“Social detonator”: in the work and life of the artist, different classes collide


LONDON – When he was little Oscar Murillo told his best friend he was moving to London, but his boyfriend refused to take him seriously: their close-knit community in southwest Colombia was the kind of place where families stayed for generations, where almost everyone worked at the candy factory that dominated the city’s economy.

The news, however, was true. In the 1990s, 11-year-old Oscar left La Paila, Colombia, and arrived in east London, where his parents worked as office cleaners.

Speaking little English and having been moved, he takes refuge in the drawing. These early scribbles oriented Mr. Murillo towards painting, which in turn led to a multimedia art practice and, in 2019, his win the Turner Prize, one of the most prestigious distinctions in the art world.

But memories of La Paila, and the help he found in those early scribbles, still inform his work, which is now on display in major museums around the world. His canvases, multi-layered color quilts that can also include glued grime and oversized Spanish words, now sell for $ 300,000 or more at auction.

“My work is a social detonator,” said Mr. Murillo in a soft voice, a way for the son of working-class immigrant parents to blast the barriers surrounding a social class that typically denies entry to people like him. “It’s a way to infiltrate the system.”

While some might see a contradiction or even hypocrisy in an artist earning so much to send a socially conscious message, critics see it differently.

“Yes, her work is relatively expensive, but it is also rooted in exploiting labor in global markets,” said Linda Yablonsky, a renowned art writer. “He draws attention to himself through his materials and his work process. “

For example, in his first major solo exhibition in New York in 2014, he reconfigured the gallery into a functional replica of the chocolate factory from his childhood, as a way to highlight social inequalities and post-colonial economies.

His huge studio in industrial north London, where he not only paints but also works in sculptural installations, videos and other mediums, has a more conventional look, filled with stacks of canvases. But the unexpected twist is that several hundred of these paintings were not created by Mr. Murillo – but by children around the world.

In 2013, he sent blank canvases to La Paila so that children had something to express themselves. Then he sent canvases to schools in Zambia, then Kenya.

Mr. Murillo has since made available more than 40,000 canvases whose empty spaces have been filled by the creative efforts of children in 34 countries.

As Mr. Murillo walked through his studio on a cool November day, he stopped in front of some of the canvases and pulled out those of Mumbai children, whose use of color he particularly admired.

“The idea is to let these children explore in the intimate reality of the school office, to mark their own desires,” he said, adding that he viewed the canvases as “recording devices.” absorbing the thoughts of children. “The truth of a society comes out naturally.”

The canvases, which are collected after acquiring months of patina in student classrooms, have been exhibited in major art venues and triennials on three continents, and are being digitized.

It is important for Mr. Murillo that the canvases “were not treated in a paternalistic manner like children’s drawings”, declared Clara Dublanc, co-director of Institute of Frequencies, as the nonprofit project, a work in progress, is known.

While Mr. Murillo, 35, left Colombia a quarter of a century ago, his studio may look like an extension of his native country. Some studio assistants are from La Paila. Chitchat is about Colombian football scores.

If he had grown up in La Paila, Mr. Murillo imagines he would have ended up either as a “factory worker or as a” sicario “, a hit man.

His childhood friend Yeison Murillo (not a parent) spent 12 years as an adult pouring chocolate powder into a machine until he was laid off and immigrated to Seattle.

On the phone from the United States, he said he recalled Mr. Murillo’s return at 17 for a visit to La Paila.

“Oscar came back with big hair and big ideas,” said Yeison, who added that he didn’t pay much attention to the high conversation because his friend “always wanted to play football without shoes on.” .

But Mr Murillo’s artistic ambitions were serious, and he earned an MFA at the Royal College of Art, helping pay for his tuition by working as a cleaner.

A graduate degree, however, was no guarantee of success in London’s crowded art world, where he was just another graduate struggling to find a gallery. He often attended the vernissages of exhibitions.

“There was something different about him,” recalls Tom Cole, a gallery owner who met him during those lean years. “Talkative. Coming soon.”

Curious, Mr. Cole requested a studio visit; Mr. Murillo also invited him to a home cooked dinner.

“He was very engaging with very strong opinions on what art should be,” said Mr. Cole, now co-owner of the Sunday Painter Gallery in London. “How important it was for art to have a social and political role and how much art lacked.”

Adding a common element to his art helped him land his first exhibitions, and a collaborative approach has since been a hallmark of his practice: Mr. Murillo suggested that Mr. Cole cook in his gallery the same ones. arepas and tamales that he had just made for him.

“The show drew a big crowd and was fun,” Cole said of the 2011 exhibit. “He was really interested in the community aspect of bringing people together. “

Mr. Murillo was also interested in the collision of worlds that otherwise would probably never intersect: like art insiders and Colombian-born cleaners.

These are the first signs of what Murillo calls his “infiltrations,” as, he said, when “a collector in the United States sees the word ‘tamales'” floating on his wall in a painting. six digits in an expensive style. residence.

Mr. Murillo quickly caught the attention of leading gallery David Zwirner, who added him to their roster and still represents him.

“He’s had a meteoric rise, a justified rise,” said Mr. Cole, adding that Mr. Murillo had achieved both commercial and critical appeal. “Few artists do,” Cole said. “Murillo does both.”

One thing Mr. Murillo does not do, in his own words, is American-style identity politics.

“The only experience that matters seems to be the American experience, and it is not my experience,” Mr. Murillo said. “The world is a bigger landscape. Where is Brazil? Where is Colombia in the conversation about the race? I prefer not to enter this conversation as it is today. I find that this is ultimately a source of division.

That’s not to say that Mr. Murillo doesn’t view his art as politically charged. But he sees his concerns through this most English lens: “I prefer to speak of class,” he declared, which he sees as a more universal struggle.

While exhibiting from Paris to Tokyo, there was one place that remained largely unknown: Colombia.

For the past seven years, María Belén Saéz de Ibarra, a Colombian curator, has worked to change this by organizing a Murillo exhibition at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá. The show, “Conditions still unknown», Finally opened in October.

Ms Saéz de Ibarra recalls his arrival: “He opened his suitcase and took out a black cloth,” she said, referring to one of the unstretched canvases that Mr Murillo is known to hang. like falling flags in art pavilions. “He is a planetary nomad who carries his pain throughout the world.”

When the time came to set up the show, sometimes violent street protests against inequalities and police abuses rocked Colombia. Mr. Murillo called on student leaders of the protests to help set up the exhibit. “They were in danger. It was my way of getting engaged, ”he said.

While there, Mr. Murillo saw some of the discrimination faced by the millions of displaced Venezuelans who arrived there, even in La Paila.

“Ironically, in Colombia I’m the most sympathetic to the Venezuelan,” he said. “As a migrant, I understand what they are going through.”

The struggles he faced growing up marked him and influenced his politics and his art, but he became wary of dividing the world too sharply.

“I knew the oppressor and romanticized the oppressed people,” he said. “But the oppressed can also become monsters.”

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