‘Suelo Orfebre’. An analysis of the local identity through material choice, working with craftsmen and connecting with communities in the mining community of Marmato by Simón Ballen Botero
‘Suelo Orfebre’, or ‘Golden Soil’ in Spanish, is the community-focused glass-making project spearheaded by designer and researcher Simón Ballen Botero. It uses the mineral and sand remainders from gold panning, known as jagua, to dye glass with green hues; the results are imperfect shaped objects, clouded with a moss-colored, marble effect. The idea was developed in 2017; the building of equipment in the small Columbian mining town of Marmato started in the summer of 2018. «I see myself as the facilitator of this project», says Ballen, 28, who currently works at the Amsterdam-based design studio Formafantasma. «I am a conceptualizer and orchestrator, but I think of ‘Suelo Orfebre’ with a saying: ‘teach a man to fish, but do not give him the fish’».
Ballen’s intention to dig into different Columbian communities, uncover colonial histories, and discover new crafts began in 2013 while doing an exchange program from Columbia at Finland’s University of Lapland. «I got in contact with the Sámi indigenous people of Finland», Ballen says. «When I was there, I thought, ‘I am amazed by their culture, and I have never looked at my own». Following the experience, Ballen felt drawn to a more creative path, left an engineering degree, and enrolled at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, where he studied in the ‘Man and Well Being’ department.
«The more I looked into other cultures, the more I realized that there is much in my own culture to talk about», Ballen says, «and a project about Columbia and Columbian identity was the starting point». To do so, the plan was to look through the prism of gold. «Through gold, I could tell the story of Columbia through the past to the present»; from the exploitation of resources by the Spanish colonialists, dating back to the sixteenth century to the «political and economic conflicts that there are around mining today». In 2016, the OECD reported Columbia exported 42 tonnes of gold (SIMCO, 2017), but it is a trade wrapped up in illegality. The OECD also estimated that in 2018 between 10 and 25 tonnes of gold could be smuggled out every year and noted the related issue of drug trafficking.
Ballen began a two-month research trip through Columbia in 2017, visiting key locations in the country’s history with gold: «my process is to knock on doors, to contact people and see where one thing leads me to another». The intention was to get inside a mine, and Ballen was connected with a miner in Marmato, a small town three hours from his local Medellín. A place, says Ballen, of great historical importance: «it was one of the first places where the Spaniards settled mining activities, and after Simón Bolívar used it, the liberator of Gran Colombia from the Spaniards, as collateral with British banks, and to get the money to take back Columbia».
On visiting, a carelessness towards the environmental impact of the mining process was evident. «They use cyanide in Marmato, mixed with the sand to get the remainders of gold. Then it is thrown down the river», says Ballen. «As a community, they are not aware of the impact that mining has downstream. I do know of fishing communities that are having health issues because of all these chemicals». Ballen discovered this residue, jagua, had previously been sent to a factory to dye glass bottles, in conversation with a miner. It stopped because the process was expensive and lacked consistency, but the concept altered Ballen’s objective. He tracked down the original factory, who did not want to speak but did provide an old bottle dyed using the technique – and he returned to the Netherlands with it and a jagua bag. «I started this material research quest to find out how they made this glass».
Ballen contacted glass experts around Europe and began experimenting with the mining residue until they grasped the dying process. «I ended up with this material in Europe, and I thought, I cannot take this material, transform it here and make objects telling the story of a faraway place. I needed to go back to Columbia». Ballen found Pieter van Dyck, a Belgian glassblower living in Columbia, who agreed to help build the needed equipment and make the objects in Marmato.
«In Columbia, there is little glass craftsmanship», says Ballen, «so we had no equipment. The first thing we had to do was build a kiln. Pieter had knowledge of how to build a glass kiln, and we took a lot from how to build a foundry kiln for smelting gold». Gathering refractory bricks, pieces of metal, and isolating foam all found locally – the pair built a rudimentary glass furnace. The first tests failed; «I had been doing all the experiments in Europe, but I needed to adjust to the Columbian reality», says Ballen. Raw glass, like that found in the Netherlands, was not readily available. «We decided to use recycled glass, but it was difficult because all glass has different chemical components. You cannot put two types of glass together because their behavior is not the same; to hand blow recycled glass is hard».
When this was mastered, there was one final question: «what are we going to do? What are we going to blow it into?» Ballen wanted to work against the industrial perfection the old glass factory had prioritized, and keep the final product as something made of, and from, Marmato. «It was a conscious decision not to shape the objects and only use materials that the people in the mines could use, to build the molds», Ballen says. In the same ilk as the kiln, brick and metal was gathered into makeshift molds, and the first series of glass blown objects were made.
«The project was happening inside the community. The librarian gave us her parking lot to build a workshop, and we borrowed the electricity from one of the mining offices to power it». Another player was James Lemus, the only local jeweler in the town, who also worked in the mines, and at Marmato’s high school. «Together, we decided we would make a series of workshops with the school’s students, to help create the first objects for ‘Suelo Orfebre’». While the art of glass blowing takes years to master, Ballen wanted the sessions to show the wealth of opportunity freely available to the young people. «I was hoping to create a shift in their mindsets, using these resources. To suggest alternative possibilities to the students’ income, so they could question if they want to go into mining». It was not, Ballen makes clear, to dissuade them from the local trade. «I never went there to say mining is wrong, but I wanted to share with the students that through a process of transformation, a material gains value. That is crucial in an extractivist country, where we are at the bottom of the extraction chain, and where resources have the least value».
Two years on, and Ballen has created multiple series of glass objects, but the project has come to the stage it must move on without him. «There is a certain extent a designer can reach», Ballen says. «This project needs to live on on its own, by the people in the community». The first step, though, is for members of this community to be trained in glass blowing. It is a move, Ballen concedes, «that requires resources and the involvement of a bigger institution». There have been lasting effects, however. «One of the measurable impacts is that local jewelry now is experimenting with transforming the waste of mining to make glass jewelry. I would say that is quite big because already they are transforming a material not used before, inside the community».
The final concept for ‘Suelo Orfebre’ was born out of Ballen tasks at the Academy. In 2016, Ballen spent three months working alongside a traditional brush maker in the Netherlands, learning his craft: «It was a turning point, whereas as a designer I realized objects could become these vessels for stories, a platform for others». After, there was a trip to Greenland to work on a project with local women who made traditional garments of the country’s national dress, finally titled ‘Well Wishers’, 2017. «This was through a residency with Hors Pistes, built on the philosophy that any collaboration between designers and craftsmen should be fair». The final product was four jacquard weaves, with knotted rope faces overlaying them, somewhere between masks, tapestries, and flags. «It was an analysis of the local identity», says Ballen, «and about learning how, through design, I could involve social commentary».
Simon Ballen Botero is a Colombian artist who works with issues related to crafts, material culture and local identities.