I went to Bolivia as a sociologist and I came back as an artist

It is 2022
I have worked for more than ten years as a sociologist and illustrator in Bolivia in close collaboration with the Bolivian Indigenous population. I made around 500 drawings, water-colors and paintings.

Photo Ambassador of Bolivia Roberto Calzadilla, Gezien van de Riet, Jeroen Strengers (Miners Archive Bolivia), Gerda Dommerholt (Servicio Técnico Holandes, Bolivia), 10-03-2022

Ambassador of Bolivia Roberto Calzadilla, Gezien van de Riet, Jeroen Strengers (Miners Archive Bolivia), Gerda Dommerholt (Servicio Técnico Holandes, Bolivia), 10-03-2022

The artworks are going now to the collection of the Fundación Cultural of the Centrale Bank of Bolivia. The Cultural Foundation administers the National Museum and engages in a great number of activities. It is based on the conception that culture is not just of the élite but for the entire Bolivian people. It is a wonderful home for my works of art, and a great honor!

It was 1981
Lucia de Morales, president of the newly established peasant women union, the Federación Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas de Bolivia ‘Bartolina Sisa’ (1980), came to visit the Netherlands to speak at events on and around the First of May. She spoke about road blocks, the fight for democracy, the situation of Indigenous peasant women. Later more out their union, called the ‘Bartolinas’.
The Dutch Bolivia Working Group, organizer of this visit, requested me to make an illlustration for a brochure.

Illustration Lucila de Morales in the Netherlands, 1981

Lucila de Morales in the Netherlands, 1981

At that time, I couldn’t suspect that this drawing would be the cause of a turn in my life.

It was 1984
Democracy had returned in Bolivia. Political refugees also returned. At the request of some of them, I went with them to work in Bolivia. As a sociologist.
And then there was this drawing from 1981…

drawing of Lucila de Morales, first president of the Bartolinas

Lucila de Morales, first president of the Bartolinas

Lucila asked me if I was willing to illustrate the first educational pamphlet to be published by the Bartolinas. Would I? But me, a foreigner, from Holland? How would I prevent a projection of my own culture on that of the Indigenous population?

Drawing of Mother with child on the Altiplano. After a photo by Fernando Soria.Dibujo de una madre con su wawa

Mother with child on the Altiplano. After a photo by Fernando Soria.

There was only one guarantee: a maximum of participation from their side. What I had to do was mostly asking questions, so that their own ideas would be realized in text and image. I was to go and accompany them on their trips into the country, to their dwelling-places, and ask the people for their help. As an educational expert I was experienced in the stimulation of adult participation. Asking questions was essential in the process.
I had also taken some classes in model drawing, so I ventured on.

After some time, the Bartolina Sisa Federation applied for a contract for me as an aid worker at the Dutch Ministry of Development Co-operation. That provided us with more stability.

Into the country
One of the union leaders took me with her to her home in Aroma Province. There I could make extensive notes, making sketches and photos, inside and outside, of the family, the land, the cattle.

Illustration of A working day, the morning

A working day, the morning

Text: “A working day, morning: rise at 4 AM, cooking braekfast at 5 AM, getting tot work at 7 AM.” "Is cooking breakfast not work then? Who does this?”

Illustration of Working together in the field

Working together in the field

Tilling the land together

Drawing of Girl fetching water

Girl fetching water

A girl fetching water

Illustration Girl tending the sheep

Girl tending the sheep

A girl tending the sheep

Drawer, man, woman?
The women didn’t perceive me as a sociologist, but as a drawer. And at first sight, with my short-cropped hair, what was I? Man or woman? Well, that didn’t matter, they saw me drawing, and they thougth it was great.
This way I visited remote places, together with a union leader, had to sleep in the best bed of hospitable families, had to walk till late at night in the freezing 13,000 feet highlands of the Bolivian Altiplano, with a starry heaven above… Or I would sleep on the ground, next to the Federation President, to the merriment of the women would sit around some more time…

Drawing people
Union meetings and courses were wonderful hours of drawing for me. I became addicted to hatching. Later I would use these sketches for the brochure.

Drawing Intimate conversation

Intimate conversation


Drawing of Dreaming



Drawing of All attention

All attention

illustration What should I do as a notulist?

What should I do as a notulist?

Text: “What is my job as a note-taker? What is expected of a union leader, what of the members?”

Illustration Sex education

Sex education

Health. “What is happening to me? I am peeing blood.” “And now, what should I do, now that José left me?” “Why are we ashamed of our period? Isn’t it natural? How can we prevent our daughters to suffer? Shouldn’t we inform our young people better?”

Nighttime adventure
Once we were travelling south by train, and stopped at the town of Uyuni. It was midnight, ice-cold, the trees were wrapped in straw, not a living soul in the streets. We thumped on doors, finally one opened, the inn-keeper pointed to the left and dived back in his room. We grabbed a pile of blankets and a few hours of shut-eye. Then back to the train station, waiting at the platform for the first train in the dark blue shade of early morning. A woman was selling a hot sweet corn beverage, and warm fritters, while she was cleaning her nose in her apron. It is a picture in my memory.

Illustration of She wants to go to a meeting, but...

She wants to go to a meeting, but...

The texts for the brochure weren’t beating around the bush. “If you go to that meeting, better not come back home!” “But compañero, she has a right to go…” Standing in the back, trying to speak up: “Compa…” – shouts of: “Ha ha, listen to that! She can’t even talk!”

Danger and courage
The usual, poignant stories. They were courageous, the women that addressed these issues. The Bartolinas had also participated in dangerous road blocks, even at the time of the military dictatorship, and yes, then it was painful to find out that they were discriminated against by their own men. But the men that supported them were also courageous, and their support was valueable.

Illustration of Congresses, demonstrations and hunger strikes brought down Banzer's dictatorship (1978)

Congresses, demonstrations and hunger strikes brought down Banzer's dictatorship (1978)

Text: “Participation. Conventions, protest marches, hunger strikes.”
“When was the National Peasant Women’s Federation of Bolivia founded? Of which methods of struggle do we dispose? Whay did we engage in road blocks? And hunger strikes?”

Drawing of a woman speaking with microphone


By stating so clearly what was amiss, much has changed since then. The brochure also had an impact. During one of the meetings two men sat in front of me. One was reading to the other: “Why are there no equal opportunites for boys and girls in education?” I pricked up my ears. “Yes, of course, girls should go to school as well”, he answered. The other nodded in agreement.

The tropics
Life in the Bolivian tropics differs greatly from that in the highlands.

Illustration of Cover Nuestra vida, nuestra organización 2

Cover Nuestra vida, nuestra organización 2

A different brochure was needed.

Drawing of Listening and writing

Listening and writing


Drawing of Babies always join in

Babies always join in


Drawing of What is she telling...

What is she telling...

Here also meetings and courses were organized, which I attended, so that I could sketch one woman after another.

Drawing of The art of listening

The art of listening


Drawing of Recognition?



Drawing of It was very warm

It was very warm

The leaders took me to far away places.

Illustration of A kitchen in the tropics

A kitchen in the tropics

Text: “A working day. Getting up and fetching water, preparing breakfast.”

People were showing me their daily comings and goings, posing for me in kinds of situations. They did it with abandonment and hilarity, since it was for their own pamphlet. “You have to draw that duck with its ducklings!”…

Illustration of Peeling rice and talking about the womens' union

Peeling rice and talking about the womens' union

Text: “The solution.” ”We have so many problems! What can we do, comadre?” “The answer is organizing.”

Many domestic chores were performed outside. Out in the open, contact was easy, like here, while hulling rice. This was different from highland Bolivia, the Altiplano, were the compounds were enclosed.


Illustration of Afternoon and evening tasks, making cigarettes...

Afternoon and evening tasks, making cigarettes...

Text: “Afternoon and evening.” “Washing clothes.” “Cooking.” “In the evening: making cigarettes…”
“When do you rest? If all our work was paid, wouldn’t our agricultural products be much higher priced? So, who is profiting form our work?” Good question…

The cigarette
I had quit smoking. Aftter nightfall my host made me a cigarette, from her own tobacco, while I was sketching. I put the cigarette in my drawing, no, no, how could I refuse and insult my host…
There was always too much to draw. Just look at that tree with all the drying clothes in it, the rocking chair made of leather, hanging from a tree, and the people, participating with so much willingness. It really made me happy, I did’nt care about the hardships.

illustration of From girl to woman. Why can't I go to school?

From girl to woman. Why can't I go to school?

Prejudice from a young age. Text: “From girl to woman.” “My child is only a girl…” “My grand-daughter, what is she good for?” “Why can’t I go to school?” “You look like a man. Tom boy!”

Illustration of Our organization

Our organization

Text: “Our organization.” ‘Let us start our women’s organization. Yes, great idea!”
“Why was the peasant women’s organization founded? Is our organization directed against the men? What are the issues we can share, working together with the men’s union?”
“Why do we organize? To learn. To demand better prices.”

It is 2022.
The militant Bartolinas have accomplished a great deal. Looking back, I am amazed by the versitality of their programme, and I admire their courage. What has worked well is their choice for a combination that wasn’t easy. On the one hand the struggle against women’s oppression and, later, the aspiration for complete participation in the political, economic and social decision making. On the other hand, the colaboration with the peasants’union in the struggle for improvement.
It was remarkable that the National Peasants’ Confederation, to which the Bartolinas belonged, supported them from the beginning. That was also a wise choice. The experience from many other countries shows how exceptional this was.
I consider myself privileged to have been able to work with them.

Fot of Confederación Bartolina Sisa's website. Also radio and TV.

Confederación Bartolina Sisa's website. Also radio and TV.

Some facts:


www.grandmastersfineart.com  opens its exhibition 2022 on April 1. My entry: Daphne

Painting of Daphne by Gezien van de Riet


https://www.museummohlmann.nl/  3 april – 31 july:
Rob Møhlmann, museum owner, curator, publicist, and creator of a magnificent oeuvre, will be celebrating his birthday with three exhibitions simultanuously: his own work and objects form his collection, objects from his birth year 1956, and
The Master Hand. Rob boldly asked for the hand of the artists involved in his Museum.
He got both my hands:

painting of Self-portrait with tree by GezienvandeRiet

Selfportrait with tree

My next blog will tell more on Illustrating in Bolivia.

Translation NL-EN: Jeroen Strengers

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