, discoveries, encounters, and deadly distances. “Where did it all begin?” he wondered again as he chatted, sipping wine with those present, who required of him an astute aside, an ironic quip, or a steadfast maxim, and who, dancing gracefully, some a bit drunkenly, celebrated the paintings, which seemed almost capable of speech, throughout the three-story futurist edifice.

He saw himself again, standing on a corner somewhere in Bogotá, recently arrived in the big city, without much money or any contacts or friends, but with the strength and determination of a young artist. At the time he thought that everyone in the inhospitable metropolis knew each other and had agreed to deny him entry, much less success. He remembers seeing sullen, curt, and hardened people dressed in black, like soothsaying vultures, carrying umbrellas and (he never knew exactly why) seemingly enveloped in a fragile Chopin sonata. 

“Those were the days,” Jacanamijoy now recalls, without a trace of ill feeling, “when I was nothing more to them than an inferior, marginal being, an Indian from distant lands where men still burn with magical fire and who, according to the most radical among them, must be watched because they are different, strangers in the city, outrageous in the grey light of its canons. This was not, however, the first time I had seen and feared the inclement and often prosaic capital.”

His father, Antonio Jacanamijoy, brought him along on many occasions when he traveled to Bogotá to perform healing rituals as an initiate into the great mysteries of the Inga shamans from the Putumayo region, a group to which he belonged from an early age, famed for inducing hallucinations, spiritual journeys, and directed dreams.

“Many critics and viewers,” Jacanamijoy observed, “see my work as having grown out of my close ties to indigenous rituals. Some of them, exaggerating its importance, even believe the paintings are born merely of an artistic engagement with hallucination and certain sacred potions like the much esteemed yage.”

“I had the good fortune to take part in and learn from the beautiful mythology of my people,” says Jacanamijoy; “as an Inga adolescent, copper-colored, thoughtful, I was fascinated by the colors and shapes that rose up like a summons, a sinuous calligraphy, signals sent to me by the Universe, peals of laughter from Infinity, Nature’s flirtations. I traveled with my father often, constantly, and our travels were filled with wonder and cherished spiritual experiences. He traveled, almost always on foot, no matter how far, until his death at age 86. Untiring and filled with serenity, he visited Venezuela, Ecuador, and Brazil.”

“Thanks to these nomadic experiences, Bogotá was relatively easy,” points out Jacanamijoy somewhat heavily. “It wouldn’t be fair for you to imagine me like an unsociable, half-wild hermit frightened by the size of the buildings or the roar of big city traffic. No, what really scared me about it was the erroneous, arrogant, and pedantic behavior of almost everyone. It was too much for a man alone.”

Future Memory

“I arrived, like most others, at an austere, impersonal and slightly unpleasant student boarding house in Bogotá’s Chapinero neighborhood. Sometimes I see these places like squalid canoes with the job of rescuing all the shipwrecked souls left behind by this typhoon of a city. These are places where people with very limited resources can rent a room, or even a bed, while piecing together their dreams,” says Jacanamijoy as he looks around, scrutinizing his home in the Bosque Izquierdo, where this interview is taking place. It is spacious, filled with gorgeous architectural and decorative touches; four bright, roomy floors topped by an enormous studio and observatory. He scans the place, as if it suddenly appeared unreal and he felt beamed down into a triumphant dream from which it would be disturbing to wake.

“It was an ascetic, convent-like time of no parties or bohemian outbursts,” he recalls. A time when he went to bed early and woke with the sun. A time of work, volcanic artistic emotion, and rather limited personal adventures. A season of subjective sunrises, necessary on the path to finding himself.

One scene from this modest period marked him forever: the afternoon he witnessed two women posing nude for a group of budding Picassos in one of the classrooms at the Universidad de la Sabana. They were beautiful, full-bodied, and enchanting, inviting contemplation. He observed them for a few minutes and while enjoying the aesthetic feast he discovered once and for all that artists are nothing if not responsible for eternalizing all the beauty and poetry which time effaces.

Soon, the conventions, canons, and antiquated methods of transmitting artistic truth employed by professors at academies and universities (he spent time at the Universidad de la Sabana, flirted with the Javeriana and Los Andes, but finally graduated from the Universidad Nacional) seemed paltry and insufficient. He began looking for himself in front of the canvas, while using color, unconvinced that most young artists can get anywhere through epic construction of an identity. Because of his mistrust of academia, he even turned down two European scholarships.

“At first, when you’re just beginning your journey, things don´t seem easy. Where to search for the sap with which to nourish a true work of art? Where are the seeds of Jacanamijoy’s world, autonomous and visible to the viewer’s eye? I was lost until one morning, quite wonderfully and naturally, I started to recall my childhood, my land, and my early wanderings, the images that had stayed with me and formed my identity. And it was as if it all circulated inside my veins, my brain, my arms, and my hands, and began to come out like some splendid lineage. That’s where it all began.”

The Rise of the Inga

“I discovered that the future lies in the past,” says Jacanamijoy, smiling. “It may have been through my discovery of fine artists like Wilfredo Lam, Diego Rivera, Roberto Mata, or Rufino Tamayo. Or maybe my literary travels to the worlds of Marcel Proust and James Joyce, or simply the shivers I felt when revisiting Santiago de Putumayo, but in any case, my paintings began contain a truth and transparency they never had before.”

“Whoever looks closely at my work will find among the easels, corrupted by desire, imagination, eroticism, absences, and the rush of life, every chapter in my biography, especially the ones that hurt, amaze, and refuse to become my past. How could I forget my parents, Antonio Jacanamijoy and Mercedes Tisoy, grinding up plants in a gourd, in the shining Putumayo sun? Or the childhood games played by Inga children with chilacuanes, which were nothing more than burnt sticks to which we attached little legs or hung from strings to bring them to life and turn them into playmates for our adventures? How could I forget my grandfather, seated eternally in front of his woodworking shop and proud of the decades he spent with missionaries? Or my grandmother in her changra, the Inga word for garden, planting vegetables and caring for the streams? Or the day I graduated from the Universidad Nacional and became the first indigenous person to get a degree from this prestigious institution? 

Or Brother Bibiano, a diehard Marian who dedicated his life to guiding and igniting the gifts and talents of indigenous students at the school in Santiago, and who, when he died was buried like one of us, next to the shamans and Putumayo people, in a tomb that to this day is always covered in fresh flowers? These memories come and go, in both our memories and our works of art.”

The Artist and his Circumstances

The name Carlos Jacanamijoy is now sacrosanct in Latin American art circles. His shows in the US, China, and Europe have garnered critical acclaim and the union of pre-Hispanic heritage and Western culture in his work excites critics and amuses him, since his rise to fame has given him a window into new aspects of the human comedy.

“Now, many of those who pushed me away and couldn’t stand my Inga presence invite me to their parties and enjoy drinking whisky with me. It’s fine with me, but I never miss a chance to make fun of the imposed customs, inexplicable aristocratic airs, fictional lineages, monarchic pretenses, and cartoon-like customs based on rancid European nobility. In Colombia, for example, I have good friends in three cities overflowing with arrogance and social pedantry: Manizales, Cartagena, and Popayán”.

“I think indigenism is a dangerous label and I doubt my work can be explained solely in this way. You have to remember that this is all part of the demagoguery of power; presidents and campaigning candidates use it for practical purposes, along with other commonly employed concepts like justice and equality. True art, on the contrary, is there to destroy stereotypes, paradigms, and clichés.”

“Strangely enough, now that I’ve managed to realize my aesthetic dream, countless detractors have risen up to bar my way. They claim I’ve sold out simply because I’m getting paid. I have this to say to those sour critics: ‘Shouldn’t it be considered a lofty goal to create a world in which artists are paid, and paid well?’ Why shouldn’t a violinist, a photographer, or a dancer be able to make a living from their work?”

He then finishes by saying: “Although I lived in New York, I’m going to remain in Bogotá. I love it and I have proof that it loves me too…”