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Colombia's 'Primitive' Paintings Worth a Second Look

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Before he was a painter, Jairo Franco made pesebres. These are nativity scenes, the Colombian equivalent to lawn decorations in the U.S. And just like in the U.S., where giant inflatable snowmen perch on rooftops and Christmas lights flash to the tune of some "Jingle Bells" techno remix, pesebres in Colombia can get extravagant. Jairo says if his pesebres hadn't been so ambitious, he would have never turned into one of Colombia's most colorful artists, and one that arguably represents the best and worst of a movement across Latin America.

The pesebre of 1971, for example, made for the textile company where he'd been working as an engineer for just two years: it attracted a lot of attention. People from the offices across the street would come into the building lobby just to look at it. It even got a photo in the Medellin city paper. It had an elaborate landscape painted on the backdrop, showing cows and tiny men in ponchos. Thanks to Jairo's background in engineering, he was able to make all the Nativity characters move. The donkey swung its head back and forth. Joseph the carpenter chopped wood. The Virgin Mary stirred a big pot of soup. "Real smoke came out of her fire," Jairo says.

He says that management at the textile company were so impressed with the pesebre that as a token of appreciation, they gave him a scholarship to take a porcelain painting class at Medellin's fine arts center. His final project was a giant plate with a church in the middle, the edges decorated with the green hills and the dirty-faced coal miners of his hometown. Then he switched to oil painting, which, he says, was less expensive than painting on fine china.

Jairo's name won't appear very high in any search engine if researching Colombian artists. He has won a couple of local contests, made a few sales, and hosted several exhibitions. He is pretty much a living definition of a naïf artist: untrained, with paintings that look skewed and crooked, but are still beautiful to look at in their own way. His biggest claim to fame is painting all the central plazas of the 125 municipalities that make up Antioquia department, where Medellin is the district capital.

Naïf art is slowly becoming accepted as something worthy of hanging in museums across Latin America, even though at its worst, it looks like something from a tacky school calendar. Bogota's National Museum hosted an exhibition this summer showcasing the work of a farmer and fisherman who painted primitive, colorful scenes of country life. Venezuela's National Art Gallery also hosted an exhibition in July called "Weavers of Dreams: Naif or Popular Art?" with more than 100 works. Galleries have sprung up in Latin American capitals dedicated exclusively to the genre, while other museums have made naif art part of their permanent collections.

There is a common style to these paintings: the clumsy use of perspective, the slapdash colors. And the themes are almost always rural and nostalgic: scenes of a village lifestyle that is slowly disappearing from Latin America, in which men still wear ponchos, groceries are bought at the vegetable stand rather than the supermarket, and people still socialize in the town square rather than their private homes. In some ways, the naif art that hung on the walls of Venezuela and Colombia's national museums are snapshots of a world fading away. As childish and untrained as the paintings may look, they are still deeply moving for their idealization of country life and their implicit longing for a world in which nothing ever changes and colors always stay bright.

Jairo explains that he started his most famous project -- the 125-piece series of every village plaza in his home state -- because he was innately drawn to painting churches: "They always stay the same." Pointing at the canvas of his village hometown, he lists all the changes that the plaza has seen over the years. The cobblestoned roads are now paved. The chimneys on the houses have been knocked off, after electricity replaced coal for energy. Some of the traditional facades of the houses have been replaced with garish signs fo pharmacy stores. Another one of the town plazas he painted doesn't even exist anymore: the village was flooded by a mega dam project.

It's possible that the kind of naif art produced by Jairo will continue to find a home in some of Latin America's most elite museums and galleries. Still, this is anything but high art. And while some might argue that these kinds of paintings are charming depictions of a romanticized countryside, they are also sentimental. These are select visions -- none of the darker sides to rural life will be seen here. Jairo admits that some of his paintings of Colombia's town plazas are based on photographs mailed to him, because the towns themselves were too dangerous to visit, thanks to Colombia's ongoing civil conflict.

There's another obstacle that could prevent Jairo's "primitive" painting style from ever being fully accepted as "real" art: sometimes it just looks crude. The visual style of the paintings is associated with plenty of cheap tourist knock-offs in Latin America. The flat, colorful style is imitated on cheap T-shirts, mugs and knick-knacks. In some ways, it's hard to accept the naif paintings as "serious" or "authentic" art, when they are so reminiscent of shoddily-made reproductions. And so the debate will likely go on: does naif art deserve to be hung in museums, or sold in the gift shop?

Jairo will continue making a quiet living from his paintings; he sold a piece to a Colombian living overseas just recently. And he is already planning the pesebre he will make this year. Along with the three wise men and the manger animals, he will paint a backdrop showing the Colombian countryside. It will have cows grazing on the hills, chiva buses on the roads, and coal miners walking to work. It is a scene that will never change.