Marisol Mendez, Madre

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Setanta Books (here). Softcover with French flaps, 25×17 cm, with hand-sewn binding, 84 pages, with 44 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes texts by Elisa Medde (English) and Cecilia Pavón (Spanish). In an edition of 250 signed /numbered copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: A period of living abroad can often have a resetting effect for an artist, like a palate cleanser between the courses of a long meal. After being away for a number of years and making a life elsewhere, an artist might return to his or her homeland, only to find that many of the nuances and complexities of life there that he or she once overlooked or disregarded are now suddenly altogether strange or confusing. This process of re-seeing (or re-imagining) a home country can be unsettling, but a fresh eyes perspective can also be freeing, providing a catalyst for new thinking about a place that was assumed to be comfortable and understood.

For the Bolivian photographer Marisol Mendez, her interlude abroad took the form of several years living in Argentina and the United Kingdom, before her return to Bolivia in 2019. What she most noticed when she got back was how the representation of women (and women’s roles) in her country was still so strict and stifling. In contrast to a broader world where progress was being made on many fronts, particularly via an evolving combination of global feminism, civil rights, LGBTQ awareness, Indigenous rights, and other forms of female freedom and liberation, Bolivia seemed stuck in the past. The limiting gaze of patriarchy was alive and well, supported by the legacies of European colonialism and ethnocentrism.

Mendez’s photobook Madre is a direct response to her perception of that gaze, and an effort to expand the Bolivian notion of womanhood to include more than just the disempowering “good girl”/”bad girl” duality of the Virgin Mary/Mary Magdalene provided by Christianity and Catholicism. Contemporary Bolivian culture also includes strains of pre-Colombian spirituality and Andean folklore, so belief systems (and interpretations of those ideals) are constantly being layered and merged together, creating opportunities for more complex (and powerful) female symbols, identities, and iconographies.

Madre imaginatively captures some of that richness and diversity of female experience, with Mendez walking a shifting line between fact and fiction in her collaboratively staged portraits. Apparently Mendez worked closely with her sitters to craft the visions she presents in Madre, with costumes, props, and settings (or the lack thereof in a nude or two) all carefully coordinated to reflect the subject’s desired persona. In nearly every image, the woman looks directly at the camera, her gaze active, confident, and aware, in some cases with a degree of confrontation or challenge, quietly destroying any idea that she is somehow passive or not in control of her personal presentation.

In the page turns of Madre, we are introduced to a wide range of Bolivian women, with age, race, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and cultural heritage all presented as component parts of female identity. Many of Mendez’s portraits are amplified by notable details: thick long hair, bowler hats (worn by Aymara and Quechua women), a horned mask, traditional embroidered skirts, Catholic iconography (like angel wings, halos, and crowns), a quinceañera dress and tiara, a beauty pageant sash (worn by a transwoman), and even a floral headdress paired with a cocked gun. And a few images are further enhanced by small light flares and processing imperfections that bring a sense of serendipitous magic to the proceedings, particularly when the areas of light create the appearance of inexplicable tears or bursts of flame.

The flow of Madre interleaves the portraits with still lifes and other symbolic images, as well as several images of women and girls from the artist’s own family albums. The symbolism is often relatively straightforward, in terms of its female associations, including caves and openings in the landscape, religious statues with weeping eyes, a rotting apple, a cracked egg, various floral specimens, a broken swan, a selection of leftover angels and plastic wrapped saints, and one ghostly shadow cast across a wall. The family pictures are printed on textured paper and glued into the photobook, giving them more object quality; but they too wrestle with female personas and roles, from wedding photos to posed Catholic school setups. Together, these supporting images provide further context for Mendez’s portraits, connecting them to the artist’s own past and seeing different forms of female identity embodied in her everyday surroundings.

What’s memorable about Madre is that on one hand it is a celebration of female diversity, but on the other, it is a kind of protest book, offering resistance to the narrow definitions of acceptable womanhood, in Bolivia and elsewhere. It is this tense atmosphere of resistance that gives the book its charge and energy, simultaneously amplifying and subverting the idea of “mother”.

Collector’s POV: Marisol Mendez does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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