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29 October 2021

Espíritu de las Casas: a Circular Bridge across Materiality and Immateriality

29 October 2021 - Written by Sofia Galli

 Artist and anthropologist Nicolás Janowski has partnered with architect Freddy Mamani to produce a multi-dimensional photographic-based work that examines how the indigenous Aymara population in South America is seeing their values experience a renaissance.

Espíritu de las Casas, or The Spirit of the Houses, is the latest collaborative project realised by artist and anthropologist Nicolás Janowski (Argentina) and architect Freddy Mamani (Bolivia), which originated in El Alto, Bolivia, in 2019. The location was chosen because of the strong sense of community that raised in the name of the local natives and the subsequent recognition of the significance of the teachings passed down by the Aymara, an indigenous population of the Andes and Altiplano region. Aymara myths position Tiwanaku, a Pre-Columbian site in western Bolivia, at the centre of the universe.

The project comprises two main forms of photographic work. On one hand, the artists re-interpreted archival images of the French archaeological expedition to Tiwanaku, which occurred in the first decade of the 20th century. Through the engagement with these archival resources, the artists dealt with the cultural appropriation of Tiwanaku’s heritage in Europe. The cultural appropriation of Tiwanaku initiated at the hands of the Inca, who began to replicate Aymara sculptures and associate the place to their own ethnic genesis. With the Spanish conquest of Tiwanaku, and especially after 1570, natives were relocated and their culture eradicated. However, by the end of the seventeenth century, a gradual re-emergence of the local values occurred. Today, the ambition to restore Aymara ancient values is strong.

On a practical level, Janowski researched the documentations stored at the Brooklyn Museum, retouched the images and printed them on cotton. From a symbolic perspective, he then brought them to El Alto to cooperate with Mamami, and such a gesture paralleled the repatriation of stolen heritage. Here, Mamami incorporated a series of sketches on the images, including floorplans of neo-Andean buildings. The latter operation stimulated continuity between the archaeological ruins of the past and contemporary architecture. Meanwhile, Janowski added Aymara words, written in blood, as a means to defend and fortify the use of the local language today.

A second group of pictures focuses on the poetic reading of Andean ontology through Janowski’s gaze and aesthetics. The implementation of double-exposure reiterates multivocality, empowering the narratives of natives. Here, temporalities and landscapes overlap and cross, whilst making space for indigenous voices to raise as standard-bearers of diversity and transformation in the name of such diversity.

The two discernible layers within the project nurture, however, a cohesive sense of circularity. This is in line with the primordial understanding of life retained by the society of El Alto, whilst also mirroring the drive of the artists who sought to establish a future-oriented bond with the ancestors.

The series opens with an image containing the words ‘qullaña o qulla’, meaning ‘to heal’. The foundation of a column is edited so as to enclose a planimetry, and next to it stands a ruler that is a few inches tall. The apparent unbalance created by the different scales is thus associated to a therapeutic journey, one that seeks to reconcile through reciprocity in multiplicity. Henceforth, the notion of diversity as an incentive for change emerges from the very beginning, and it is then elaborated by dint of the synthesis of natural and cultural elements. The assimilation of contemporary structural plans on the photographs of archaeological ruins further ties the connection subsisting between the present and the past, in a way that attempts to wed time spheres, rather than separate them.

The following Aymara words inscribed on the images are ‘to evoke’, ‘soul’, ‘being here’, ‘voluntarily accept and receive what is being offered’, ‘solidarity’, ‘remembering with the Heart’, ‘the transmutation to being a person’, and ‘wholeheartedly’. The terms adopted mirror powerful conceptual choices, wherein the dichotomy of materiality and immateriality is crucial. Intangible notions such as harmony, memory, and essence are intertwined with the idea of both physical and spiritual presence, in a path that integrates a basic unit such as the stone with the landscape hosting the stone, then with a person inhabiting the landscape, and ultimately with a person inhabiting his own self.

The photograph Chiripa (Lago Titicaca, 2020) achieves the sublimation of these stratums of analysis, providing an image of a face containing a more distant ego and positioned on an overlaying rock, thus educing the unification of the human’s multiple selves with the surrounding environment throughout its temporal transferences. 

Overall, the work of Nicolás Janowski and Freddy Mamani encourages a logic of synchronisation with environmental and social features. The project echoes the words of writer Eduardo Galeano, who inspired Janowski ever since his youth: “You could build a silver bridge from Potosí to Madrid from what was mined here – and one back with the bones of those that died taking it out”. Espíritu de las Casas represents an experimental body of work that attributes specific significance to the role of contemporary photography as a means to vindicate heritage and reflect upon cultural appropriation, thus embodying the above-mentioned (circular) bridge: one that shall not shiver in front of transmutation.

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All works © Nicolás Janowski and Freddy Mamani from Espíritu de las Casas

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Nicolás Janowski is an interdisciplinary artist who amalgamates the fields of photography, curatorship, and anthropology. He is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Follow him on Instagram.

Freddy Mamani is a Bolivian architect who represents a centrepiece in neo-Andean architecture. He is mostly associated to the city of El Alto, where he worked on so-called “cholets” to materialise the values of the indigenous Aymara population. Follow him on Instagram.

Sofia Galli is a writer, poet, and expert in heritage studies. She studied at the University of Aberdeen and at the University of Amsterdam. Her focuses include the relationship between art and politics, the theory of mobilities in exhibitions, and the examination of expositions in non-canonical spaces. Follow her on Instagram.

Written by

Sofia Galli

Reading time

6 minutes

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