Based on artistic-archaeological research conducted in the Colombian Caribbean, Mirjam Wirz [CH] has registered, in text and images, the memories of places connected with music – and often marked by women figures. Travelling through the Montes de María area, the artist investigated these traces by photographing locals and collecting testimonies.
The process is part of «Cuadernos Verdes», a series of printed booklets where Mirjam presents visual and text material of her research. The first issue, «Matuya», originated from a journey in early 2022 in Las Mercedes, a hamlet of 20 houses about an hour from San Jacinto. She went back to the 1960s, when a group of musicians lived in the village, and traced the history of this place through the memory of its residents.
Six months later, she continued her research, now focusing on composer Betty Ochoa, who, in an interview with Mirjam, recalled the region’s humble origins:
“My parents were very poor people. None of my siblings can read or write. Our parents raised us with the sweat of the fields and taught us how to work the fields. Me and my husband raised our five children with our own strength. We did not come from an inheritance or a title. That is valuable. Like our musicians here in San Jacinto. Without knowing how to read or to write they travelled the world, teaching the world about our music. Showing our roots. We must value that. Now we are going to highlight the work they did and continue with the legacy that they left us. They have taught many educated people, folks who have studied to learn our history. And we wrote our history without even knowing how to read or write.”
The Swiss artist conducts her research through a method she calls «Soft Eyes». The term refers to a scene in the US series «The Wire», when a characters states that one needs “soft eyes” to see in details, form new connections, and change one’s worldview in other to precisely unravel a crime. In Mirjam’s work, she tries to leave things in the limbo for a while, as if her understanding of the world disappeared, creating a moment in which she can see unthought flashes and openness.
“For my projects and the nature of my research, there are no better moments than the one on a morning in beginning of October: it is 10 in the morning, I’m sitting with Betty, her husband and her daughter in their courtyard, drinking coffee. The trees are deep green because of the raining season, Betty Ochoa is talking about cumbia music, her experiences with composing, the poetry of her song texts, how individual memory works and how it connects to history and the traumatic years of the armed conflict in the area. She talks about her great love with José Anillo, her husband, who is a composer as well, always carrying a pen in his breast pocket, because you never know when the words mould into a melody, her daughter Claudia is present, she is writing poems since a small age – it is a house of words, melodies, stories, and affection”, the artist describes.
The testimonies and images collected around Betty should generate another publication, and Mirjam intends to continue her research on the «Cuadernos Verdes». The process, here, differs from «Sonidero City», a series of books about cumbia music that she has been working on for the last ten years. While in «Sonidero» the research is quite straightforward, one investigation leading to another, in «Cuadernos» the artist works like in a rhizome, a network of roots without a single origin or hierarchies, where people’s narratives emerge and interweave with her notes.
Mirjam Wirz is a photographer, artist, and researcher born in Switzerland. She lived in Lithuania (2001-2009) and Mexico (2010-2018) and currently resides in Colombia. She studied photography and transdisciplinarity at the Zurich University of Arts and was the organizer of Flash Bar and Flash Institut in Vilnius/Lithuania. Since 2010 she has been researching cumbia music in Mexico, Colombia, and Peru. She is the editor and author of the publication series «Sonidero City» on Mexican cumbia and of the book «Sobre el Río (Passage)», a research along the lower Magdalena river in Colombia, in search of the origins of cumbia music – and of the publications series «Los Cuadernos Verdes de los Montes de María». She works freelance as a photo editor and is currently studying translation.