Bittersweet Symphony

By Santiago Montoya

Haga clic aquí para leer en español. 

Chocolate Hippo, 2017, chocolate, 24 karat gold leaf

I’ve worked with chocolate for the last four years, but ironically, I only started drinking hot chocolate for breakfast a couple of weeks ago. My morning chocolate comes from our family plantation in the region of Quindío, Colombia, the country where I was born. My father planted the cacao trees; my mother roasted and ground the beans. While I sip this dark and delicious re-discovered miracle, I remember how my personal story with chocolate began. 

When I was ten, my family moved to the tiny island of Providence, a volcanic rock island lush with green mountains and turquoise waters lost somewhere in the Caribbean. Once the strategic fortress of Elizabethan pirates, including Sir Francis Drake, it was where I spent a very romantic childhood with no electricity but enough Jules Verne’s and Emilio Salgari novels to enlighten the imagination of an adventurous spirit. That’s where the golden bug of the mirage of treasures first stung me. I would venture into every corner of the craggy mountains to explore alleys, creeks and caves, in search of any possible clue to a hidden treasure. I inquired with the older folks who knew the most about piracy, sunken ships and probable hiding spots. I snorkeled every shore, believe me, I tried every possible path. It never crossed my mind what would happen with the treasure once I found it. What mattered was finding the bloody thing in the first place. 

During the next few years, I conceded to less lofty goals: I would settle for ordinary coins. Returning from a long snorkeling morning, opportunity presented itself at our seafront beach. Bounty on the sand set me off making seashell necklaces, which I sold at the local airport. I remember the magical experience of getting those coins in my hands. What today would be nothing but small change, felt like alchemy then. But challenges came quickly: seashells became scarce. The variety of tiny conchs I needed for the necklaces were in short supply during the dead calm of May.

Detail of chocolate soccer ball and butterfly. Photo by Jessica Regler

While waiting for the waves to bring in new gems, summer arrived and my mainland cousins flew in to spend a few months with us. It struck me to see how much they liked candy. More precisely, chocolate. This made for opportunity: I took my savings, went to Town (the place were you would go and buy groceries), and bought forbidden treasures to resell to my visiting relatives: Milky Ways, Snickers and Zero bars. You see, mainland Colombia had a closed economy, but the unhindered “piracy” of the Island allowed a trade in these precious delicacies. 

Business took off quickly and sales soared.  I guess you could say that chocolate gave me my first experience as an entrepreneur with a small enterprise. I had to run the entire business: buying, selling, marketing, managing inventories, dealing with occasional theft, and last but not least, resisting the temptation to eat up my own merchandise. Though business went well, it didn’t last long. Once the summer ended, with cousins and seashells nowhere to be found, I went back to daydreaming of treasures and pirates.

Some fifteen years later, at the beginning of my artistic career, I was drawn to a different sort of quest, not about finding or selling things of value, but about the notion of value itself.  What made a work of art valuable? What made its price reach the levels hawked at auctions? Who were the folks running the game and why did they do it? What place did I have in this game? While these questions were spinning, parallel to my experiments with forms of painting, I set off into numerous entrepreneurial projects including cattle raising, restaurants and a boutique hotel. 

As an artist, I spent nearly 10 years experimenting, centered mainly on the aesthetics, composition and structures of form and color until I had a major breakthrough. I replaced acrylics and canvas for paper money and stainless steel as the founding elements of construction. I figured that I could use banknotes, composing in the grid, while taking advantage of the inherent value that was already in the money. This turning point freed me from the tangle of values that had trapped me in the narrow rules in the art world and particularly the art market. 

A new exploration began; I first ventured into the contents of the bills themselves. The aesthetics, narratives, symbols, heroes and ever-present commodities particular to every nation, all unveiled a multiplicity of human traditions and behaviors. It was a fascinating window into historical events, as well as a testimony of cultural identity, sense of pride, and promises of a better future. In the natural progression of this interaction with money, I exhausted the possibilities to the point of shredding the paper money and making new paper out of it, intentionally erasing its exchange value.

Tally sticks harvest. Photo by Santiago Montoya

Tally sticks harvest. Photo by Santiago Montoya

Tally sticks harvest. Photo by Santiago Montoya

Tally sticks knot. Photo by Santiago Montoya

Tally sticks, 2017. Photo by Juan Manuel Garcia

It has been about ten years since I first fell under the spell of money, and now I find myself dealing with the very things that it stands for: commodities. In the process of discovering the historical imbalances in commodity consumption between center and periphery, I began to explore the uses of various materials. One of my first works in this line was a wooden scaffolding structure called The Tally Sticks, which is a metaphor for the interconnectedness of the financial system, so fragilely tied together by promises that no eye (or sum of algorithms) can entirely comprehend it. To prepare this piece I ventured into a natural reserve called ‘El Cerro de Armas’ in Santander, Colombia, where my family protects over 12,000 acres of pristine jungle. With the help of local arrieros we harvested a hardwood balsamo tree that had died of natural causes. After cutting it into blocks and transporting it down from the mountains, it was cut into thin and very long sticks, crated and shipped to London were they were assembled and exhibited as part of an exhibition titled Improbable Landscapes. The process itself felt like drafting a sketch for a future banknote. 

Following this unique experience, a new bug stung me. I became a sort of trader, interested in the origins of commodities, all the way back to the “discovery” of America. I was first captivated by the fascinating story of the Potosí mine, and how it became the source of silver coins that would become the first worldwide-circulating currency. Quina, and the discovery of quinine in the days of conquest followed. I like to think of the plant as the tree of fevers, not because it would cure them, but because it opened America’s pores to contract other fevers like the gold fever and many other extractive rushes to richness. Emeralds were an obligatory subject, of course, coal, sugar and coca. And then there are the seeds of the money tree: cacao. It holds great qualities: it is edible and smells delicious; one can cover it in gold or silver leaf to enhance its appearance (and still eat it). Eventually, it can be made into art, giving it a fourth dimension of value that holds great potential and a rarity too: it will gain an exchange value while keeping its use value. Just don´t let it melt!

Around the year 2016, having caught the chocolate fever, I began to work with my curator José Falconi on the project Missteps and Other Paths, which was exhibited at Espacio El Dorado in Bogotá a year later. This show had a unifying subject, which was the impossibility of Colombia to become a modern nation, despite all of its apparent riches. Among those riches which pass as potential game changers, cacao has become the latest trend of fortune and promise that is familiar since the Conquerors’ quest for El Dorado.

Missteps and Other Paths, 2017. Photo by Juan Manuel Garcia

Detail of Missteps and Other Paths. Photo by Juan Manuel Garcia

For this exhibition I made more than 12 different chocolate pieces, ranging from soccer balls to hippos (with allusions to Pablo Escobar’s famous zoo), all playing a role in the magical realism that is the history of Colombia. They were made from cacao harvested at our farm, processed into dark chocolate, and then covered in gold leaf. During the exhibition, in the three-story building, the narrative of this immersive experience included cacao beans that covered the ground floor with a Tally Sticks maze. A chapel-like installation followed in the second floor.  Here, golden letters printed on reprocessed dollar bills tallied the failed promises made since the inception of the republic.  At the end of the journey, a chocolaterie called The Original´s Inn awaited on the third floor. Visitors wrote personal promises on banknote sized scripts of paper that were then exchanged for a divine beverage: in a small cup of hot milk, a shamanic flight figure covered in gold, melted to reenact an El Dorado myth of the cacique bathing in the Guatavita lake. The second edition of this chocolate shop was set to take place at the Somerville Museum in Somerville, Massachusetts, just outside of Cambridge, this coming winter, but the coronavirus pushed the opening until the end of 2021. Planning for a show that involves communal sharing in the current state of the world has become a utopic mirage. 

As much as with the Somerville Museum exhibit, we are following the day-to-day new normal on another previously scheduled exhibit at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS). Entitled Wheel of Fortune, this show includes chocolate engravings, but does not focus on it. Following an invitation made by Arts@DRCLAS (now Art, Film & Culture) to present in its second-floor exhibition space in spring 2021, I put together a variety of works created from 2012-2020, ranging from neon, to tapestries, videos and wooden sculptures, to chocolate engravings. A multidisciplinary forum, with the concept of value at its core, will convoke academics to debate and think about this topic, in conjunction with the exhibit. 

The Original's Inn. Photo by Jessica Regler

Preparation of hot chocolate during the exhibit at the Originals Inn. Photo by Juan Manuel Garcia

This type of thinking of value, going back to my long-ago search for seashells, has informed my work, whether on chocolate or paper money. Throughout these years, I have witnessed, studied and experienced many transformations. The madness that was initiated by the quest for El Dorado has by now become a recurring vertigo between stories of bravery and human greed. The cyclical rushes of mirages, driven by continuing ambition, haven´t receded. Cacao was transformed from what the Mayas considered to be the drink of the gods to become a demonic beverage prosecuted by the inquisition. I have learned, as a “chocolatier,” that in its solid state chocolate is an excellent and malleable material; and when it is covered in gold leaf, it becomes a treasure-like object. This should be a reminder of the trap that treasures inevitably set: if you hold on to them long enough, they start to melt, lose their value and inevitably slip through your fingers.

We may find ourselves hesitant many times in life deciding what is what; but one thing is certain from my artist’s experience of pursuing treasure. Value is an illusion like dark chocolate: bittersweet.


Santiago Montoya is a Colombian artist residing in Miami since 2012. His work is centered on the notion of value, and how its meaning has evolved throughout history. Following an extensive exploration using paper money as his main medium, he has more recently experimented with materials such as gold, emeralds, chocolate, quinine, rubber and coal