31 August 2017

Luis Cobelo's Personal Journey Towards Magic Realism

31 August 2017 - Written by Giuseppe Oliverio

Inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Luis Cobelo started a visual exploration from the little Colombian village of Aracataca in search of himself and the unexpected.

© Luis Cobelo, from the project, Zurumbático

Macondo is the imaginary village where Gabriel Garcia Marquez set his most iconic novel. There, everything is possible. Gypsies' fairs, incredible inventions, plagues, love, dreams, and the tragicomedy of the human experience give life to a world hanging in the balance between fantasy and reality. This universe inspired Venezuelan photographer Luis Cobelo, who embraced a liberating visual journey in search of that magic realism you can only find in places and people across the Latin American continent. After meeting him in person and seeing his powerful exhibition at Cortona On The Move around a month ago, I got back in touch with him to learn more.

Hola Luis! Let’s start with the project’s name:Zurumbático. What does it mean and where does it come from?

I found this word in the book One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I started reading it over and over again, around ten times, at the beginning of 2016. Motivated by the novel, I travelled to Colombia and the region of Aracataca, the little town that inspired Marquez’s novel, to produce a personal, poetic, deep and emotional body of work. Zurumbático is a Spanish word that means "person who acts silly; a ninny, stunned, slow, sombre, melancholic, enigmatic, half drunk, half mad, and with a bad or changing temper". In many ways, a lot of my personality is defined by this kind of trance status.Zurumbático gives me a complete visualisation of what should be a photographic project: broad, dynamic, fun and liberating. It has given me the possibility to create diverse platforms of expression. It is so far the best title for a project I have ever chosen, and the best thing is that you do not have to read Garcia Marquez's book to understand anything or everything. Just feel it and that’s all.

You describeZurumbáticoas an endless journey towards the iconic novelOne Hundred Years of Solitudeby Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. How did you become inspired by his work and how is your visual narrative related to his written story?

Ten years ago I went to Aracataca to work on a report about the archetypes of the women of Marquez’s book, as well as to document the iconic places that appear in the novel. Then, under the Zurumbático cloak, and to celebrate the ten years from that first visit, I went back with the intention of doing work focused on recreating particular episodes from the book. I went to the village because I knew that everything would have started there, even if I didn’t know exactly how. I just knew something would have happened. When I arrived, I made many more photos than I had planned in my head, and in a very short period of time. Inspiration burst out. I realised that I had been cooking all those images in my head during many years of travelling to similar places throughout Latin America. I had a scheme but without a real methodological structure: everything was sensorial. Sex, religion, violence, mystery, magic, fantasy, truth, lies, pain, pleasure and death: a lot of death. That's Zurumbático. It is not sad, but not even cheerful. And the best of all: you can believe that it is real or not, as it does not matter: the result will be the same in all cases. That is that.

© Luis Cobelo, from the project, Zurumbático

The first impression I have when I look at your project is that you did it firstly for yourself. Do you consider it as a sort of introspective-extrospective exploration that starts (or ends) with a personal liberation?

Every project I do is an inner search. I always do things firstly for myself. Then I connect with people, or maybe not. The starting point is curiosity: the need to know and get closer to other people's lives, regardless if they are tragic or happy. What I discover is too fascinating, even when it’s not something nice. Nothing is ever the same. From each trip and every project, I end up as if I had run a marathon of 1000 kilometres: exhausted, happy, confused, reflective, renewed, sad, annoyed, and definitely a better person. It allows me to be alive and alert. Just to be clear: I do not wish to prove anything to anyone, just to myself. What is generated from what I do as a “creator” is the best part of all: the connection I make without aiming for them. What follows a project makes everything meaningful. It's what I call "changing the microworlds."

Zurumbático begins with One Hundred Years of Solitudebut it becomes a sort of afterlife that I had never imagined it would have: my personal stories and negative life events mixed up. The most tragic and painful thing that happened was that my mother died after the trip. I had time to notice how she was leaving this life slowly and very painfully. Her departure hit me very deeply, it left me like shit. It's not something that does not happen to anyone in the world, but it happened to me and I must point that out, because it defines much of the whole process of Zurumbático. The photos were living with me while all that happened. The book, the exhibition, and the video are the result of months of mixed feelings and few hours of sleep. My life is part of what I do, which is to photograph and to choose my stories. Everything is one single entity. Zurumbático has been a liberation and a rescue. This project, like many others I have worked on, has been a good opportunity to meet people who give me their mental and physical intimacy. It makes me see how lucky I am - even if at some point in my life I was not, and maybe in the future I will not be either.

Zurumbáticois also a journey through Latin America collective imaginary. What characterises or catches your attention about your own continent? Why did you feel it was important to talk about it?

I found a simple way to explain the unexplainable. What for millions of people can be incredible, for me is not. The most normal thing in the world to me is to listen to a friend who tells me that yesterday he saw the ghost of his mother prowling around his house; or that somebody describes themself as a "miracle person" because his mother prayed so much so that he wouldn't die during a life-or-death surgery when he was a little boy - and that he’s alive because of that. I'm a person who prefers simple explanations.

I do not like to wonder about the same things over and over again. That's why I believe everything people tell me, I mean why not? I may be skeptical, but I will always listen or read the first lines of a speech as if I were living it. Another thing is that it might be a lie or unreal, which is not very relevant to me. Latin America still surprises me in many ways. Those things where I do not find a coherent explanation attract me more than those where I do. The literature of the continent defines in a precise way what I’m talking about: Borges, Rulfo Uslar Pietri, Cortázar, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, just to name a few, found reality where it may not exist. Sometimes I wonder, what is real? What has been written, what do we see, what do we imagine? On many occasions I have the sensation of being involved in a novel without an end. And I like it.

© Luis Cobelo, from the project, Zurumbático

Could Zurumbáticoalso be seen as a way to reply with a smile to all those who portray Latin America through stereotypes and clichés?

I do not think with a smile, rather with an ironic grin. I am very critical of Latin American photographic clichés. I am rather tired, not as a photographer but as an individual, of the black and white photos of the slums of Rio de Janeiro or Caracas, to cite an example, which in the end all seem to be cut with the same knife. Chewing gum for the eyes. I firmly believe in the works that last, in the photos that become works of art. Conflicts and blood are images that will always be around us, because we live in a shitty world that will always offer that. And there will be photographers to carry those tragedies to the front pages of digital and printed journals, which millions of people will see placidly from their soft couches by the light of a warm fireplace.

The ugly and the bad things will not cease to exist, but there is much more beyond what people expect from Latin America. It is the author who must take care of using that repeated cliché and transform it. Yes, there is harshness, shit, desolation and violence, but only when the photographer stops being simply a spectator and becomes a critical citizen will the work become a unique, moldable, lasting, even poetic, and eternal piece of art. Otherwise, the same images will be remembered again and again, repeated hundreds of times, and without the possibility to identify the author.

© Luis Cobelo, from the project, Zurumbático

Apart from its most iconic authors, Latin American photography has been historically closed in its own circuit. Today, instead we are living through a sort of zurumbatic liberation, with the work and ideas of many Latin-American photographers landing in North America, Europe and Asia. How do you see contemporary photography in Latin America? What do you consider interesting from its photographers and of the current Latin-American mirada?

I think that the Latin American view that photographers have in the region is definitely different. I attribute it to the perennial sensation of the lack of resources. Nothing is easy in Latin America. I trained for several years as a photographer working for newspapers, and I even specialised in red chronicle (those violent events featured on the back page of Venezuelan newspapers). Nothing that I wish to do again - elementary and schematic photojournalism does not interest me and to put it in a nice way, it bores me. That's just my opinion, and it will not change anything. That said, there are hundreds of photographers like me in Latin America who are passing or have passed through different situations of survival in which they do or did not want to be. These circumstances mark the mirada, make it more critical, spontaneous, free and less rigid. Latin America in general is much more friendly and relaxed than other places. It’s not worse or better than elsewhere, just different.

Zurumbático is already an exhibition, a book, a video and even a gif! What’s coming next?

I'm preparing a Latin American tour that will start next month and take Zurumbático’s exhibition and book to Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela and other places to be confirmed. The book will circulate through online channels, bookstores and the publisher website. And there is more Zurumbático to come. Es más ¡para siempre!


Luis Cobelo is a Venezuelan photographer who has published and exhibited internationally. Watch the full Zurumbático project here.

Giuseppe Oliverio is the founder of PHmuseum.


Zurumbático's book is available for sale at Dispara Books.


Zurumbático is also a music video directed by Luis Cobelo with music by his brother Carlos:

Written by

Giuseppe Oliverio

Reading time

12 minutes