In Teusaquillo, a traditional neighborhood in Bogotá, Colombia, you will find Taller Circular—a collective studio dedicated to the production, teaching, and research of printmaking, experimental approaches to handmade paper, and artist book projects. Since 2018, along with artists Natalia Mejía, Cesar Faustino, and David Guarnizo, we have worked together with the aim to dynamize these artistic practices in the city, within a growing scene of young, emerging printmaking studios.
Our creative space has received local artists willing to learn about papermaking, its conceptual and expressive possibilities, in dialogue with a myriad of media such as sculpture, performance, and artist books, which we understand as a vehicle for oral histories. One such project is our collective artist book Atlas del Centro de Bogotá (Atlas of the Center of Bogotá, 2018), which metaphorically refers to Bogotá’s downtown as a body that supports historical, political, economic, and labor loads. We have connected these ideas with the mythological figure of Atlas, the titan who was condemned to carry the celestial sphere on his shoulders. We have also connected to the concept of Atlas as the systematic collection of maps that constitute the physical, social, and economic realities of a territory, defining the relationship between human activity and its repercussions in space.
We appropriated these concepts and their multiple meanings to embody an itinerant artist book comprised of a convertible wooden box that we carry around the city. We display it as a reading station, so that people are able to closely interact with the book in public space. The book is arranged as a compendium of sixteen booklets made out of kozo paper and Mylar. The booklets contain printed experiential cartographies: written stories from people, in their own words, telling their everyday practice in relation to the labor of carrying a weight around the center of the city.1
You can find stories from street vendors with their merchandise, students with their backpacks, and mothers with their children and grandchildren. The booklets also feature maps by office workers and university professors, among others. These “Atlases” are printed as a series of copper-plate etchings on handmade kozo paper. Taken together, the booklets’ combined physical weight and the act of carrying the collection around the city resemble the actions that many people perform in Bogotá’s downtown as they participate in the daily life of the city while carrying their own stories. Handmade paper becomes witness and keeper of their individual universes and histories, and offers to the community an interactive and itinerant piece to recall reflections on place, labor, and world building.
During the first phase of our journey in hand papermaking, we worked with bast fibers such as kozo, because of their strength properties and foundational role in the papermaking processes that Cesar and I explored during our time in the MFA printmaking program at the Rhode Island School of Design (2015–17). In 2019, we started to assess kozo’s high importation costs and wanted to practice papermaking more sustainably. We began to experiment with residual local fibers that are easy to find in our everyday interactions around the city. In recognizing that our workspace is located in a commercially active neighborhood full of little produce and grocery shops, funeral homes, and flower shops, we have experienced the way handmade paper operates as a witness and container of time and memories of a community. For instance, our neighbor Don Hector, who manages the produce and grocery shop next door, has bulks of onion skins, orange peels, and corn husks; organic residue that end up in the trash. Now we have an agreement with Don Hector to take them. We convert the corn husks into paper, turn the onion skins into natural dyes, and process the orange peels into nontoxic solvents for printmaking.
The relationship between life and death is present in the neighborhood, since our studio is surrounded by several funeral homes, which coexist with flower shops. The shops often leave behind flower stalks, among them, from Astromelia,2 which we use to create a strong and translucent paper.
Although our practice and research in papermaking at Taller Circular is recent, we are eager to host new artists to expand vivid conversations about natural resources, sustainability, and ways to activate narratives from the city through the language that handmade paper is able to contain and weave.
Since my return to Colombia in 2017, Taller Circular has been the place where I have been able to explore not only collective but also individual projects. While embracing the act of transforming residual fibers into pulp, I have approached ways in which paper connects me to my own body and others’ bodies through haptic experiences and sculptural objects. I am eager to see beyond the direct relationship between print and paper; where paper is not only a surface, but a material made with our bodies; as it can be seen as a body itself. I am also interested in the resemblance between skin and paper, and the way both surfaces are able to keep memories and become vestiges of the body.
Topographies of the Obsolete (2020) and Autopsia (2017) share a triggering object: the mattress, which I have examined because of its connection with personal memories. Alicia Sánchez González, mother of eight children, raised her family by manufacturing mattresses in a residential neighborhood in the south of Bogotá. During the 1960s, it was uncommon and unacceptable to see a single mother driving a truck, carrying bundles of cotton brought from Sincelejo to Bogotá, and even more, carrying her children in the truck while distributing mattresses that she sewed and filled with five other women who helped her in her house-factory. As her granddaughter, I cannot see the mattress solely in its basic function to receive and resist the body. Since I was little, I recognized the hiddenness of the mattress: its cotton entrails and the labor and craft involved in this object. I have explored this memory constantly throughout my creative processes, studying the social, sensitive, and metaphorical layers present in the mattress. My interests in the bulk, the load, body, labor, raw matter, and the bed are manifested in this artwork, and expressed through this poem:
Where the bodies fall
Where the bodies rest,
Where the bodies are thrown,
Where the bodies are piled up,
Where the bodies lie
Where bodies are created.
What bodies resist,
What bodies emanate,
What bodies contain,
What bodies surround,
What oppresses bodies,
What resists bodies.3
With these questions in mind, I produced Topographies of the Obsolete, a series of ten sculptural objects made with handmade paper, using cotton fiber from abandoned mattresses, which I have been collecting throughout Bogotá. The pieces in this work are mattresses made out of mattresses: cotton is cooked with soda ash, converted into pulp, formed into a paper sheet, to later be printed using plate lithography with the iconic striped pattern very common in Colombia. They are filled with the raw cotton, sewn by hand, and stained with rust from the same object. I see this series of handmade mattresses as an evocation of memory. I am also consciously aware of their objectual and material presence as I witness the increase of abandoned mattresses in the city since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each mattress that I recreate is an attempt to remember and find my grandmother’s hand in those abandoned bodies. I perform an autopsy on each mattress.4 I find, I open it, I disassemble it, I cook it, I turn it into a pulp, to create new topographies and vestiges of bodies, labor, and memory.
My initial approach to these reflections is represented in Autopsia (2017), which emerged from a different concern: the acid attacks in Colombia and the process of etching and its dual nature: where acid can both create and destroy. Empathizing with the survivors, I examined the resonance of this violent act on my own body. I raised questions about the body as a site of vulnerability, dehumanization, and erasure of identity. I identified the mattress metaphorically as the place where a series of nightmares happened. By using a found mattress (as I did with Topographies of the Obsolete), I took apart the cotton stuffing to convert it into paper; this time in a single life-sized mattress piece of handmade paper. I used the remaining rusted spring structure as a matrix to make an imprint with my body weight on handmade paper. The paper captured the stains from time, as well as the matter and the pressure of my form, while also activating the latency of corporeal presence from the mattress.
There is a difference in approaches to scale between Topographies of the Obsolete and Autopsia. Topographies refer to a small, sculptural, and intimate approach to paper, where the multiple presence and repetition in tension with singularity are evident. Autopsia is scaled to a life-size mattress to place the viewer’s body in constant dialogue with dichotomies such as fragility and strength, presence and absence, corrosiveness and healing, revealing and covering, lightness and heaviness, translucency and opacity. Papermaking has worked in my creative process as an act of healing by transforming memories into new surfaces, in a constant search for weaving narratives around the body and the stories they carry. This is true for the collective projects and for individual projects developed at Taller Circular.
1. For this project, people have traced their experience through drawing, portraying maps of the way they usually travel from home to their working places in downtown Bogotá, thus weaving together pieces and fragments from the whole country. Drawn from memory and observation, each one acquires a particular look of the person who drew it, and contains the essence and experience of the link that unites the person with downtown Bogotá.
2. A flower commonly called the Peruvian lily or lily of the Incas and frequently used for floral decorations in Colombia. They are all native to South America, and highly produced in Chile and Brazil.
3. Fragment from the curatorial text created in 2020 for my solo exhibition “Lechos” (Beds) at Doce Cero Cero Gallery in Bogotá.
4. In this context, I refer to autopsy in a metaphorical way, as an examination practice onto a bodily object in which I desire to explore its materiality; also a way to see inside oneself.
Page spread from Taller Circular, Atlas del centro de Bogotá, 2018, 25 x 50 centimeters (9.8 x 19.7 inches), artist book with etching and screenprint on handmade kozo paper. Portrayed here is a man who travels throughout the center of Bogota. with a wooden car on his shoulders, collecting recyclables.
Taller Circular’s current experimentation with local plants. Paper samples from left to right: cotton and corn husks, Astromelia, Banana tree, Juncus, and coffee pulp.
Vanessa Nieto Romero, Autopsia, 2017, 190 x 90 centimeters (74.8 x 35.4 inches) each of three, handmade cotton paper and rust.