Searching for La Paz’s Creative Pulse

20 Jul, 2016 | Luke Henriques-Gomes

The Arts

Photo: Isabel Cocker

Three Artists Reflect on Working in the City

‘I’ve tried to break the paradigm that art is only for people who understand it, or for people who have the money to buy paintings or go to a museum.’

– Mamani Mamani

When I tell my taxi driver, Juan, that I’m going to see Roberto Mamani Mamani, his face lights up. Juan was born in Cochabamba, but he speaks about La Paz with the enthusiasm of a lifelong paceño. The best thing about this city is the culture, he tells me: ‘It’s unlike anywhere else.’

The fact that Juan is so familiar with Mamani Mamani, perhaps La Paz’s most acclaimed painter, is striking. Later, a security guard at the Governor’s Office of La Paz is also impressed that Mamani Mamani is coming to his workplace. Visual art may be considered a middle-class pursuit, but the popularity of Mamani Mamani’s colourful Aymaran art – in La Paz, El Alto and throughout the country – speaks to what the painter calls ‘the socialisation of art’.

‘I’ve tried to break the paradigm that art is only for people who understand it,’ Mamani Mamani says when I met him inside his gallery on historic Calle Jaén. ‘Or for people who have the money to buy paintings or go to a museum.’

‘I remember that people from the school of art would say I wasn’t an artist because I hadn’t studied,’ Mamani Mamani continues. ‘There were these elites in La Paz that didn’t accept me. So I had to fly my own way, to try and put myself and my work in front of the people.’

As a child, Mamani Mamani used to draw on newspapers with leftover charcoal that his mother used to cook with. He has both Aymara and Quechua ancestry, and learned about Andean culture from his grandmother – whom he cites as his biggest creative influence. Today, his art is embraced by all corners of Bolivian society. In addition to myriad exhibitions across Bolivia, Mamani Mamani has also exhibited his work throughout Europe and in Japan and the United States. His style – a combination of bold, bright colours and Aymaran symbology – is copied by school students in art classes across the country, and his work is printed on postcards and coffee mugs.

‘I used to see my grandmother knitting with very powerful colours,’ Mamani Mamani says. ‘I would always ask, “Why do you paint with really strong colours?” And she would say, “It’s because the bright colours scare away the bad spirits.” So that’s why I paint the way I do.’

In the major-events room of the Governor’s Office of La Paz, there is a 20-metre-wide Mamani Mamani mural. Painted with the help of four of his students, it’s typical of his work. It depicts what he calls ‘the beginning of a new world’, a ‘new era of women’ who are represented by a large moon. There are llamas, snakes, a turtle and four stars, symbolizing the communal nature of Aymara culture, he explains. Standing in front of the mural, he spontaneously throws his arms in the air and exclaims the Aymaran phrase: Jallalla! It feels like a declaration of pride and joy from a quiet man who has embraced his culture and shown it to the world.    

Early on a weekday morning on the other side of La Paz, Marcos Loayza is sitting in a fifth-floor apartment looking out onto Zona Sur. Handsome, with a full head of dark curls and a manly, greying beard, Loayza is widely regarded as one of Bolivia’s best filmmakers. His debut film, Cuestion de Fe (1995), is considered a Latin American classic, having racked up a slew of international awards including a special critic's mention at the 21st Huelva Ibero-American Film Festival in 1995.

Loayza is a lifelong paceño, except for a short stint studying film in Cuba. The 56-year-old is currently working on his sixth film, El Arcano Katari, which follows a boy in search of his uncle through the many barrios of La Paz. He finds mythical elements of the city and meets different characters along the way.

‘I always try to be Andean in my movies,’ Loayza says. ‘It’s easier to be authentic than neutral.’

Making El Arcano Katari, which Loayza hopes will hit screens sometime this year, has been a drawn-out process that began all the way back in 2007. ‘The hardest thing in La Paz is to fund a film,’ he says. ‘And you spend much more time trying to get money than producing or creating.’

With this in mind, one might wonder why Loayza remains committed to making films locally. In part, it’s due to La Paz’s remarkable landscape. That so few films have been shot in La Paz gives filmmakers like Loayza the chance to show parts of the city to the rest of the world for the very first time.  

‘Here in La Paz, we are used to searching for the best views, looking out to Illimani [the mountain that dominates the city’s skyline] and the landscapes. It’s a part of us to look for these views,’ he says. ‘It’s the same in filmmaking. La Paz is like a virgin city. Not many movies have been made here.’

Loayza says El Arcano Katari could be translated as ‘the secret of the snake’. ‘But we must take into account that in the Andes the snake is not a creature of death, danger or treason,’ he explains. ‘On the contrary, it’s a being who represents life and has the power to change skin, and mutate to improve.’

Loayza says the film’s biggest challenge has been trying to ‘build things that don’t really exist, except in people’s minds’: mythical creatures and places that are not much written about ‘but dominate our oral tradition’ – the stuff of ‘the Andean imagination’.

Inside Sopacachi’s trendy Blueberries Café, in between sips of tea, 31-year-old José Arispe is explaining what it means to represent a new generation of Andean artists. His cultural identity really hit home during a residency in Rome, which culminated in his most recent photographic exhibition, Sola, which features images from home and abroad.

‘Sometimes when you’re from Latin America and you go to Europe, you think, “I want to go stay and live here,”’ he says. ‘You hear that the art world there is more attractive, more developed. But when I was in Rome I thought, “What am I going to do here?” In La Paz, I have so much to work with: nature, my history, my cultural heritage, my cultural habits, the dancing, the music, the language. Maybe it’s obvious, but you appreciate your home so much more once you’ve left it.’

Arispe’s emotive work feels modern, but it is imbued with his Andean identity in both conscious and innate ways. One performance piece, Soy, shows the artist covered from head to toe in coca leaves. Another, shot from a crane, uses taut and fraying ropes that are used to form circles to explore the Andean concept of time.

‘In Andean culture, time is not linear’, Arispe says. ‘It’s not just the past, the present and the future. For us, it’s a circle of movement. It’s important to recognise our past to work to the future. So you draw a circle.’

If La Paz’s creative skin is always changing, Arispe is a product of that constant state of flux. He represents a new wave of paceño artists charged with simultaneously following in the footsteps of Loayza and Mamani Mamani, and carving out their own creative path. It’s a fact not lost on Arispe.

‘In Bolivia, we struggle to make our art sustainable,’ Arispe says. ‘In an economical way, a critical way, a social way. So it’s important to organise and try to build our community.’

‘There’s a lot of work to do.’


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