Dream. Believe. Do. Interview #22: You have to have your eyes wide open

Alejandro Vasquez Salinas knew from a young age that he wanted to be an artist. Despite the objections of his parents he studied art in university and now makes his living as an artist and curator.

Growing up in Colombia, Alejandro was exposed throughout his life to ongoing wars – with the drug cartels as well as rebel groups. It was during his Master’s studies in the Netherlands that his eyes were opened to the concept of using art as an alternative solution to conflict for communicating opposing ideas.  

Today, he’s the Director of the Paul Bardwell Gallery at Centro Colombo Americano, a leading art institution in Medellin, Colombia.

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Alejandro: I would say I have a happy childhood. I lived with no needs or things like that. I grew up in a very comfortable way of living, I would say. I received a lot of love from my parents so that was, I think, it shapes a lot of the way I behave nowadays. It’s really nice because it gives you power. It gives you strength. Somehow it helps a lot to have a happy childhood. 

As I told you, I lived quite close to the place where mafia starts emerging. Still it’s a place where people go to buy drugs like Barrio Antioquia is one of those places in Medellin that everyone knows where it is… what they have a lot of places where you can buy things. 

In the times of late 80s and beginning of 90s, I was young and I heard a lot of gun shots. It was common to hear the news the day after that someone got killed or something, something like that. Some of my neighbors or friends, they got murdered in those days. 

Dennis: Friends and neighbors of yours, people that you grew up with.

Alejandro: Yeah. Exactly.

Dennis: Wow.

Alejandro: I studied in this high school La Salle De Campoamor, which is quite close. We had to walk, like 15 minutes walk to go to the school. In that school, actually the principal who was a priest, he got killed as well. They also killed the teacher of four degrees in primary school. So then we thought, “Okay, it’s time to change the high school.”

Dennis: Wow.

Alejandro: I change for San Rafael in Belen. It wasn’t that much of a change because it’s also where there was a lot of problems with drugs and stuff like that.  

I mean it all depends. I was telling you the other day, it all depends of what is your education at home. Somehow I took advantage of the education they gave me in that school. I take the best of what I could have. I did have very, very happy times in high school as well. 

Dennis: It will take a lot from home and positive experiences you had and build your life around that.

Alejandro: Exactly. Yeah. It was good to have the high school.

Yeah, if I’m going to think about my dream… yeah. Sometimes like this astronaut is one of them. In your childhood, you have these crazy dreams that are nice. But then I started to think about the idea of being an artist when I was like 11 or 12 years old and I started to draw a lot, to study a lot of art history also and to draw. I spent most of my time drawing when I was a kid.

It helped me to find passion and to find a place to… it’s not to hide but at least to… I don’t know. It keeps your mind moving. Since then I was thinking, “Okay, maybe I will be an artist.” That was like my dream. 

I’m coming from a conservative family so the idea of being an artist is that… it’s always the same - “You’re not going to survive out of it. You’re not going to get money from art.” But at the end, I have support. My sister helped a lot to advise my parents to set the idea that I was going to study art.

Dennis: Older sister?

Alejandro: Yeah.

Dennis: Good old sister.

Alejandro: Yeah, good old sister.

I pass the university before I went to the army. Before I went to this military service that is mandatory in our country. I finish my high school and I went to the army and I already had the place in the university to study so they kept the place for one year while I was doing the military.

Dennis: Okay. So you started university which you had to do a year of military service and you could go back in university.

Alejandro: Exactly.

Dennis: Okay.

Alejandro: Military was also another thing that is… Yeah, it was fun because in the times where they were choosing the people to go to the army or to the police, they will give you by chance or they will give you this kind of a lottery.

Dennis: Okay.

Alejandro: It depends of the color of the ball you get if you go to the army or to the police.

The day we were… it was a kind of punishment that day that the school decided not to give by chance but just… I mean you will have to do the military service.

Dennis: No lottery.

Alejandro: There’s no lottery of skipping military service.

Then the only opportunity they gave you was to choose between army or police. So then I thought, “Police is living in the city still. You live in your house. I don’t know what could I learn from that.” 

Then I saw my friends and people that was doing that. They were spending most of the time wasting their time, just waiting for something. Yeah, standing somewhere in the corner or in an institution just to see people passing by. Then I thought, “Okay, if I will learn something, I will go to the army.” So then I did.

It was incredible. It was… yeah, one year of military service that I… Well, somehow I learned that war is not the way. 

Dennis: Interesting lesson.

Were you stationed outside of Medellin then? You were somewhere…

Alejandro: Yeah, I went to different places. One in Bello. Oh, the beginning was in Buenos Aires, in the neighborhood. There was like the training times. It was like four months of running, jumping and bad food and stuff like that. 

[both laugh]

After that we went to a camp. So I lived in a tent for other four months in Bello. That was also nice because we were taking showers in the river and it was… yeah. It was kind of relaxed. We were training from time to time. I could escape. I took the metro. 

During the night, I took the metro. I go home. I went home. Then the next day I’ll take metro back to Bello and then I will go to the camp to do the lines and they will count me and everything was okay.

Dennis: [laughs] You’d stay home at night?

Alejandro: Yeah.

Dennis: Oh, get out of here! Oh, that’s funny!

Alejandro: [laughs] Yeah. Well, it was easy. Then we moved to Caldas. Yeah, another base up there in the mountain. That was incredible experience as well. I was the radio operator. 

When I see the people who is leading the groups and the troops and the platoons and everything like that, I realize that is brainwashing is all… trying to put you an idea and to believe in that idea blindly and to kill for it, you know? I was questioned that all the time.

At some point you could start believing and then I thought like, “Okay, it’s time to rethink and or…” yeah. I couldn’t escape. I did the whole year but for me it was important to understand that. That war is something that is just made for the interest of someone.

Dennis: Interesting.

Alejandro: Yeah.

Dennis: It is. 

Alejandro: Yeah.

Dennis: It’s political. It’s business. It’s some reason out there. Religious, whatever.

Alejandro: Yeah. Then after that I went to the university. University was great. College was fantastic like… I did my studies in five years I think. 

Dennis: In art?

Alejandro: In art, yeah. Yeah, it went incredible. Incredibly well. 

The beginning I was kind of lazy guy. I wasn’t the best student. Yeah, at some point, “Okay, let’s get focused and let’s try to do things better.”  

The last two years, I think, I started to do a good work. I mean it was very interesting and is challenging. I did some exhibitions as well. It was great. I mean art makes you question even more. 

This notion of questioning everything got stronger after the university. That helps me a lot to stop when you think something’s wrong and then to question. That’s the idea too.

That art is a discipline of observation so it’s up to you. You have to see everything and you will see problems. Then you have to point them out. You have to highlight them. But you have to see. You have to be attendant. To have your eyes wide open to see what is around you.

Dennis: True.

Alejandro: Yeah, that was incredible. 

The university was great. The last days was amazing. The first thing I did after university, after I graduated, I did an exhibition. I was part of a project here at Colombo Americano where I am working.

Dennis: Where you work today.

Alejandro: Yeah, I work today. 

Dennis: How cool is that?

Alejandro: That was 2003. There was a project with this connection with one institution in Italy that is Cittadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto who is an Italian artist who is quite engaged with social practices.

We started doing a project thinking on the idea of bridges and connections, bridge, and it was great. So then I met people from that institution and then I applied for our residency there in Cittadellarte and I went there in 2004.

Dennis: Went to Italy then. Right. How cool.

Alejandro: Yeah.

Like the first thing and then the residency. Yeah, I was fulfilling my dream of being an artist.

Dennis: Right.

Alejandro: I went there and it was incredible. That was like the longest party in my life. That was like a 6 months party. It was great.

The residency supposed to be four months and I did six months because they hired me to do two projects later.

Dennis: Nice!

Alejandro: Yeah.

I actually keep in contact with them, doing some projects in the fields of design and art. Yeah. After that, I came back in 2005 so we continued with the idea of “el Puente” this bridge, the bridge project. We did some several exhibitions here in Colombia actually with the Salon Nacional de Artistas, this big salon of arts in Colombia. It went also good. 

2006 I came back to Italy to do another project. 2008 I did another project there as well. Yeah. I was running doing also design and we were working on interior spaces or design the spaces. We started to sell these projects to the fashion market, to the fashion companies and it went not that well, I would say. We started to sell the projects to them and were building the stands for furs, like for commercial furs.  

But, at the end, it wasn’t our market. We understand art and design in a different way so we couldn’t kind of fulfill the idea of selling to that market and to continue the idea to have a company. It was so expensive. They would pay like 90 days after the project. We were independent and, yeah, whatever. Economically it went wrong. It went down. 

So we changed the idea and then we started to work in museums and that was actually quite great. Good museums and cultural institutions. They will understand what you’re talking about. We will understand what they want also. It was much easier and they wouldn’t complain so much about the cost of the things, you know?

Dennis: Okay. Yeah, right.

Alejandro: It was very good.

Dennis: You’re doing this interior design and space work in addition to your art.

Alejandro: Yeah.

Dennis: Were you able to live off your art? Your parents were worried when you were 11 years old that this is not a direction. You won’t make a living off of it. You did these exchanges in Italy and these residencies. Were you able to leave off your art? 

Alejandro: I did survive from doing design and stuff but it was hard. Yeah. I must say that we had difficult times, difficult days on doing that. We were – it was a bet. We were trying to do it but it’s not that easy. 

So designing and startup. As an artist, I was applying to grants. There is this creation grant that you get. We started to work for museums and then we realize like, “Okay, it’s easier if you go in the market of arts or if you go to the arts field.” Yeah, it’s actually not that hard to compete.

Dennis: Interesting. 

Alejandro: Yeah. Because when we were signing projects for fashion, then you have the competition of Chinese furnitures. But for us, then it’s a unique business and you have to think on a specific project. It has to be like that; no one else will do it. So, in a way, art was the solution for everything. 

Dennis: Interesting. So because you were doing these interior pieces and… furniture pieces then or…

Alejandro: Yeah, yeah, everything. For showrooms and stuff, all the racks and all the furnitures and lighting and colors. Everything like that and we were doing like for ourselves. There are some people that could find them, yeah, from a Chinese company or whatever, and it would be much…

Dennis: Yeah, cheaper and sure, sure.

Alejandro: Yeah, there is no need. 

At the end, it was good to find that art, as a field of work, is quite interesting. And it has a lot of different ways to approach. For example, this interior design lead us to… I don’t know if the word exists in English is “museography” or exhibition design.

Dennis: Exhibition design, sure. Okay. 

Alejandro: Exhibition design. That was part of the… We found exhibition design as a way to live and to… It’s also good for thinking. It’s a way of thinking as well. It’s quite interesting. 

Dennis: That sounds, like, to me, I mean you started as an artist and you did your art with the connection with Italy in this relationship. But then it sort of evolved or you saw some opportunities elsewhere. Still in the art space but not just pure art.

Alejandro: Yeah.

Dennis: Right? 

Alejandro: Yeah.

Dennis: But have you continued to… Do you still draw? Do you still do your art? 

Alejandro: I still do. Yeah. Yeah, I still.

Actually, I got an invitation for an exhibition. Yeah, I still do. Well, since 2003 I try to at least have one exhibition per year.

Dennis:  Okay. 

Alejandro: Last year I didn’t have because I was in the process of getting this job. But, yeah, most of the time has been like that. One exhibition or two per year. One or two projects per year. That gives you a life doing art. It’s very important to continue. If you stop, you will lose your path. It’s also a research then it has to be a continuous exercise.

I’m still an artist, I hope.

Dennis: You hope? [laughs]

Alejandro: I think so. Yeah, I think so. Yeah, I still do. What else?

Dennis: What’s kept you moving forward? You were doing this interior design work. Are you still doing that or is that gone? 

Alejandro: No. Yeah, not now.

Before I did my studies in my MA, my MA in the Netherlands -- that was 2013 and 2014. Before that I was doing four different things. I was an artist. I was teaching art at Bellas Artes.

Dennis: Oh, great university!

Alejandro: Yeah. I was doing the interior design project and I was… what was the fourth? I was part of El Puente Lab, right?

Dennis: Right. This is the Italian relationship.

Alejandro: It’s a lot of things but I was trying to do my best in each one.

Dennis: Right.

Alejandro: When I was teaching I realized, okay, a Master is needed; MA is needed. I didn’t want to make it here in Colombia because it is important to get connections and to know other places and to learn about - not only about the topics or the area that you are going to study - but also some other places or some other people in some other cultures.

A friend of mine suggested to me to go the Netherlands to this Master. That it was one year long - it was intense. It was very well-connected with the arts museum in the Netherlands. So then, yeah, this is the way. This is the opportunity. 

Then I apply for a granting here in Colombia. I got it and, yeah, I was so nervous. I was so scared. I was going to change my life. I was going to live there for one year alone. I was going to leave my wife.

Dennis: In Netherlands.

Alejandro: In the Netherlands.

Dennis: You did go.

Alejandro: I did. I did go. It was fantastic! The Master there in the Netherlands was intense. Very challenging. Very well-connected Master program. So I had the opportunity to meet some very interesting people and some interesting institutions there in the Netherlands. 

It was great! The way of living there, the culture, and the whole thing was an amazing experience. It was also challenging in terms of your political position. At the beginning, the first workshop we did in the Master was with an artist. His name is Jonas Staal. He brought this project on terrorism and the idea of democracy. He showed us his project and it was basically a roundtable to speak with terrorist around. Yeah, like some groups, some leaders in terrorist groups. 

For me, coming from Colombia, then I saw the flag of Las FARC, which is the group that is now doing this agreement. Yeah, for me it was difficult. I thought I was open-minded because I was coming from arts and somehow he’s coming from the human science field. But then I thought like, “Yeah, what’s the idea of this first? What would be the artistic part of it? And what’s the point, basically. What are they trying to solve in terms of social changes?” 

Dennis: And?

Alejandro: It was crazy. We went mad. Some of us wrote a letter to the dean of the school. “We don’t want anything to do with that project,” and stuff. But then I have different conversations and different encounters with the people of the school and staff. Then I decided to go. Okay, let’s try to… If I have something to say maybe I would tell them right in front of them.

Dennis: Right.

Alejandro: That’s art. That’s what it is, art for, I think. 

We worked and that time, they invited our group - it was the communist party from the Philippines. 

Dennis: They were also at the table.

Alejandro: Yeah.

Dennis: Okay.

Alejandro: For that workshop, they invited this group. That was special for them.

Dennis: Okay, I see.

Alejandro: For me it was very interesting. They were similar, very similar to the guerillas in Colombia like from ‘70s - this idea of communism. They were trying to get the power with guns, you know? They still believed in guns. They still believed that war is the way to get power and to change the reality. That was quite interesting. 

Sitting in this table, trying to speak with them and start to convince them that art… To use art in order not to use guns. They weren’t so convinced. They are not…

Dennis: It didn’t work, huh?

Alejandro: Yeah, it didn’t work at all. At least we had this interesting… 

Yeah, there is a joke that some of them… they were saying like the Gandhi way of doing things: peaceful and non-violent. I still believe that non-violence is also a way to get into the social change and political change. 

During the Master, we were speaking about these concepts on, for example, agonism that Chantal Mouffe was… she was saying like, “It’s a term. They took it from biology. It’s when the parasites is attacking a body but it’s not killing the other bodies. They are growing together.” So the parasite and the…

Dennis: And the body grow together. Okay. Right.

Alejandro: …and the body grow together. 

She’s saying, “Yeah, this should be the way to do politics nowadays. It’s not having parties and one party will kill the other one to get the power. If we have two parties then they should find a way to work together and to grow together. “

Dennis: Interesting.

Alejandro: Yeah. Thinking this idea… I think I told you already that this experience changed the way I see peace agreements that are happening now in Colombia. I take them in a different way that I would take it without; I mean before doing the Master.

Dennis: Interesting. Had you not know that roundtable and been exposed this concept, you would not view the current peace agreement in the same light.

Alejandro: Yeah. I wouldn’t be so agree as I am now because now, I think, that that should be the way. Yeah.

It could be not perfect peace. It’s not going to be like, “Okay, just sign the paper and we are going to live in peace from now and we’re going to be happy.” But at least we are trying to do things without guns, without… I don’t know. For me, it’s kind of important step that we are taking now to thinking about…

Dennis: It’s a huge step! 

Alejandro: …thinking about our future. Some people is mad because they are going to take places in the government but, I think, they know better than anyone how countryside behaves. 

Dennis: They’ve been managing it, ruling it for 50 years, right? The countryside pretty much.

Alejandro: Yeah. The antique or the oldest problem that Colombia has or Latin American countries have is this things of… That countryside is ruled by big companies, by international corporation that takes the land and they just kick the farmers out and they will have the right for the land and the others. The farmers will become gardeners of their houses or they will move to the city. That is the trend that we have that’s why Medellin is so big in terms of population, or Bogotá. Yeah.

I think they should have some knowledge to share with and we could learn a lot about what they have to say.

Dennis: But from the rural areas. Absolutely.

Alejandro: Yeah.

Dennis: How did the Masters program… how has that influenced your future? How’s that changed? Where you’ve gone…

Alejandro: Yeah. Basically it’s what I said. Yeah, it changed the way I’m thinking now of how we just solve political issues and stuff like that. It was very interesting. It’s art, yeah, but this is still in the expanded field of dealing with concepts. As I said in the beginning, it’s like you have to have your eyes wide open as to what are the problems and try to point out what could be some solution or to imagine reality otherwise. Yeah, it was great.

After that, I came here to Medellin to say hi to every curator I know, to every institution. Like “Hey, here I am. I did my Master in the Netherlands” and stuff. I say hi to Juan Alberto, who was the Director of this gallery. Yeah, it was just, “Hello.” 

It was casually that some group from the Netherlands was coming to Medellin and I was in charge of them to make an agenda and to arrange some visits to institutions and stuff. Then I brought them here to the Colombo. It was nice. They are doing this curatorial program in Appel, in Amsterdam, which is, I think, is very important. It’s one of the best curatorial programs in the world. 

They came here and they saw the space and stuff so Juan Alberto had the opportunity to know them as well. When I was writing to Juan Alberto to thank him about his time and the experience, he responded to that email offering me the job, this job.

Dennis: Okay. Because he’d had that job, right? 

Alejandro: Yeah. Thirty-five years. He was directing this gallery for 35 years.

Dennis: It’s a long time.

Alejandro: It’s pretty much his life, what he gave to the institution. He just spent his life, building this space and he has the reputation. It has almost the reputation of a museum because it has been like a very important cultural institution. 

They’ve been doing very avant-garde and experimental art. It was kind of leading and validating many of the practices there; that are happening in contemporary art in Medellin. It’s that kind of reputation that I am now in charge in. I have to fill big shoes. I was afraid. I was scared. This is a big job. 

Then I have this very lucky opportunity to have one year with him working in the process of getting the job, like one year with him. So it was great. I mean six months I was like an assistant and then after six months I was director and he was advising me. It was great. That was like another Master program. 

Dennis: I’m sure! After thirty-five years of experience - to be able to learn from him over that 12-month period - it’s really nice. 

Alejandro: Yeah.

Dennis: That’s great. 

Alejandro: That was amazing. Amazing. But, yeah, it has been great. It’s a great challenge. I think it’s a space that is a good, good opportunity to experiment a lot with that. 

Dennis: That’s cool.

Alejandro: I’m fulfilling also a dream. That was also like another dream. Okay, taking to account that I was doing all this thing like teaching, design, the La Puente Lab project and all these things comes together when I’m here in this kind of job.

Dennis: In this position. Yeah.

Alejandro: Yeah. It’s not like being only an artist or only a professor or something. Here, I got everything. I could teach, I could design, I could… it’s everything together. 

Dennis: Any advice you have for other people that are looking for what they want to do or they’re trying to find their dream.

Alejandro: This is about believe. Take what you think is important for you and use it. And try to use it. Yeah, and just believe. You have to just believe and to continue and… 

Dennis: You’ve done some cool things. You had a vision as a child to become an artist and you had support from skeptical parents but an older sister that stepped to, “no, it’s OK; let him do this.” You’re headed down that direction. 

In the process, you remained open to the possibility. You saw opportunity with this interior design space. You saw the fellowship you got to go to Italy and begin La Puente and the relationship there. You realized you needed to get your Masters at some point if you wanted to go further in your career, right? You did your Masters. That opened up some doors for you and you came back and this result made the connections. 

I think it’s great what you said. The culmination is that you’ve put everything together. All your curation experience, your artistic experience, your relationship experience, if you will, with La Puente, and you brought it all together here. It’s culminated this position you’re in today. It’s a great story.

Alejandro: I will say that an advice would be try to be as grateful as you can. You have to give thanks to everyone, to everything that you learn. Even if it’s difficult, you will learn something from it. Yeah, you have to give thanks to every… Yeah, every person that you know every project, every failure that you have is… I mean you have to be grateful about it. I will say that’s one of the greatest things that my wife taught me. It had work pretty well, I will say.

Dennis: I think that’s great. That’s lovely. Alejandro, thank you.

Alejandro: Yeah, no. Thanks to you. Wow! The history of my life in this small version. Wow!

Dennis Hodges
Dennis Hodges


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