08 September 2021
08 September 2021 - Written by Lucia De Stefani
In her work Madre, Bolivian photographer Marisol Mendez redeems Bolivian women from all walks of life, chronicling their battles and abuses, but also celebrating their pride and resilience.
What led Marisol Mendez to begin her monumental work Madre is Bolivian women's distorted, unjust representation—a whitewashed depiction mainly drawn by local media that excluded the complexity and diversity of women's identity in Bolivia.
Madre corrects that view. The book offers portraits that respect the nuances of a community of women Mendez knows so well. It shows, at last, the multiplicity that composes Bolivian feminine societal frame: strong, determined, independent women. These women have been left out of the standard narrative perpetuated by the media. A narrative of weaker, defenseless women subjugated to stronger men. A narrative dominated by an ingrained machismo culture that still permeates Latino society, leaving women muted and underrepresented.
"These women that we saw in the magazines and in the newspapers were always a cookie-cut version of femininity," Mendez says. "What a woman should be or what a woman is, it's such an ample spectrum, and I wanted that to be seen."
Madre condemns this outdated approach while testifying the slow but inexorable shift Bolivian society is going through when it comes to shared canons of beauty, women's roles, and representation. "We're fighting for women's voices to be heard cause we're women to be seen," Mendez says.
Although the country's richness comes from its very own diversity, there is still a "historical" sense of inequality in Bolivia, an embedded racism, as Mendez explains, that especially affects Mestizo women, that is, women from mixed ancestry with a white European and indigenous background.
To fight that, Madre started with a series of portraits showing Bolivian women in all their complexity, displaying strength, resilience, candor, warmth. Archival images were also introduced into the project— to be a link between the present and the past: "It was important to see not only where we are, as women today, the place that we have in society, but also understand where we came from."
The women Mendez met are from all walks of life. They come from different economic backgrounds, from different places—but they all have something in common: They had experienced some form of discrimination, belittling, machismo. "That's pretty difficult to escape living here," Mendez says, "it is still very alive in my country."
But what Mendez realized by talking and photographing these women was the strength and determination that guide them, despite the difficult circumstances they’ve endured.
And even though many of them had experienced forms of violence, from physical and psychological harassment to rape, none considers themselves victims. "To me it was very important to represent these women not [as] victims, but also as real heroes." All of them spoke about their experiences as something that tried them, but also helped them become stronger, a resilience that emanates from Mendez's photographs. In the portraits, the women usually look straight into the camera. No one is smiling, rather they all share a defiant look of challenge and pride.
What guided Mendez during the portrait sessions was the idea of the leading figures of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, two different archetypes that encapsulate women in all their complexity and duality, comprising at times opposite poles of one spectrum—the idea of the woman as a virgin or as a prostitute.
During the photography session, Mendez invited them to choose which of these two feminine figures would best represent them, giving them control over their narrative and persona.
To reinforce her message, along with the Christian religious tradition, Mendez incorporates Bolivian folklore into her work.
Against the constraints of a masculine society, she offers an opposing, liberating view and a new possibility, represented by the "China Supay": In Bolivian folklore, the China Supay is the jealous lover of "El Tío", the Lord of the Underworld. Like Mary Magdalene, she incarnates temptation, she's irreverent, seductive, and sinful.
Wearing the mask of a bull with wide, watery eyes, and gilded necklaces adorning her naked breasts and torso, she is a woman who's comfortable in her sexuality and doesn't apologize for it. She is free from the stigma that permeates Bolivian society. "I wanted her to be completely seductive, completely sexual without being embarrassed about it. I wanted her to feel very powerful," Mendez says.
From the traditional Waka Thuqhuri dance, Mendez borrows another symbolic outfit where a woman wears a bull all around her body. The image satirizes bullfighting and parodies the Spanish conquistadors. Similarly, this outfit epitomizes masculinity, but in Mendez's recreation, it is used to taunt machismo, depriving men of masculine energy and returning it to women. "Women can also be very masculine, women can emanate all this energy… And that doesn't mean that they are less of a woman," Mendez says.
"It's an idea of women that it's very unique, very old and extreme, because you're either this figure of purity, the mother, such as the Virgin Mary… And you have this darker [side], which is very masculine."
Marisol also embarks in representing the condition of women who are left alone.
The husbands, defeated by their own weaknesses, such as addiction or alcoholism, or by the inability to fulfill their marital role, often abandon the household, leaving the women alone, to care for the children, the home, and themselves. Marisol shows this condition, common to many Bolivian households, by taking the man literally out of the picture: the face of the groom, standing next to his wife in their first wedding photo, is erased. "You have this man that on a wedding day promises to be by your side… and [then] it feels as he dies and suddenly he's absent. [But] he's absent from the beginning," Marisol points out.
Overall, Madre turns images into a universal language to describe Bolivian women's experiences and difficulties and ultimately the uncompromising strength they all possess and share. Madre becomes a potent vector for these stories. A potent sorority unites these women because as stories are told and shared, it's soon evident that "we have all gone through this."
"We will find that there are so many experiences and things that are going on [for all] of us, even though we're living in very different places," Marisol says. "The project gave me the opportunity to reflect about them, to reflect about who I am in relation to where I come from, who I want to become.”
"These women gave me a lot of strength," she continues, "they are amazing and powerful despite the very difficult circumstances they're living and that's very inspiring to me."
All photos © Marisol Mendez, from the series Madre
Marisol Mendez is a Bolivian photographer. She uses her camera to study the tension between truth and fiction, the tight relationship between what a photograph creates and the (sur)real it comes from. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.
Lucia De Stefani is a writer focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives in New York. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.
This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.