22 Oct, 2010 | Andrew Cummings
Waiting ages for an interviewee to turn up for the second (yes, second) time isn’t exactly my idea of fun, but when said interviewee one of the most famous artists to come out of Bolivia, I’d happily while away my hours admiring alpaca jumpers and investigating Machu Picchu tours on the Sagarnaga until he arrives. The work of Mamani Mamani – who goes by the name of ‘Roberto’ (or ‘Robertito’) to his nearest and dearest – is instantly recognisable. Waiting outside a shop of his, filled as it is with Mamani-brand paintings, mugs, postcards, and the like, I can see why. It’s the colours: similar to the Andean flag, barely a single one goes unused. But what to expect from such an artist? One of those eccentric, new-age types, with garish clothes to match his personality? The beret-wearing, drum-tapping, turtleneck-sporting variety of artist, maybe?
The man who eventually greets me isn’t exactly what I expected (granted, my expectations were allowed plenty of freedom given the time I was left waiting). For starters, he’s rather small. His voice is soft and quiet, and he sits with his hands clasped in front of him on the table; every aspect of his appearance, his body language, sug- gests someone distant but gentle. In a nutshell, he gives the impression of someone humble and serious; the look on his face gives me the impression he knows some very profound, important secret. Here’s what we got to talking about.
BX: To begin with, have you ever actually studied art?
MM: No; I studied agronomy and law. I think of art as a vocation rather than a profession. I’ve always had this artistic being inside of me; my first drawings were with charcoal my mother provided me with, and since I was very young I’ve been painting on whatever I could get my hands on - be it newspapers or bits of card. When I was fifteen I won my first competition, and at eighteen I won the Premio Pedro Domingo Murillo – a very important prize in Bolivia which opens a lot of doors.
BX: Would you define yourself as self- taught, then?
MM: I don’t really like that word. Every- thing I needed was already inside my head, a part of my being, inherited from my parents and their parents. I didn’t ‘teach’ myself anything.
BX: Do you admire many Bolivian artists? If so, which ones?
MM: Antonio Mariaca immediately springs to mind; I’ve always had his work in front of me. Gil Imaná is another influence, and Fernando Montes too – I stayed with him in England. I shared the Pedro Domingo Murillo Prize with Oswaldo Guayasamín, an indigenista artist I admire; I’ve also had the fortune to meet and talk with Victor Delfín, a Peruvian artist. My true masters, I think, are the ceramistas of Tihuanaco, the tejedores of Nazca, all the artists of Pre-Columbian culture. These influences provide an interminable source of inspiration for me.
BX: How would you define your artistic trajectory?
MM: My art comes from the Aymara world, so it shares the same ideologies – harmony with nature is certainly very important. My art comes from my heritage, from what my fathers and grandfathers thought, believed, and experienced. I’ve spent a lot of time outside of Bolivia and Latin America, though; I’ve spent year each in Japan, France, and Germany, and travelled around exhibiting my work. All of these things have nourished my work. For me, though, the departure point is the most important, and so I’ve returned here, to my homeland, to my roots. My art is like a table pre- senting offerings to the Pachamama, the sweet offerings of colour. My art is a thank-you to this land, to these mountains, and to these gods.
BX: You mentioned ideological battles (‘luchas ideológicas’). Can your art be linked with any particular political or cultural ideals, then?
MM: Not strictly. My art is linked more to culture, the deep roots of ancestry, of pride, of identity, of this magnificent culture we all inherit. My work doesn’t subscribe to a political ideology or party.
BX: In a nutshell, how would you de- scribe contemporary Bolivian art?
MM: There are movements, but ultimately every artist works in his own space. We all have our own things to say and our own ways of saying them. You’ve got to remember that Bolivia is culturally very diverse: it’s made up of more than forty different nations, each with its own codes and symbols. Here, art sprouts from the skin; there’s no need to subscribe to movements, really.
BX: Do you think contemporary art in Bolivia is accessible, or is it something that can only be appreciated by a cultural/social/intellectual élite?
MM: Art has always seemed to attract an élite, because that’s how the mar- ket works. I’m trying with my work to ‘socialise’ art a little bit to break this artistic trend, and I think it’s working. I’ve designed cholita shawls, post- cards, calendars, and the like (which has attracted some criticism). But if a person can’t buy a picture for five million dollars, why can’t they buy a postcard for five bolivianos? I want my art to be for everyone. It’s one of my main preoccupations.
BX: Would you consider commercialism a problem with Bolivian art today?
MM: A good work is good wherever it is in the world. If it’s good, people will pay for the work. I think it’s the challenge of the artist to transcend the commercial aspect of art. If someone makes a work of art just to sell it, they don’t have much life in them, and it’s life that sells.
BX: What’s your favourite colour?
MM: I’m a colourist, I work with colours. Someone once said: Mamani Mamani put colour into the Andes. For me, colour is life. Strong colours combat bad spirits; they help us through the darkness. Each colour has its strength. But the colour that always features in my work is yellow... For me it represents energy, the aura of beings. It’s the colour of strength.
BX: What’s your favourite film?
MM: Yesterday I saw a Turkish film. That could be my favourite. It was about a modern, fatalistic love, and it had good music. I like those European films that aren’t commercial. They can feed your soul.
BX: Morenada or Caporales?
MM: Morenada. It’s a manifestation of the community, and it’s more intimate, more about blood and skin. The evening after the interview, I go to an exhibition of Mamani Mamani’s; if it were an album, it would be his ‘greatest hits’. The venue – Café Campanario, just off the Sagarnaga – is sleek and shiny, with canapés and glasses of wine on offer, and the people there match it. It seems that any viewing in the Café Campanario isn’t going to be for the masses and, whether he likes it or not, Mamani Mamani has become something of a cult figure amongst the Bolivian middle-class – it is art, after all. Little by little, though, it feels like he’s winning the battle against an elitist conception of art.