Stealing Time with Oscar Murillo

Oscar Murillo interviewed by Koumbah Semega-Janneh
6 min read

We spoke to Oscar Murillo from his hometown in La Paila, Valle del Cauca – a place he has returned to. The 2019 Turner prize sharing Colombian artist, who shot to superstar status in the art world a decade ago, shared his thoughts on life in Colombia, the current moment, and challenging Western discourses of Blackness in Colombia and South America.

Koumbah Semega-Janneh (KSJ)

How do you feel?

Oscar Murillo

I feel good. You know, the thing is that people here age psychologically quicker. So in Colombia you age quicker psychologically. And also there's so many kids around. You know, like younger kids. And they're more connected to… I feel like in London because it's the city I guess, right now we're part of our generation. We still are entering the population.

Letter from America, performance documentation, 2019

Do you know what I mean? We’re still not fully there. We're still kind of in this inbetween. But we're very divorced from the youth. Do you know what I mean? We're still like… Like somebody who's 18, or somebody who's 15 - it's very different. Even in their 20s you know, they're very divorced from us if you were in London. But here, everybody's very interconnected.

I think it's because it's small. And that young energy is very present. So then you feel that you're no longer in a place of... And also, a lot of people my age, they have kids and families, and they work. You know, they have a very didactic lifestyle. So, you know, from your 20s, your mid-20s, you're forced to be part of a producing population.

Not even thinking. You're not even thinking - you're producing. You know? And that takes you… You're basically producing for 40 years, until you're in your retirement. Because it's that kind of society. This society, you know. There's no thinking. You're not here to think you're here to produce. So as soon as you can start producing, what usually starts happening in your early 20’s, then that's it. You know? It's like you're just a vessel of production.

Are you connecting that to your hometown or in general, culturally, in Colombia?

Oscar Murillo 

I think in Colombia I'll say 95% of the population here, is that kind of you know... I think 95% is that. Although you have a bunch of cities, most of the country’s… it's an agricultural country. And even the cities, we haven't really developed into a kind of consumerist society in the same way.

Untitled (Catalyst), 2018

You know, even the cities - the context of the city is University and so on. But even in that context of higher education, it’s still about production. You have to be becoming… in the context of sciences to go and work for… to be a lawyer. You know those kind of jobs. You know, so there is no thinking - thinking as a kind of right. It doesn't have that kind of strength. You know? 

And that's also the case because the country has a long history of violence - that there's an ongoing propaganda of that violence being connected to the Left. So anything that's like, slightly out of tone from the norm which is conservatism - then it's connected to violence, it's connected to like, the FARC or like, guerrillas or like, revolutionary. And people are scared of that because of the history. 

How is that manifested for the Afro-Colombian community? How is the Afro-Colombian positioned in that kind of dynamic?

Oscar Murillo

I mean, well, the thing is you know, the Afro-Colombian community… it's a complicated one because there's a duality. I think it's like there's two things that happen. There is a racial element that is clear. And it exists and it... you know, it exists just as it would exist in the US, or like, in Britain - but potentially a bit stronger.

Because I think here there hasn't been an uprising, you know? Where, like, in the States you've had an uprising. And there's been figures throughout history that have stood up, you know - even if racism is still the case. You know there's been figures that have stood up and have created an uprising.

And then with struggles and so on, there's been some kind of like, let's say headway, no? Even if we want to call it limited, or it's not enough whatever… But there's been some. Like I said before, you know, even this toppling of statues and reform. You know, getting people to rethink about like even the word nigger for example, not being permissible.

You know, even if it's still under the radar, still said. Even if people are thinking and not saying it, there's an acknowledgement publicly that it shouldn't be said. And that if it's said, you know, you can for example… the consequences of this… like the country musician in the U.S [Morgan Wallen] getting completely erased from his record label. Publicly getting kind of denounced, you know.

The word nigger here is celebrated. It's like seen as a kind of compassionate acknowledgement towards a Black person. So a person could just simply say, you know, 'My nigger.' And like a white person in the streets - to a female or male - it doesn't really matter. And it's said, you know, like this idea that ‘I'm being…’ 

So if that's the case we're so far away from you know, toppling the statues. And one can do that - one can do that symbolically, but it doesn't mean anything. Because collectively the country is nowhere, nowhere near close to having such an acknowledgement.

And at the same time, I am aware that those comparisons are… While they are alarming, I am aware also that the context is very different in terms of colonial histories… The dominant… Ultimately, one can say, ‘Well this country's a third world country’ - whatever that means. So, there are all these layers to it that make it a little bit more complicated.

Also, the Black population here is the most underprivileged. You know, for example right now in a port city Buenaventura, which is all Afro- Colombian, that region is turning out war. You know, has been at war for decades and decades. But, you know, it doesn't get any attention from the state because it's just Black people. You know, who cares? So that becomes very direct. 

It has nothing to do with colonial history, it's just direct racism. It becomes this kind of rotten pot of just corruption, and drugs, and you name it – it’s there. And at the same time, I'm speculating a little bit, but like you would have in Africa generally speaking. I'm not generalising, but in terms of corruption, ideas of race then go out of the window. It’s just more… you know, there is no collective desire for evolution.

Violent Amnesia, 2014 - 2018

And what I mean is, you can say in Nigeria for example the corruption there it's not racial, it's just corruption. And that, of course, it's almost like this idea that people are there just to fend for themselves and not think connected.


I'm just curious, though, when you talk about a collective. Because collective would assume that there is a need to see yourself as part of a (political) group.

Oscar Murillo

Yeah of course, like when you live in a ghetto, when you live like in this case a segregated ghetto in the context of class, of race - it's clear. That’s what I mean about the US - they found themselves in this ghetto, they found themselves in the segregation.

They saw that we're here, we're all the same. We’re struggling, we’re being punished, and we've been crushed. And they were able to collectivise and fight for space, and fight for rights, and so on, and so on. Even if we know that that's far from over, but they started to weave a net of connectivity to fight it together.

Here I think that hasn't been the case. And also because in that you have an Indigenous population too, that is also marginalised. So it has its own sets of problems that mark it. That creates a different kind of situation from what you have in the West, generally speaking.

I'm just saying that it’s manifested differently… I think that's where I have an issue with debate - like proliferating debates. Western debates around race to me are very complicated, very problematic. I find them fascist in a way, because they are centred around privilege, even within the context of the oppressed.

Even in the context of the oppressed - the oppressed being the set of people of colour - there's still a sense of this kind of privilege. And I think in this case, a privilege is fine. The privilege is fine, only if they use that privilege to have compassion, and to have allegiance, and to recognise their, let’s say, brothers and sisters elsewhere. Who are not so privileged, and do not have the tools and the education and the platform.

But in the case of the US, perhaps even Britain, I say that it's somewhat fascist. Because there is no… First of all, even in the UK, the discourse is an imported discourse from America, you know, which is absurd. Because the context in Britain is very, very different from the US.

And then you have the US kind of discourse, you know, completely ignoring everything else around the world. And it’s also a discourse that exists within the context of neoliberalism, you know? And so there is a sense of righteousness. And that's fine, if that's within the context of that culture. But because effectively every channel of discourse - let's say social media - is an American production then every tool is co-opted. 

So every tool is co-opted, where like the paws of an American intervention are always in place. You know it's very difficult to allow for, let's say, Brazilians - like an Afro-Brazilian population who is dominant, ironically, outside of Africa, to have a space. And even if they had that space, you know, maybe they just don't want to take it in the same way.

Because culturally, they've been programmed differently. You know, the cultural programme is different. It's not the same as the UK, it’s not the same as the US. So, those things haven’t... While I'm not negating that… there might be… I don't know - I’m always speculating… What proliferates is this heavy-handed American discourse.

Find Oscar Murillo, here, here and here on Instagram

Photograph: © Cian Oba-Smith

Born in Colombia and based in various locations, Oscar Murillo (b. 1986) is known for an inventive and itinerant practice that encompasses paintings, works on paper, sculptures, installations, actions, live events, collaborative projects, and videos. Taken as a whole, his body of work demonstrates a sustained emphasis on the notion of cultural exchange and the multiple ways in which ideas, languages, and even everyday items are displaced, circulated, and increasingly intermingled. Murillo's work conveys a nuanced understanding of the specific conditions of globalization and its attendant state of flux, while maintaining the universality of human experience.

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Stealing Time with Oscar Murillo
6 min read