Wall Murals, Conflict, and War: Preliminary Thoughts by Bill Rolston

An article I wrote originally Published by Rodeemos el Diagolo

A conversatorio held by Rodeemos el Diálogo at the University of Los Andes

19 October 2015

Professor Bill Rolston from the University of Ulster talk to ReD about political murals at the University of Los Andes. Bill, now retired, spent 35 years lecturing on sociology and transitional justice. Beginning in 1981 he took an interest in political murals as he liked how one could take a complex political idea and make it recognizable. He says he loves the art even if he hates the politics.

A lot of his interest is centered in his home country of Northern Ireland, but he has also studied street art in Chile, Gaza, Iran, and other countries. The Leverhulme Trust is supporting his investigation of street art in Colombia and he has now done research in several Colombian cities.

Before moving onto specific images, he qualified that graffiti was not as important to him as art. Academics are more attracted by the explicit messages found in art rather than intricate “tags” of graffiti artists; “old lefties” such as himself need things to be explicit.

He gave examples of murals with clear political messages around Bogotá, including one that had the number of victims of forced displacement and another with victims of the UP (Patriotic Union leftist party) as well as several images found in and around the National University. However he found the art of indigenous cultures in the Candelaria less authentic. He said the “exoticism” of these was more pronounced than the politics.

He finished Bogotá by admitting that his rejection of graffiti doesn’t work in Bogotá. Street artists in Bogotá have a reputation throughout Colombia of having it easy. Bogotá hasn’t had the massacres –its artists do politics from a distance. However, Bogotá is the only city he found in which a grafitero had been killed. Diego Felipe Becerra was 16 and was shot by a policeman who claimed he thought Diego had been armed robber.

We then moved to Cali. Bill displayed a famous mural by Museo Libre de Arte Publico de Colombia which had series of naked women outside a subway station. The diversity of the women was seemingly saying that although women are not all the same –don’t just “throw them in as one group” – they all still have equal rights. However, Bill used this opportunity to point out how murals can sometimes become a “white noise”. Of the 20,000 people who walked by that mural every day, how many of them would pick up on that message of diversity and equal rights?

We began Buenaventura with a picture from the humanitarian space of Puente Nayero. After a brief history of this humanitarian space Bill showed an enormous mural displaying the history of Buenaventura. From there we went to Toribio; Bill said it was his favorite spot for street art. Inside the town, with its links to the Nasa indigenous people, he found indigenous murals to be political as opposed to the exoticism of Bogotá. There were examples of indigenous resistance with corn as a central symbol.

While there weren’t many murals In Mocoa, there were some supported by women’s rights groups. Bill contrasted that with Barrancabermeja, where he found murals more influenced by the struggle between unions and paramilitaries. Cartagena was quickly passed over, with very little murals of note, to Mampujan where he found political messages related to paramilitary violence. Every city in Colombia has a unique political situation, and therefore the political murals are very particular to their city.

We finished in Medellin, which has a thorough influence of hip-hop. While it may appear at first to be a smaller version of Bogotá, it is a different place to work. As there is a greater level of paramilitary presence in Medellin, the graffiteros need to be a bit more discreet than in Bogotá. Here is an example from Comuna 13, which had suffered Operación Orión:


We then started a vivid discussion. The first question was on similarities and differences between Colombia’s street art and that of Norther Ireland’s. Bill’s conclusion is that every country is different –even cities within Colombia are different. The politics of each context determines what street art appears. The one common factor is that political murals often deal with memory –a fact specifically pronounced in Colombia.

There was a question on his mobility within Colombia, and he praised the help and support of Colombian academics, without which he would not have been able to do this project. We also talked about local government’s relationship with street artists, and how there was some support in Bogotá after the death of Diego. Another member asked about anti-North American murals in Colombia to which Bill replied he couldn’t find much specific anti-North American murals.

Another participant asked: how do we learn to “read murals?” Bill’s response was simple: you learn from the people who are able to read them. It centers in symbols. For example, in Gaza the most common symbol is a key. The keys represents keys to homes of Palestinian villages displaced by Israel. The key, therefore, represents memory, repression, and the hope of returning to use the keys again.

Another posed the question if murals had changed in Northern Ireland after the peace agreement had been signed, and if he had noticed any changes in Colombia. Had there been a pivot to the future? While in Colombia he hasn’t seen anything, Bill urged us not the think literally. The same symbols appear during and after conflict, but their meaning becomes redefined. He gave the example of Bobby Sands in Northern Ireland, whose image was transformed from “support the war” to “we haven’t given up on Bobby Sands, come with us (into the peace process)”.

We briefly touched on murals opposing the peace process, or if there was graffiti of the right. While graffiti is normally associated with the left, you can find right-wing graffiti. The dividing line between victims and perpetrators isn’t always clear; often, the perpetrators feel, or have felt, victimized in some way. Should they be allowed to put messages on the wall? Ultimately, from the conflict comes a new type of battle –a battle over memory, over victims, all taking place in public space.

This idea was expanded upon with a question on the weaknesses of the Northern Ireland peace process and how they might relate to Colombia. Perhaps the idea of memory wasn’t treated so thoroughly during the peace process, and for that reason conflict has been lingering. Perhaps, but Bill believes that normally when you move away from war you move towards a “meta war”, a war over memory. Therefore, we concluded that after a war, there is a conflict over what the conflict was about, and murals are one avenue through which this battle is displayed.