Marisol Mendez’ series MADRE explores the representation of women in present day Bolivia through reflection upon archival imagery and reimagined Catholic iconography.
MADRE is an exploration of past and present depictions of women in Bolivia. Marisol Mendez questions the fault and lack of progression within her native country as she delves into her own female lineage to draw conclusions from the past.
Leia spoke to Marisol about the origin of the project, how Catholicism impacts Bolivia today and the future for MADRE.
Firstly, how did the idea for MADRE originate?
MADRE is my first personal project since returning to Bolivia. I had spent several years studying abroad but in my country little had changed with regards to the representation of women in the media which remained whitewashed, one sided and male dominated. Besides struggling with macho-patriarchal structures, most Bolivian women also face racism. Although we’re a multicultural nation, our historical situation of inequality manifests as the under and misrepresentation of indigenous and mestizo people, especially females.
MADRE was intended to raise questions about this blatant imbalance of power, to make visible the less visible, and celebrate the diversity of my motherland. Upon returning I faced the struggles that many migrants encounter when relocating to their country of origin, a deprived sense of belonging, a fractured sense of identity. The project also became a way of making sense of a culture that felt familiar yet distant, a means of reconciling with my Bolivian identity. By retracing my female lineage, I was able to reconnect to my ancestry and through it reimagine our collective history.
As a Bolivian photographer I believe it’s imperative to keep generating stories about our country and its people because, like our land, our identity has been colonised. We’ve learnt to define ourselves and our heritage through a foreign gaze. We imitate imported representations and retort to cliche’s to portray our reality. My goal with this and future projects is to shine a light on Bolivian people by producing images that transmit our unique experience of the world and challenge archaic stereotypes and common portrayals of our culture.
How long were you working on the project for? Did you shoot the entirety of it in Bolivia?
I started the project last year in March and have been working on it ever since. All the images have been shot in Bolivia, mostly in Cochabamba and La Paz.
It is to my understanding that the series depicts Bolivian Women through the archetypes of iconic figures such as Mary Magdalene and Virgin Mary- how and why did you pick these particular women as vessels to repossess and reflect Andean traditions?
To this day, Bolivia remains largely Catholic. Unfortunately, Catholic dogmas reinforce society’s deep-seated Madonna-Whore complex. Such reductive understanding of womanhood overlooks the contradictions and complexities of the female experience.
For the portraits I thought it would be fitting to defy the sexist orthodoxy of Catholicism by re-appropriating its religious imagery. As a response against their language and message. As a result, women in MADRE are depicted as multiple versions of Mary Magdalene and The Virgin Mary, only that these versions echo Andean culture.
When the Spanish colonisers imposed their religion, not wanting to renounce their beliefs, Bolivian natives observed their traditions under the guise of Catholic liturgy. Andean gods were masked behind Catholic icons and Andean divinities became the Saints. Our faith is a complex interlacing of Catholic ideals and ancient pagan expressions where reality is intertwined with myth and new and old exist together. The photographs are intended to reflect on this syncretism.
It is clear that your Bolivian heritage is very important to you. Did you find it difficult to connect with your culture whilst far away from home? And do you think spending several years studying abroad impacted your photographic style?
It was difficult to connect with my Bolivian culture while living away from home, especially during my time in the UK.
When I was studying in Argentina I had a small group of Bolivian friends and every now and then we’d get together to cook traditional dishes and reminisce about our lives back home. Also, since the two countries are neighbours, I was able to fly back for the holidays.
When I moved to London, it was a different story. I met very few latinos there and none of them from my country. The fees and distance made it impossible for me to visit my family or have them visit me. In the beginning, this made me feel isolated from my roots and heritage, however I soon discovered that a way of maintaining the connection alive was by sharing my experiences and culture with my foreign friends.
I learned about image-making through film studies in Buenos Aires and developed my photographic style whilst living in London, pursuing a Master’s in Fashion Photography. I’d say that, more than impacting my photographic style, studying abroad shaped it.
However, when I relocated to my country, my perspective on image-making shifted. Whilst in Europe, I enjoyed the perks of art as an established institution and photography as a multifaceted practice. In Bolivia, however, photography has a lot of limitations. Stylistically, it clings to an old school style of documentation and, in terms of working conditions, the arts and culture are underfunded making resources and incentives scarce. In spite of this lack of infrastructure, I was pleased to find new and refreshing voices that are striving to diversify our ways of seeing and creating narratives that reflect our lifestyles more truly.
The intertwining of Catholicism and Ancient Paganism in Bolivia is an interesting point to mention. Do you think that this complexity and interlacing of the two influenced the style that you chose to respond with, photographically? Instead of choosing one strict photographic style there are elements of documentary, archival imagery, sometimes even fashion photography, was this an intentional reflection?
Definitely. In Bolivian culture magic permeates reality, contradicting concepts often mesh together. Among these many mixtures, perhaps religious syncretism is one that has impacted society’s concept of womanhood the most. Often women are relegated to the extremes embodied in the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, Bolivian women grow to both defy and perpetrate traditional gender roles. I wanted the images to allude to these contradictions. As a result women in MADRE are mother matriarchs, devout witches, emancipated wives, devilish virgins, dancing widows. They’re unconquerable and ungovernable.
Not adhering to a unique style was also a conscious decision. I applied a broad range of visual languages to tell the story expecting the mixture to create an experience similar to that of a mystical journey where the viewer is challenged to absorb and reflect on the links that emerge across the images. Details in the subject’s gestures and garments reveal the convoluted coexistence of cultures in present-day Bolivia. It is for the viewer to discover the intricate network between the hidden and the visible, and the diverse connections between individual and collective unconscious. Just like with religion, fabulation does not lessen its impact, on the contrary, it gives everything a hyperreal intensity.
Obviously faith plays a big part in your work, especially in MADRE but is religion a big part of your day to day life? Do you practice any religion?
I was raised Catholic but my parents weren’t devout. It was my grandmother who took care of me and my sister’s faith. She would take us to church, tell us Bible stories and teach us prayers. To this day she’s still a devout Catholic. I, on the other hand am religion free. I have my own ideas about concepts like god and meaning but I don’t practice any religion per se.
I shook off Catholicism whilst living abroad so when I returned was surprised to find that, even as a secular country, Bolivia remained largely influenced by the Catholic Church. Sadly, this faith enforces patriarchal structures, condemns queerness, denies women their power and promotes servant mentality. I don’t want to rant against Catholicism but I view it with very critical eyes because it’s such a powerful institution that shapes so many people’s beliefs.
With my series I’m salvaging that which I still appreciate, even admire, about Catholic religion, its compelling imagery and intricate storytelling. However, I’m using my images to question and challenge its doctrines.
Are you connected, or related to, the women in the photographs? Do you tend to work with individuals that you know well before hand, or strangers?
The archival images in the project belong to my family album and therefore depict my female relatives. By making this project I was able to learn about my family history and female lineage. The women in the rest of the portraits I have ‘scouted’ or, more accurately, have ‘run into’. The process of asking someone if I can photograph them is very intuitive for me. Most times I can’t explain why I choose to photograph a specific person, it’s a gut feeling but I guess the subjects of MADRE are women that I identify with in some way.
Making a picture of someone is an opportunity to connect so I like to spend time getting to know my subjects before we shoot. Even if it’s just a brief chat over coffee, creating this bond is a necessary process for me, because photographing someone feels like taking part in their vulnerability, like disclosing knowledge about them that they themselves might not possess. It’s a beautiful intimate act, one best nurtured by trust.
Once I’m familiar with the subject I approach them with ideas for the portrait, that I then let them build on, and transform. The resulting image is a collaboration between both of our visions.
The archival material of your family make the project feel very intimate. How does it feel, sharing such a personal project? And why was this important to you?
My mother says that I’m an over-sharer and I guess that’s true even with regards to my photography. I’ve ‘exposed’ intimate aspects of my life through my lens before, but with MADRE it felt riskier since I was also bringing my family into it.
The project pieces together past memories and current observations to explore the influence of race and religion in shaping the perception and representation of Bolivian women. Using my family pictures was important because these provide windows to the past. By including them I’m able to comment on my family history, subvert meaning or add layers of symbolism. My gaze is both celebratory and critical of my family’s past.
The process of rummaging through archival material allowed me to familiarise myself with my genealogy and better understand who I am in relation to my female lineage and who I’ve become in relation to where I was born.
Are there any texts or other artists that inspired you and your decisions within this project?
Graciela Iturbide’s influence in my work is undeniable, however, I believe that cinema and literature are my main sources of inspiration. I watched Lucrecia Martel’s entire body of work over a weekend and became obsessed with her work and approach. Her last film Zama was definitely a beacon and also her debut La Ciénaga (The Swamp). I would cite Felisberto Hernández as inspiration too. He’s the forefather of magical realism and his short stories are just exquisite. I’ve also been reading El Paraíso de los Pájaros Parlantes by Bolivian art historian Teresa Gisbert which discusses the representation of the Other in Andean culture.
Do you plan on continuing shooting more images for the series, or does it feel finished now?
I wish to turn MADRE into a book to bring the different themes and the relationship between the subjects together, as well as develop the style.
So far, the series has focused on women of the western region so I’m looking to explore the east to include eastern women, their symbols and traditions. The aim is to document them, but also compare and contrast the ways in which race and religion have impacted female representation across the country.
Besides organising more elaborate shoots, I also hope to visit and record sites where Catholicism has left a trace. The idea is to capture Bolivian landscapes and scenery that illustrate the multiple manifestations of syncretism so as to explore the relationship between these and the women portrayed in the book.
And finally, are you working on any new projects at the moment?
I’ve very recently started a series on the informal sector in my city, Cochabamba. Bolivia has one of the biggest informal economies in Latin America. Here, informal workers earn their living without a safety net. They are mostly self-employed and often women, engaged in occupations like domestic work, street vending, transportation, and garbage collection.
Measures taken by my country to fight COVID-19, including lockdowns implemented without significant assistance for those whose jobs are affected, have threatened the livelihoods of informal workers and pushed them further into poverty, homelessness and hunger.
It’s horrible how the pandemic sometimes has us thinking about these people like they’re statistics and numbers. Hopefully with this project I can tell their stories and share their hopes and struggles.
Thanks for your time Marisol. I look forward to seeing MADRE in book form and more work from you in the future.
Loupe Issue 11
In this issue we feature photography and writing that explores belief through worship, mourning, loss of faith, superstitions and the possibility of other worlds.
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