Abel Rodríguez is a Nonuya Elder who translates his encyclopedic knowledge of plants and trees in his homeland, the Igara Paraná River region of the Amazon, into highly detailed drawings, writings, and books. Abel came to drawing as a means of sharing the life cycles of plants and their uses for both people and animals, including for healing, and this emphasis is clear in the drawings he created for the Biennial. Abel has declared that his formal education—plant knowledge gained from his grandfather—was interrupted when he was sent to a Spanish boarding school. His drawings are, in this way, a reclamation of traditional knowledge as well as the traditional custodianship for the land and the water, particularly after he and his family were forced off their land by paramilitary forces in the 1990s.
Abel began drawing later in his life, initially through his role as a guide for the Dutch NGO Tropenbos leading scientists into the Amazon rainforest. It was through overhearing their conversations that Abel realized how little they knew about the plants. In response, he began a series of drawings with incredible detail. Over time, he has created hundreds of documents of plants and their ecosystems, including the animals that feed and propagate them.
“I had never drawn before, I barely knew how to write, but I had a whole world in my mind asking me to picture the plants. I learned about the forest the hard way: I had to be awake for long hours at night, I had to lend my ears to the elders and make special diets. Our learning was a spiritual process; that is why we consider knowledge very valuable.”
Abel also understands the urgency of his project. Traditional knowledge is vulnerable without direct connections to the land and the plants. His commissioned film Mogaje Guihu, El nombrador de plantas / Mogaje Guihu, The plant namer, realized in collaboration with his son Aycoobo / Wilson for the 2022 Biennial, marks a return to his homeland. Their original intent was to create a film from the perspective of the plants, a way of decentring the human and recentering the ecologies that surround us, the very basis of culture, belief systems, and survival.
Commissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art and made possible with the generous support of the Age of Union Alliance. Abel Rodríguez was the recipient of the Toronto Biennial of Art’s inaugural Art Prize in 2019.
Audio Didactic for Abel Rodríguez and Aycoobo/Wilson Rodríguez’s Biennial works:
Abel Rodríguez (Nonuya, born in 1944, Cahuinarí region, Colombia; lives in Bogotá, Colombia) is a sage from the Nonuya Indigenous community of the Cahuinarí River in the Colombian Amazon. Abel has extensive ancestral knowledge of regional plants and ecosystems, transmitted to him through generations. In the 1990s, Colombian armed conflict displaced Abel from his native territory. As a way to preserve his legacy, he creates drawings that represent cultural myths and his personal memories. Now in his eighties, he is considered one of the most important living artists in Colombia.
This work is located in the room facing the main entrance of Arsenal Contemporary.
Arsenal Contemporary Art Toronto
Accessible entrance and washrooms
- Getting There
Arsenal Contemporary Art Toronto
Parking: Limited street
TTC: Near Lansdowne station; Dundas West station; 505 Dundas and 506 Carlton streetcars
Other Transit: Steps from GO Transit/UP Express Bloor station