Mary Jo Karimnia on organizing her show at Blanco in La Paz, Bolivia
Luise, blonde head tilted to the left, and Lisa, brighter blonde head tilted to the right, each held an oil pastel and filled in the numbered sections of an image of a dress from their native country of Germany. They had been in Bolivia for about three weeks, having traveled there for a three-month student exchange and joined a community collaboration I initiated there.
In June 2015 I was invited to show my work at a contemporary art gallery in La Paz called Blanco run by artists Keiko Gonzalez, Erika Ewel and Roxana Hartmann. Blanco is a large space that is broken down into a main gallery with two-story walls and several smaller, connected spaces. I planned to take some work that would easily fit in a suitcase and produce more work there. I have observed a number of similarities between the Memphis and Bolivian art scenes and wanted to cultivate a relationship. Since I had a large space to fill, I thought I might try to initiate a collaborative group project to help meet this objective. I was able to take the same approach I use at my job at Crosstown Arts in Memphis, an art space that often involves community participation and collaborative interactions, to network and meet people in Bolivia.
Collaboration between artists can be a bit different from collaborations with the community. Artists tend to like open perimeters, often pushing boundaries and thoroughly exploring the creative process. A wide, open field can be intimidating for the less-experienced crowd. Creativity within a limited sphere, set up in such a way that the outcome is most likely to be successful, can build confidence and produce a satisfying experience. Simple things like limiting the media, preselecting a pleasing color palette and allowing others in on only a limited part of the process are all good strategies when including non-professionals.
The idea of producing a community paint-by-number had been kicking around in my head for a while, and this seemed like a good opportunity to try it out. In planning this aspect of the show I chose an image and did a test run with my teenager and a few friends before leaving on the trip. We experimented with different media and found that a combination of acrylic paint and oil pastels worked well. Oil pastels are bright and easy to use for someone who may not be an experienced artist. During the run-through I learned that the larger black areas were the least interesting parts for participants to paint and that a 4’x4′ piece could easily be accomplished in an afternoon.
My work in the show revolved around a series of images gleaned from my own photos, taken at cosplay conventions and while traveling, of individuals and display mannequins in different types of dress and costuming. I like to think about how costumes can make us both anonymous and brave, how they can make us feel like part of a larger group, how teenagers often use their clothing to explore different aspects of themselves as they grow and mature and how adults use dress as part of their personal identity or to explore transitions.
La Paz is a particularly ripe part of the world to consider dress and costuming. Bolivia has the largest population of indigenous individuals in South America, and La Paz itself houses a large population of women who continue to wear traditional garb in their everyday lives. These women, known as Cholitas, have a strong and interesting presence in this city high in the Andes Mountains. Their matriarchal culture has a strong work ethic, and many Cholitas are successful women, running businesses and adding a very special vibrancy to the city. Their dress involves layers of poufy skirts, colorful shawls and distinctive bowler hats that are usually slightly under-sized and sit cock-eyed on their heads. Variations of this dress appear in different parts of the country.
My first thought for the paint-by-number collaboration was to use an image of Cholita dress, mixed in with the variety of other types of dress in my cadre of images. After arriving early in the month, attending various openings and exploring the art scene in La Paz, I realized that the Cholita image is highly saturated there. As fascinating as this aspect of their culture is to me, as a foreigner, it is quite common there and a bit overused. I decided to save this imagery to use back home, where it would have a more significant impact.
I found an image from a trip to Germany that had what I was looking for: a good graphic presence, nice shapes and a limited palette. German culture is a strong draw in La Paz, where many of the upper class children attend a very good German school. My host family also happened to be hosting a German exchange student with whom I had been exploring the city.
I wanted to be free with materials used on the project and did not want the gallery to have to paint over things like oil pastels, so I purchased a piece of particle board that we tacked to the wall. Unprimed, it provided a nice, neutral, middle-color background for the piece. I recruited Adrian, a local college-aged artist, to help with the execution. We projected the image onto the board, traced it out in pencil, outlined the piece with black oil pastels, painted in the larger black areas and those too high to reach easily and numbered the spaces and the corresponding materials.
In all honesty, I wasn’t sure how this project would be received. This type of collaboration is not part of the art culture in Bolivia. But the piece was strong enough to function on its own even if no one chose to join in. I did an interview with the local newspaper and they were kind enough to explain what I was trying to do in a public forum. I also asked my new German friends, Luise and her friend, Lisa, to help us get the project started.
Opening night I was ready. I mixed up paint on plastic plates and set out water, brushes and oil pastels on a low shelf. Dressed in a contemporary version of a Cholita skirt, handmade for me by a local artisan, I hoped for the best. Luise, Lisa and my helper, Adrian, jumped right in, and some younger locals joined. After plenty of cerveza and cocktails made with local gin, by the end of the evening, most of the opening night attendees had lent their hands to the project.
Culturally, Bolivians tend to stretch rules. I was happy that the parameters of the project allowed for this. Participants added a background of stars, stripes, dashes, etc. Their imagery added flavor and was a welcome change to the initial vision.
I left Bolivia on June 24, and the show continued through July 2. This experience helped me connect with many individuals that I wouldn’t have met otherwise, it gave participants a sense of personal ownership in the show and it gave at least one dedicated oil paint user a first exposure to acrylic paints and a chance to ask, “Why would anyone use these?” Groups of students continued to work on the project after I left, and I’m happy that the spirit of collaboration lived on beyond my visit to this wonderful community.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mary Jo Karimnia is an artist and curator living and working in Memphis, TN. She works for Crosstown Arts and exhibits regularly in group and solo exhibitions in Memphis, the US and abroad. She has also completed several large scale public commissions. Her curatorial work is influenced by her affiliations with international artists and the artists she discovers through her grassroots community work in Memphis’ burgeoning arts scene.