Text by Pasha Wreszinski, visual artists cited below.
AM I PIZARRO OR ATAHUALPA? COLONISER OR COLONISED?
This is a question that every person born and raised in Bolivia asks themselves at a very early age. The root of this social phenomenon probably goes back to the 16th century, that day when Conquistador Francisco Pizarro and Inka Emperor Atahualpa shook hands in 1532.
And for a very long time, we lived in this dichotomy. If you wore a beard, you were a Pizarro. If you walked with rubber tire sandals, you were an Atahualpa. But, if you could afford Nike Air Force Ones, then there was no doubt you were a Pizarro. This game continued like this for a very long time.
In a country with a near 80% non-white majority, the pigmentation of your skin and the shape of your cheekbones gives you a determined sense of belonging; not only to the territory but to your place in society. While social progress has been made gradually over the past decades, basic social practices still remind us that our social matrix is inherently post-colonial. The norm is that an indigenous maid serves a white(r) family. She will still refuse to eat at the table, even in a progressive household. Further, it represents a tremendous rebellion for a white middle class person to marry into an indigenous family and vice versa. This apartheid-like coexistence carries a particularly hurtful experience for the silent majority: being a mestizx, a mixed race daughter of Atahualpa AND Pizarro implies that you will ultimately determine your sense of belonging by replicating post-colonial practices, more often than not, of the light-skin ruling class.
Indigenous revolts against this post-colonial system have been plentiful throughout history, yet an institutional change in leadership came only in 2006, when the first indigenous person was elected as president. Evo Morales’ election was the conse- quence of a decades-long, at times more and at times less peaceful civil movement, culminating in the “Black October” of 2013, when the traditional political powers of the last century were overthrown by nationwide protests.
DECOLONISATION VERSUS EMPOWERMENT
A new chapter in Bolivian identity politics began, as the new government explicitly instructed us to “decolonise the country”, to the impossible utopia of a fictional past, to undo what is done. In the countryside, this referred to a revival of indigenous forms of political organisation, paving a way to a politics where coca farmers and miners would have a voice in parliament, and be accepted by the intellectual classes. For the urban middle class, the short-term reflex was to cut racial slurs out of everyday slang. A new constitution would lead to a new understanding of what it means to be Bolivian. We would shed ourselves of the shame of our Indigenous ancestry and embark on a journey of self discovery and empowerment. Decolonisation is to us a highly spiritual experience. Decolonisation not only means to unlearn colonisation but to relearn Indigenous identities. We take the history out of textbooks, out of the condescending speeches of old school politicians and our grandparents, out of the ivory tower, and put it on the street. We turn our history into something alive, popular and liberating.
Contemporary music is recorded in the Aymara and Guarani languages and old school autochthonous records are reconstructed with electric cumbia and techno beats. The names of historical indigenous leaders are recontextualised in modern film and literature. References to Pachamama (Mother Earth) or Father Inti (God of the Sun) come naturally to us, as even if we don’t explicitly believe in them, we do communicate to these figures in our daily life. When we enjoy alcohol, for instance, we spill a few sips on the ground for Pachamama to drink. Decolonisation has meant that we seek spiritual identification with the spirits of our ancestors as we break with the patri- archal structures and eurocentric aesthetics. Not only do such practices contribute to the creative work of a new generation of Bolivian artists, thinkers and activists, in the age of social media this has also given Bolivian art and media unprecedented exposure to global dialogues.
Decolonisation was never going to be easy. There is no way of reverting 500 years of history. Evo’s government created the idea of a Wakanda-like utopia, a modern decolonised society, but it was based on an urban identity, isolating rural communi- ties. Their adoption of the Wiphala, flag representing Indigenous people, which was elevated to a national symbol and decorated the Government Palace for 14 years, is also problematic. Though symbolic of the Indigenous people and anti-colonialism from outside, there is much debate over the provenance of the flag and its actual significance to the country’s Indigenous people, leading some to label its political use as cultural appropriation.
For progressive millennials, a disenchantment with the potential of Evo’s emancipa- tory project occurred on moral grounds with Amazonian tribes suffering repressive military policing during protests as early as 2011. This was compounded by the repeated violent and derogatory treatment of disabled people and women, as well as disrespect towards the LGBTQ community by the ruling MAS party. This is without even mentioning the complicated relationship that the regime had with democratic institutions that ultimately led to Evo’s resignation in 2019.
As we learn that a narrative of victimhood fails to propose new horizons, we decide to let go of a dichotomy of bronze and white. A decade and a half of steady economic growth has simply raised our expectations. Beyond our basic needs, we want basic freedoms. We want to be able to say, sing, write and publish our views without being persecuted. We will, however, denounce police brutality and condemn any step back towards fascism.
As the new decade looms, it takes us to a new horizon of what it means to be Bolivian.
We cannot undo what has been done. We cannot undo the arrival of Columbus to the Americas in 1492, just as we cannot undo the ethnic mix of our blood and the influence the internet has on our globalised mindsets.
A joint spell of civic unrest, power juggles in the armed forces and big money brought a leftist autocracy to an end in 2019. An uncertain future now shakes up the dreams of millions of youth that came of age under Bolivia’s first Indigenous leadership. It is an emotional toll that the Bolivian spring is taking. Family dinners are held in silence, the Amazon Chiquitano forest is burning and femicides are on the rise. We live in times of multiple crises. Yet we get to laugh about ourselves, and our post-colonial idiosyncrasies. We learned to play the state, to feed our families with a handful of breadcrumbs from the state. We have worked long shifts in the cities, in the mines and in the fields, to pay our taxes. The indigenous tax, the public servant tax, the migrant tax, the queer tax, we have given in to the societal prize of developing into a middle income society and learned to ask for education and health, with sticks and stones, blocking the streets with washing lines. Yet our democracy is at a standstill until further notice. Interim leaders lost the battle, both against a global economic and health crisis as well as failing to answer a simple question: who are we as Bolivians?
With the return of the MAS party to power after the presidential election of 2020, we once again embrace a patron and and an aggressor at the same time. We cast our votes not out of conviction but out of fear.
We are unlearning to talk with each other. We glance at our neighbours with mistrust. As power dynamics blur, so does our intimacy and no less importantly, the way we talk to Mother Earth, Pachamama. Our spring, it turns out is at high stakes.
Home to close to a million souls, the city of El Alto reflects the raw core of Bolivian society. When driving out of the dwelling in either direction, towards La Paz or toward out to the dry and cold Altiplano highlands, at dawn, you will see small groups of youngsters in hoodies making their way home. Young men and women like artists Cristian Laime and Ronald Candia represent themselves at the coming of age of this city. Their paintings tell the stories and traditions of their rural migrant grandfathers, -Of birds that serve as messengers between life and death , of animal sacrifices to cure the sick- but place the stories in an urban and contemporary setting. They are often the first in their families to experience urban life, to attend university, to exchange views and concepts over the internet. The world view of the young Alteños is both poetic and inherently rebellious. Underserved, neglected and antagonized by the central government and the ruling classes, El Alto livelihoods mark the norm of Bolivian lives, and not the exception, scared by hardship, sacrifice and self sufficiency, yet thriving, hopeful and immensely resourceful. ‘There is no such thing as formal employment, you may as well just do your own thing’, Laime tells us.
El Alto is also the home to painter Rosemery Mamani. Born in Omasuyos, a fisher town by Titicaca lake, Rosmery migrated to El Alto at the age of 14 and has come a long way to become arguably the country’s most prolific realist. She refuses to attribute intellectualism to her work. ‘I just paint what I see’. In the cities, they meet artists like Cathy Guibarra, who hails from Zona Sur, an upper middle class neighborhood in La Paz. Her body of work (Oil on Canvas) is inspired by Nietzsche, Jaime Saenz and long discussions with strangers on the internet. Migration to the city therefore enables a global dialogue and a bigger exposure for Bolivian artists.
While this article cannot aim to represent all young Bolivians, anonymous chat sessions during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, with Bolivian artists and activists, were essential to the writing process.
Many thanks to Suki Capobianco, Maria Galindo, Francois Schollaert Paz, Danitza Luna, all the artists featured in this article, and all other artists in Bolivia and the diaspora for helping to tell our story.”
Cathy Guibarra / La Paz
Guibarra is a painter and architect. She spends long days supervising the construction sites of her family business and long nights portraying the people and creatures that surround her. Cathy’s work reflects her academic interest in philosophy. She was trained at Bellas Artes La Paz.
Wara Vargas / La Paz
Vargas is a photographer based in La Paz. She studied Communications Sciences and majored in Press Photography at the José Martí International Journalism Institute in Cuba. For the last 15 years, Wara has worked as a photojournalist for various media outlets in Bolivia. She has exhibited in her homeland and in a number of collective shows in Germany, New York, Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina. Her work “La vida de los ángeles” took her to present a solo exhibition at Revela-T Festival in Barcelona.
José Auza / Sucre – Cochabamba
Auza is a musician and artist born in Sucre. As a composer he has been part of 20 albums ranging from traditional creole to electronic music, in addition to 20 hours of music for documentaries, shorts and films; he is the winner of four national awards in this area. As an artist, he has held solo exhibitions and is a winner of five national awards.
Cristian Laime / El Alto
Laime is a painter, sculptor and muralist. He trained in the public university of El Alto as well as at Bellas Artes Hernando Siles, being awarded for his urban interventions and street art. His works largely deal with Bolivian national identity. In his own words: “I deal with decolonisation as a concept, not so much as fact. Much less, as an objective and more so as a belief system”. Laime was awarded the Grand Salón Pedro Domingo Murillo Prize in 2018, one of the highest recognitions for emerging artists in Bolivia.
« Ronald Candia / El Alto
Candia is a painter and sculptor based in El Alto. He graduated from the EMDA municipal school of the arts, El Alto and UMSA University in La Paz. His art revolves around peri-urban livelihoods and Andean mythology. His work has been awarded with several prizes. Most notably, he has been recognised for his contribution to the exhibition on “Mother Earth and Technology”, held by the Ivar Mendez International Foundation.
Rosmery Mamani / El Alto
Born in Omasuyos, a fishing town bordering Lake Titicaca, Mamani migrated to El Alto at the age of 14 and has come a long way to become the country’s most prolific realist. Her oeuvre is characterised by a strong technicity, making her subjects come alive by means of oil, pastel and aquarelle. Mamani has won vast international acclaim and participated in numerous individual and collective exhibitions in Bolivia, Spain, France, and Taiwan.
This article was originally published under Sounds and Colours for the magazine’s 10 year anniversary and submitted in August Please do support independent cultural journalism in Latin America by getting a copy