A wall of colorful and lushly textured vaginas greets visitors as they walk into a modern house on 14th Street in Calacoto, an upper-class residential neighborhood in La Paz, Bolivia. Three are large—approximately four feet by two feet each—and framed by mythical creatures, while five smaller examples hang below. Each has a unique color palette and is crafted with the velvet, lace, sequins and beads traditionally used to embroider the elaborate costumes Bolivians wear for folk festivals.
Part of Adriana Bravo’s series titled Vaginas del Poder (Vaginas of Power), these symbols of feminine artistic might were the first pieces that visitors encountered in “The Time We Never Had,” a pop-up show focused on four Bolivian artists: Bravo, Knorke Leaf, Ana Vargas and VIEW (aka Flavia Méndez).
The show was the vision of freelance art consultant and curator Anne Marie Purkey Levine, who partnered with Canela Ugalde of Galeria PURO to bring more attention to contemporary Bolivian artists producing truly innovative work.
“I arrived in La Paz just over a year ago and I was interested to learn that there was a very narrow path for contemporary artists, and few opportunities for them to experiment and push the needle,” Purkey Levine told Observer. “There are a few art galleries, but they are pretty conservative in what and who they show due to the relatively small pool of collectors.”
While their artistic practices vary, Bravo, Leaf, Vargas and VIEW’s work shares a common thread of nostalgia, experiences lost or forgotten and the mystical forces that shape their identities as Bolivian women. With subjects and scenes that can border on the surreal, their pieces offer fresh and distinctly female perspectives in Bolivian contemporary art.
Bravo, who has an undergraduate degree in fine art and a master’s in graphic design, showed selections from Vaginas del Poder as well as a series of black and white prints featuring strong feminine imagery. Devoradora depicts a voluptuous, nude goddess-like creature with octopus tentacles taking flight with expansive wings. She is surrounded by flying fish and below her, two larger fish that seem to be thirsting for her emerge from the water.
“My work is very much inscribed in Pop art,” Bravo said. “I think it should be accessible even to those who might not have a strong artistic background. And it should be affordable so that a wider public can acquire art.” But don’t take that to mean her art is devoid of political commentary. “For the vaginas, I buy all my materials in the same shops that supply the costume makers for Carnaval and Gran Poder. It’s a lot more affordable than paint and canvas here. But it all comes from China. What does it mean that such important pieces of Bolivian folklore are made in China?”
Knorke Leaf also uses art as a means to convey political messages but places herself in the environmental feminism movement. Her artivist murals often depict women, children and marginalized groups, as well as endangered flora and fauna. As part of “The Time We Never Had,” she did a live demo of an aerosol painting on canvas. The resulting piece, Canto (Song or Bird Song), depicts a coquettish woman bathed in moonlight lovingly surrounded by birds and plants. She looks happy and at ease in nature, and despite Leaf’s bold lines and colors, there is a softness to the painting.
Leaf is known for her mural work, but she also creates serigraphs, or silkscreen prints, that are affordable and accessible. Her piece El Miedo Va a Cambiar de Lado (Fear is Going to Change Sides) shows a cholita—a Bolivian woman in traditional dress—boldly standing like a ninja, with her face covered by a bandana.
“Ten years ago when I first made this piece, in Bolivia it was a cry of rebellion for a cholita, or any woman, to say ‘Fear is going to change sides’,” she explained. “She’s ready to defend herself, her body and her thoughts.” The work is particularly powerful in a country where nine out of ten women suffer physical abuse and seven out of those ten are subject specifically to sexual abuse. “This year, I decided to do an exclusive serigraphic run of this work so that more people could have access to it.”
Similar to Leaf, Ana Vargas creates pieces that feel dynamic, like they were made in great salvos of inspiration, but the overall vibe of her watercolors is serene. Vargas trained as an oil painter with some of the pillars of contemporary Bolivian art, such as Keiko Gonzalez, but painting with oils required a lot of physical effort and big movements. Following the death of her father, it was just too much, and she looked for a more calming technique.
All of Vargas’ watercolors depict fish that for her, swim in a river of memories. “The gray fish are memories that are easy to remember; the dripping fish are like fleeting memories, ones that are mixed up or confused; the red ones are radiating; and the fish skeletons represent death, what is absent,” she explained.
Her work has a strongly feminine quality, reinforced by the subtlety of the watercolor technique. She often also depicts household objects like kitchen tools or accessories. One piece shows the back of a woman’s head with red and gray fish serving as hair curlers. Another shows an hourglass with fish replacing the sand, suggesting how memories mark the passage of time—or perhaps how they slip away with time.
“I started painting with watercolors in 2022, when my father passed away,” Vargas said. “This was the first time I experienced a really important loss. On top of it, I watched his health deteriorate over a long period of time. I would ask him what he was doing and he’d respond, ‘Nothing. The only thing I can do is remember.’ I did talk therapy, psychoanalysis and a bunch of other stuff. But I was never able to fully unload emotionally until I started working with watercolors. It’s really been liberating.”
VIEW’s SurReal series was also catalyzed by the death of her father. Inspired by René Magritte’s surrealist paintings, her work in “The Time We Never Had” features dreamlike images painted in a realist style that tends toward magical realism. She highlights the juxtaposition of geometric, cold backgrounds with the colors and textures of Andean figures.
In El Túnel, a cholita looks out at the sea, a colorful aguayo draped over her shoulder. But she is framed by very cold cream and greige walls. VIEW’s caption reads: “Sustained by and trapped in structures, the girl observes the light at the end of the tunnel. Are we capable of letting go and taking a leap?”
Based in Buenos Aires, VIEW left Bolivia at 18 to pursue a degree in scenography that was not available in her native Cochabamba. She stayed there because the professional opportunities for set design are greater than those in Argentina. She turned to oil painting as a form of therapy after her father’s passing.
Her decision to portray typically Andean characters in surrealist settings is noteworthy because of the context in which VIEW produced these paintings. Buenos Aires is a homogeneously white city in which non-white populations have been pushed out and erased. There is a collective societal amnesia about what might have happened to these people. The title of her collection, SurReal, has a double meaning: surreal means “surreal,” like in English, but sur real means “real South,” suggesting these Andean portraits represent the real people of South America.
“Considering how small the Bolivian art scene is, I was surprised to find out that the artists didn’t already know each other,” Purkey Levine said. Bolivian art has been entrenched in indigenous traditions and an academic, formal style of art-making, with limited access to international influences and space for experimentation. “Being able to open up my home to allow artists to show more experimental work is my small contribution.”
The four women who exhibited in “The Time We Never Had” are examples of artists who are transforming Bolivian cultural norms into new forms of expression. In their work, the cholita, the matriarch of indigenous Andean culture, is transformed into a symbol of feminist empowerment; water and marine life, Bolivia’s scarce and venerated natural resources, are now manifestations of female love and identity.
Another local artist, Ximena Patiño, commented that this is the first time she’d experienced a group show in such an intimate setting. “Here in La Paz, group shows tend to be in museums and fairs,” she said. “But I really liked this format; it was great to get to know some new artists.”