Last Tuesday I was invited to dinner at the Chelsea Arts Club with a group of friends. I love the Chelsea Arts Club and as I’m not a member it’s always a treat to be invited by someone who is. This particular occasion was extra special because Bolivian artist Gaston Ugalde was joining us. I’d heard more about Ugalde the man than I knew about his art. Known as the “Andy Warhol of the Andes” and the “enfant terrible” of the Bolivian art scene, he’d certainly tweaked my curiosity and I just knew I was going to like him. Before arriving at the CAC for pre-dinner drinks, I checked out his website. It struck me as no big deal but I found his photographic series of the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt desert in southwest Bolivia – breathtakingly beautiful, imaginative and inspiring, so much so that I now have a really strong desire to go there. I also enjoyed reading this article in ArtPulse magazine by Claire Breukel who gives great background info on Bolivian culture and puts his work in a socio-economic context. As I found out, initially appearing simple and amusing, Ugalde’s art expresses very in-depth and complicated situations.
Take for example his series of collages made from coca leaves including portraits of Latin American politicians such as the current president’s Evo Morales, (commissioned by the president, it now hangs in the presidential palace) the Coco Cola sign, American flag and dollar and maps of North and South America. On one hand, coca leaves are considered cultural patrimony in Bolivia and have been used for centuries by indigenous tribes for their medicinal powers, brewed as tea, chewed or used in religious rituals. The artist uses them often in spiritual rituals, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales used to produce them, they’re part of the fabric of Bolivian life. Once refined however, they become the raw material of cocaine giving Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in South America, a thriving drug trade. It’s not just in Bolivia of course, it’s the reality for all of South America as Ugalde suggests in South of the Border and as Breukel comments, ‘a continent in the midst of financial crisis, unified by its ability to thrive on the global market through its lucrative drug trade.’
Returning to Chelsea, there’s a few reasons why I enjoy going to the CAC: 1) there’s no pounding music so you don’t have to shout to be heard, 2) there’s lots of comfy armchairs, and 3) the general atmosphere is conducive to all levels of eccentricity from full blown to just a faint possibility of, so falling somewhere along that richter scale, I feel very relaxed there.
It was just coming up to 8 PM when I buzzed on the intercom and waited for the door to click open. Inside, I found le gang drinking wine by the billiards table. Someone pointed out Gaston and Roberto Calzadilla the Ambassador of Bolivia to the UK. They were both deep in conversation so I nestled into an armchair and chit chatted with friends as our host refilled our wine glasses.
The first thing I noticed about Gaston when he sat down beside us was that he was wearing sunglasses which were covered by his long shaggy hair so I couldn’t see his eyes. Later, after dinner (we ate in the heated marquee outside where I sneaked in this photo – you’re not allowed take photos at the CAC) he described himself as a hippy, inspired by the likes of Jack Kerouac and the beat generation writers and that these days he prefers using ayahuasca as opposed to coca leaves in spiritual rituals. There’s no doubt he’s a free spirit in that ‘crazy jazz’ Kerouac way but I think he’s much more than that. He came across as sincere, playful and very grounded. When I asked him if he felt Bolivian, the answer was an resounding YES. Of course he does – his strong sense of identity is clearly rooted in his work. Bit of a DUH question I put down to too much wine and too little knowledge about his art at least at that point.
Since then I’ve done a bit more research. He was born in La Paz in 1946. Since 1972 he’s had 81 solo-shows and over 160 collective exhibitions, been invited to the Venice Biennale twice – 2001 and 2009 – and in 2002 received the prestigious Konex Award from the Konex Foundation, one of Argentina’s leading cultural organisations. He has a studio just outside the centre of La Paz in the bohemian neighborhood of Sopocachi and I believe he’s represented by his son who is based in Florida.
The following Thursday, we all trotted down to “The International Exhibition of Andean Quinoa” at Bolivar Hall in the centre of London where the Bolivian Embassy hosted an evening of talks, traditional music, food and wine. It’s a collaborative project between Gaston whose art is on show and as far as I understand, the Bolivian government to promote Quinoa which has been grown in the Andes for over 7,000 years but only recently recognised as a superfood. In fact the UN proclaimed 2013 the international year of Quinoa and since then its price has sky rocketed. Could this be Bolivia’s answer towards a healthy financial solution? It’s a whole other story and there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.
The hall was so packed it was hard to see Gaston’s work but I did manage to get a photo with him and one of his creations as you can see at the top of this post. He even lifted his sunglasses and gave me a twinkle of his eye. Goody bags were handed out on the way out. I was dead chuffed to find mine included recipe cards using Quinoa as I’m a big fan of the stuff.
I knew I was going to like Gaston Ugalde, in fact I’d go as far as saying he’s a kindred spirit but I can imagine that most people who meet him feel the same way – it’s the free spirit energy. In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work in real life and a trip to Bolivia is surely on the cards.