“I’ve been thinking about monuments since the start of the pandemic,” Felipe Lopez, MFA ’23, said during a Zoom studio visit. His ongoing body of work, “Where is our power?” grapples with the connections between public monuments, memory, iconoclasm, and history. “When Black Lives Matter was taking down monuments here in the US, the same thing was happening in Colombia but for different purposes and reasons. Mostly by indigenous people,” he explained.
Lopez, who is from Bogota, scrutinizes the impact of colonization on symbols of power in his practice. He said, “Like many other Colombians, I am the product of the mestizaje that started centuries ago. I am trying to figure out my place in that history and consider whether it’s right or not for us to refer to ourselves as mestizos.”
Along the way, Lopez has concluded that monuments are constructed in a deliberately imposing way, towering high over the heads of those who live, work, and protest amongst them in city squares, government buildings, and public parks. “The function of monuments is to overwhelm people when they see them,” he said.
Four of Lopez’ pieces appear in Visions and Revisions, an exhibition of work by current first-year MFA students currently on view at Nearby Gallery. “I built a table and am showing the pieces inside like an archive,” he explains of the drawings, embossing, and digital prints.
It’s this enduring fascination with monuments that will lead him to Germany this summer as the 2022 recipient of the Hamburg Exchange Program, an annual SMFA fellowship offered in collaboration with The University of Fine Arts, Hamburg. Through the Fellowship’s stipend, Lopez plans to take classes at the University with professors whose research centers around heritage and monuments. He will also have the chance to live and work in a creative loft space together with other international MFA students.
Prior to coming to the SMFA at Tufts, Lopez earned an MA in Art Education from the National University of Colombia. He then co-ran a project designed by NC-Arte and sponsored by UNESCSO and Bogota's Chamber of Commerce, which helped 45 local art galleries and cultural spaces become more sustainable.
All the while, Lopez kept a small studio in a local arts institution, Taller Trescientosuno: “It was my professor's studio, but he shared his space with me. I spent four years learning there and then began teaching open drawing classes there too.”
But despite Bogota’s growing arts infrastructure, Lopez longed for an MFA experience with strong individual mentoring that could push his practice and help him grow his own research and teaching methodologies. There were no such programs available in Colombia.
“I’m convinced that if you want to teach art, you also have to make art and show it,” said Lopez. He landed on the SMFA at Tufts University after connecting with the work of David Antonio Cruz, Professor of the Practice in Painting and Drawing.
“David is a talented painter—so I came to Boston hoping that he could give me ideas about how to make better paintings,” said Lopez, as he shuffled through sketchbooks in his SMFA studio. “What I realized quickly was that he’s very political and speaks Spanish and is part of the Latin American community.”
Patte Loper, the program’s Interim Graduate Director, said that individual mentoring between faculty and students is the DNA of the School’s pedagogy. She sees a growing connection between Cruz, Lopez, and their respective creative processes. “They both have these incredibly high levels of skill, and they use that to dismantle visual histories and to pick them apart. They then put them back together in new configurations that more accurately reflect our landscape and make it look more like the world we want to inhabit.”
Along the way, Cruz has introduced Lopez to useful references—including Fred Wilson’s “Addiction Display” and a muscular show titled “Mining the Museum,” as well as Marina Abramovic’s “Balkan Baroque.” He’s also encouraged Lopez to take heady risks with art. “He’s always saying, Let’s try this. Let’s see what happens. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” said Lopez. That exploratory attitude has helped Lopez to experiment more widely and to stifle a fear of making mistakes.
Lately, he’s been examining whether the removal of portions of monuments changes the collective memories associated with historic events.
His current series references monuments dedicated to Christopher Columbus, Francisco de Paula Santander, and to the Spanish conqueror of Colombia, Sebastián de Belalcázar. The latter was recently taken down by protestors in the city of Cali. However, rather than depicting the statue of Belalcázar armed with a sword as it originally stood, Lopez only shows an empty pedestal. “I decided that if the sculpture is not there, the pedestal is still saying something about what once was there,” he said.
While in Hamburg, Lopez plans to study Counter-Monumentalism, alternative monuments installed near old monuments with the intention of offering historical context and stimulating dialogues. He’ll return from the Fellowship and offer a public lecture to the SMFA community about the experience and its effect on his work.
Lead Image: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University