*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
This celebration, renewal and collision with the past and with the indians’ own identity, breaks down everyday order and routine to establish the magic dimension, the exception and the anomaly. An explosion of vitality, abundance and liberty demolishes everyday slavery and misery. But the festive chaos which transports one to the anomalous and to the sacred, simultaneously causes the return to profane normality. Just when the disorder and confusion reach the state of paroxysm, when everything is agitated and intermixed indiscrimanently, the celebration is over. The bands all play at the same time in deafening competition, the dancers can no longer hold themselves up, and all distinctions between groups, musicians, dancers and sexes are erased. It is the kacharpaya, the limit of disorder and cataclysm, which signals the return to routine.
To Cover in Order to Uncover, by Fernando Montes in Masks of the Bolivian Andes, Photographs: Peter McFarren, Sixto Choque, Editorial Quipos and BancoMercantil
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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.
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