15 Jul, 2011 | Mads Ryle
My pompous-sounding investigations into 'the state of contemporary art in Bolivia' started inauspiciously. I thought, well, the first thing I'll have to do is to look at some art. Maybe it's just a case of pathetic fallacy, but the local weather seems to have it in for me every time I try and visit an art gallery in La Paz, as it starts to rain torrentially. Wandering up and down Ave. Ecuador under darkening skies I found the Centra Arte у Culturas Bolivianos shut for maintenance, and the Atipana gallery closed while awaiting a new exhibition. So then I headed to the Zona Sur where Galena Arte 21 and Galena Alternativa in San Miguel proved to be little more than glorified craft shops selling cheap, badly-hung paintings of nice, saleable, dull subjects alongside table ornaments and other crafts. Then it started to rain again, so I left off visiting Galena Nota for another day.
In the meantime I went back to Atipana for the opening of an exhibition by a young artist from El Alto, met and interviewed a group of young artists from the La Paz scene, had a read of Bolivia's 'Otro Arte' magazine, chatted to various people about 'contemporary art in Bolivia', and briefly attended an artists' workshop. All of which, thankfully, proved a little more fruitful than wandering the streets in the rain.
At Atipana, 25 year-old Salomon Paco had occupied the gallery's two small spaces with a mix of abstract canvases and detailed paintings whose figures, held bound in an elephant's trunk or shrinking from nightmare apparitions, suggested a threatening exoticism and ghoulishness. Like so much of the work by young artists that I did eventually track down, these scenes took identity as a pivotal theme. This comes as no surprise given the newness of the 'Escuela Municipal de las Artes' which Paco attends in El Alto, a booming city notorious for its predominantly migrant demographic makeup - in limbo between the rural and the urban, the indigenous and the markedly western, the pre- and post-industrial.
Anuar Elias' winning entry for the Arte Joven prize in 2010 is a piece of video art entitled 'Occiriente' that features poetry of his wife's which includes the refrain 'Bolivia no existe'. However, this questioning of identity comes from from a very different perspective (both in terms of class and opportunity, but also given that Elias is in fact Mexican). It is far removed from the focus around 'indigenous' identity that is presumed to occupy the aforementioned artists from El Alto. However Salomon Paco's work contains none of the more typical motifs of 'indigenous art' that you might, for example, find in the Museo Arte Contemporaneo de Plaza on El Prado. Indeed, it seems that in fact it was necessary for Salomon to come into into La Paz to display his work since, as he told me, there is no audience for abstract art in El Alto
Salomon's mentor Adamo Morellicon talked to me enthusiastically about the Escuela de las Artes in El Alto, but his assurance that the introduction of guest artists from conceptual backgrounds was done 'without compromising identity' hints at some of the tensions that exist in this changing environment. For Morellicon, though, this combination of more 'modern' artistic approaches with the more 'spiritual' creative process which his Alteno students bring to their work makes for exciting and original new forms that reflect the current 'proceso de cambio' in Bolivia.
For Anuar Elias and several of his peers with whom I spoke, this idea of an indigenous identity is an invention on the part of the government, a kind of 'indigenismo' that they are trying to force through the mediums of culture. This, of course, is debatable since this aesthetic vision and ideology have existed long before the MAS. Nonetheless, at present aesthetics and politics can appear quite closely tied.The resulting confusion as to how to support and develop artistic practice makes it a difficult task for the Ministry of Culture to choose which activities to promote.
Despite the government's rapid inauguration of the El Alto art school, neither it nor the much older Fine Arts Academy are actually entitled to endow degrees. It seems this privilege is reserved for UMSA, which according to everyone I spoke to is an institution very much set in its ways. One student assured me that studies of modern art end with Edward Munch, and several were disparaging of the fact that there is no education in conceptual thought, nor in mediums beyond painting, sculpture and a little photography. And it seems that the same goes in both the Academy and in the El Alto school; Salomon Paco told me his greatest influence was the painter Francis Bacon, but he had discovered the artist for himself, not though his formal education.
Andres Pereira is a former student of both the Academy and UMSA. When I did finally make it to Galena Nota, the only established contemporary art gallery here in La Paz, one of the artists that caught my eye there was Ramiro Garavito, a member of the previous generation. Andres told me: "I entered the Fine Art Academy in the post-Garavito era. He had an interesting curriculum, which they changed. So I started drawing with (Benedicto) Aiza, who taught that kitsch was the worst thing in the world, and would use SIART [the La Paz biennale which functions as an important platform for contemporary art here] as an example. And of course everybody- as they have no critical point of view- would agree. It was a kind of brainwash. But I was lucky, I found Roberto Valcarcel, a very important educator. He's a conceptual artist. He would make pobera (detritus art), he's a performer etc, who would give workshops here. I had the chance of being able to afford these workshops. And through him I was able to see other ways, other routes."
Galo Coca, a mixed media and performance artist in La Paz, concurs with this assessment of students' (lack of) critical faculties: "I believe there is a big problem because the guys are taught in a technical way, and they don't develop a critical spirit that would let them assess the history, or produce new proposals. So people who come out of there are condemned to failure as artists."
So that does that mean that only those 'able to afford' will be able to develop what we would consider a well-rounded artistic education? Art historian Lucia Escobari's comment that many young creatives choose to take private classes with established artists here seems to suggest so. And there is no doubt that the social demographic of El Alto means that such costs are extremely prohibitive for young artists there. Salomon Paco makes detritus art too, but he told me that the motivation for doing this was partly economic, since he couldn't afford to buy materials.
Money and art are intertwined in all kinds of ways of course; the artists I spoke to all discussed the lack of an art market in Bolivia, and the fact that those with money tend to be 'senoras у senores' who don't have much of an interest in young, contemporary art.
Interestingly though, and despite his concerns about 'these filters and circuits in which art projects and artist's CVs move, and the people who select them', Anuar Elias (who deliberately wrote a CV devoid of all but the barest details as a response) feels that the lack of a more developed art market and scene can perhaps allow for a freer kind of expression: "There are risks because you don't have recourse to other artists' feedback, and that can be prejudicial for the artwork. But Bolivia as a workshop of production, isolated from market tendencies, is an interesting place to be able to develop a much more pure work of art, free of contamination."