Category Archives: Bolivia

Pearls from artists* # 506

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia
Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Inspiration is allowed to do whatever it wants to, in fact, and it is never obliged to justify its motives to any of us. (As far as I’m concerned, we’re lucky that inspiration talks to us at all; it’s too much to ask that it also explain itself).

In the end, it’s all about violets trying to come to light.

Don’t fret about the irrationality and unpredictability of all this strangeness. Give in to it. Such is the bizarre, unearthly contract of creative living. There is no theft; there is no ownership; there is no tragedy; there is no problem. There is no time or space where inspiration comes from – and also no competition, no ego, no limitations. There is only the stubbornness of the idea itself, refusing to stop searching until it has found an equally stubborn collaborator. (Or multiple collaborators, as the case may be).

Work with that stubbornness.

Work with it as openly and trustingly and diligently as you can.

Work with all your heart, because – I promise – if you show up for your work day after day after day after day, you just might get lucky enough some random morning to burst right into bloom.

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Comments are welcome!

Q: What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this? (Question from artamour)  

Source material for “The Champ”
Source material for “The Champ” (my first “Bolivianos” pastel painting) and “Avenger”

A: While traveling in Bolivia in 2017, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz.  The masks were presented against black walls, spot-lit, and looked eerily like 3D versions of my Black Paintings, the series I was working on at the time.  I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift.  To date I have completed seventeen pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series.  One awaits finishing touches, another is in progress, and I am planning the next two, one large and one small pastel painting.

The following text is from my “Bolivianos” artist’s statement.

My long-standing fascination with traditional masks took a leap forward in the spring of 2017 when I visited the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia.  One particular exhibition on view, with more than fifty festival masks, was completely spell-binding.

The masks were old and had been crafted in Oruro, a former tin-mining center about 140 miles south of La Paz on the cold Altiplano (elevation 12,000’).  Depicting important figures from Bolivian folklore traditions, the masks were created for use in Carnival celebrations that happen each year in late February or early March. 

Carnival in Oruro revolves around three great dances.  The dance of “The Incas” records the conquest and death of Atahualpa, the Inca emperor when the Spanish arrived in 1532.  “The Morenada” dance was once assumed to represent black slaves who worked in the mines, but the truth is more complicated (and uncertain) since only mitayo Indians were permitted to do this work.  The dance of “The Diablada” depicts Saint Michael fighting against Lucifer and the seven deadly sins.  The latter were originally disguised in seven different masks derived from medieval Christian symbols and mostly devoid of pre-Columbian elements (except for totemic animals that became attached to Christianity after the Conquest).  Typically, in these dances the cock represents Pride, the dog Envy, the pig Greed, the female devil Lust, etc.

The exhibition in La Paz was stunning and dramatic.  Each mask was meticulously installed against a dark black wall and strategically spotlighted so that it became alive.  The whole effect was uncanny.  The masks looked like 3D versions of my “Black Paintings,” a pastel paintings series I have been creating for ten years.  This experience was a gift… I could hardly believe my good fortune!

Knowing I was looking at the birth of a new series – I said as much to my companions as I  remained behind while they explored other parts of the museum – I spent considerable time composing photographs.  Consequently, I have enough reference material to create new pastel paintings in the studio for several years. The series, entitled “Bolivianos,” is arguably my strongest and most striking work to date.

Comments are welcome!

Travel photo of the month*

View of Lake Titicaca from Isla de la Luna, Bolivia

*Favorite travel photos that have not yet appeared in this blog

I love this image! There aren’t many places in the world where you can see cactus and glaciers in the same photograph.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

A: I’m working on a 58” x 38” pastel painting that is number 20 in the ”Bolivianos” series. It does not yet have a title. The mask depicted is a Supay. From Wikipedia:

In the Quechua, Aymara, and Inca mythologies, Supay was both the god of death and ruler of the Ukha, Pacha, and the Incan underworld, as well as a race of demons. Supay is associated with miners’ rituals.

With the Spanish colonization of the Americas, Christian priests used the name “Supay” to refer to the Christian Devil. However, unlike Europeans in relation to the Christian Devil, the indigenous people did not repudiate Supay but, being scared of him, they invoked him and begged him not to harm them.

Supay acquired a syncretic symbolism, becoming a main character of the diabladas of Bolivia (seen in the Carnival of Oruro), Peru and other Andean countries. The name Supay is now roughly translated into diablo (Spanish for devil) in most Southern American countries. In some of them, for example the northern region of Argentina, the underworld where Supay rules, is called “Salamanca”.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 482

One of Viscarra’s masks at MUSEF La Paz

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Devils’ heads with daring and disturbing eyes, twisted horns, abundant grey hair and hooked noses hang on the blue walls of Antonio Viscarra’s house. Long benches covered with old, multi-colored cushions in Bolivian motifs surround the concrete floor of the small room. Several dozen of these hanging faces, which seem to watch in silence from the darkness, are ready to be used in festivals and traditional dances.

The maskmaker or “maestro” as he is called, lives [deceased now] in the area of Avenida Buenos Aires, far from the political and administrative center of the city of La Paz, but rather at the very center of the other La Paz (Chuquiago in the Aymara language) where many peasant immigrants have settled, and which for that reason, is the center of the city’s popular culture.

Viscarra is the oldest creator of masks in La Paz, and his work has helped to conserve, and at the same time to rejuvenate, the tradition of using masks in Bolivian dances. If economic progress and alienation have contributed to the excessive adornment of new masks with glass and other foreign materials, Viscarra, in an attempt to recover the distinctive, original forms, has gone back to the 100-year-old molds used by his grandfather. His work has been exhibited in Europe, in the United States and in South America, Most important, however, is that Viscarra is transmitting his knowledge to his children, ensuring that this form of authentic Bolivian culture will never die.

…Viscarra inherited the old mask molds from his grandfather and was told to take good care of them because some day he might need them. After keeping them carefully put away for 50 years, the maestro used them again for an exhibition of masks prepared in 1984, slowly recreating the original masks, beautiful in their simplicity, in their delicate craftsmanship and in their cultural value. In this way, the masks which emerged from the old molds are regaining their past prestige and importance.

Antonio Viscarra, The mask Maker by Wendy McFarren in Masks of the Bolivian Andes, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you see art as a way to document the history and the customs and cultures of people? (Question from “Arte Realizzata”)

Tiwanaku, Bolivia
Tiwanaku, Bolivia

A: Certainly, art from the past gives us clues about life in the past, but I believe it does more.  It reveals our shared humanity.

In one of my favorite books, Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A treatise, Critique, and Call to Action, JF Martel states that “… what the Modern west calls art is the direct result of a basic human drive, an inborn expressivity that is inextricably bound with creative imagination. It is less the product of culture than a process manifesting through the cultural sphere.  One could go so far as to argue that art must exist in order for culture to emerge in the first place.” 

The art that is left to us through history gives a glimpse of our shared humanity across time and across cultures.  We get to see a forgotten part of ourselves, something reaching deeper into what it means to be human.  

Comments are welcome!       

Q: What are your favorite subject(s) and media? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

Barbara’s New York Studio

A: Here’s the short answer. I work exclusively in soft pastel on sandpaper, using self-invented pastel techniques that I have been refining for thirty-five years.  Since 2017, I have depicted authentic Bolivian Carnival masks that I encountered and photographed at the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore In La Paz.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Pastel painting in progress

A: I’m working on another large (58” x 38”) “Bolivianos” pastel painting based on old Bolivian masks encountered at the Museum of Folklore and Ethnography in La Paz four years ago. The masks were made to be worn in annual Carnival celebrations that happen in the mountain town of Ouroro, about a three-hour drive from La Paz.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 453

Carnival Masks at the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz
Carnival Masks at the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Art begins in the struggle for equilibrium. One cannot create from a balanced state. Being off balance produces a predicament that is always interesting on stage. In the moment of unbalance, our animal instincts prompt us to struggle towards equilibrium and this struggle is endlessly engaging and fruitful. When you welcome imbalance in your work, you will find yourself instantly face to face with your own inclination towards habit. Habit is an artist’s opponent. In art, the unconscious repetition of familiar territory is never vital or exciting. We must try to remain awake and alive in the face of our inclinations towards habit. Finding yourself off balance provides you with an invitation to disorientation and difficulty. It is not a comfortable prospect. You are suddenly out of your element and out of control. And it is here the adventure begins. When you welcome imbalance, you will instantly enter new and unchartered territory in which you feel small and inadequate in relation to the task at hand. But the fruits of this engagement abound.

Anne Bogart in A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 450

On the road in Bolivia

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

All the journeys that have transpired in my life have been animated by interest. Something or someone has stopped me in my tracks. Interest, that thing that cannot really be faked, is an invitation to adventure. It has always been disorienting to do but I have to act on these interests. Somehow I know that in order to keep on working as an artist, I have to keep on changing. And this means that when interest is piqued, I must follow or die. And I know that I will have to hang on tight for the ride. These rides have changed me irrevocably.

The primary tool in a creative process is interest. To be true to one’s interest, to pursue it successfully, one’s body is the best barometer. The heart races. The pulse soars. Interest can be your guide. It always points you in the right direction. It defines the quality, energy and content of your work. You cannot feign or fake interest or choose to be interested in something because it is prescribed. It is never prescribed. It is discovered. When you sense this quickening you must act immediately. You must follow that interest and hold tight.

… If the interest is genuine and large enough and if it is pursued with tenacity and generosity, the boomerang effect is resounding. Interest returns volley to affect your life and inevitably alter it. You must be available and attentive to the doors that open unexpectedly. You cannot wait. The doors close fast. It will change your life. It will give you adventures you never expected. You must be true to it and it will be true to you.

Anne Bogart in A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre

Comments are welcome!

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