Abel Rodríguez’s drawings come from a confluence of several stories. The first is Mogaje Guihu’s. Born Nonuya, circa 1944, in the headwaters of the Cahuinarí River in the Colombian Amazon, he was raised by the Muinane. His uncle, a sabedor (man of knowledge) taught him everything about plants. He became known as the namer of plants. The second story is of Carlos Rodríguez, a biologist who heads the Colombian branch of Tropenbos, a Dutch NGO whose mission is to study and protect the tropical jungle. At some point they needed local guides to help students of Amazonian botany to identify local plants. Guihu became one of them. He proved to be consistent and reliable, a true savant.
Later, in the 1990s, Guihu—who by then had adopted the Western name Abel Rodríguez—moved to Bogotá, escaping violence in the jungle, and settled in one of the Colombian capital’s poverty-ridden peripheral neighborhoods. It was there that Carlos Rodríguez stumbled by chance into Abel and invited him to work again with Tropenbos as a specialist in plants, providing him the tools to create botanical drawings. Abel’s precise, botanical illustrations are drawn from memory and knowledges acquired by oral traditions: they are the visions of someone who sees the potential of plants as food, material for dwellings and clothing, and for use in sacred rites. His “botanical plates” include written information like the color and taste of the bark, the season when it blooms, where it grows and at what time of the year, both in his native Muinane language and in Spanish. His Ciclo anual del bosque de la vega (Seasonal changes in the flooded rainforest, 2009–10), for example, is a calendar tracking the changing appearance and life of the inundated forest. And his Árbol de la vida y de la abundancia (Tree of life and abundance, 2012) tells the story of the creation of the jungle, the origin of the world.
There’s a fourth story: Abel’s foray into an entirely new territory. Following the inclusion of his drawings in the exhibition Historia natural y política at the Museo Botero in Bogotá in 2008, his work has been part of numerous exhibitions in the Americas and in Europe. Abel, however, does not consider himself to be making contemporary art as defined by the West: “We don’t really have that concept, but the closest one I can think of is iimitya, which in Muinane means ‘word of power’—all paths lead to the same knowledge, which is the beginning of all paths.”