Miriam Londoño connected with me from her studio in Medellín, Colombia, where she grew up and once again resides, having spent more than half her life living outside of the country. After more than three decades abroad, largely in Holland, she decided in 2016 to return to her roots in Colombia. During our video chat in May 2019, I sought to learn about the impact on her art from her experience living in the Netherlands as a Colombian and how her art has changed now that she has returned indefinitely.
I first met Miriam Londoño in Sofia, Bulgaria where we were both attending the biennial Congress for the International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists (IAPMA). Her signature paper calligraphy artwork appealed to my love of handwritten art and paper, and we immediately connected. Although we spoke only briefly during the conference, I learned bits and pieces of her previous expat life and was fascinated. What I did not know at that time was how deeply her life abroad influenced both her unique paper technique and the subjects of her paper drawings and calligraphy.
It is not only her travels but also Londoño’s resilient nature as an outsider that influences her art. Though instrumental in defining her career as an artist, Londoño’s first international travel actually did not occur until post-university when she spent several years studying fine arts in Italy. Following this period, she returned to Colombia and shortly fell in love with a Dutchman, a relationship which sparked the next few chapters of international travels in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas, and ultimately a family together. She has been deeply influenced by these periods of being a traveler, knowing the stay would be temporary, coupled with the seemingly indefinite periods in Holland where she identified as an immigrant. Traveling is what ultimately brought Londoño to papermaking, and life as a foreigner is at the core of what is reflected in her artwork.
Londoño’s technique of drawing and writing with paper pulp really erupted after her move with her family from Thailand back to Holland. The years Londoño was in Thailand (1997–2002) were filled with intense exploration into the world of handmade paper. Thanks to her contact with Idin Paper Mill, she had the opportunity to deeply learn the methods and materials used in that country, as well as becoming more aware of the international paper-art scene.
However, upon leaving Thailand and coming back to Holland for the second time, Londoño found herself raising her two adolescent children, with less help, and much less time to herself—a different, and at times, overwhelming lifestyle. This adversity served as a turning point in Londoño’s oeuvre. Using these new restrictions, she developed a technique to pulp paint large pieces with many colors without the need of a press, drying system, nor a lengthy clean-up. In fact, this developed over time to become her signature technique, a fusion between Western and Asian papermaking techniques.
During all those years of confrontation with unfamiliar languages, Londoño often felt limited in her ability to express what she thought and felt. Without realizing it, this limitation became the force that compelled her to use language as art. This materialized into her trademark technique of using paper and language. Londoño created Stories of Immigrants (2007), pieces featuring text from other immigrants in Holland who also found themselves dealing with the challenges and emotions of not being able to fully communicate and, more particularly, not being fully understood.
Now back in her home country of Colombia, Londoño employs her experiences as an immigrant to guide her to a deep sense of empathy for migratory populations, especially those forced from their homes. In her series, Testimonies (2012), for instance, she used her paper-pulp writing technique to draw the personal stories of Colombian women displaced by violence. In the series Via Dolorosa (2016), Londoño has expanded her imagery from language into figure, drawing Syrian refugees, faceless and empty, but always moving.
The feeling of being a foreigner has disappeared with her return to Colombia. However, when Londoño first came back, she recalls still feeling like a stranger to some extent. To cope with this transition period, she started using her pulp-painting technique to draw a map of Medellín as a way to refamiliarize herself, a way to fill the “need to know where I was.” Returning to the themes of her drawings and calligraphy, Londoño has also created maps based on refugee routes from several countries, exploring in this body of work subtle but impactful effects of leaving maps incomplete to show how a community has suffered.
Whether it is derived directly from her own personal and worldly experience or as a representation of others’ geopolitical challenges, Miriam Londoño continues to delve into the full artistic potential of her technique. Ironically, a method once borne from constraint-driven challenges has over time refined itself as a proven outlet and platform for stunning, boundless expression, giving voice and form to all the “outsiders” of the complex world we each inhabit and explore.