Liliana Merizalde’s circuitous journey to photography involved four degrees in three different cities. Her initial ambition was to go into filmmaking, but she took a detour into photography and stayed. “I’d taken photos since I was 17,” she tells Broadly, “but I would never have called myself a photographer.”
She moved from Bogotá, a city alive with what she describes as “our typical Latin American chaos,” to Madrid, then Barcelona, pursuing a degree in each city before returning to her native Colombia. Her final qualification was a Masters in cinematic production, and it was while working on a movie in the Colombian area of Vaupés that she met Eloida, the first subject in her project Inner Disruptions.
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Inner Disruptions catalogs five Indigenous women’s life experiences through the artistic use of prosthetics. After a series of conversations with each of them, Merizalde worked with their life stories to create a prosthetic that extended, highlighted, or covered a part of their bodies.
“In a medical context prosthetics are about something someone is missing,” Merizalde explains. “But I’ve always been really interested in the parts of our bodies that we can’t see, what we might be on the inside that doesn’t manifest physically.”
Inspired by German visual artist Rebecca Horn and in partnership with designer Cristina Borda, Merizalde had already used plastic prosthetics in previous projects. Liliana explains, “When we went to Vaupés, we took the same materials with us. Once there we realized that wasn’t going to work, it had to be organic. We used branches, palm leaves, and whatever rope we found.”
Vaupés is part of the Amazonas Region of Colombia and borders Brazil. Merizalde describes it as significantly more untouched than the rest of the region. “Life manifests itself everywhere. The river was our road, we got everywhere by boat. Birds are always singing and the light looks like it moves. It’s heavy with humidity,” she recalls. “You take one step and you’re sweating.”
Despite the heavy rain and stifling humidity it was important to Merizalde to photograph the women in the area itself. She says, “We shot the film in the jungle for two months so I took advantage of that time to build relationships. I immediately thought, These are the strongest women I’ve ever met.”
When Merizalde first met Sená, one of her models, she didn’t think Sená would end up participating. Sená has uterine cancer and the disease makes her very weak.
“When we left her house I thought, If she doesn’t want too then I don’t want to force her," Merizalde says. "But there was something in her eyes that made me go speak to her again. I think it’s a very feminine intuition, knowing when there’s more than meets the eye.”
After their second conversation, Sená changed her mind and agreed to take part. They chose to build a structure around her body. “It’s a cage to represent the restraints she was putting on herself. But it’s also meant to look like a nest to represent the possibility of reinvention. She had this wall up, but there was something in her eyes that made me sure she wanted to talk to me.”
The Colombian government recognizes the existence of 87 Indigenous groups, but 18 are considered at risk of disappearing altogether due to deforestation and displacement. “As women in Latin America there’s still a lot to do to guarantee that we’re free and safe,” Merizalde says.
She believes Indigenous women are at a further disadvantage. “Minorities are not respected at all in Colombia. Their territories are invaded all the time, as a community they’re not valued or respected.”
This is why Merizalde was shocked when another one of her models, Maria Magdalena, told her she felt women had never been stronger. “I think there’s still such a long way to go,” Merizalde says. “But capitalism has forced the men of her community to move to larger cities to find a job to pay for cable and phone bills, even though they have everything they need. The communities grow their own food so they’re essentially self-sufficient.”
This is both a blessing and a curse, Merizalde says. Capitalism and increasing Westernization symbolizes the loss of tradition and the loss of land, but has also given women the space to move into roles of power.
María Magdalena chose to focus the photography on the strongest part of her body: her arms. It’s what she uses to work in the fields and feed her children. Merizalde recalls, “Once Maria Magdalena saw herself with the palm leaves around her head she said, ‘I’m a sun!’ And I said ‘yes, you are.’”
It was important to Merizalde to build a relationship with her models, but to also show that the issues they faced as Indigenous women were representative of the issues that plague Colombia as a whole. “I never set out to work on loss or violence,” she explains, “but all of the country’s problems are reflected in their stories.”
Colombia’s civil war between guerilla groups, the military, and drug cartels raged for over 50 years, claiming as many as 220,000 lives and displacing between five and seven million people. Indigenous communities were among those most affected. It wasn’t until 2017 that the government and the FARC, Colombia’s largest leftist guerilla group, signed a peace deal.
Omitting the models’ last names was also a conscious decision. “I wanted to highlight their stories,” Merizalde says, “but by not giving them a last name I also wanted to show that it could be anyone in that situation.”
She hopes the work will highlight the strength of Indigenous women and communicate that their loss and struggle represents the experience of women all around the country. “I wanted to transmit [their] strength but also the ability to reinvent yourself, to deal with complicated things but to do it with strength.”