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Eyewitness Colombia

Katie Knight's hand-painted photo-testimony



The first thing that one notices when reaching the top of the stairs of the Art Museum of Missoula is a flush of uncanny color—subtle, luminous and eerie. Then content hits a spot right between the eyes.

Eyewitness Colombia, Katie Knight’s show of hand-painted photographs, engulfs the viewer with etheric pinks, pastel blues, yellows, greens, luminous honey skin tones and menacing black forms that shimmer on sepia surfaces. Then the content sears the mind with impactive, shocking and disturbing information.

This is Colombia 2001, in all its beauty and heart-breaking horror. The immediately familiar faces look candidly into Knight’s camera. Captions about the conditions the photographer witnessed there are painstakingly hand printed in sepia ink on cotton batiste adhered to the linen mats of each photograph. The combination of words and images gives one the impression of walking through a room-sized book. A distressing but radiant book.

A life-long activist, Knight is well known in the human rights movement. She is a Fulbright-Hays scholar and recipient of a Jacob K. Javits Scholarship, among others.

Knight traveled to Colombia in 2001 with the Colombia Support Network (CSN) on a fact-finding mission focused on the impact of fumigation of the Amazon rainforest, and visiting CSN-sponsored sister communities, one of which is Montana’s sister community, Landazuri. What she found there is shared with us in a show of 46 images taken from a body of 3500 shots.

Knight shoots in black and white, sometimes using infrared, and develops silver gelatin prints in sepia tones. Then she paints each image with lithography inks, which she strokes onto the photographic prints. Working only from the primaries, she mixes hues that are as haunting as the images behind them. Iridescent shades linger with the viewer long after one leaves the building.

In this exhibit we see atrocity through the eyes of art—atrocity with which we, as U.S. taxpayers, are intimately connected, whether we are aware of it or not. But it is nearly impossible to avoid Knight’s information. Aside from the captions, information is articulately presented in Knight’s essay, “Intimate Connections,” and in her artist statement. These are printed in huge type on ghostly image-covered papers adhered to giant black dresses that hang from the ceiling in the middle of the room.

Knight tells us that our money is funding the Colombian military, and the death squad paramilitary by proxy, at the rate of $2 million per day. Of the $1.3 billion sent to Columbia in 2000-2001, 82 percent went to the military.

Our money, we’re told, is being used to kill people—the women, children, and desperately thin men in Knight’s photographs—on a daily basis. Some 35,000 are murdered or “disappeared” every year, according to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights; an average of 20 per day.

We see one boy standing against battered shields printed with “Policia” and wonder, “Is he alive today?” He has the face and attitude of a mischievous eight-year-old, like the kid down the block who loves to play hide and seek.

Around the room eyes meet ours, some pleading, some frightened, some menacing, some strangely serene, like the boy in “No Shirts, No Homes” who seems to have found a moment of peace inside himself. Perhaps this is due to the well-organized camp where he is temporarily housed. Beneath him and a badly scarred companion, a caption tells us that the camp offers psychological counseling, a soup kitchen, and legal and medical help.

My favorite image is of a ghostly white figure reaching out for the photographer’s hand, which we see extending into the picture frame. The still, almost frozen figure is a peace protestor in Bogotá. Dressed like Lawrence of Arabia in turban and white-face, he looks down into the camera with distrust on the verge of friendship.

Another is of a child dressed in a painted lime green fleecy suit, holding a blond doll upside down. Her too-tired eyes, looking straight into Knight’s camera, show us the treacherous line between childhood and death that many Colombian children walk.

Employing a method in which painting and photography are “glued” together with language, Knight’s message is so powerful it leaves one with a sense of urgency to get involved. Thanks to the museum, we have a chance to do just that.

Knight delivers a gallery talk Thursday, Dec. 5, at 7 p.m. An artist reception is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 6, 6—8 p.m. On Saturday, Dec. 7, from 10 a.m.—12 noon, Knight will teach a workshop, wherein participants can create art depicting their lives in Montana using Polaroids, paint and fabric, to send to children in Landazuri ($5 donation). All events at the Museum, 335 N. Pattee St. Call 728-0447 for info.

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