PEOPLE: Meet the witty Fernando Castillejo

Exhibition: La Grupa Photographer: Claudia Casais

If you haven’t already seen it, don’t miss Fernando Castillejo’s “La Grupa” which will be closing this evening. More than 156 pieces are part of this exhibition at Barrio Abajo Gallery (Carrera 53 No. 46- 24). It is characterized by scathing and clever stories of the cultural community of Barranquilla. Its author, turned into an “urban legend”, is drawing from his atelier in a popular and vibrant neighborhood of La Arenosa. Castillejo’s work can always surprise and amuse you time after time.

La Grupa transgression, criticism and autobiography in gay comics.

“La Grupa” came to light as Castillejo’s reaction to the emergence of El Grupo 3; a work made up of artists Gustavo Turizo (1962-2002), Maria Elvira Dieppa and Marco Mojica. “La Grupa” was drawn in tabloid size, composed of 3 volumes of 52 pages each. Castillejo also used gay slang, which in Colombian literature is not usual. Its characters, Nordika– a drag queen who became famous in bars and discotheques in Barranquilla, Turi, and Casti, nicknames of the leading characters; some already disappeared. The comic transmits to the reader an impressive array of aesthetic, audio, visual and cinematographic references in which pop culture and the icons with whom the characters grew up are mixed.

Let’s get to know the artist himself through our small talk.

How did you come to be an illustrator?
“I always wanted to be an artist, without being aware of it. Since I was a little kid I started to draw on my father’s books, drawing cowboys and indians. I drew characters from all of the universes that movies brought me. When I grew up, I started to hear that artists have a very difficult life, which is not easy for them. All those comments came from the same people who admired what I did, the same people that told me I was going to be famous. It filled me with many fears. When I finished high school, to avoid having a “difficult life” and largely also because of family pressure, especially from my father, I went to study architecture at Universidad Autónoma del Caribe. But for me, the most important thing was art. And so I had the courage and strength to leave my studies in architecture, and I began my studies in Plastic Arts at the school of Bellas Artes. I was fascinated by the idea of making practical things beautiful and the challenge it posed. I found it very stimulating to try to create intelligent and beautiful work that had a mission: to communicate.”

What inspires you?
I am inspired by my life, my experiences, and the Caribbean environment. For me, this is an amazing mestizo society. A city like Barranquilla has some particular aspects that as a Barranquillero I find fascinating: its people, its idiosyncrasies, and this ethnic aspect. Sometimes people try to hide it because of racism that it is not open like elsewhere. People try to evade the issue, but for me it is impossible to evade it. In Colombia, the media handle a white aesthetic consciousness. Non-white doesn’t sell because it’s associated with the poor, ugly and ordinary; black or mestizo people don’t identify with their biotype. The man with “bad” hair or big lips becomes the successful athlete, the ideal image of the black man today.
I also find an implicit eroticism, a permanent nudity in our society that is very important for me to emphasize in my work. My work is based primarily in portraying the Caribbean man, Caribbean young men.

Tell us about La Grupa. Where did it come from?
That’s another aspect of my artistic production, as I’ve been doing these hyperrealistic graphite drawings with these characters that I previously mentioned. On the other hand, it came to the realization of this fanzine, this comic called “La Grupa,” which is a more autobiographical work in a humorous tone. It was made with pen and ink. “La Grupa” began in August 1999 until this decade. It has obtained its audience gradually; it was initially photocopied and sold in a closed group of people, so that’s why I used a cryptic language in the beginning. Because there were situations and very personal jokes but that somehow also found identity in others. So, in that way it gained more readers in Barranquilla; it was exposed at a book fair in Bogotá and other cultural events. Finally, a couple of years ago, it was displayed in full in the exhibition “Al Nivel del Mar” of the artist Maria Isabel Rueda with her group of “La Usurpadora” and it came back to Bogotá.

Thank you very much!

La Grupa, is it a gay comic?  Mainstream media would say so.. but in fact, it reminds me of Tomi Ungerer’s work, the French cartoonist and illustrator whose works satirized and eroticized his criticisms in a political and social context. La Grupa is now available on the Internet, in the universe of the blogosphere, where in a short period transgressive activities remain despite censorship. Orthodox positions are repelled, and there are no elites. La Grupa is the contemporary comic of Barranquilla, sarcastic and grotesque.