One day we visited the Museum of Contemporary Art here in La Paz, Bolivia, and became captivated by the works of Luis Alberto Quispe Ochoa (check out his website here). After much deliberation we finally purchased two works that spoke to us. Both were meticulously created with coca leaves and aguayo, which is the traditionally woven textile here. One depicts an indigenous woman’s face while the other is the face of an indigenous man who is wearing a chullo, the traditional knitted woollen hat with flaps to cover the ears. We regularly admire these pieces that now grace our lounge room and so many of our visitors have been motivated to buy his works after being moved by ours. They are striking in the way they depict the culture here through the connection with coca, the facial features so intimately tied to their ancestors and even the different social classes. We became eager to meet the man behind these creations and thankfully he agreed to meet us recently for coffee in Cochabamba, where he lives.
These are the works we treasure in our home…
Luis’s laid back and warm greeting made us instantly comfortable and he easily opened up to us as we asked him many questions about his work. This married father of two is a full time artist, which is very unusual here in Bolivia as he explained many people don’t take it as a serious career but more of a hobby. However, for him, art is his life work. In fact, it has been his life since he was 8 years old when his brother, who was a drawer for a national newspaper, would bring home white paper and pencils to encourage him. Later, he discovered painting and has experimented with sculpting and mixed media. His series using coca leaves is an extension of his other work but it’s not his main expression, even if a successful one that will allow him to exhibit in the US later this year.
However, success in the art world here in Bolivia does not reflect in his income. Luis explains that it’s difficult because Bolivians don’t tend to recognise being an artist as an occupation and he struggles financially but he is happy he can feed his family. Even one of his friends who owns and appreciates his art, also selling pieces in a shop in La Paz, regularly jokes that Luis is the most expensive coca seller in the country. As a result it is mostly foreigners who buy his art. We are happy we can support him and I feel warm tears of gratitude roll down my cheeks when he offers us a small work as a gift. I am humbled by the generosity and sincerity we find in Luis and I can see why his works speak to us in such a rich, honest way.
Luis explains to us that he sources the coca leaves from various regions in Bolivia, selecting them for the different sizes, colours and textures. He likes to use the lighter shades to portray women and the darkest for the miners. He buys large sacks of coca leaves that need to be sorted and carefully selected for each work. Once he has created the idea and completed the long selection process it takes him two full days to assemble the leaves for his work. Later, he paints, draws, adds aguayo and frames it.
Many of his works depict miners which is a hot topic here in Bolivia due to the terrible conditions they work under. Luis explained that a few years ago he had the opportunity to visit the mines and was shocked by the work conditions and lifestyle of the people working there, despite improvements in recent years. This has inspired his works greatly.
Luis is a very talented man and I hope one day he finds the success he deserves.