Painter Rick Harlow first came to Colombia in 1987 to live along the Caqueta River, near the town of La Pedrera. He spent half his time painting, the other half hunting and fishing with the men of the Yucuna people, "trying to be a productive member of society." In 1988, toward the end of his stay, he participated in the yurupari, a five-day male initiation rite, involving fasting, drinking ayahuasca, and bathing in cold river water.
|Roots (2000). "I really love the elegance and beauty of buttressed roots. In this painting I wanted to focus on the base of just one tree to try and express something of the rainforest."|
The ritual ayahuasca experience, he says, "succeeded in breaking down the last barriers between me and nature. I felt my senses opening up. In addition, I was physically exhausted — too tired to worry about what was going to bite me." His perspective on the rainforest also changed. "It literally taught me a new way of seeing," he says. "The Indians view plants and animals as entities with human qualities, with whom they have relationships."
|Quantum Mutatus (1989). “Painted after participating in the male initiation ritual of the Yucuna tribe. The imagery comes from visions I experienced under the effects of ayahuasca during a dance on the final night of the ritual."|
His paintings, Harlow says, "combine literal and abstract imagery with the aim of getting at different levels of perception. When I am in the rainforest or working on paintings about my experiences, whatever I’m looking at is generally colored by subconscious thoughts and associations superimposed on the scene at hand. Participating in rituals, dances, drinking ayahuasca, getting sick or feeling great all influence my way of expressing how I view things."
The Yucuna called Harlow the Shaman of Colors, and found his work perplexing. "There are no formal art scholars within the community because, in that culture, art as we know it is superfluous," Harlow explains. "Indians don't quite get the idea of art existing outside a special use like decorative baskets or painted masks. Nor can they see why anyone would bother putting paint on a canvas, mounting it on a wall, and selling it."
|Biophilia (1994). "Combines indigenous design motifs with expressions of amorous feelings towards the nature and the energy of life in the rainforest."|
Eventually Harlow was driven away from the village, and from the paper-making project, by FARC, the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia. "They had known of my presence and tolerated it for a number of years,” he said. “But that changed when the US became involved in the battle against them and they wanted all Americans out of the region.”
|Yucuna Maloca (1990). “Late afternoon sun flooding into the maloca at Puerto Guayabo along the Mirití Paraná River."|
Harlow's paintings are complex and haunting. Even at their most photorealistic — look at Yucuna Maloca, above — they capture the magical light and dark of the jungle, its mysterious impenetrable textures.
Much of the material here is taken from two interviews with Harlow — one by Steve Nadis in Audubon , and one by Charles Giuliano in Maverick Arts Magazine. A number of Harlow's paintings, with brief descriptions, are here.