Green spell: life and magic around emeralds
Shortly after living with her current husband in Colombia, photographer Ana Nuñez Rodríguez received a very curious gift from her in-laws: emerald earrings. She liked the jewels, but beyond that or the commercial value they might represent, she was struck by what her in-laws said about it. Emeralds, they insisted, had particular energy, a magnetic force that was why she had to use them constantly.
Colombia is one of the principal producers of emeralds in the world. They are exploited in Muzo and Otanche, in the department of Boyacá, in central Colombia. Ana went there to see the universe around emeralds.
Mining exploitation began in the region in the 1960s. With it, peasant life was transformed into an extractive economy and with this change, the landscape and social relations were also transformed.
Ana visited the region of Muzo and Otanche for several months and from those trips, her book Flor de roca was born. It is an uncut book: the folds are not cut and you have to break them to see the inside.
The photobook “proposes an exercise in the search for life around emerald. It traces a journey through the mystery that surrounds the stone, focusing on the guaquería as a mining practice on the way to extinction.” Ana edited the book with the support of Walter Costa, it was published by Simulacro publishing house.
Muzo was the place of the Green War. It was a conflict for territory control in which the state was involved ended with the mines in the hands of local landowners. The name of Víctor Carranza, known as the ‘Zar de las esmeraldas’, still resonates in the area. He was accused of drug trafficking and supporting paramilitary groups.
The extraction techniques have been transformed over the years with the development of technology and with the changes of those who control the area. Currently, Ana says, people continue to practice the traditional guaqueo technique. The miners of the area work on (guaquean) the residues that remain from the large-scale extraction of the companies that have entered the region.
You have said that you became interested in emeralds because of a gift that your in-laws gave you. What happened after receiving the gift?
I had no idea about emeralds. I did not know in Colombia emeralds are exploited, or other details such as that they have no industrial application, other than the fact of having them. I began to investigate more, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
From the first trip, I was fascinated by the area, I explored it little by little. It is a region of many contrasts, where all the land is black, it is very sunny, and in the landscape, there are various greens such as emeralds. I was interested in exploring the hidden condition of the landscape, as you cannot see the gems, but they are there.
I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to do a photojournalism project. I also knew that to reach another level, I needed to spend time with people. I made many trips and made friends with several local people who practiced guaqueria.
The use of that word guaqueria or guaquero is striking, in different Colombian regions is not a practice associated with mining but rather with the excavation of archaeological remains.
In the mining area, there are two types of mining, on the one hand, the underground cuts and on the other there is the guaqueria, which is open-air mining. The guaqueros stir and dig through the earth in search of the emeralds. In fact, many times they call themselves recyclers since the land in which they search is the one that the bulldozers of the big companies that bite the mountains discard and that is washed by the water down the mountain.
In Muzo, there is an area called La Playa, under the mountain where all these rivers of black earth are arriving. There the miners search the land looking for gems. This type of open-air mining is called guaquería, it is informal mining. Although there is a certain organization, each one has his piece of land, it is not formalized. It resembles the idea of the guaquería looking for indigenous treasures, in the sense that they dig for treasure.
Of course, in the guaquería there are a series of mysteries that indicate who is suitable to find these “treasures” and who is not. Who can see and who cannot.
This also happens with emeralds. The starting point of my project was all that enigma and mystery that surrounded search and encounter. It is said that the emerald chooses who can find it since not everyone can. In the area, they say that there is no true scientific method to tell you where it is.
There they say that emeralds are where blue butterflies or ferns are, or that it can be found on rainy and full moon days. But at the end of the day, the emerald chooses. It is also said that the moment you find a stone, you can no longer dedicate yourself to something else. It is the green spell and I have to say that it is a bit addictive, one loses track of time, finds a mini stone, and wants to go on and on …
This is also linked to pre-Hispanic times. At that time emeralds had a very different value. For the Muzos, indigenous people who lived in that area, it had a very important value, in their worldview, it was a way of expressing their spirituality. With the arrival of the colonists, all that ended and it became a commodity.
This character that is closer to the indigenous in a certain way is still alive, even though the guaqueros find, search and sell, they decide to keep the best and most special stones.
So when you say that the book sets out to search for life around emeralds, do you include that magical sense? Or how were you thinking about that concept of life?
The project conveys the idea of incessant search, the most important thing for me was that the viewer felt and not necessarily saw. The idea that I wanted to flourish behind my images was that hidden condition of the landscape, the mystery and legend that surrounds the stone and that goes beyond its economic value.
The book itself symbolizes that piece of land that you have to face. Is an invitation to viewer to give his/her best in the search. If you want to see the images you also have to start digging like the guaqueros do. In this sense, the edition is proposed in a series of search sessions.
Why did you decide to make a book?
The idea of the photobook appeared when I participated in the Croma workshops. Then with Laura Oliveros, who was the designer, we did find it interesting to be able to transfer the experience into the book itself. Perhaps in another exhibition format would be more complicated. Finally, the Idartes grant gave us the final push to carry out the editorial project.