A young boy sleeping on the street, an old woman begging for money-these are the people who draw Bolivian artist Rosmery Mamani Ventura's eye. At just 27 she is a rising star whose intense connection with people living on the margins of society leads to extraordinarily rich and detailed pastel portraits.
Mamani Ventura knows the world of people scraping by on the edges of Bolivia's big cities because she was one of those people. At 14 she migrated from her rural Aymara indigenous community to the city of El Alto to work as a maid, a move that brought excitement, but also struggle. Despite the hardships, that move was also the first step toward discovering her talent as an artist. Indian Country Today talked with Mamani Ventura in her studio in La Paz.
You come from a small town in the countryside- can you tell me about your life there, and how you came to the city?
Like every kid I had my sheep and cows, I went to fish in the lake, catching pejerrey and trout, and my mom went to the city to sell them. I had a totally country life. I lived there until I was 14, and then I migrated to the city. There is a common theme in the indigenous communities, that teenage girls who are 13, 14, 15, 16 years old come to the city to work as maids. And I came like so many girls from there, to work in the city as a domestic. I worked for many years in different jobs. When I came from the countryside it was the first time I ever got on a bus, and it seemed amazing. When I got to the Ceja (edge of the city) I saw the lights, I saw a plane at the airforce, and I thought 'wow!' I was discovering this great world. So I arrived and I worked as a maid, I worked as kitchen help, I worked as a nanny–everything.
And how did you begin drawing?
Teachers are so important–they changed my life. When I was in my senior year I hated visual arts because the teacher was bad, but then they changed the instructor in the middle of the year. In his first class we did a pastel portrait, and that moment was amazing. Our first homework assignment was to do portraits, and I went home excited and did two drawings of Julia Roberts that were in the paper–because the teacher said go home and look for pictures with lights and shadows and I looked through the paper and found something of Julia Roberts from a movie. I did the portrait, and it looked a little bit like her, and when I took it to the teacher he said 'It's really good,' and the other kids were all 'wow,' and I don't think I've stopped drawing since.
Was it easy to convince yourself and your family that you should pursue a career as an artist?
We come from a small community and didn't know the world of art and painting, and at first they were against it when I said I wanted to study arts. They said 'No, that's impossible, you're going to die of hunger.' And they convinced me–at first I studied accounting.
Then one night I said, this is crazy! I'm going to leave accounting, I'll turn down my scholarship, and I'll study art. One night in bed, that's how I decided. My family wanted to kill me. My father said, 'Do what you want with your life, but you don't have my support.' And that's it, I risked everything and went to art school to study painting. And I don't regret that decision, because I'm doing what I most love in life, which is paint. It completes me, and I wouldn't change it for anything–not for a lot of money– because this makes me so happy. For me this is not a job, and the fact that people pay me for it is just amazing.
My family is proud now, my mom goes to parties, weddings, and she says 'My daughter is an artist!'
What attracts you to portraits?
I like portraiture because you get to the viewer, but in a direct way you don't with a landscape or a figure which distances one much more. With a portrait it is as if that person is gazing at you and saying 'Look at me. I am telling you this, I feel this,' and that attracts me to portraiture, because it makes direct contact with the viewer. I love to draw elderly people, children, and women- I've also drawn men but not often, mostly older women.
You focus on drawing the most marginalized people in urban areas. Why?
Because I am me (laughs). I come from a place in the countryside where the people are rich. Not economically, but you have everything you need around you, and don't need money. I was saying this yesterday to my partner, that in the communities before there was barter, and I've lived like that. You didn't need money to get a product, for example I could take a product like potatoes to a community and come back with fruits like oranges–and we did all that on foot, we didn't even need transport, which of course is nice to have now. And when I got to the city I went through a lot of things, like hunger and other bad situations. Because once you come to the city, as a person from the countryside, you don't know how to get by here where everything is money, money, money. With my family we had hard times. The women who come to ask for money in the streets are people from my communities, they are my own blood, my own people, and that's why I want to draw them–because I am myself, and I see myself in them.
This interview is translated from the original Spanish and edited for length.