Lurgan street artist JMK (aka Jonny McKerr) has returned home from a ‘life-changing’ visit to Cali in Colombia.
The well-renowned local artist was there for the international street art festival – Graficalia – where he worked with young people from Cali’s most affected neighbourhoods.
The visit was part of a nine-day programme facilitated by the British Council and saw Jonny take part in several workshops with young offenders and youth groups, alongside creating street art inspired by the people and history of Colombia.
Speaking about his visit, Jonny said: “I had an amazing time in Cali - it was hard work, but the city and its people made the experience.
“I was lucky enough to work with young people who are part of a Youth at Risk programme and those in a juvenile prison, and once they got into it, they were so enthusiastic about creating their own artwork.
“The project seems to be making a real change to young people’s lives in the city and I wish I could have spent more time with them. Graficalia gives them a common goal and something they can be proud of.”
Two of Jonny’s main murals were completed on an interface wall between neighbouring communities in the Belén district of Cali.
Speaking about his artwork he said: “The area is one of the poorest in the city and the two neighbourhoods have a history of violence with each other. I wanted to paint something beautiful for the people that live there.
“The first piece was around the newly-found species of butterfly that was named after the Colombian peace process in 2016. I decided to also include a little hummingbird and some flora special to the Colombian people. The other piece, on the same wall, is of little girl from the ancient indigenous Wayuú tribe, who are located in the northern area of Colombia. I just loved her beautiful peaceful expression and thought it would be a great contrast to the busy streets of Cali - a city of four million people.
“The reaction of the locals to both pieces was incredible – tooting their horns as they drove by - with people from both communities loving the work and being so grateful for it. It was such as honour to paint for them.”
Jonny, who took up street art seven years ago, having trained in Fine Art at Ulster University, believes the experience will influence his future work.
He said: “This visit has undoubtedly been life-changing – it has really lit a fire, giving me more energy to keep on creating new work. I want to now go out there, meet other artists and see more of the world. It’s also made me think of my own style; I’m going to stick to the more colourful stuff, which is more in-line with what they do in Cali.”
The Graficalia Street Arts Festival was established as a way for the local authorities to minimise youth violence – with the aim of showcasing the role of the arts in peacebuilding.
This is the second-year street artists from Northern Ireland have taken part through the British Council – with Belfast street artists Friz (Marian Noone) and EMIC (Eoin McGinn) visiting Cali in 2018.
Speaking about the visit was Jonathan Stewart, Director, British Council Northern Ireland.
He said: “Jonny has been a fantastic ambassador for Northern Ireland. Using street art as a transformational tool, he has created beautiful artwork for the people of Cali, while inspiring young people to pursue art as a way to move forward.
“Belfast and Cali share many parallels with both working to address political instability after years of conflict. Through our British Council office in Colombia we are deepening these international connections with individuals and partners in Northern Ireland, particularly through projects like this, which use creativity and the arts as tools to support positive peace building.”
The British Council is the UK’s leading cultural relations body. For more information on current opportunities in Northern Ireland, visit nireland.britishcouncil.org or follow on Twitter: @BCouncil_NI.