The Capital of the World

Thomas Bolger visits Istanbul’s Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet

“…you are asleep now in the white washed byzantine room, you are very alone.
One of the ancients is saying, “Don’t cry.”
“Tomorrow is your birthday. Tomorrow a new name will be given to you.””

– Lale Müldür 

The evening’s call to prayer hangs in the dying sunlight, coalescing with the sea salt breeze. Five times a day this wavering adhān crackles out of loudspeakers, guiding the city’s Muslims to one of the three thousand mosques in Turkey’s former capital. Despite my stony secularity, it’s difficult not to feel immediate reverence and calm as the deep, sombre Arabic ripples out from the surrounding minarets. For over three thousand years Istanbul has heard a litany of different hymns, having acted as both the main arm of the Romans to advance Christianity, and later, as the seat of the Ottoman Sunni Islamic Caliphate. Sat strategically between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, it is a palimpsest of faith, trade and architecture, the “constant beating of the wave of the East against the rock of the West”. Formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople, its antiquity is palpable.

I am here on the invitation of Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet, a grand building situated in the Old City. Boasting five stars, sixty-one rooms and an authentic mix of Seljuk and Ottoman design, the hotel is named after a type of date that grows in al-Madinah and which some scholars trace back to a palm tree planted by the Prophet Muhammad. Great care is taken in every single finishing detail – thick Turkish coffee is served upon arrival, the ceilings are intricately hand-painted, and silk Tabriz carpets and contemporary Azerbaijani art line the walls. It finely strikes that often elusive balance for luxury hospitality, offering grandeur and comfort with minimal fuss. On a tour of the different rooms I am shown the most opulent – the appropriately named Sultan Suite – where from the seventh floor the Marmara Sea can be spied through arched windows. A nearby archipelago supplies the many marbles that adorn the room and mother of pearl appears to be the rule and not the exception for furniture. Electric teal İznik tiles make the bathroom glow and an intricately carved antique make-up desk is revealed to have secret compartments to hide money, I am told, from overbearing patriarchs.

A short, sloped stroll from the hotel lies its newly opened Verni Art Salon, a three-story gallery which displays a huge breadth of Turkic and Azerbaijani art and craft. Originally a shipping warehouse for galleys dating back to 1571, local firm Gülab Architecture have carefully restored and renovated the marine workshop, contrasting exposed brick with glass flooring. ‘Verni’ is the most widely spread and iconic type of flat weave carpet from Azerbaijan, recognisable for its repeated S or 5 pattern, symbolising both dragons and water. The Salon’s lower floor is completely dedicated to mountains of heaped, lustrous silk, tapestry and wool rugs, the latter being the largest collection in the whole of Istanbul. Since the 2nd millennium BC, weaving has been a staple of Azerbaijani craft, and previously, every young girl would learn from her mother or grandmother, the painstakingly executed piece forming a part of her marital dowry. Finished rugs would be laid out in front of the house so that passers-by could make the knots tighter from their repeated steps, weight flattening the labour of love.

The Salon houses everything from copper samovars, antique Damascene tables, camel blankets dyed with saffron, thrones inlaid with iridescent shells, contemporary abstract and landscape paintings, to work from Nahide Küçük (who gave her name to an entire period of traditional Turkish embroidery) – all purchasable for a pretty price, bar a centuries-old silk-sown symbol of the Ottoman empire, discovered by chance and deemed too valuable to sell. Before I leave, the gallery director hands me a framed marbling painting by her own hand, a rich swirl of blood orange and daffodil yellow that resembles plant cells and frothing waves. 

Part of the allure of the Old City is that much of it can be navigated quickly on foot. With a day to spare I visit the epitome of Byzantine architecture, the Hagia Sophia (microcosm of Istanbul’s religious and aesthetic conversion by conquest), the adjoining tombs for sultans (stray cats mewling for strokes next to coffins), the Blue Mosque (Qur’an calligraphy verses scrawled over the interior), Archaeological Museums (crammed with Anatolian, Sumerian and Greek statues and sarcophagi), the Topkapı Palace (former imperial headquarters of the Ottomans, decked with complex courtyards), the Grand Bazaar (clamouring labyrinth market selling everything and anything – I buy a sea sponge and saffron) and devour multiple street-trader-charcoal-charred-corn-on-the-cobs (along with Kunefe, a gout-inducing sweet baked cheese pastry). Back at the hotel, I am lucky enough to enjoy a revitalising hammam, a traditional Turkish bath. After a cycle of sauna and steam rooms, I lie down on a warm block of stone and am scrubbed so hard my skin sings.

Napoleon Bonaparte declared that “If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” Few cities have such interesting and divergent historical eras layered atop one another like tempered steel, that are able to illustrate the sheer time scale of human endeavour through monument and artefact. It is impossible not to view my trip through rose-tinted glasses, holed up as I am at home, like the rest of the world. But when this has passed, I would recommend you pay Ajwa a visit, fill your lungs with purified Bosporus air and patiently watch the fishermen that line the Golden Horn. Eventually, the mu’azzin’s murmurings will return like clockwork and signal that life has returned.

AJWA Hotel Sultanahmet ( / +90 212 638 22 00) offers rooms from £197/219 EUR per night based on two people sharing a double room on a B&B basis

Escaping Vice City

Stuart Anderson-Davis tries the time-honoured American tradition of a winter escape to Florida

Completing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City on the PlayStation 2 was probably one of my finest teenage achievements.

Like most of my schoolmates, I took great pleasure in rampaging through the digitally reconstructed streets of Miami – or at least a city based on “the capital of Latin America” – putting aside all thoughts of revision in favour of criminal undertakings and general mayhem. The video game, released in 2002, seemed to really convey the energy, swagger and ruthlessness of ‘Vice City’; transporting the player into a world that combined the dodgiest parts of South London with a tropical paradise. Back then, Miami seemed exotic and exciting beyond belief – an American mega city with Caribbean climate and Latin flair!

And so it was with great excitement (and a little trepidation) that last month I visited the place for myself. The circumstances where somewhat different from Grand Theft Auto. Unlike that game’s protagonist, I would not be stepping out alone into this hotbed of intrigue. Oh no, I would be accompanied by two highly-skilled accomplices – my wife and our two-year old daughter, an extremely cunning but hot-headed character who’s never far from trouble. We would be the kingpins of ‘Vice City’ – what could possibly go wrong?

Of course, we weren’t the only family hatching this plan. The winter-time escape down to Florida is a time-honoured American tradition, with sunshine, beaches and the promise of “good times” just a short flight away. In 2018, over 126.1 million tourists visited Florida – the majority coming from inside the United States. From Orlando’s garish theme parks to stunning wildlife in the Keys and Everglades, Florida brands itself as a destination for every occasion. Sure enough, the prospect of escaping New Jersey’s winter desolation proved too much to resist and we packed our bags for a week in the “Sunshine State”.

First stop was Fort Lauderdale – a less-glitzy city up the coast from Miami. The city is named after a series of forts established during the Second ‘Seminole War’ – one of more shameful episodes in American history, during which the authorities sought to “pacify” a group of Native American tribes. Fort Lauderdale itself evokes a strangely familiar feel for British visitors, with a beachside promenade reminiscent of fading coastal resorts like Blackpool or Eastbourne – except with actual sunshine. The city is populated almost entirely by power-walking OAPs. Indeed, if the average age of residents is lower than one hundred then I will eat my visor cap.

From Fort Lauderdale we headed to Miami via the Everglades World Heritage Site – a vast ‘subtropical wilderness’ that dominates Florida’s heartland and houses a formidable collection of beasts, including alligators, snakes and the elusive Florida panther. Unfortunately the weather proved too cold for our lily-livered Airboat driver to take us alligator hunting on the water – much to the fury of our youngest member. Whilst positively tropical by British standards, the weather throughout our visit was deemed headline-worthy for its frigidity. Indeed, local media was filled with reports of frozen iguanas falling out of trees onto unsuspecting Floridians. Rejected by the Airboaters, we settled for the more civilised option of bike rental at the misleadingly named Shark Valley National Park – stopping mere feet away from innumerable sunbathing alligators, each of whom was subject to relentless trolling from the toddler in the child seat.

After surviving the snoozy alligators it was finally time for ‘Vice City’ – Florida’s beaming metropolis which straddles Biscayne Bay and stretches its beaches out along the shimmering waters of the Atlantic. However, we first had to survive one of the most terrifying stretches of driving I have ever experienced. Nobody does fuck-off massive, sweat-inducingly intimidating freeways quite like America. But even by US standards this was scary. High-speed traffic slung out over 7 lanes – complex flyovers densely packed with aggressive drivers overtaking, undertaking, and even trying to drive through in order to shave a few seconds off their precious journeys.

Somehow we reached our refuge from the storm – South Beach Hotel. This Soho House wannabe describes itself as “an exemplar of Miami Beach style and coolness, a place where locals and visitors can think less and play more…chic and boldly handcrafted, yes, but intimate and easygoing too.” The hotel’s nausea-inducing prose was nothing compared to the response triggered when we finally pulled up outside, only to be informed that the car park – sorry, I mean premium “valet service” – would require an additional $40 dollars per night. Not a promising start and it went downhill from there.

It turns out that Miami is infamous for its very ‘unique’ approach to customer service. I will spare you the long-list of grievances (that’s what TripAdvisor is for), but the lowlight came when I tried calling the front desk for the thousandth time without them picking up. Frustrated, I marched to the lobby through the pouring rain (it’s possible the foul weather somewhat influenced my mood…), slipped over and went careering into a wall. Perhaps sensing a lawsuit, the hotel agreed to our demands for a quick exit.

But what of Miami itself? Well, leaving Fawlty Towers early meant we had only one full day to explore the city – walking down South Beach and meandering through its Art Deco neighbourhood. Now, I appreciate that reviewing Miami on this basis is like judging London after a visit to Camden Market and Madame Tussaud’s. However, since I wholeheartedly blame our premature departure on the city’s behaviour I’m afraid that’s the way it goes… Anyway, my first observation was the sheer volume of scantily-clad joggers of all shapes and sizes. For better or worse, body confidence is not an issue here and this sense of brashness seems to cascade across all Miami life.

South Beach itself is a riot of neon signs and pastel shades, with palm trees and picture-perfect sands to appease the most snap-happy Instagrammers. But for some indefinable reason the whole place just jarred. Everything seems fake and the atmosphere had a flat, plastic quality I really didn’t expect. Even the beautiful beach was compromised by the creep of nearby hotels, offering loungers and cabanas at prices that would make the Fyre Festival organisers blush.

In Miami’s defence, it was a pretty dumb decision to bring a two-year-old child to this notorious party town. The final reality check came when we attempted to gain access to the Versace Mansion – notorious as the spot where flamboyant fashion pioneer Gianni Versace was gunned down in 1997. Now a ‘luxury’ hotel, this iconic location not only offered a ghoulish spectacle, but also the promise of a much-needed bathroom. Sadly, we were refused entry by a particularly officious model/receptionist, who took one look at us and decided we weren’t fit for this palace of bad taste.

Enough was enough. Time to escape Vice City for our last hope of holiday salvation. So we began the long, crawling car journey through Miami’s outskirts and desolate satellite towns (wishing we could’ve nicked a Police helicopter or gangster’s powerboat instead) to the Florida Keys – a glittering island archipelago that extends from Florida’s base into the Gulf of Mexico.

By contrast, the island-section of the drive must rank as one of the world’s most stunning. The ‘Overseas Highway’ improbably threads together islands in an impossibly scenic route down to Key West – an island that’s physically closer to Havana than Miami. The road is an extraordinary achievement – as impressive for its feats of engineering (its network of 42 bridges would surely now fail even a Boris Johnson infrastructure assessment) as it is disturbing for the environmental impact of plonking a 113-mile road through paradise. And this is a true paradise; a designated National Marine Sanctuary boasting exotic mangrove islets and the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef.

You could feel the collective relief as we moved further away from Miami – replacing that city’s misplaced cocksureness with somewhere considerably more straightforward and chilled. Like Miami, Florida Keys has a strange time-warped quality to it – with diners and basic, low-rise hotels squeezed into the gaps between highway and ocean. As you might expect given its location, the atmosphere is a quirky mixture of Caribbean and Deep South. The locals and tourists, however, are almost exclusively white, middle-aged to elderly and LARGE. Fried fish, beer and spirits dominate the menu and everyone follows the gargantuan consumption philosophy of the Key’s most famous resident and alcoholic, Ernest Hemmingway.

But what the Keys do deliver is an incredibly beautiful destination for good-old-fashioned family fun. The people are friendly and welcoming, while the sight of wildlife like dolphins, pelicans and giant tarpon fish felt strangely life-affirming after the urban chaos of Miami. So as I sat in the hotel’s tiki bar watching a glorious technicolour sunset over the ocean – manly Pina Colada resting in my hand – I reflected that maybe Florida isn’t so bad after all. But unlike the veteran bank robber who can’t resist going back for “one last job”, this writer will certainly not be returning to Vice City.

The Rajasthan Kabir Yatra

Pierre Flasse and Gopal Singh discuss how music is keeping cultural dialogue alive in Rajasthan

I am on the Rajasthan Kabir Yatra, a weeklong travelling folk festival across Rajasthan. A yatra (pilgrimage) in the name of Kabir, a sufi poet from the 15th century, it prides itself on love, social discourse and peace. Every morning begins with all the yatris and musicians engaging in a satsang – a circle where the all the music and poetry sung together, encourages discussion and connection with one another. Then we travel to the next village and sing, listen and dance until the early hours of the morning. We are only at the beginning of the week but the emotional and physical intensity of the yatris, musicians and atmosphere is undeniable. I sit down with Gopal Singh, the director of the festival as volunteers are in motion around a beautiful old fort and school to create the stage for the third evening.

To start things he describes the story behind the yatra and the meaning it has: “In Rajasthan we have different musical and cultural traditions in folk and mystic music, which take place in informal spaces that we have in the community – the satsang – a circle of ‘the seekers of truth’. They sing together and share their music from the mystic poets like Kabir and Meera, and the whole idea of this musical space in society is to celebrate the diverse musical history we have in mystic traditions. You might follow the Kabir sect, the Sufi sect, or other traditions, but in the sharing space of satsang everyone is welcome to share the space, music and the poetry.” Importantly, he describes why the festival has been important to local communities: “There is no discrimination, there is no hierarchy, that one follower is better or superior. This is very crucial to create the bond within the community itself; because in India we have different caste systems, hierarchy in religions – we are all aware of it. So this space actually breaks these boundaries.”

Across much of India, music works in a form of patronisation. Music is played privately by caste musicians in higher caste homes as a form of entertainment, memory and documentation of history. But Gopal sees this festival as outside of that tradition. Although much of the music, instrumentation and sound is similar, the content drives a different purpose: “This isn’t traditional folk music, we are actually not patronising the musicians in this form. We are building the space for the dialogue of the power of mystic music, because when we talk about Kabir and Meera, their philosophy talks through different lenses. Music is just one part, but poetry is important here. So through this Kabir Yatra I want to create a space not only for the music, but for poetry and spirituality. In the folk music generally we talk about the songs and the music is more dominant. But in the mystic music the poetry is very important.” He goes on to describe the real depth and societal importance from the poetry: “the message is crucial; it has to be conveyed. Not the music. This is not entertaining music, this is not an entertaining performance as in folk music. In this space, the sharing is important. Traditionally people used to sing one song in the night and have one hour of discussion on it. This discussion is important; they speak about the poetry, its depth and the discourse. Sometimes they don’t agree on the interpretation and they challenge it.”

Despite this journey to spread Kabir’s message and engage with the community, Gopal is completely reluctant to glorify their work. He rejects the idea that they are providing something, even though this does provide something for the community and yatris themselves on a platform that doesn’t normally exist. He says: “The implications I don’t know. I haven’t done an official case study, so whether it is really going to help or not, or if people are enjoying, how people are taking it up, or how the community is responding. I don’t know what sort of impact it is creating, so I won’t say that. I can’t claim that I am creating a platform.”

The issue is that if he starts speaking about the event in terms of a platform, it would detriment the internal and communal value of the yatra. He explains that the intention was to, “reclaim the space of satsang that exists. Satsang is the space of truth seekers, a gathering of true people. This sharing space was the whole idea of creating the Rajasthan Kabir Yatra, so that’s what I mean when I say it’s not a festival – it’s a pilgrimage, a journey. It’s not one venue. Why are we going to villages? We are going to see the music there. Their performances, their poetry, their musicians, the landscape is very important. So through this travel, actually we are finding those spaces that already existed but were not available.”

The space exists from a lack of a one previously in Rajasthan. It’s worth saying that folk pilgrimages like this exist in other states in India, but pioneering one in Rajasthan was difficult as there wasn’t enough support, until the police saw the value of the event: “The police found it really relevant to take this music to the places that are communally sensitive or tense. Of course, when you talk about Kabir, you talk about love, you talk about humanity, you talk about how we can live together in love. You don’t need to see things in the lenses of identity, caste, community and creed. We are just human. So informally yes, I mean of course I talk to people, the police and public and I can sense when they talk and praise and they feel the energy of this music that there is a positive impact.”

Personally, I can say that the events are both emotionally and physically the best I’ve felt in an incredibly long time. From the music, feelings and dancing together and how it is all built up. Gopal said this was due to the nature of the journey of the festival. When we do this together, we live the emotions all around us: “When you do the Yatra, sometimes you’re hungry, tired, sleep deprived. So your body starts talking to you. All things will happen, then your body and mind will align and join the journey. So the music you are hearing, the sound, the energy, the transition you are hearing is actually going through, what: your body. But if you come to just consume the music then it won’t go in your body, it will just go. You are not alone, when the performance is going to start, when we eat and travel – other people’s energies are also involved there. Everyone is impacted together.” This is where the real transformative power of this event and in the community lies. All the previous attendees know what it is like, with the energy, dance and spirituality. They tell everyone about it, and so then everyone has an expectation of the energy should be like – everyone’s emotional and spiritual expectations culminate together because if they expect it together then it will happen.

When we speak about the future, Gopal is again reluctant to assume the event will continue: “I don’t see a future. It’s not about going well or bad. In 2012 I started the first Yatra and then I had to stop it. For 3 years I tried and it didn’t work. But then in 2016, something happened and the police collaboration began. So I don’t think things are really in our hand. If it has to happen then it will happen. We need to stick to the philosophy of the Yatra that we are trying to imply. Otherwise it will create a whole contrast that we have to do something to create it, let’s grab some money it has to happen – no. It doesn’t need to happen. If it’s not required it will not happen. If it is required then it will happen, I don’t know how. So you don’t need to worry about it. That’s the only way.”

Gopal Singh

The impression from Gopal is one of purity in intention and execution. The music itself takes on a different role on the journey. I’ve never been in such a position where I felt acceptance, openness, music and poetry speaking between such a vast group of people. I sat down to talk about music and we delved into a dialogue about the impact of the message of Kabir himself. At the heart lies the philosophy of the festival and it carries everybody across the week. The energetic spirituality that permeates every individual from the musicians and yatris to the volunteers and organisers is phenomenal and it’s safe to say that I’ll be a regular attendee for the following years to come.

Cooking with the Adi Tribe

Neetole Mitra travels to Central Arunachal Pradesh to cook the traditional Ma Dong dish


Someone has started a raging fire in the middle of the room. Dripping men have walked in from never ending rains outside; wading through dark and slush. The warm central fireplace is the best spot to seek comforts in the Adi home they have entered – a wooden rectangle put together with bamboos, cane, dry leaves and bark, balanced on raised stilts. The gaps in the walls and floor offer ventilation to the earthiness of the room. An assortment of Dao (single-edged Chinese saber) jut out from odd corners. Odd tokens from the rainforests that surround the village adorn the edges of the room – cured animal hides, eagle feather hand-fans, a furry black bear skin bag and a grey mass of animal skulls darkened with age.

Sights like these are common in the villages of Upper Siang and East Siang districts of Central Arunachal Pradesh – the largest north-eastern state of India. The width of the Brahmaputra segregates the region from the rest of the country while the dense rainforests, with an imaginative assortment of wildlife prowling its depths, offer exclusivity. Cluster of leaf roofs peaking from forests form independent settlements, with the Gao Burra (village elder) at the centre of all administrative issues.

The Adi tribe lead a simple life but they are a fierce and proud community of people; not ones to oversee an insult easily. The British Empire unfortunately learnt this the hard way. Tapir Darang, a proud Adi and my host in Abor Country in Pasighat tells me about Manmur Jamoh, his ancestor from the same sub-tribe. Jamoh is a local legend. The man hacked a British officer to death in 1911 to avenge his lost pride (an example of early imperial resistance by the hill tribes of Arunachal Pradesh). Noel Williamson who had made a disparaging comment about Jamoh’s skin condition in 1909, had no idea the man was waiting for him to return. Williamson’s gory end triggered the bloody Anglo-Abor Wars of 1911 resulting in many brutalities against the community and the beginning of permanent Colonial presence in an area that was left untouched thus far. The term Abor, lent to the Adi tribe by the British back in the days is now deemed an inappropriate slur.

The Adi sub-tribes live a no frills kind of life – the community is as much a part of the forest as the forest is a part of them. The tribe doesn’t just draw extensively from nature but also worships it. Every ailment here has a natural remedy; every social custom is mixed with the elements of nature. Even folk tales that have survived generations of oral narrations talk about carving out animals from giant evil rocks and the creation of the world from earth (Sedi) and sky (Melo).

For the Adi tribe, hunting isn’t just survival but also a part of their culture and customs. During Unying Aran Giidi festival, Adi tribesmen pack off to the forest for a week, returning with their catch for the consumption of the entire community. Some of it even acts as bride price, particularly the Kebung squirrels. Nothing goes to waste. Even the skulls become family heirlooms passed down generations. It’s a nature-based life reflected directly in their culinary traditions.

Tapir Darang cooks the traditional Ma Dong – literally translating to ‘food in bamboo’ – a special treat for the evening. Traditionally, Adi tribesmen would pack rice, and basic condiments like salt and dried bamboo-shoot powder when they went out on hunting expeditions or set up machan (a raised platform) to tend to their seasonal farms, away from the village. The forest and river provided meat or fish and all one needed was to find the abundant bamboo to cook their meals in.

It is a way of preparation more than a particular recipe. A lesson in sustainable living from the Adi tribe to the rest of the world. One of the key ingredients for the recipe is the Ekkam patta (Phyrnium – a banana like plant) – a sturdy and large leaf that serve as base. At Abor Country I try two variations of this dish – Ngo Dong (bamboo fish) and Ek Adin Dong (pork bamboo). While the fish is cooked with just a sprinkling of salt, turmeric and ginger paste, the meat is marinated with chilli powder, salt, ginger-garlic paste and a sprinkling of dry bamboo shoot before it is wrapped in Ekkam patta and stuffed inside the bamboo barrel. The rice which has been soaked for 15 minutes is drained and similarly encased. The last step is to roast the barrels in open fire till the leaves become a shade of olive.

Ma Dong


500 gm pork

2 tsp turmeric

1 (1-inch piece) ginger

3 garlic cloves

2 tsp chilli powder

1 tbsp dry bamboo shoot (Eup)

1 sheet of fresh bamboo shoot (Ekung)

Salt to taste

250 gm rice

2 Phyrnium leaves (Ekkam patta)

2 foot-long Bamboo barrels


  1. Soak rice in water and set aside for 15 minutes.
  2. Make a paste of the ginger and garlic.
  3. Mix turmeric, chilli powder, salt and ginger-garlic paste with the pork. Add the bamboo shoot powder. Adding the ekung is optional but might add a layer of tanginess to the meat.
  4. Set the meat aside for 30-minutes.
  5. Chop off the edges of the Phyrnium leaves and place the meat at the centre. Carefully wrap it in a tube and slide inside the Bamboo barrel. Seal the top with a roll of the leftover Phyrnium leaf.
  6. Drain the rice and wrap it in the Phyrnium leave same as with the meat. Slide in Bamboo barrel and seal with a roll of the leaf.
  7. Cook the bamboo barrels in open wood fire, rotating occasionally so as to avoid charring one side and undercooking the other.
  8. Remove from flame when the leaf seal on the top becomes olive green and the bamboo is a deep shade of black.
  9. Break the barrels open and serve hot.
  10. The rice can be served as a spread or cut out into leaf wrapped rolls.

Neetole Mitra is a travel writer and photographer chasing off-beat experiences on LivingUnplanned & @livingunplanned.

This is Not America

Port travels to Bogotá for the international art fair ARTBO, selecting the best work from Latin America

“In Colombia there is no Genesis or Apocalypse, only eternal cycles of return.”

– Santiago Rueda Fajardo

Outside the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, man-jaguars and pet alligators stalk the streets. As Hugo Chavez lies on his death bed, encircled by demons, the face of Simón Bolívar is reflected in his mirror. A pair of unicorns exit a Noah’s Ark Chinook helicopter, watched on by the drug-lord Pablo Escobar. These fantastical images are made all the more surreal by the medium they appear in, the medieval textile of woven tapestry jarring with the modern myths and histories presented. Forming the Colombian artist Carlos Castro Arias’ Mythstories, his wonderfully cramped, faux-biblical vignettes were recently exhibited at the international art fair ARTBO. Celebrating its 15th anniversary, the commercial fair housed 67 established and emerging galleries from 17 countries – overwhelmingly Latin American – in Bogotá, The Lady of the Andes.

2,600 metres closer to the stars due to its high altitude above sea level, the seasonless city remains a constant mild-grey all year round. Walking its traffic-choked streets I’d be forgiven for thinking I hadn’t left London, save for the fact it sits within a sloping plain at the base of two mountains – Guadalupe and Monserrate – with air so thin you occasionally feel tipsy. The threat of the government signed peace deal with the Farc guerrilla group unravelling, with thousands of people fleeing drug trafficking routes bordering Venezuela in recent months, seemed vaguely distant in the country’s educational, financial and creative powerhouse. The possibility of violent “eternal cycles of return” is met with a despairing shrug, the very idea that conflict will rear its ugly head again is exhausting.

The Narco Arc, Carlos Castro Arias, 2019

The political, ecological and social anxieties of the Americas, however, frequently came to the fore of the fair’s varied film, painting and sculpture. Looming large over one entrance was Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s provocative billboard A Logo for America, in which a map of the US is accompanied by a neon flash that reads “This Is Not America”. Since its creation in 1987, the artwork’s growing pertinence has run parallel with Latin America and the US’ deteriorating relationship, which has only accelerated in recent years due to the latter’s degrading rhetoric and paranoia surrounding immigration. After its initial installation in Times Square, Alfredo Jaar reflected that: “For me, art is about 99% thinking and 1% making. It’s about the analysis of the situation and articulating the ideas that we want to share with the audience about the situation.” At a time when entire countries are flippantly labelled rapists, celebrating the sharp perspectives outside of North America, as well as an honest analysis of it, seems increasingly essential. 

Alfredo Jaar, This Is Not America, 1987

“I see art as providing the capacity for individuals to put themselves in someone else’s shoes,” noted Maria Paz Gaviria, Bogotá’s chief of Commercial and Cultural Platforms and head of ARTBO, “creating empathy, dialogue and collective memory.” Much of the fair celebrated the vibrancy, wit and skill of a new generation of artists in Columbia, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Chile and Argentina, among others. The former’s current social fabric was investigated specifically in ARTBO’s Referentes section, curated by director of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Krist Gruijthuijsen, while its Proyectos space presented 11 contemporary artists exploring the concept of performance, chosen by director of The Delfina Foundation, Aaron Cezar. Below, I choose some of my favourite work from the fair, including ornate silver-plated butt plugs, ritual Misak dance and oil painting triptychs. 

Teresa Margolles, Mexico

Pista de baile, 2016, Photography  

Photographer, videographer and conceptual performance artist Margolles has created a moving set of portraits showing transgender sex workers on the former sites of dance floors and demolished nightclubs in Ciudad Juárez. Absorbed into and made diminutive by the cluttered, ruined landscape, the ghostly figures nevertheless “show us their best self, as if they were asserting themselves amidst the destruction”.

Valentín Demarco, Argentina

Patrimonio y algo más, 2019, Exhibition and film

A trained goldsmith, Demarco’s exhibition – Hertiage and something else – is centred around a beautiful, copper beaten, embossed and chiselled, silver plated and oxidized butt plug that doubles as a teapot. The graphic nature of the penetrative act is contrasted starkly with the intimate, close-up photography, deadpan, domestic film scenes and artisanal metal tradition the artist is celebrating throughout. Bold, craft-focused and very, very funny.

Julieth Morales, Colombia

Kup (Hillar), 2018, Film

Hailing from Cauca, Morales explores gender, ethnicity and identity through a number of mediums and as an indigenous Misak woman, “reformulates, from a critical position, traditional rituals of her community, with the body as a whistleblower.” Actively resisting patriarchal, anthropological Western narratives about the Misak, a particularly powerful piece showcased at the fair was her film Kup (Hillar), in which women from her village engage in a ritual dance, feet moving in unison, arms weaved together, tracing steps and recovering land that was metaphorically and literally taken from them by academic and colonial powers.

Diego Bianchi, Argentina

Meritocrazy, 2019, Parade and exhibition

What would happen if Mad Max and David Cronenberg were in charge of a fashion runway? Bianchi’s bizarre footwear twists traditional objects of desire into a freakish, dystopian, impractical objects of consumption, but with an inventiveness and humour recognisable to the artist known for ambitious installations. The parade of the shoes (ranging from tyres, leaves, mirrors, concrete blocks and mannequin legs) show a “snapshot not only of the future, but of a closer present, of a present flattened by a capitalist realism that, based on medication, disenchantment and pragmatism, is monolithic, without fissures or alternatives. A time to consume is to adapt.”  

Nicolás Beltrán, Colombia

Loop, 2019, Oil on canvas

Focusing on the “heterogeneous set of images of the daily life”, Beltrán’s work is part of a number of important Columbian art collections. The gallery presenting these recent oil paintings had another you could stand on, mimicking the reflection of a bathroom floor. The technical skill and intimacy of these portraits that border on the photographic – together with that interactive element – was incredibly arresting.  

Luciano Denver, Argentina

Monument to the camel, 2017, Digital photo montage

The unwieldy public transport Metrobus, gifted to the Cubans by the USSR, was affectionately called the camel for its unusual brutalist shape and rate of acceleration. Denver’s concrete sculpture and fascinating photo montages aggregate multiple images into impossible collages, commenting on the legacy of communism and providing a “homage to a people that lived almost three decades in complete denial of any certainty of a future”.