Aymaran vernacular

El Tren Diamante, La Paz, Bolivia 2014

El Tren Diamante, La Paz, Bolivia 2014
El Tren Diamante, La Paz, Bolivia 2014 · Credit: Nick Ballon

Over the years that photographer Nick Ballon travelled from his home in England to Bolivia to visit his grandmother in La Paz, he’d probably tell you that not a lot had changed – until the last 10 years that is, when Evo Morales became president. The country’s first Aymaran incumbent, his left of centre policies and socialistic ‘Evonomics’ ushered in a sense of pride for the indigenous working classes, and a desire to manifest their new-found influence and affluence. The La Paz suburb of El Alto, which exploded in size in that time, is where Ballon started noticing a formal typology spring up, reflecting that confidence. It turns out the new ‘Salones de Eventos’, for hire for weddings and big family events and with very strong references to traditional Andean patterns, were all designed by a local bricklayer who’d made good, by the name of Freddy Mamani. A weird hybrid, with retail space at ground and owners’ homes perched on the top, Ballon took it upon himself to record this strange, ‘bling’ vernacular – and in more than two dimensions.

ElAlto El Tren Diamante model
ElAlto El Tren Diamante model · Credit: Jonathan Minster

The annual Alasitas fiesta in January honours Ekeko, the ancient Aymaran god of abundance, and is marked by people giving ‘dream’ toys to each other reflecting their ‘wants’ for the coming year; be it a new phone, car, money, diploma – or a house. As a play on this, Ballon asked local artisans to craft models (inset) of Mamani’s designs from his photos; he doesn’t know why they chose to make them of glass, but they did. Each one little more than 20cm high, these pint-sized forms are an uncanny reversal of the pagan festival – totems of desire more precious and fragile than the realised dream itself.