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Photographer's Showcase: Mennonites of Manitoba, Bolivia

The Photographer's Showcase is pleased to announce the opening of a portfolio from Lisa Wiltse -- Mennonites of Manitoba, Bolivia
Mennonite School Girl -- Lisa Wiltse
Without reading the title, it quickly becomes obvious when looking at Lisa Wiltse's portfolio that we are witnessing an unusual sight. The simple garb of her subjects, overalls and conservative floral dress, immediately indicate a lifestyle rejecting modern ways and isolation from the greater world. The subjects of Wiltse's images are among the most conservative and traditional Russian Mennonites practicing today; having left Manitoba Canada after the government disapproved of their schools, they moved first to Mexico, then to Bolivia, coming to an agreement with the government permitting their cultural autonomy in exchange for agricultural expertise. The 2,000 residents of the Manitoba colony maintain a lifestyle founded in 1789 by their Dutch ancestors, a simple life of religious study and farming, denying technological and speaking low German.

Living in deliberate isolation, it is a community that is seldom seen, but became international news in 2009 after a serial rape scandal. Eight Manitoban men were turned over to the Bolivian police and charged with drugging entire families while they slept, raping the women and sometimes girls. Figures of the actual number of victims are not entirely clear, but upwards of 130 came forward. The events had been going on for two years — rumors had circulated, but women who remembered the incidents were disregarded -- many blamed the devil.
School Boys -- Lisa Wiltse
While some blamed the influences of the outside world, others called for more openness. Wiltse entered the Manitoba in the wake of this turmoil, interested in daily life inside this cloistered community. Wiltse’s images capture the children of Manitoba as they begin to be separated by their gender. Their impending futures are very different: boys learn the profession of their fathers, often learning Spanish on their trips to Santa Cruz to trade; girls work exclusively in the home, seldom leaving, and are discouraged from learning Spanish. They play in gender-segregated groups, sit on opposite sides of their class room. 

There is a simple beauty to these images — colorful fabrics of the women’s dresses and the shapes of their matching white hats, the dynamic poses of the children at play — but also an underlying tension. While adults are mostly absent, the children ignore the camera and at times engage with it, their gazes compelling and raw. Photographing Manitoba at this juncture, Wiltse's images are a glimpse of this rarely seen lifestyle, but also an emotional gage. Wary of the outside world, the community was suddenly forced to open itself to the outside because of the failures of the patriarchal elders. Her depiction is rightly nuanced; the emotional conflict is palpable, some display shame through their covered faces, while others remain unabashed and serene; complexity permeates every image. -- Sarah Bradley

The Peter's Family -- Lisa Wiltse
See Lisa Wiltse's portfolio on the Photographer's Showcase here

For more information on Wiltse's work, please contact photo-eye Gallery Associate Director Anne Kelly by email or by calling the gallery at (505) 988-5152 x202