We had the honor to talk to Alejandro Oramas, son of great Colombian artist Fernando Oramas, about his father and the heritage he left for future generations.
FERNANDO ORAMAS (1925 – 2016)
Painter, muralist, caricaturist, and drawer from Bogotá. He studied visual arts at the Academy of Fine Arts of Bogotá (Santa Clara). He studied with Diego Rivera in Mexico, a member of the mural team of David Alfaro Siqueiros in the last stage of Mexican muralism.
On his return to Colombia, he took the direction of the school of fine arts of Cúcuta-Colombia. He worked as a cartoonist in different newspapers giving strong political critics to the political problems of that time. He founded and directed the National Corporation of Plastic Artists and the Public Art Gallery in Bogotá where he made numerous solo and group exhibitions; Fernando Oramas was a promoter of Muralism in Colombia, is a great reference for Colombian and Latin American art, and is considered one of the best Colombian colorists who left an important collection of works cataloged in different themes and styles.
Hello Juan, can you tell us a bit more about your father Fernando Oramas’s life?
Juan: Fernando Oramas was a Colombian artist born in Bogotá, Colombia in 1925. He grew up in an artistic family environment and from a very early age received his first painting classes. At the age of 18, he enrolled in the school of Fine Arts having the most outstanding Colombian artists of the time (Gonzalo Ariza, Domingo Moreno Otero, Pedro Nel Gómez, Luis Vidales among others) as teachers. Worth mentioning that some of them had been trained in European schools while others were participating in the Mexican muralist movement. After concluding his stage of academic formation, Fernando began to travel through different countries of Central America and some Caribbean islands organizing art exhibitions, painting, and graphic workshops. In Guatemala, he met and became friends with Ernesto “El Che” Guevara. In Mexico City, he took classes in mural painting with Diego Rivera at the National University. Sometime later, he taught himself in summer courses at that University. With Rivera, he participated in the painting of two of his big murals. Later on, he joined David Alfaro Siqueiros´s muralist team helping the elaboration of 4 murals before his expatriation from that country in 1962. In the ’70s, Fernando founded a movement of plastic artists and set the public art gallery grouping various artists aiming to promote their work to the wide audiences as Siqueiros did in Mexico. At the same time and throughout the ’80s, Fernando worked as a cartoonist in several leftist newspapers and made several murals in some public and cultural buildings in Bogota. At the age of 63, while setting down with his wife and children, Fernando moved away from the artistic district dedicating himself to painting in the tranquility of his home. Fernando died in 2016 leaving an important artistic legacy for Colombia and the world over.
What was he like?
Juan: Fernando Oramas´s character did not fit into any scheme. He was a very intelligent, inquisitive, talented, irreverent, and sarcastic person. Mainly a rebel. With a great sense of humor, you could say he was a maniac obsessed with his artistic work. He could take a joke out of any situation. His manners and forms of expression were those of a traditional bogotano lad (known as “cachacos”). Music, party, literature, and poetry lover, he was also a captivating conversationalist. His life itself was a party. He liked to smoke cigarettes and marijuana and was always seen reading a book. From a very young age, he built a revolutionary and communist thought. But more than a communist, Fernando was a lover of freedom of expression, an anti-Christian, and a promoter of ideas of liberation.
Tell us about his artwork, medium, style, subject matter, etc.
Juan: Fernando’s work is diverse and very extensive. Many of the painting topics, still valid, come from everyday scenes of the Colombian people. In the last few years, I have taken on the task of classifying his work into different subjects, techniques, styles, and sizes. As a draftsman, I had to get deep in his work finding myself fascinated with his nudes and erotic portraits (mainly female bodies) as well as with his abstract depictions of Colombian urban and rural landscapes. His work draws from everyday situations -customs, historical events, and current social and political topics- taken as a pretext to set up a critical view of national and international reality. Most of this stand and spirit can be seen in his sketches for the elaboration of grand-format murals. Fernando’s drawings were made with ink, charcoal, pencil, and pastels on various surfaces and different varieties of paper, board, or cardboard: any material mean, even a napkin, suited his need of expressing himself through forms and color. In his paintings, you can find different techniques and formats such as abstract painting, landscaping, nudes, and figurative portraits painted with various painting materials such as vinyl, oil, acrylic, and especially pyroxylin lacquer (an industrial material used by Siqueiros in Mexico), supported on paper, cardboard and even wood. Curious enough is that Fernando didn’t paint with oils on canvas as it is usually because he felt that was too stiff and didn’t manage to achieve the explosion of color that the lacquers gave to his work. The cartoons for newspapers and the works in grand format complement his creative work. Fernando Oramas´s work is versatile ranging from the academic to the abstract and experimental.
Tell me more about his political criticism as a cartoonist. Did he encounter any issues?
Juan: Fernando always told us that from a very early age he was forming his critical thinking on the left in the face of national and world reality. Many factors made up his critical stance. For instance, from the time Fernando was a young boy, fascism was on the rise, and the Soviet Union opposed a hard fight to it. On the other hand, in Colombia, social inequality and the effects caused by colonialism were his main source of discontent. From that on, his thought was determined by the struggle against fascism and capitalism and by the idea of changing society as a whole. Apart from a lively environment of political turmoil and socialist militancy, his readings were mainly from communist magazines and newspapers of his time. He had also the influence of his teachers at the school of fine arts who had also participated in the Mexican muralism movement having an impact not only on his artistic formation but also on his political views. These facts led him to exercise his work as caricaturist and illustrator in the Colombian magazine Semana in the ’50s as well as in different newspapers and magazines during the ’70s and ’80s. This stance can be observed in his caricatures where we can find the satirical, the biting, the criticism of the different problems of our society and the capitalist system like inequality, the corruption of the rulers, the violence, problems of the environment and of the art and other more daily subjects.
How might someone feel differently about the world after looking at Fernando’s artworks?
Juan: I have been able to perceive that Fernando’s work has a great visual impact on the viewer. His work impacts through the explosion of color, his great expressive charge, his artistic beauty, and the mastery of his techniques. Some works clearly transmit a message of reflection due to their social and political content embedded in the academic elements of composition, form, perspective, color, etc. Others incite to a long contemplation because of their plastic richness transporting the viewer to the scene or place of the work.
What was his favorite award, and why?
Juan: He said that his greatest prize was to be able to participate in Mexican muralism by being part of the Rivera and Siqueiros´s muralist movement. He always said how this significantly influenced his life, work, and way of thinking until the end of his days. A great prize that Fernando witnessed in the last years of his life is that he could see how his consolidated work became a great reference of Colombian and Latin American art. He was able to witness this with the tributes and exhibitions organized by some cultural centers and friends as well as the production of two grand murals and a documentary film sponsored by the Bogotá´s government.
If you could pick one piece of your father’s art, what would it be and why?
Juan: This painting I like most is called “Los Silleteros” made with pyroxiline lacquer on wood in 1997. It represents a long tradition of peasants cultivators who carry heavy and colorful arrangements of flowers on their backs of the “Feria de las Flores” in the central Andean region of Antioquia each year. In it, Fernando exalts the traditions of Colombia with an artistic language that tries to reconcile the figurative and the abstract.
How has his style changed or evolved over the years?
Juan: Unfortunately we have a little record of the works produced by Fernando in the early stages of his long artistic process. We have found some works painted in Mexico in 1952 and 1953 when Fernando was 27 and 28 years old. In these, we can see a great influence of Mexican painting, especially that of Diego Rivera, especially with regard to the themes of highlighting the indigenous traditions of indigenous American peoples. When he was expelled from Mexico, all of his works created during this stage of his life were lost leaving no record at all. I have been able to gather works and photos of his work from 1967 to the present, and I can observe different changes in his content topics and expressive forms. Some portraits and drawings from the ’70s and ’80s have a great academic and figurative influence, but his drawings from the ’90s and late ’80s are a little more abstract where the handling of the line is much more loose and spontaneous. His painting also has a similar evolution. As his technique matures, the handling of color becomes much more vibrant and explosive thanks to the mastery of industrial materials he learned to use such as pyroxiline lacquer and air gun. His skill with the spatula also allowed him to expand the creative possibilities by combining the characteristic strokes of the brush with the abrupt, geometric, and slightly more rigid forms given by the spatulas. In the ’80s, a high degree of figurative virtuosity can be seen in different themes such as his works with social content, marketplaces, and human figures. From the ’90s and throughout his last years, he lost interest in reaching figurative perfection, therefore his work is more focused on the abstract and loose brushstrokes.
What are some memorable moments people have with Fernando’s art?
Juan: I can mention some memorable moments that several people have had not only about Fernando´s artistic work. Many people have told me many stories about the time when Fernando founded and directed the Corporation of Plastic Artists and the Public Art Gallery. This space under the concept of promoting art to a wider audience (art for the people) and against art as a consumer commodity for the elite. Fernando returned from Mexico with all the vigor of the ideas of Mexican muralism, especially with a very radical ideology, just like his teacher Siqueiros was. This was a space that lasted approximately 10 years where more than 40 artists joined together to promote the ideas of public art including painting, drawing, engraving, and photography workshops. Exhibitions were held every Sunday especially for the pilgrims who came to Monserrate, a religious sanctuary in Bogotá. There were also film clubs, poetic gatherings, and concerts. A cultural house set up by Fernando with an intense artistic activity that people remember with gratitude and joy.
Other memorable moments that I can highlight were in his last decades of life with us as a family. I remember that many friends visited his workshop house to share, to remember stories and anecdotes from the past, to enjoy his works, his humor, and his pleasant conversation.
Where can people see Fernando’s artworks?
Juan: People who are interested can come to the artist’s home studio, by appointment. I will be happy to give guided tours to those interested and show their collection of paintings, cartoons, and prints. You can also find some works that have been published on social networks such as Facebook and Instagram. In google, you can also find writings and videos about his life and images of his works. Also in some art galleries in the city of St. Petersburg, Russia have exhibited some of his works.
What kind of activities are you doing with your father’s artworks?
Juan: Since 2011 I started to work with my father’s artworks as a manager and promoter of solo and group exhibitions. As an assistant and student, I participated in the painting and drawing workshops that were held in his home studio. My sister has also participated in different projects such as making the first documentary about his life and work made in 2015 by the Capital Television Channel and managing the production of two murals in Bogota downtown. I have also participated in the organization of different research projects, cataloging, conservation, digitalization, marketing, and dissemination of his work. I am currently working as executive producer of a second documentary film on Fernando´s life and work that is about to be released.