In an attempt to understand himself and his origins, Colombian artist and photographer Silvino González embarked on a journey of listening to the stories of elderly people in indigenous communities in the Department of Cauca, Colombia. He called his project Wisdom on the Skin, as he realised that a search for wisdom starts with the true appreciation of what is right in front of us.
From racist remarks used in electoral politics, to the language people use to express themselves on a daily basis, the ravages of colonialism perpetuate racism and discrimination towards the ancestral inhabitants of this part of the world. Observing this at a personal level, Silvino realised that it was time to uncover and understand his roots and pay homage to his ancestry. He uses photography as a tool to fight racist behaviour, as his finds it a duty of any artist to respond to injustice and prejudice.
“We live bombarded with stereotypes of gender, age, class, beauty. Photographers have participated by presenting the ‘other’ as someone different, as someone who is far and inferior, or superior,” says Silvino, who seeks to question himself and the very structures that operate in our societies.
Silvino affirms that the main motivation behind this project was to deepen his knowledge about the indigenous communities of Cauca. This interest was sparked by a life-changing encounter during his time at University. “I met Gustavo Yonda, my Unek (brother in Nasa Yuwe language), when we were both studying Graphic Design,” remembers Silvino, who states that this friendship has been a starting point for the discovery and understanding of his own Misak ancestry.
Gustavo, a member of the communities of Cauca, and his family welcomed Silvino and opened their hearts and homes for his project. “The accomplishment of all the photographs would have been impossible without their help,” explains Silvino. “I am not indigenous. I am a white man, and I belong to the society that has been unfair towards aboriginal peoples,” he concludes.
“The goal was to pay tribute to the lives and wisdom of the elders that allowed me to come closer to their daily lives. I needed to approach them. I learned to listen, to leave the city life behind and learn from the patience of years of struggle and knowledge”, says Silvino.
Another challenge was to leave his comfort zone and do documentary and portrait photography, which can be quite challenging for a person with high-functioning autism. “I had to learn how to work with this condition and move forward in this process of learning how to make it nurture my work.”
“Photography builds mirrors in which we see others and we see ourselves at the same time,” affirms Silvino. “It helps us establish an emotional bond with the audience and understand what unites us with the people in the photographs. I can´t help but find pieces of me, of my story, and my family in each and every picture of the elders that participated.”
As an artist and a creator of images, Silvino recognizes his responsibility for the past, the present, and the future. “We must take responsibility and undo decades of marginalization and discrimination. That is a fundamental aspect of my work.”
To build and preserve identity and memory is not an easy task, but this comes quite naturally in Silvino’s work. His warm and respectful approach towards the peoples of Cauca can be felt throughout the project. It is almost as if you could listen to their voices, and the beauty of every wrinkle and every scar is made into an ode to the years of sacrifice and life accomplishments.
Ensuring he has woken up from an ethnic amnesia, Silvino continues to work on this project, looking to expand Wisdom on the Skin to more indigenous groups in Colombia, and together with his Unek Gustavo, he is working on a think tank project called “Vxuu Sxita”, a space for the exchange of knowledge between ancestral communities, academia, and the world of the arts.
The opportunity of renewing our vision of the world comes when we open our hearts. But first, we must listen to the wisdom that surrounds us.
Words: Astrid Scheuermann
Photography: Silvino González
Copy edited by: Elena Stanciu