Colombian artist Maria Pena’s works find themes from her experience of migration, borders, place and memory

Wet clothes hang drying on broken walls. Some debris falls loose and there’s the air of eking a living amidst poverty. This oil painting on canvas by Colombian artist Maria Pena could be of a scene anywhere in India. But Maria says she drew from the everyday visuals of her hometown in Colombia. In Kochi for a month-long “self-organised art residency”, Maria’s solo exhibition at Springr in Mattanchery, ‘The Fabric of Time’, paints many such parallels between Colombia and India.

A graduate of fine arts from the Academy of Arts in Bogota, with a masters from Melbourne, Australia, Maria says the experience of migration, borders, place and memory have been the key themes in her work for five years now. “The Latin American diaspora of Chileans, Argentineans and others have found their way across the world, so this is a very real issue back home. Once you leave your nation, you carry your memory and your identity in your mind but you are in this ‘middle place’ that is neither at home, nor fully part of the foreign country,” she says. The Fabric of Time, thus, features five paintings done in Colombia from a series formally named ‘Landscapes for the memory’, with another four paintings Maria made in May and June this year living in Fort Kochi.

Two of the Colombia paintings feature men with the Andean plateau symbolising South America behind them and strange lands before them. In one the solitary man’s face is hidden behind a scarf and in the second, branches cover the faces of two men. “Immigration is about a shift in identity. You play a game of remembering and forgetting your past, which I represent through the unclear faces in my work,” says Maria. Her depiction of immigration is informed by her own transition to Melbourne, a place she calls ‘many countries within one country’ for it is home to people from the world over, often seen segregated in ghettos or together in public transport. Maria today spends her time between Colombia and Melbourne where she teaches Spanish and art in primary school.

Identity and memory in Maria’s work is also spoken through the theme of fabric. Her grandmother was a seamstress of fine garments and Maria remembers growing up playing with the mountains of fabric in her home. Through her education in visual theory, Maria encountered a concept by art historian Charles Merewhether that looked at fabric as the “absent presence” for even in the absence of the owner, the clothes themselves revealed something about the person - “the pleats and folds are containers of memory”. She adds, “I found this idea fit with my work about immigrants and my personal memories so I began using fabric, sometimes as a physical presence attached to the canvas, at other times painted onto it.” In her Colombian work ‘Floating House’, a man leaves his home destroyed by a natural disaster, left only with the clothes he has rummaged.

Fabric features most in Maria’s India series. The first shows a Rajasthani woman working while a shawl veils her face; another looks at the Malayali man’s lungi folds, a third paints Rajasthani gypsy women carrying water as bright saris fall over their backs. These images are created from photographs of her travels in India and from Maria’s own observations of the world around her as she painted from the balcony of her homestay. In each, Maria finds a link to Colombia: the gypsy women remind her of the Afro-Colombian community whose women carrry head loads, and the men in her painting read Malayalam newspapers collaged onto the canvas, which talk of farmers, pesticides and issues of land - “all of that happens back home too”.

Maria will give a talk about her work at Springr today at 2 p.m. and will conduct a workshop about the first steps of painting on Saturday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibition is open till 6 p.m. on June 23.