The photograph on the cover of Jardín de mi padre (My Father’s Garden, 2020) shows Luis Carlos Tovar, carried in his mother’s arms as an infant. On the right side of the image, a man’s arm reaches from outside the frame towards Luis Carlos – his fingers are only a few centimeters away. Time is frozen before contact can be made, and we’re left to imagine how the rest of the scene unfolds. It’s an evocative and symbolic beginning that immediately speaks to a close distance – in this case, the ambivalent proximity and remoteness between a father and a son. It’s also a reference to the impossibility of fully grasping another person’s pain, an underlying idea throughout the book.
On February 20th 1980, Luis Carlos’ father, Jaime Tovar, a businessman from the Caquetá department, was abducted by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and held in captivity for months in the tropical rainforest of the Colombian Amazon. A month after his abduction, on March 23rd, the guerilla fighters sent a Polaroid photograph to Luis Carlos’ family as a proof that he was still alive to continue the negotiations for ransom. This photograph, never seen by Luis Carlos, became part of the family myth and is the starting point of this project. The Polaroid represents a “missing image” much in the sense attributed by French film theorist Dork Zabunyan, prompting Luis Carlos to speculate and imagine what is not there – to make perceptible what is absent. The result is a poetic and compelling reflection about memory, family, trauma and state violence, interlacing, and often superposing, family photographs, cyanotypes and archival materials.
I sat down and spoke to Luis Carlos in April at his studio at the Fondation Fiminco in Paris, where he is currently pursuing this body of work, giving new forms and lives to the story of his father’s abduction. Our exchange has been edited for length and clarity.
“I didn’t want a camera. I wanted a direct relation to nature with my hands and to work on that garden using the sun as a source of light. The sunlight illuminates and what remains is the emptiness of the silhouette, of what is not there.”
Daniel Mebarek: Thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview. I wanted to firstly ask you: When did you start this project? And what motivated you to revisit the documents that your family kept of your father’s kidnapping after so many years?
Luis Carlos Tovar: In 2015, I had participated in a curatorial project called the Museo Efímero del Olvido (Ephemeral Museum of Oblivion) led by Cristina Lleras. At that time, the peace process in Colombia was already being drawn out. So, she decided to make a critical project to question what memory is, and what memory is for. The curatorial project also proposed to explore the notion of forgetting as a mechanism to become aware of time. She invited many artists nationwide and I became part of that curatorial project where I did a project called Deshacer_Undo (2015). It was a project about the displacement of a thousand students from a public school. More than 300 students and teachers from the Colegio General Santander in Bogotá used a 1935 school board as a window of sorts in order to write and draw their memories of the school from which they were unjustly displaced in 2008.
So, from that experience, I started to think about the idea of memory. I had also been working with different communities through collective projects for years. But I had never asked myself about my personal history, what happened in my family. It was always something very hidden, silent.
My first major obstruction was not photographing my father. It seemed to me that it was a non-photographic gesture, but ultimately almost like a photographic one. Because it’s talking about what you cannot see. So the decision of not photographing my father was connected to the impossibility of not being able to see the [Polaroid], the proof of life.
DM: From this conscious decision of not taking any pictures of your family, how do you build the project from archival materials? What items do you gather to create this work?
LCT: My mother had put together a red folder during the kidnapping where she kept all the news clippings about my father’s kidnapping. It’s a folder she continued for years on other kidnappings as well. There were also the extortion letters, not only from that year but also until almost 2002. As well as a diversity of telegrams, which are included in the book. Telegrams from the beginning of the kidnapping to the moment he was released. And inside the folder, there were some Ektachrome slides. The humidity of the forest – the manigua as it is called in this region of the country – had affected them, generating microorganisms. I wanted to show that. There are about four Ektachrome slides that appear at the beginning of the book.
There were also some undeveloped film rolls, which had also been consumed by time and invaded by the microorganisms. This dematerialization of photography is one of the conditions of post-photography and one of my main research topics.
That is when I also began to realize that an important idea was the construction of the notion of nature and I started to read a book called “The Five Doors of The Landscape” (2009) of Jean-Marc Besse. The situationists, the surrealists had already talked about it, he reuses the idea of ”mental landscapes” and how a mental landscape ends up being much more powerful. Which is a bit like the construction of the Amazon that Europeans have. And how for those that live there or are from there, it is something else. So there is like a great dislocation of the idea of nature. And then I realized that “My Father’s Garden” was like a way of talking about a “lost territory”. But in this case, it was the one from childhood.
DM: You speak of nature, there are elements in the project that come from things that your father collected while he was kidnapped, butterflies and also plants. Can you tell me about these elements that you also include in your work?
LCT: My dad not only had an academic background in medicine, but he had a great fascination for botany. I had never understood why in my nursery I always saw butterflies hanging and a butterfly collection, especially the morpho butterflies. A diversity of morphos, all very battered. So I never understood until years ago when I started to rescue part of this butterfly collection. And in some of his books that he brought back from the kidnapping, he put many seeds, flowers and natural elements, all of them almost destroyed. Almost like an anti-herbarium if you can call it like that. And it was those vestiges of natural elements that I wanted to introduce into the book. But I didn’t know how to introduce them. So what I did was to resort to the cyanotype.
“The archive becomes a place to deconstruct and to play. Play to build an idea of the truth that for me is the one I have today. Tomorrow it may be another one.”
DM: I would be very interested in hearing how you relate your formal decisions – the use of cyanotype but also the superposition of images – with the narrative you wanted to create. Perhaps we can start with the use of cyanotypes, which is a central element of the work.
LCT: Yes, the cyanotype was a sort of color tool to classify the archive. So, in the first set, called the “Family Herbarium”, there were some seeds and some flowers and part of the [previous] herbarium. But then I realized that what mattered most was the garden today. Not those vestiges. One of the things that my father continues to do since he was released is gardening. And that garden is alive today. And that’s where I was working with my family together doing the herbarium, making the cyanotypes with direct sunlight.
I remember in this interview with David Hockney. He speaks of seeing with one eye. When you work with a camera you use the viewfinder to frame, so there is something you have to sacrifice because you stop seeing fully. And observing through one eye makes you see in a sort of myopic way. And so I didn’t want an intermediary. I didn’t want a camera. I wanted a direct relation to nature with my hands and to work on that garden using the sun as a source of light. The sunlight illuminates and what remains is the emptiness of the silhouette, of what is not there. In that sense, the garden is a “lost territory”.
Then comes everything that I call “Mapping the Past”, which I did not make in the garden because they were very delicate archives. They were all plans of the places where my dad worked – playing also a bit with the idea of “mental landscapes”. So I used some maps of places where he might have been during the kidnapping, what routes the guerrilla might have taken between Florencia and San Vicente. The newspapers had three different versions of where he was. So it was very interesting to speculate possible escape routes from the guerrilla fighters.
Then, there is what I call the “Intimate Taxonomy”. I began to ask myself about medical files – medical files that have, well, a very objective relation to pain. I turned to files from right after the kidnapping to now, when he suffers at old age from kidney failure.
And that was also how the final decision to use the cyanotype came to be. I accompanied my father to phototherapy. During phototherapy you’re in a cabin, which uses strong UV rays to counteract the effect of the poisoning of the blood on the epidermis that is generating an allergy, an itching over the body. It’s because when you no longer have kidneys, you cannot clean the blood and the blood is poisoned. The body is intoxicated and it generates a thousand curses [laughts] and phototherapy generates a cleansing and elimination of that poison.
And so while I accompanied him to that, I realized that the cyanotype was the perfect medium to use in this project.
DM: And another element that is important in the book is how you superimpose different materials to create layers. Can you tell me about this formal decision?
LCT: So after finishing the cyanotypes, I realize that I have another big chapter about the three doors to the utopia of the Latin American revolution: Marx’s “Capital” (1872), “What is to Be Done” (1902) by Lenin and “The Bolivian Diary” (1968) by Che Guevara. And I realized my father inserted the natural elements he collected inside the pages of those books. The three totems become his only physical and symbolic place to inhabit the jungle. And so I use these three architectures to insert family archives, newspaper clippings, as well as a diversity of photographic archives to narrate the chapter of his indoctrination by the guerilla fighters.
The superposition of images is the way I talk about memory layers. You can see it in Lisssitzky, all the Russian avant-garde, who make montages. Lisssitzky and Rodchenko use the montage to talk about involuntary memory, to talk about an image that is confusing, an image that is behind but also in front.
DM: What is the place of fiction in the narrative you were trying to create? Because the starting point of the project is precisely a Polaroid that you can’t see. And, as I understand it, it’s from that speculation that you start your creative process.
LCT: When we talk about memory, it’s a concept that in the end is mutable. First, it doesn’t have a single author and it doesn’t have an expiration date. And the country is making an effort to build a Museum of Memory that is fundamental from the standpoint of the State and its responsibility. But it’s also the responsibility of each individual, actor or non-actor, everyone who has been affected by this war.
Each individual leads an internal civil war. Each Colombian carries a memory and a capacity to emit a reflection on their personal memory. And, in that sense, I did not rely solely on my father’s testimony. It’s my own interpretation of the archives. It’s an activation of the archive. Because I am working with free associations and speculation. It’s not like I’m looking for an absolute truth. The archive becomes a place to deconstruct and to play. Play to build an idea of the truth that for me is the one I have today. Tomorrow it may be another one.
DM: Related to the question of truth. This makes me think about the use of photography to accompany demands for truth precisely in the context of Latin America. As we know, photography was used to ask justice for the desaparecidos during the dictatorships. For example, with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. And in the case of your father, fortunately, he is released after many months spent in the jungle. I would be interested to know how you relate this historical use of photography to your project.
LCT: In the history of photography, photography has been used to construct truths. So in the example you give, photography has been a tool to demand truth and recognition from a State that ignores reality or hides that reality. But, I go back and repeat, memory from the State or from an individual is always a construction. And, in that sense, reality has elements of fiction just as fiction also has elements of reality. And in art or photography, we look for the truth in metaphors.
Doris Salcedo, a Colombian artist who recently made a Counter-Monument called “Fragmentos” (2018) made from 8,994 melted rifles of the demobilized FARC guerrillas after the signing of the Peace Agreement, says something very powerful. She says: “Memory is a battlefield, it will always be an unstable ground.” This phrase reminds me of being in a very muddy terrain, where there is no place to stand. You have to be moving to avoid sinking. You’re never in a stable position, because what is stable is dead or becomes institutional. And it’s that instability that allows the construction of a diversity of truths and voices.
DM: I find that there is a lot of poetry in the project, in the way the images overlay and also how the sequence of the book creates a rhythm. And I was wondering if you had literary influences while you were thinking about this project or other kinds of influences.
LCT: Yes, maybe this is a common reference but Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” (1929) that I read many years ago. There is a very special phrase that I would often go back to even before the project. When you start to wonder about your identity and what your country is. He says: “The real homeland is the childhood”.
Magritte was always a very important figure for me as well, thinking about the idea of play – of the metaphor of what is real and what is not real. And in the painting that he calls “The Perfect Image” (1928) there is a woman – which I saw as my own mother seeing that image – the Polaroid. I was like: “This is the metaphor I was looking for.” And then there is the relationship with Man Ray’s “My Last Photograph” (1929). If my father had not survived, it would have been the last photograph of him
But also the entire Chorographic Commission from José Celestino Mutis to Humboldt. For me, my photography excursion was more from the metaphor of a garden. Like these Europeans who took part of the Chorographic Commission and botanical expeditions, my botanical expedition was with my family and it was something very inside out.
RM/Musée de l’Elysée
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Daniel Mebarek & Luis Carlos Tovar. Images @ Luis Carlos Tovar.)