Simon Hosie and Colombia show a joyful side of the South American country

Simon Hosie, one of Colombia’s hottest young architects, scales partway up the 46-foot bamboo-and-steel tower he is erecting smack in the center of the Mall. From that perch, he contemplates which elements of his creation will blow Washington’s mind the most.

Will it be the clothes hanging on the line? The gaudy pastel colors of the canvas facades? The badly spelled — yet curiously wise — messages painted by hand, in Spanish? The illusion of haphazardly stacked boxes defying the cold logic of the Washington Monument and the Capitol?

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“In this moment,” Hosie declares, “this is not Washington. This is Colombia!”

The joyfully anarchic structure will define the urban section of the South American nation’s display at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (June 30-July 4; July 7-11). It’s meant to evoke the unplanned profusion of working-class barrios seen across Latin America, including the steep hills of Bogota.

But Hosie’s sly and symbolic design also shows the extent of Colombia’s ambitions for this star turn on a world stage. At an optimistic moment when the nation would dearly like to shake the image etched by decades of guerrilla war and drug smuggling, Colombia is not content merely to send an exotic postcard to America.

The country’s complex cultural soul will come through in the astonishing range of arts and crafts that 1 million-plus festival visitors have come to anticipate at the diligently curated annual affair. There will be weavers, singers, dancers, harpists, herders, cooks, carvers, coffeemakers, potters, braiders, florists, jewelers and a guy with an awesome Jeep, which he calls a yipao.

Hosie’s creations lend unexpected nuances to the presentation, not least of which is his own sensibility, marrying folk traditions to the avant-garde. He designed most of the structures for Colombia’s portion of the festival, including 15 tall and broad bamboo-and-canvas shelters for the artisans and spectators. Those were inspired by simple banana-leaf structures used by a relatively recently discovered tribe in the Colombian Amazon.

During past festivals, other countries have erected illustrative constructions, but none has been so intent on dispensing with prefab nylon tents and signage in favor of original designs to lend an overall style, says Olivia Cadaval, the Smithsonian curator for the Colombia show.

“They have taken this to another level,” she says.

Deep immersions

In Colombia, Hosie, 36, is known for fanatically deep immersions in remote micro-societies from which he emerges a few years later with prize-winning architecture and, frequently, paintings and oral histories as well, and new theories for designing a better future. He footnotes his laptop presentations of his work with Bob Dylan lyrics. (“I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest / Where the people are many and their hands are all empty.”)

In 2004, the soaring bamboo library he built with community members in an Andean village in Western Colombia made him the youngest architect, at 29, to win Colombia’s National Architecture Prize.

The tower on the Mall is inspired by the year Hosie spent in Paradise.

Barrio el Paraiso is one of the poorest neighborhoods of Bogota, with a million-dollar view overlooking the city. The people live in tiny dwellings of wood, cinder block, corrugated metal and plastic. The walls are painted bright colors, and residents write on the outside of their houses the types of services or goods they sell.

Hosie held workshops for 70 residents to paint large canvases the way they would paint their houses and write whatever they wanted on the canvases. These would become the panels for the tower on the Mall — a direct channel from Paradise to Washington.

Some wrote advertisements; others wrote moodier statements.

“Julio will cut your hair.”

“They shot me and I lost my memory.”

Misspellings and mistakes reveal telling double meanings. One person wrote, “I serve others with affection,” but the spacing of the letters in “others” can be read to say, “I serve those with more, with affection.”

Visibly moved when he speaks of the people of Paradise, Hosie says they have values and culture that don’t get enough respect from “those with more” in society. Yet he doesn’t want to sentimentalize their deprived condition. He’s designing projects to give them opportunities beyond Paradise, on their own terms.

“It’s like a big document about how simple persons in Colombia live,” he says of the tower. “There’s the complete reality of the country: beautiful people in difficult situations.”

Years of preparation

Colombia has been preparing for this moment for three years. Teams of researchers combed forests, mountains, jungles, river valleys, coasts and plains for the finest exemplars of cultural traditions.

The resulting festival display is called “Colombia: The Nature of Culture.” Just as Colombia’s dramatically eclectic geography and climate have made it one of the most biodiverse countries, so those natural forces have driven its plethora of cultural expressions, according to Colombian and Smithsonian curators.

Visitors will take a kind of journey through six “cultural ecosystems” and the three largest cities, meeting 100 artists along the way, some of whom have never ventured out of their communities before. Translators will be on hand to facilitate conversation.

In the Andean Highlands, Rosa Maria Jerez Ruiz will show her ceramic Virgins, which have features like the women in her community. In the Coffee Region, Jhon Jairo Amortegui Pina, a yipero, will show off his yipao, which isa vintage red Willys Jeep. These post-World War II surplus vehicles revolutionized transportation on rugged coffee fincas, to the point where a yipao is now a unit of measurement, as in: How much for a yipao — a Jeepful — of coffee beans or plantains? Fully loaded yipaos are featured in parades, where yiperos perform tricks, such as wheelies.

In the Pacific Tropical Rainforest, Ziomara Asprilla Garcia will demonstrate the local art of braiding hair into elaborate structures — and do the same for visitors’ hair, if they like. In the Southeastern Plains, a member of a cowboy music group called Grupo Cabrestero will show how an a cappella song can soothe the cattle.

The city of Cali is home to world champion salsa dancers, who will put on shows, while the tango champs from Medellin will do the same. Alexander de Jesus Nieto Marin, also from Medellin, will walk around with his enormous harness of fresh-cut flowers, the way they do at the flower fair in Medellin, where participation privileges are so coveted, they are handed down through the generations.

It all should put a human face on the nation and offer a rich sensory rebuttal to the “bad image or no image at all” that Americans may have about Colombia, says Maria Claudia Lacouture Pinedo, chief executive of ProExport Colombia, the nation’s tourism promoter. “There is a big gap between perception and reality about Colombia.”

Tying everything together are Hosie’s allusive bamboo structures.

The type of bamboo he uses is called guadua, which grows in Colombia. In just a matter of several years, guadua matures into tall, resilient timbers, an ideal renewable resource, Hosie says. He got the commission to build toll plazas out of guadua and glass on the main highway through the Coffee Region.

And yet, using guadua for the tower of Paradise on the Mall seems a violation of the Colombia festival’s thesis that culture is specific to place. There is no guadua in Paradise.

Ah, says Hosie, but he is making a larger argument about Colombian folk culture. Just as Colombia’s future lies in its vast majority of honest folk — the people in Paradise, the artists on the Mall — who are not wooed by violent ideologies and easy money, Hosie says, so Colombia’s future also may lie in finding homegrown, self-reliant folk solutions to modern problems. Think guadua.

“I say being modern is not building with new materials but thinking in a contemporary way,” he says. “And for me, being contemporary in the vanguard is to understand the problems we have now and try to solve them for the future. . . . All my work is inspired in these traditions.”

As the tower rises, he says, a bit of graffiti will appear. The message will say, in Spanish, “You have 12 days to abandon this,” followed by a word that’s hard to decipher. It could be “mal” — evil — or it could be “mall.” The interpretation is up to the viewer, he says.

The former, for example, could be a message from Colombia to itself, or an invitation for North Americans to reflect.

The latter would be the approximate amount of time Colombia has to bask in this showcase on the great Mall of America.

 
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