To call Johanna Calle a drawer is to overlook her physical and sculptural approach to the use of lines. Calle’s intricate drawings test the boundaries of the medium through her treatment of drawing as a graphic gesture, one that she renders variously in ink, pencil, thread, copper cables, stitching, text and wool. ‘To me, the medium of drawing is equal to a language,’ she says, ‘a language that is constantly adapting itself.’ As a language, Calle’s works speak to complex issues that impact on daily life in Colombia: gender roles, violence, environmental concerns, social injustice, urbanisation and linguistics. Employing repetitive and meticulous processes of erasure, distortion and accumulation, Calle conveys the importance both of that which is visible, and that which is not.
The idea that language (in particular, text) is both an artefact of knowledge and a form of power is one of several notions that Calle explores in her work.
Calle describes Lluvias (Rain), 2012–13, as a ‘gathering storm of letters’ that implicitly acknowledges the spiritual connection between rain and the land in indigenous culture. Each letter in Lluvias (Rain) is constructed from typewritten words extracted from texts on ethno-linguistics, precipitation extremes and Indigenous Colombians. The letters are then used to spell out the phonetic expressions of 68 indigenous language groups (many of them now extinct) in Colombia that are used to describe rain. Calle reiterates the perilousness of both the environmental situation and Colombia’s linguistic heritage through her use of ledger paper. Susceptible to fading and alteration, and not easily reproduced, the paper is symbolic of the struggles of powerless individuals and indigenous communities to maintain a connection to the land despite bureaucracy and a rapidly modernising world.
Sermón, 2014–16, is a delicate sculptural construction of rolled manuscript pages and copper wiring that explores the complicated historical relationship between knowledge, power, religion and female discrimination. Attracted by the calligraphic gestures of their scribes, Calle has long collected old manuscripts, especially those that deal with forms of knowledge. Historically, this calligraphy was undertaken by men with access to written texts, including religious texts, which were denied to women and from the 18th through to the 20th century, the government relied on the church to educate young Colombians. This teaching system necessarily perpetuated the bias against women found in most religious discourse, inhibiting the intellectual and professional possibilities for women. As a work about knowledge, power and influence, Sermón also references, through its title, the pervasive influence of the Church in Latin America, where religious instructions often extended to overt guidance on social, cultural and political issues.
What both works demonstrate is Calle’s deft skill in connecting her choice of materials to the subject of her enquiry without being overly didactic or sentimental. She makes powerful statements with a delicate visual poetry and encountering these works within the Embassy of Spirits, with its particular explorations of philosophy, religious ritual and indigenous cultural connections, only serves to bring another layer of subtle consideration to their viewing.