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Pearls from artists* # 384

Overlooking Copacabana, Bolivia and Lake Titicaca

Overlooking Copacabana, Bolivia and Lake Titicaca

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

Carnival in Oruro [Bolivia] is a glorious spectacle.  It’s flash, pomp and brilliance can be enjoyed without understanding its long history and intricate mythologies.  Still, the onlooker is left with a thousand questions that are not so easily answered.  Behind the glitter of Carnival lie the history, the timeless myths and the distinct traditions of this mining community.

According to the Spanish writer Jean Laude, “The function of the mask is to reaffirm, at regular intervals, the truth and presence of myths in everyday life.”  This suggests that masks should be studied in context, noting their association with the individual dancer and the history, myths and traditions of the community that produces them.  The mask has to be animated within its ritual, comic or social role.

A first step in appreciating the masks is to understand something of the land and people that crafted them.  Oruro is a mining city on the open Altiplano at 3,700 meters (12,144 ft.) above sea level.  The sky appears a rarified blue, it is intensely cold and a constant wind lifts dust to the eyes.  During the year no more than 125,000 people live in the city.  Suddenly in the weeks of Carnival, the population doubles or triples.

Three languages, Quechua, Aymara, and Spanish are spoken in Oruro.  Their use reflects an ancient pattern of conquest in the history of this land.  It is said that the Urus, whose language is now almost lost, were the first inhabitants.  In time they were dominated by the Aymara tribes.  Later, Quechua was introduced as the Inca advanced their empire from Cuzco.  Ultimately the Spanish arrived and founded the present city in 1601 to exploit rich mineral deposits found in the seven hills.

Today, descendants of the Urus live near Oruro around the shore of Lake Poopo.  Elements of their distinctive culture remain but they have no wealth in comparison with the more dominant Aymara and Quechua who surround them.  A further change came in the recent past because Oruro has acted as a magnet, attracting many people from the countryside to work in the mines.

On one side were the Urus, ancient owners of all the land which now only carries their name (Uro Uro = Oruro).  On the other side were the miners, many of whom were Quechua and Aymara migrants.  In the middle is “Carnival.”

El Carnaval de Oruro by Manuel Vargas in Mascaras de los Andes Bolivianos, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you share your artist’s statement for the “Bolivianos” series?

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

A:  Here it is.

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 painting 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!

 

Q: What non-art book are you reading now?

Tiwanaku

Tiwanaku

A:  I am reading Kim Mac Quarrie’s, “The Last Days of the Incas.”  It’s fascinating to discover the intricacies of the epic conquest of the short-lived Inca empire.  The book is actually thrilling to read.  Mac Quarrie makes this story come alive.

Last summer I traveled to Peru to investigate the history of the Incas and the civilizations that preceded them.  In May of this year I continued my studies with a trip to Bolivia.  Both trips are proving to be highly inspirational for my art practice. 

Comments are welcome!       

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