PHOTOGRAPHY: With a touch of magic realism, Doña Maria and her Dreams provides an exceptional journey through the mysterious world of the Venezuelan desert.

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João Vilela Geraldo
Published date: September 10, 2019

100 years of solitude turned into 12 years of blood-bound companionship and hard-gained trust. A limitless dry horizon where exoticism never arrived, colour never came through the tail of a rainbow, and water is more precious than gold. Doña Maria and her Dreams, the iconic book and travel series from photographer Horst Friedrichs, which led him to win the Lead Gold Award – the most prestigious in photography – was born under the spell of real adventure and the doom and gloom of hard logistics in a Venezuela slowly disappearing into the oblivion of oil and politics, and frightfully gaining a reputation as a test tube for theory and practice gone wrong. Starting in the country’s northwest Lara State and moving in the same direction to the region of Falcón, Horst spent twelve years meeting the same families for similar periods of time each year, paying a much anticipated visit and looking for shade and smiles under the tiny rooftops which had stood time and temper, and the odd storm or two.

No pirate ships

But why would anyone want to travel thousands of miles to photograph a barren, forgotten land where there were no pirate ships, no wars, no famine, no drama, and apparently no news? Why would anyone want to see places where time had stood still like a clever lizard waiting for its prey, or meet old blind potters, wrinkled and sun-toasted chair makers, wary stone cutters? Why would anyone choose black crows over shiny parrots?

The series covers the routines and trials of daily life in the barren lands of the Venezuelan «desert», a frontier place where magic has taken over from rule books and institutional laws, and where windswept villages are silent but respectful witnesses of the rituals and traditions of small communities who learned fast and early to take care of themselves.

It might be a harsh place where children never heard of Gulliver’s Travels or Robinson Crusoe, and where stray dogs would make a feast of Lilliput’s inhabitants, but where freedom and fantasy run through the veins and dried-up riverbeds.

barren and abandoned as it is, this is a place of survival and sacrifice

Yet, barren and abandoned as it is, this is a place of survival and sacrifice, where luck and chance play no game, and where the daily routines of each family easily emulate decades of oral tradition, stories whispered through open doors and windows where old faces peek as ancient shadows. Faces like the rough but protective bark of trees, scarred by heat and silent defiance of the elements. Characters like Señor Aranguren who had the flair of a distinguished English lord but whose chickens were more precious than all Savile Row suits.

Or 114-year-old (if records existed) Doña Ruperta, whose endless stories about her many children and grandchildren never ceased to amuse and amaze, and which could have filled hundreds of pages of dusty books. With her «broken bird» hands folded delicately on her lap, the wind she heard never seemed to bring news, only the promise, ever distant, of much-needed rain. Sometimes, when the wind blew in the most unusual ways from the Quíbor Valley into Guadelupe, she said an evil spirit might drop by without notice or a formal invitation. That´s why she believed every guest was precious because you never knew whom you might find at the dinner table.

Shape and sharpness

The comings and goings of Horst made him meet the characters and hear the stories that quietly shaped the book. Unforgettable characters like Doña Maria Castillo, the frail face and stubborn body which became the cover of the series, who never let her blindness stop her will to produce beautiful clay pots shaped by wrinkled strong hands. A will that never failed her particular way of «seeing» what others could only imagine in dreams. From their first casual meeting in 1993 to her death a few years later, and through the talks and tears with Aquilino, her son who continued to sit down on her chair to mold clay as she had done for decades, the book started to take shape and sharpness.

venezuela-Dona Maria and her Dreams
Doña Maria and her Dreams, photographs by Horst Friedrichs

The same shape and sharpness which Diego Crespo said each one of the stones he carefully collected had. Stones laid bare in his tiny room or hidden between curling trees or metal tins because Diego was not a museum curator or a famous art collector. He just had a particular thing for stones as if their angles shaped the hearts of his loved ones. The same quiet passion which Señor Eustiquio, the Cocuy-maker who squeezed the precious juice of the Agaves, needed to have to perform an ancient ritual and technique to fight the thirst you seemingly find in a barren land. But as barren as the land might have been, it was the land where Doña Maria could «see» no borders at all.

Silence. Stillness. Serendipity.


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Modern Times Review