Concealed Authoritarianism: Tiwanaku and Its Times in Bolivian Contemporary Art

Through the work of the artists Andrés Pereira and Roberto Valcárcel, the Professor Valeria Paz unfolds the constructs around the indigenous legacy which has founded cultural policies in Bolivia, and which has perpetuated a hegemonic understanding within art history that reflects not only in the public space but also in the cultural institutions of the country.

The 29-story building called La Casa Grande del Pueblo [The House of the People] was inaugurated in 2018 and houses the presidential office of the Bolivian President Evo Morales. The building sits near the city’s main square (formerly known as the Plaza Mayor [Great Plaza] in the historic center of La Paz. The inauguration of the La Casa Grande del Pueblo has suggestive similarities with an equally controversial, symbolic, and foundational event that occurred in 1932, when the Bennett Monolith [1] was transferred from the archaeological site/town of Tiwanaku [2] to the city of La Paz.

The construction of La Casa Grande del Pueblo—a giant among republican-era buildings—undoubtedly sought to consolidate the authority of the mandate of Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, and his decolonization project. The new and monumental presidential office—built on the land previously occupied by republican-era buildings—gives the impression of being an illustration of the new Constitution [3] of the Evo Morales government, the building leaves “in the past the colonial State, and the republican and neoliberal eras.” The Bennett Monolith was transferred to La Paz at a time when the city was taking a position as the economic, commercial, and political center of the country.[4] During this period, archaeological excavations were promoted and the Museo de Tihuanaco was established in La Paz. The seven-meter-high monolith was placed in the middle of the Paseo El Prado (La Paz’s main boulevard), it was a monumental vestige of the country’s aboriginal past. This move inscribed indigenous legacy into the city. Back then, the neighbors questioned the transfer of the monolith to the city, arguing that it broke the harmony of its recently acquired modern physiognomy, which had been ironically achieved through the destruction of colonial buildings.[5] In this sense, the construction of La Casa Grande del Pueblo was constituted in the continuation of a national narrative of progress, of a vision of development that resonates with the 1910 call by the influential intellectual Franz Tamayo to “[…] free the last battle of independence and definitively destroy the Spanish spectrum that still dominates our history.[6] ” Tamayo suggested that the Indian is an essential component of the national character [7]. From the elimination of the colonial past to the insertion of the legacy of indigenous people, this logic of progress, the so-called “process of change” and of “living well” in practice, unfortunately translates into extractive and colonialist actions. These actions are emblematic in the construction of a highway through a protected indigenous territory [8] and the state’s promotion of Bolivia as the venue for the Dakar Rally [9] between 2014 and 2018.

Other key elements in this narrative of progress were the somewhat fanciful ideas of the leading proponent for the transfer of the monolith to the city. The archeologist Arthur Posnansky postulated Tiwanaku as a superior “race” and as the origin of the American man.[10] In the racism implicit in his theories, there was a link with the ideas of the “scientists” who sustained the Nazi ideology. In the 1920s, in an effort to procure evidence to validate the fabulous theory of the universe by Hanns Hörbiger, entitled Glacial Cosmogony, Posnansky exchanged correspondence with the novelist and architect Edmund Kiss, who arrived in Bolivia in 1928.[11] According to Hörbiger, the remains of Atlantis were in the Andean territory. [12] Encouraged by the Posnansky’s dating of Tiwanaku and by his particular interpretation of the symbols of the Puerta del Sol, Kiss confirmed his theory that the Tiwanakotas (people from Tiwanaku) were Atlanteans and therefore a Nordic race.[13] On his return to Germany, Kiss was directly linked to the Nazi regime, in particular with Heinrich Himmler, an enthusiastic reader of his novels. Although in his book, Posnansky distances himself from the farfetched theories of Hans Günther, the fundamental basis of Hitler’s ideology, in his general vision, and his use of language in particular, there is evidence of the influence of Nazi ideas.[14] In 1943, he referred to the builders of Tiwanaku as the Kholla race, and as Fuehrer. [15]

In the following decades, Tiwanaku becamse internalized in the Bolivian imaginary as an unofficial (since it was not proclaimed by the state) national symbol.

 All these ideas contributed to the configuration of the modern city of La Paz. The city has many aesthetics and monuments in the style of Tiwanaku, for example the replica of the semi-subterranean temple of Tiwanaku (designed by Posnansky) where the Bennett Monolith was eventually relocated to or the important buildings designed in a Neo Tiwanaku style.[16] Some other examples are the old stadium, the current Museo de Arqueología, Posnansky’s house, and the Mono-block of the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (the first modern building in the city). In the following decades, Tiwanaku becamse internalized in the Bolivian imaginary as an unofficial (since it was not proclaimed by the state) national symbol.[17] Few artists have questioned its legitimazing function.

Roberto Valcárcel is one of the artists who has questioned the authoritarian component of pre-Hispanic symbols that reinforce an essentialist national identity.[18] Even today, his questions are up-to-date with the authoritarian features of the renewed nationalism of the Bolivian government, which is manifested in the persecution and intimidation of opponents and the press, as well as in the macho and homophobic language of the president, and in regional and global conjunction with leaders who show similar attitudes. To examine this topic, I take as a starting point the creative strategies and criticism underlying Valcárcel’s work from 1982, Puerta del Sol. This work subverts the mythification of Tiwanaku. In the second section, the work of Andrés Pereira examines these subjects in contemporary art in the present.

Tiwanaku in series

In Puerta del Sol, Roberto Valcárcel offers clues that reveal the invisible mandates that the little-questioned reiteration of Tiwanaku entails in the cultural sphere. Puerta del Sol dismantles, through a game of contrasting senses, the aura [19] and authority of the Puerta del Sol of Tiwanaku. It does so by subverting the metaphysical and artistic characteristics attributed to this stone portal. In the work, the five giant, practically identical Puertas del Sol made from corrugated cardboard, suggest a serial production and function as a metaphor reiterating Tiwanaku as an unofficial symbol of the nation. In addressing the technical solution to the problem of how to reproduce this motif effectively, in a gallery it was simple. The shape of the door is suggested through the painting of the negative space (the openings) with white, the sun that supposedly passes through it, with spray paint, in which texts handwritten with black markers are added to the sides of the door.[20] This technical simplicity “solves” and demystifies the trade and technology necessary to create and transport this seven-ton carved stone. In doing so, the artist mocks Posnansky’s theory that native people did not build Tiwanaku. The texts on the walls have a “museographic” function, as they imitate the language of the technical files of archeology and art museums from the eighties. Likewise, they operate, likewise, as a record of the creative process, and, in that way, they work as instructions to reproduce the work, but also to make replicas of the same door that is presented to scale and almost the same size. With this gesture, the obsession with technique and its secrets would, without a doubt, be contradicted. As well, it ex- poses the myths of the artist as a treasured local genius, and of the mystical status assigned to Tiwanaku. The latter is referred to in the “information panel” at the entrance of the exhibition in which there are five types of postcards from the Puerta del Sol reiterating the acquired sensation that the site has as a consumer object.[21]

In Puerta del Sol, there is an underlying critique of the programmatic and prescriptive Bolivia Biennale, held a year before. Its arbitrary attribution of Tiwanaku as anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist connotates the addition of one more fiction to the legends about Tiwanaku. In the same way, in Valcárcel’s Puerta del Sol, there is a nod to the precepts of indigenismo, since the work was conceived in the Salón Cecilio Guzmán de Rojas, a gallery devoted to the masters of Bolivian art. The gallery’s name, Cecilio Guzmán de Rojas, comes from the leader of the indigenist pictorial movement, who proclaimed Tiwanaku as the origin of his art and his movement as a mandate dictated by the leadership of the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes.

Archaceologies of the present

In the exhibition, Rayo purita (2018), at Crisis gallery in Lima, Peru, Andrés Pereira investigates the paraphernalia of the mythical apparatus of the present. He is giving an account of the fictional, festive, metaphysical, and epistemological dimension of the political decolonization process that the current Bolivian government is carrying out. These apocryphal artifacts created by Pereira are also inspired by the fantastic and metaphysical dimension of certain myths about Tiwanaku.[22] Such as the nineteenth-century idea that the origin of humanity was Tiwanaku, or the staging of the singular pilgrimage to the archaeological site organized by the Creole mestizo elite, which took place during the celebration of the Semana Indianista in 1931.[23]

The current use of the Tiwanaku site as a setting for official government events helps to update its mythical dimension. Although Evo Morales is not the first politician to establish a connection with Tiwanaku, he is the only one who’s taken it to a spectacular magnitude. In the television transmissions of his three presidential possessions at Tiwanaku, we “witnessed” Evo Morales in clothes inspired by Tiwanaku culture (as well as the yatiris—Aymara priests—who accompanied him). Then again, in the media frenzy that surrounded the celebration of the vice president’s wedding at the same archaeological site.[24]

With a gesture that imitates an archaeologist, Andrés Pereira stops at the design of the costumes and ad hoc props of these renewed forms for official acts (instrumental in the era of social networks) and with them comically creates in Posible poncho para yatiri del Estado (2017). The use of remnants of Tarabuco textiles for this garment used in the indigenous dance of Pujllay, which recreates the confrontation between Indians and Spaniards, is intentionally consistent with the decolonizing discourse of the state.

In his Boceto para un display platónico, inspired by the ways of exposing and folklorizing the indigenous at the Museo de Tihuanaco, as well as the pseudo-scientific interpretations around Tiwanaku. He shows the objects found in an “archaeological” recovery mission—in a car boot sales in London: an indigenous textile is used as background and support of an exhibition (a small museum) comprising an Egyptian sphinx, an Andean zampoña, an African head, among other objects imitate the exhibition and cataloging tasks carried out by the founders of the Museo Nacional, constituted by pieces from Tiwanaku and native instruments.[25] In Boceto para un display platónico, Pereira investigates and exhibits the remnants of the nineteenth-century archaeological gaze on London’s current population. The “inevitable” reification and exoticization of the other in this work is materialized in the “agency” that he gives to the other in Venganza de los representados, a disturbing and comical head made with souvenir rug (textile from the Paris International Exhibition of 1931), arrows from New Guinea, and prosthetic eyes.

The museum and art as mythical devices are also referred to in Metafísica en los Andes: Un yatiri va a la costa. It is an unusual recreation of an emblematic painting from Bolivian art history: El yatiri by Arturo Borda. In Metafísica en los Andes, he replicates the way of hanging objects in archeology museums, emphasizing the de- contextualization and the changes in the meanings of the objects on display, as well as a fondness for the supernatural in Bolivian art and culture.

The works of Valcárcel and Pereira give us guidelines to understand how the legacy of native people are used for political and cultural legitimacy. These works also make us aware of how in the history of art, in the city, in archeology, in museums, and in the paraphernalia of the spectacle, are inscribed invisible authoritarian attitudes. In both works, humor, fiction, and imagination are key strategies to imagine counter-narratives to the official history. They remind us that it is necessary to sharpen our gaze and to not lower our guard.


  1. Named after the archaeologist Wendell C. Bennett.

  2. Tiwanaku was a political and religious center of the region near Lake Titicaca. It is also the name of the present-day town located next to the site. The spelling of Tiwanaku has changed over the years. In this article, I use the current spelling and only use the other versions when it comes to proper names.

  3. Constitución Política del Estado, February 7, 2009. <www.oas.org/ dil/esp/Constitucion_Bolivia.pdf>. [Accessed January 27, 2019].

  4. This period (between 1900 and 1930) of consolidation of La Paz as the seat of government and insertion of Tiwanaku as an unofficial national symbol is a consequence of the victory of the La Paz people in the Federal War of 1898–1899. The victory was achieved thanks to the alliance established between the Liberals and the indigenous followers of Pablo Zárate Willca, who was captured by his own allies once the war was over in response to his proposal of an indigenous government in Peñas.

  5. It should be noted that there were other arguments about the transfer of the Bennett Monolith, of different kinds and from different sectors of society. For more information, see Carmen Beatriz Loza, “Una ‘fiera de piedra’ Tiwanaku, fallido símbolo de la nación boliviana” en Estudios atacameños, 2008, n.36, pp.93–115.

  6. Franz Tamayo, “Creación de la pedagogía nacional (1910)” in El debate sobre la Pedagogía Nacional de 1910 (La Paz: Colección Pedagógica Plurinacional, Ministerio de Educación, 2014) p. 122.

  7. Javier Sanjinés, El espejismo del mestizaje, La Paz: Embajada de Francia, IFEA Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos y Fundación PIEB, 2005, p. 54.

  8. The government is building a highway that will divide the Indigenous Territory and the Parque Nacional Isiboro Securé into two parts, an unconstitutional action that violates the law of the rights of Mother Earth and ignores the agreements reached by indigenous peoples. Protesters marched from the Indigenous Territory to the city of La Paz, a march that took two months.

  9. The Dakar Rally is an annual long distance off-road car race that takes place over several days and has been criticized for its environmental and social impact.

  10. Arthur Posnansky, Tihuanacu, la cuna del hombre americano (Nueva York: Editor J.J. Agustin, 1943).

  11. Julio Arrieta, “Un arqueólogo nazi en Tiwanaku”, El Correo (31 de mayo de 2013). . [Accessed January 2nd, 2019].

  12. Graham E.L. Holton, Archaeological Racism: Hans Hörbiger, Arthur Posnansky, Edmund Kiss and the Ahnenerbe Expedition to Tiwanaku, Bolivia, La Trobe University, Bundoora.

  13. íbid.

  14. Arthur Posnansky, Tihuanacu, la cuna del hombre americano (New York: Editor J.J. Agustin, 1943).

  15. Arthur Posnansky. “Conferencia pronunciada por el vicepresidente Prof. Ing. Arthur Posnansky, con ocasión del cincuentenario de la fundación de la ‘Sociedad Geográfica de La Paz’: Los dos tipos fundamentales de razas en la América del Sur, y las causas de su alta cultura material” in Boletín de la Sociedad Geográfica de La Paz, (La Paz: Editorial Voluntad, 1941).

  16. A short time later, the Bennet Monolith was transferred to the semi-subterranean Temple built in the neighborhood of Miraflores, and then, in the twenty-first century, it was returned to the archaeological site of Tiwanaku but, this time,
    to the museum.

  17. The teaching of national symbols is and has traditionally been part of the national educational program. Although these were revised in the new constitution proclaimed by the government of Evo Morales, it does not include any symbol before the republic. Thus, it is provided in the Political Constitution of the state (February 7, 2009), that “The symbols of the State are the red, yellow and green tricolor flag; the Bolivian anthem; the coat of arms; the wiphala; the rosette; the flower of the kantuta and the flower of the patujú.”

  18. For more information about how Valcárcel perceives, reflects and addresses these issues in his work, see the fifth chapter of my doctoral thesis: Valeria Paz Moscoso. Roberto Valcárcel: Renaming Repression and Rehearsing Liberation in Contemporary Bolivian Art. Colchester, University of Essex, 2016, pp. 215–259.

  19. I use the meaning of aura proposed by Walter Benjamin in La obra de arte en la época de su reproductibilidad técnica, México, D.F.: Editorial Itaca, 2003, p 13. . [Accessed January 31, 2019].

  20. In those years the misconception was spread, thanks to the publication of a photo-montage of the artist Sabino Pinto, of which the first rays of sun crossed the door on the winter solstice.

  21. Annotations and sketches constitute this panel “Terapéutico, Palabras tachadas, y Día nublado.” Adjectives and mystic invocations such as “Radial,” “Strong North Wind,” are written on Puerta del Sol postcards with black markers.

  22. Emeterio Villamil de Rada, La lengua de Adán y el hombre de Tiahuanaco, La Paz: Biblioteca del Bicentenario de Bolivia, 2016 [1888].

  23. Cecilia Wahren, “La creación de la Semana indianista. Indianidad, folklore y nación en Bolivia” in Universitas Humanística, n. 77, January-june 2014, pp. 169–195.

  24. Pereira also refers to a past associated with the pre-Hispanic world. This can be seen in the illustrations of the chronicles of Guamán Poma de Ayala, and to the attire that is recreated for televised official acts. As well as in the case of the bride’s dress in “ancestral ceremony” of the wedding of Vice President Álvaro García Linera held in Tiwanaku.

  25. Wahren, op. cit, p.187.

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