In 1940s-era Latin America, a new genre of literature started to take off. Magic realism, initially inspired by the Surrealist art movement, started to gain major traction when Gabriel Garcia Marquez published his epic One Hundred Years of Solitude. In magical realism, men could live well into their 200s. Women could levitate above the ground, and bake emotions into their food.
Echoes of magic realism can be found today throughout the Aymara region of Bolivia. The mountainous area is home to some 2 million indigenous people who practice a peculiar blend of Roman Catholicism (a remnant of Spanish colonization), and Aymara mythology, which includes the worship of Pachamama(“Mother Earth”).
These people, and the fantastically ornate costumes and garb they wear in honor of their mythology, are the subject of Waska Tatay, a book by Swiss photographer Thomas Rousset and designer Rapaël Verona.
Part ethnography, part picture-book fairy tale, Waska Tatay catalogues three months that Rousset and Verona spent in Bolivia. Verona had lived there before, and when he returned to Switzerland he regaled Verona with stories about the country’s unique spiritual culture.
The pair decided to visit the Altiplano region of the country together, to study and photograph the ways Bolivians keep their rituals alive today. Verona’s wife is Bolivian, and brokered their relationship with many of the subjects. The duo sat with her father, for example, and learned about how the Aymara stay up all night on Tuesdays and Fridays.
On those days humans are more susceptible to evil spirits, so it’s tradition to stay awake, smoking Maitos (handmade cigarettes). When smoke is exhaled, the evil spirits get pushed away.
The most decadently costumed people in Waska Tatay are Orureños, from Oruro, where the annual carnival is held. Rousset and Verona visited the artisan neighborhood in town where professionals have been making these costumes from metal, repainting them for years on end.
Each costume honors a spirit or is an expression of a folk legend. The Jukumari bears for instance, fought against the plagues brought on by Wari, a feared God. The bears ornate masks are painted with plague imagery, like snakes, insects, and ants.
Rather than just photograph the costumes and the iconography like photojournalists, Rousset and Verona decided to stage some of the photos and create a mise en scène directly inspired by magical realism. Costumed characters aren’t always in parades or at ceremonies; they’re sitting at a drafting table, bent over work supplies.
Two women perch on a desk near modern appliances, like televisions. Another worshiper sits on a naked mattress, and a plastic bottle beverage sits on the floor.
“We decided to mix two languages: one very staged and those that are very snapshot,” Verona says. “We mixed a lot to create ambiguity for the reader, in knowing what’s real and what’s fiction.”
They also slyly threaded pieces of technology into the photos, thus altering the meaning of “magic realism” for a modern day audience. One picture shows a girl standing in a tree, wearing an outfit of leaves. She’s holding a cellphone up to her ear. Communication with spirits is a common part of Aymara worship, even today.
“You could see that the girl is a witch, trying to talk with divinities or evils,” Verona says, “but her voice to God is replaced by a cell phone.”