Tatiana Arocha: Mama Coca

Hot Air
Hojas en movimiento sobre el fuego [Leaves in motion over the fire], 2023. Soft Ground etching on Hahnemühle and pigment print on Kozo paper, hand-painted with acrylic. Triptych, each 35 1/4 x 26 1/2 inches. Photograph by Etienne Frossard

Tatiana Arocha is a Brooklyn-based artist whose practice has focused on installations that include rubbings, photographs, and drawings of plants and landscapes taken from the many ecological niches of her native Colombia. Increasingly, her art and advocacy have focused on the coca plant, notorious for its role in the war on drugs, which has destroyed indigenous communities and their territories across South America. Informed by her research, her current installations and publications highlight the coca plant’s ceremonial role in the indigenous cultures that cultivate it, pushing back on the demonization it has endured in the West. Her work also suggests new avenues for how the plant can be a force for good in the Global North and South.

Can you begin by talking about your identity as a Colombian in the US and how that felt so bound up with cocaine?

The first time I moved to the US, I was a college student studying in Iowa for one year. For the people I met there, Colombia was a blank slate. The depth of ignorance was surprising, even though I had been warned. I took the microaggressions in stride, like, “Did they give you your clothes at the airport?”

When I eventually moved to New York in 2000, I was working as a graphic designer in the advertising industry. In my job, I could not escape a conversation without cocaine being mentioned. For example, a client once told me, “I’m going to a wedding in Colombia. Where can I get good cocaine?”

It has changed over the years. Now, people are more likely to say, “Oh, I hear Colombia is beautiful.” Usually, it’s something to do with the landscape.

But with Netflix series like Griselda and Narcos, the stereotypical conversation around Colombia still reverts to cocaine. This glamorization is very problematic, considering how the criminalization of the plant fueled Colombia’s undeclared civil war, created criminal organizations, fueled guerilla groups and paramilitary organizations, and gave rise to Pablo Escobar, who launched a wave of bloodshed.

I’ve been shocked at people’s lack of knowledge about how the narco-trafficking industry is linked to the environment and the depletion of tropical forests. Rebeca Lerer just published a very detailed article about the environmental impact of the war on drugs in Brazil’s territories in the Amazon. The same issues have also been happening in Colombia for decades.

The criminalization of the coca plant fueled the war in Colombia and allowed the US to come in and attack the coca plants with herbicides. But no one talks about the systematic deforestation that the US is paying for. It also amplified racism and fueled discrimination against campesinos, black people, and the indigenous people who used the plant in traditional ceremonies, turning them into criminals.

What did you discover about the plant in your research?

I understood that the plant had a sacred role in indigenous communities but I realized I knew very little about the plant itself. I had no direct relationship to it. I grew up in Bogotá where the plant isn’t cultivated. My first experience with the indigenous use of the plant was through the poporos I saw in the Gold Museum. These are pre-Columbian containers made of gold used in the ritual chewing of the coca leaf.

To enter this conversation about the indigenous role of the plant, I needed to learn its history. I needed to understand why the plant was demonized, starting from colonial times and the Spanish invaders.

Reading Mama Coca by Anthony Henman, I got a very detailed description of the history of coca and cocaine. The colonizers first saw how indigenous people used the coca leaf in many daily activities. Another book was Wade Davis’ One River. He talks about how coca leaves are used to exchange knowledge. These uses of the plant seem so contradictory to the relationship people have to cocaine. But there are so few books and historical texts written about the coca plant that I realized that, for me, the best way to learn would be through oral tradition.

Detail: Ahi, hay muchas vidas [There, there are many lives], 2019. Series of photos that Arocha took during her stay in Gory Nejedeka’s maloka and chagra

I went to Leticia in the Amazon to learn about the plant, where I met Gory Nejedeka, a Muinane indigenous leader. He taught me about palabra perfecta, or the perfect word, which is the idea that the coca plant creates a space where it is possible to communicate in harmony, exchange knowledge, and listen. Specifically, this is done by mixing mambe, a traditional preparation of toasted coca leaves ground with the ash from Yarumo tree leaves, with ambil, a syrup made from tobacco. It’s a facilitator for conversations. But unlike coffee, it actually is very nutrient-rich, like a superfood. It has nutritional value, and it is spiritually nourishing.

In 2020, I was questioning how to talk about all these complex ideas through my art and what my place was in all of this. Since I couldn’t travel during the pandemic, I didn’t have access to mambe and couldn’t return to the Amazon. I needed to develop my way of relating to the plant that was true to my experience. I started doing rubbings of coca leaves, and while I was working on this I started communicating with Gory over WhatsApp to continue with his teaching.

The Cost of a Line of Coke, 2021-Present. Graphite and junpakushi paper, 15 x 9 feet composed of 1000 drawings each 3×4 inches. Photograph by Jeff Barnett-Winsby

How did your coca leaf rubbings change your relationship with the plant?

It’s become part of my daily practice. When people visit my studio we often do a leaf rubbing together before talking. It’s very soothing. I was part of Futuro Coca, an event in Bogotá created to promote the positive aspects of the plant and those who have been involved in this conversation. At my table, I did rubbings with the attendants, and Gory was there too. Afterward, he told me that, while doing the rubbing, he could envision different avenues where the world and the plant could connect.

Women are making big contributions to raising the visibility of the coca plant and its value. I led a symposium that included an ecologist, Dora Troyano, anthropologist Marcela Vallejo, and Fabiola Piñacue Achicue, a Nasa indigenous political scientist. Fabiola grew up with the plant, and it was interesting to me because she never had to question her relationship with coca as I have had to. It was always integrated into her life and part of her cause. Fabiola started Coca Nasa, which makes teas, food, and health products from coca. Coca-Cola sued her for using the word coca in her company name, which is ridiculous. They don’t own the plant or the word. The lawsuit didn’t go anywhere. Dora has an initiative called Alianza Coca por la Paz that is focused on bringing peaceful regulation to coca crop development. Both women have different perspectives and approaches on how to make it a legal agricultural product, but they agreed that we need to change coca’s reputation as a dangerous narcotic.

In my practice as an artist, I’m starting to talk about what happens when the plant is legalized. Who will benefit? How will that change the ecological implications of coca cultivation?

How are you and other people here in the US and South America undoing the criminalization of the coca plant?

I think that Futuro Coca is a great example of how people are creating narratives that cast the plant in a new light apart from its criminalization by the Global North. The environmental damage and the displacement of indigenous and farmer populations caused by the war on drugs have become unavoidable in conversations. People are realizing that the failed war on drugs has only made things so much worse. And narcotrafficking is continuing to grow.

I keep working with my coca leaves even though they are considered a controlled substance. I have been making copper etching plates from the leaves. Marcela and I are working on a publication that will feature Fabiola, Dora, and other women contributors about the plant’s agency. I’m also revisiting my previous work that confronts how 18th-century scientists erased cultural knowledge and the sacred connection of coca to the indigenous communities in South America, making it a commodity to be exploited economically.

Left: Coca, Photograph, Pucallpa, Perú 2018 Right: Mi maestra, mi guía /My teacher, my guide. Pressed plant, Pucallpa, Perú 2018

I see people’s minds being opened to the different uses of this plant that aren’t linked to the narcotic derivatives, and if that window stays open it may start to change the political environment. But I want to be careful not to romanticize this process or participate in cultural appropriation, so for myself, I’m continuing to find ways of learning about the plant and how it connects people through their stories.

About the artist: Tatiana Arocha (1974) is a New York-born Colombian artist. Her art practice explores intimacy between people and land, rooted in personal memory and her immigrant experience, and centers on community through public art interventions and transdisciplinary knowledge exchange. In 2023, Arocha was awarded a MacDowell Fellowship, the Annual Award for Excellence in Design by the Public Design Commission of the City of New York, and was an artist in residence at Residency Unlimited. In 2024, she will be a Santa Fe Art Institute resident. Past residencies include The Lower East Side Printshop, LABverde, and The Wassaic Project. Arocha has received funding from The Sustainable Arts Foundation, Brooklyn Arts Council, City Artist Corps, and the FST StudioProjects Fund. In 2022, she was awarded the Brookfield Place New York Annual Arts Commission. Solo and group exhibitions include Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling, BioBAT Project Space, Queens Botanical Garden, Smack Mellon, Wave Hill, and The Clemente, and site-specific installations at Brooklyn Public Library, Snug Harbor Cultural Center, and MTA Arts.

About the writer: Hovey Brock is a painter, climate artist, and writer who has shown his works in the US and internationally. He is a frequent contributor to the Brooklyn Rail’s Art Seen column. He is currently one of the editors of Hot Air, the climate column for Art Spiel. His current project, Crazy River, which includes painting and writing, looks at the climate crisis as it is unfolding on a river he has known all his life, the West Branch of the Neversink, using the filters of personal memory, historical incident, and geologic time.