Roberto Mamani Mamani’s bold, eye-catching paintings of brilliantly colored mountains, the Earth Mother Pachamama and indigenous Bolivians have made him one of Bolivia’s best-known artists. Mamani Mamani lives in La Paz, a city in Bolivia’s high-altitude western plains and the center of the country’s government. He calls himself Quechua Indian by birth and Aymara Indian by blood, because he grew up in an Aymara family in the Quechua-dominated valleys of Bolivia.
The valleys and gently rolling mountainous landscape of his childhood feature in Mamani Mamani’s art, as does the indigenous religion and worldview his grandmother taught him. The Earth Mother Pachamama, shown as a rounded and strong indigenous woman, is a common presence in his work. By combining images from Spanish colonial art into this Andean landscape, Mamani Mamani produces a world that is distinctly Bolivian.
Mamani Mamani spoke with us in his gallery in La Paz.
INDIAN COUNTRY TODAY MEDIA NETWORK: Tell us a bit about your family and how you began with art.
ROBERTO MAMANI MAMANI: I did my first drawings with charcoal from the fire where my mother cooked. I had a happy childhood, because it was a childhood with the Earth.
My family later moved to La Paz, and here I learned from my grandmother. She taught me the rituals and the offerings to the Pachamama—offerings and respect to the Mother Earth, air, fire, and everything that lives. So that’s not a master’s degree at a university, it’s a form of life and a relationship with it.
Then I won a couple of prizes when I was young, which opened a lot of doors for me, museums and galleries. From USAID I received an invitation to the United States and that was the first time I met our indigenous brother from the United States. I was in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and it was an important meeting for me—an exchange of ideas on what it is to be indigenous. That was 15 or 20 years ago.
Art classes aren’t very common in Bolivian schools, and it’s not a profession many people go into. Did your family encourage you?
My family was like many other Aymara families: humble. My grandparents were first-generation immigrants to the city, I am the third generation. They didn’t really reject or accept it—well, there was more acceptance, and wondering what would happen with their only son.
I think it must be the gods and the ancestors who gave me this energy and made me a creative being. In my veins there was an insatiable desire to create. I made my own colors, and I used newspapers and boxes—which to me are still noble materials that have served to help create my works.
How does Andean identity come into your work?
The Andean cosmovision is what nourishes all my work. My grandmother was a weaver and she taught me that color is essential to the Andean world. She told me everything was dark before, and it’s color that brought life.
My biggest preoccupation has been identity. Identity is fundamental—a person who has it can do 100 times more than a person who doesn’t.
I work with self-esteem, pride and strength, knowing that we are the inheritors of a great culture. As an Aymara painter I envision and form with those sensibilities.
In your art we see images of the Pachamama and the coca leaf, but also of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Can you talk about combining elements of the indigenous and the colonial?
In addition to the Andean communities that are very spiritual and full of ritual, part of my focus has also been on the Spanish conquest.
I say if the Spanish brought their gods and put them over ours gods, why can’t we put ours over theirs?
They made us forget our names, our gods. For me this work is confirming that we had our gods, and here they are.