On a windowless wall in South Philadelphia, mountains rise, condors soar, and eagles scream in an electric cacophony of color, all part of the vision of Roberto Mamani Mamani, an Indigenous mural artist of Aymara heritage from Cochabamba, Bolivia. The mural dedication on Sept. 28, titled “Mallkuanka—Vuelo Surnorte De Colors,” or the “South-North flight of colors,” was the culmination of Mamani Mamani’s month in Philadelphia as a visiting artist at the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies (CLALS).
“Toda, toda la energía de los Andes, de la Pachamama a ustedes,” Mamani Mamani said to the crowd, referencing the Andean Mother Earth spirit Pachamama. “All of the energy of the Andes and of Pachamama to you,” said Jasmine Guaillasaca Quizhpi, a second-year student from Irvington, New Jersey, majoring in Latin American studies and history. She and Dayanna Salas, a fourth-year international relations major and Latin American and Latinx studies minor from Chicago, interpreted Mamani Mamani’s speech for the audience.
Catherine Bartch, associate director of CLALS, said that the mural conveys the power of people, nature, and animals living in harmony with one another and giving back to Mother Earth in a depiction of buen vivir, or good living. She observed that in contrast to competition, accumulation, and extractivism, the symbols in the mural show a way of nurturing one another and the world.
“These ideas obviously transcend borders and resonate everywhere,” Bartch said. “It is a mirror that symbolizes cultural diplomacy, recognizing the Americas and the importance of Philadelphia as a global city.”
Mamani Mamani said he wanted his art to showcase the Andean cosmovisión, or worldview, while weaving together both the landscapes of Bolivia and Philadelphia. “This is art without an entrance fee, without tickets,” he said via interpretation.
“I hope that all the people who pass by here understand the colors, the message, the symbol of what it means,” Mamani Mamani said. “I want them to enjoy; I want them to understand.”
“There is a pretty profound and explicit celebration of Indigenous values, affects, and sensations on display,” said Logan Li, a second-year student from Miami studying intellectual history with a minor in art history, who attended the mural’s dedication.
“It’s a lot of eye candy,” said Ibi Padrón Venegas, an assistant at Mural Arts Philadelphia. For a month and change, Padrón Venegas worked on the painting.
Traveling from North Philadelphia where they were working on a climate-justice mural, Padrón Venegas would take the subway to 2100 Washington Ave., volunteering their time to continue painting, often late into the night, on the Mamani Mamani mural, located on a side wall of the Philadelphia Animal Specialty and Emergency hospital.
The painting was done with brushwork, using outdoor acrylic paint, Padrón Venegas says. A sketch was done, but the color was added freehand except for the middle figure of Pachamama, which was painted on parachute cloth and glued to the brick, they said. A scaffolding and a lift helped move artists up and down along the wall.
Mamani Mamani’s three sons and two assistants also helped, everyone speaking in Spanish. “It was like a family,” says Padrón Venegas, who was born in Mexico City and raised in Philadelphia. “I don’t have a lot of friends that speak Spanish.”
Padrón Venegas painted a group of figures in the mural’s center, as well as some of the birds. Throughout the process, Mamani Mamani offered a lot of freedom, Padrón Venegas says. “He would just say, ‘Whatever color you want here, go.’”
Generosity and reciprocity are an integral part of Indigeneity, said Guaillasaca Quizhpi at the mural’s dedication. “I’m passionate about giving back to the community and advocating for immigration and Indigenous people in general. It was nice to talk about this idea of reciprocity and being able to not just take from any source or space that you’re participating in but also to give back.
“I feel like because I’ve taken so much, whether that’s like education, or just taking advantage of opportunities that have been offered to me, that I have to give back and provide other opportunities for other people,” she said.
During his residency, Mamani Mamani hosted a community paint day at the mural site and gave an artist’s talk and a workshop at Charles Addams Fine Arts Hall.
At the workshop, Mamani Mamani described his process. He asked participants to name their favorite colors and added them to the canvas, painting a face with mountains for shoulders and rivers as tears.
“It’s like cooking,” he said. “If you add pepper and salt, you will have more success. The most important thing to add is the energy from all of us.
“I add orange,” he said, dipping his brush in the palette to paint a nose in the V-shape of a flying bird. “Without trepidation, without fear—that which has to come out, will come out.”
Mamani Mamani worked quickly and decisively, reshaping the figure’s hat, adding a sun. “I am playing with colors and forms,” he said. “Some people will ask me, ‘Why do you paint horses blue?’ I always work in dualities.”
“People will ask me, ‘How is Mamani Mamani?’ In the morning, I am a condor. In midday, a puma. In the night, a serpent. Always, I am observing,” he said.
Li attended the workshop and said that, with the juxtaposition of bright colors and fantastical elements, Mamani Mamani’s work could be read as Surrealism, in the way that literary works from Latin America can be read as magical realism.
“But these are actual life practices, actual ways of being in the world,” Li said. “More than an artistic movement, it’s a way of life.”
Reflecting on the overall experience, Guaillasaca Quizhpi says speaking with Mamani Mamani and seeing the influence of Indigenous ideology, tradition and heritage was an inspiration for her life and future career. “I can tie in my indigeneity with whatever I’m passionate about,” she says.
Roberto Mamani Mamani’s mural and residency were funded by Mural Arts, the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation, and the Penn-Mellon Just Futures Dispossessions in the Americas.