Nadège Mazars

Mama Coca

Essay by Sergio Valenzuela-Escobedo

In the context of a trio of research-based photographic exhibitions built around the idea of self-governance for Fotofestiwal 2023 in Łódź, Poland, curator Sergio Valenzuela-Escobedo focuses on Mama Coca by Nadège Mazars, a documentary project which tells the story of the Nasa people of Cauca, southwestern Colombia, indigenous tribes who came into conflict with the Coca-Cola corporation – a canny reminder that rejecting the consumerist spiral and questioning the dogma of growth is one way we can rediscover our connection with the earth.

The Nasa people of Cauca, southwestern Colombia have a long-standing tradition of indigenous activism. To support their territorial and political autonomy, they established the Indigenous Guard (Kiwe Thegnas or Kiwe Puya’ksa) more than two decades ago as an organisation dedicated to preserving and passing down indigenous culture, including the traditional use of coca leaf, to younger generations. The indigenous guards carry symbolic batons that represent their responsibility to the community, as opposed to being used as weapons. Comprised of women, men and people of all ages, including children, the indigenous guard courageously confronts the violence and actions of armed actors involved in the expansion of illicit crops, such as cocaine. They risk their lives to protect their territory from the disharmony caused by these crops, which disrupt socio-economic relations and contaminate water sources with harmful substances. Cue Nadège Mazars, whose powerful documentary project, Mama Coca, explores the diverse methods employed by the indigenous guard to educate their community about their political and spiritual responsibilities with the view to fostering respect for their traditions among Colombians and Americans alike.

Coca leaf products have deep cultural and medicinal significance in Andean communities. Whilst coca is the source of cocaine, it is also believed to possess healing properties and amongst the Nasa people in the Colombian Andes, chewing coca leaves is a vital part of their rituals, symbolising harmony and reverence for the land. The use of coca leaves has a long history, made evident in pre-colonial stone statues and the spiritual practices of Nasa healers. In the Amazon, coca leaf flour aids in meditation and wisdom-seeking. Socially, the “mambear”, chewing coca is practiced in communal spaces, fostering collective knowledge. In the Inca Empire, coca was sacred and restricted to the elite, used for anesthesia in surgical procedures. As recent studies have shown, coca plantations date back more than 8000 years. Balls of coca leaves were even found in the mouths of pre-Columbian mummies.

Today, coca is of course primarily associated with the production of cocaine, leading to its prohibition along with the drug itself. The stigmatisation of coca traces back to the arrival of the Spanish in the Abya Yala continent, where it was demonised and banned due to its perceived association with the devil and regarded as a hindrance to Catholic conversion. However, there was a contradictory approach to coca during colonisation, as it was also promoted by colonial elites to enhance the productivity of indigenous workers in harsh mining conditions. This history of moral stigmatisation during colonisation has had a detrimental impact on the culture and social cohesion of indigenous communities and, consequently, the contemporary valorisation of coca as a sacred plant with significant cultural importance plays a crucial role in the indigenous struggles in the Americas. It speaks to ideas of autonomy, ancestral territories, distinct culture and spirituality for indigenous peoples, reaffirming their identity and resisting the destructive effects of colonisation.

The conflict between multinational company Coca-Cola and indigenous Colombian company Coca Nasa revolves around the use of the four letters that represent the plant’s name. The Nasa people have been cultivating coca leaf for centuries in the Colombian mountains, making various products derived from legal processing, including food, beverages, herbs and natural medicines. In late November 2021, Coca-Cola demanded that Coca Nasa remove a beer named Coca Pola from the market, claiming it to be a case of plagiarism. In February 2022, representatives of the Nasa and Embera Chami peoples sent a letter to Coca-Cola expressing their concerns. They argued that the use of “coca” without consulting indigenous peoples is an abusive practice, violating national, Andean and international human rights norms. The letter demanded explanations and threatened to ban the sale of Coca-Cola products in indigenous territories. Since then, Coca-Cola has remained silent, potentially due to the fear of being implicated in the appropriation of traditional indigenous knowledge and facing a scandal. The legal battle remains unresolved.

Throughout its history, the original recipe for Coca-Cola is said to be one of the most closely guarded secrets in the world. However, in 1988, one of the company’s leaders acknowledged the presence of coca in the beverage. In an advertisement from the Scientific American magazine dated 7 July 1906, a photograph of two natives of the Andes region appeared alongside the caption: ‘These people endure their hardships more easily by chewing Coca leaves daily.’ It is believed that, for many years, Coca-Cola imported coca leaves, which were likely decocainised before use. The company seemingly obtained a special permission that allowed them to legally bypass international anti-drug laws, which restricted the sacred Inca plant within the borders of its native countries. This created an international monopoly on the use of the coca plant, whilst small indigenous companies like Coca Nasa face strict prohibitions on exporting their coca-based products.

However, within the concept of self-governance, a refuge of hope becomes apparent. Three separate, but linked, exhibition presentations at the recent Fotofestiwal 2023 in Łódź, Poland this summer bear witness to this model and are all driven by the following question: how are new forms of self-organisation practically structured in conjunction with political and legal autonomy in tandem with traditional and natural authorities to control the implementation of developmental projects?

The model of self-governance continues to be the subject of numerous theoretical debates but here the intention was to examine just three isolated cases within a broader range of issues present on the continent: the complex process of building a collective that has evolved over 40 years following the failure of Werner Herzog’s filming of Fitzcarraldo (1982) in the Peruvian region of Alto Marañón, as investigated in Ipáamamu – Stories of Wawaim by Eléonore Lubna and Louis Matton; a rebellion initiated by a group of Purepecha women to protect the Uauapu ritual, resulting in the expulsion of one of the most dangerous drug cartels from the city of Cherán which forms the basis Oro Verde by Ritual Inhabitual, and of course Nadège Mazars’ Mama Coca.

To comprehend this model, it is necessary to understand the key factors that have ancestrally contributed to preserving the activities of each community, identifying their customs, problems, adaptations and current situation. In these countries, the communities are surviving despite the lack of recognition and interest from different companies and state entities, despite national and international legislation protecting their rights and heritage. Therefore, the purpose of these exhibitions is not to shed light on the current context of the respective communities’ everyday activities and lives, but to demonstrate how they have survived and what methods of defense they have employed against various threats, such as the arrival of foreign film productions, the advent of the avocado industry, or the threat of a lawsuit from a US multinational corporation. Each exhibition offers a critical perspective on the concept of self-governance whilst underpinning an attempt to present the holistic nature of the research that allowed the photographers to comprehensively unveil the historical and ideological realities.

Ultimately, these events are part of a war against nature. Their magnitude and violence should not be underestimated. In this context, how can we restore peace, democracy and hope? The options are numerous: rejecting the consumerist spiral, questioning the dogma of growth and rediscovering our connection with the earth. All these commitments share a common ground: they are a response to a system doomed to failure. Each of these acts of resistance points us to the necessary paradigm shift in order to continue building a peaceful and resource-rich planet. However, beyond individual actions, how can we bring about a collective societal shift towards more sustainable lifestyles?

The hope is that we can emerge from this with our heads slightly bowed, our anthropocentric pride humbled, with greater respect for the fact that other cultures have been able to establish a wiser relationship with their surroundings. But for that, we must be willing to sacrifice something. What are you willing to lose? What is your hope? ♦

Fotofestiwal 2023 ran from 15 – 25 June 2023.

Sergio Valenzuela-Escobedo is an artist, researcher, curator and author working both in Chile and abroad. Since 2016, he has curated exhibitions including Mapuche (Musée de l’Homme, Paris, 2017), Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation which has been on tour under his supervision and Geometric Forests (Les Rencontres d’Arles, 2022). He holds a PhD in Photography from the École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie (ENSP), Arles. Valenzuela-Escobedo is also an artistic director and co-founder of doubledummy studio, a platform that creates a space for producing and showcasing critical reflections on documentary photography. He is a member of the jury for the Arles Book Award and a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). His writing has appeared in Inframince, 1000 Words and Mirà.


1>6-From Mama Coca © Nadège Mazars.

7>9-Installation views of Nadège Mazars: Mama Coca at Fotofestiwal 2023, Łódź, Poland, 5 – 25 June 2023.

Les Rencontres d’Arles 2022

Top three festival highlights

Selected by Tim Clark

1000 Words Editor in Chief, Tim Clark, reports back from the opening of Les Rencontres d’Arles 2022, the 53rd edition of the bright, bushy-tailed festival set across the evocative Roman town in the south of France. Among the many exhibitions to salute are Norwegian-Nigerian artist Frida Orapabo’s How Fast Shall We Sing at Mécanique Générale in the dazzling new Parc des Ateliers at LUMA Arles, Rahim Fortune’s I can’t stand to see you cry as part of the Louis Roederer Discovery Award curated by Taous R. Dahmani and Sathish Kumar’s Town Boy, resulting from the first Serendipity Arles Grant in 2020. However, three particularly ambitious thematic exhibitions stand out for their complex visual dialogues and multiple vantage points onto the world and world of images.

1. But Still, It Turns
Musée départemental Arles antique 

The wall text that introduces But Still, It Turns, the exhibition Paul Graham has curated at Musée départemental Arles antique – which, among many notable bodies of work, features Emanuele Brutti and Piergiorgio Casotti’s Index-G, Vanessa Winship’s she dances on Jackson and Curran Hatleberg’s Lost Coast – states, brazenly: ‘there is no didactic story here, no theme or artifice. None is asked, none is given.’ Isn’t no story, like when artists claim their work as ‘apolitical’, a story in itself? In this case, the ‘story’ – or rather, quasi-framework or exhibitionary complex – is that of a statement of positions on a mode of photography identified as so-called ‘post-documentary’. Its meta-narrative draws from a shared approach, or attitude, propagated by this judiciously selected group of photographers who, in one way or another, turn their lens on intimacies and small episodes of contemporary social realities in the US. Specifically, working in the observational mode, they opt to summon quiet or unremarkable moments as a means of possessing the weight of the world: a town and its inhabitants gripped by industrial decline, sounds and situations at the fault lines of race, environment and economy and so on. Yet there are no easy narratives – all is posed as fleeting and messy but also empathetic and genuine; what Graham refers to as ‘a consciousness of life, and its song’.

Originally staged at ICP, New York, But Still, It Turns in the context of Les Rencontres d’Arles is ultimately a hymn to traditional yet enduring forms of photography, its serious artistic application allowing ‘a kind of pathway through the cacophony – a way to see and embrace the storm.’ Graham writes: ‘It could guide you through the randomness and grant the simple mercy of recognising life in all its prismatic wonder’. That such complex dialogues emerge across these meaningful articulations from life, demonstrates the artists’ deep levels of understanding of the bonds between looking and caring, perceiving and visualising. And, unsurprisingly, there are echoes of Graham’s own work at every turn, redolent of a mountain towering over a landscape, whose image can only be glimpsed through its reflection in a lake below.

2. Songs of the Sky. Photography & The Cloud

More curatorial (in the sense of thematising a group exhibition around a singular subject) is Songs of the Sky. Photography & The Cloud at Monoprix, the vast and industrial first-floor area above the French supermarket of the same name. As its title suggests, the show takes the motif of the cloud in photography as a starting point as well as the metaphor of ‘the cloud’ as a technological network that enables remote data storage and computing power commonly associated with the Internet. Of course, the empirical mass of photographs, i.e. those that exist on our smartphones and laptops – baby and cat photographs, holiday snaps, selfies, sunsets and pictures of food – or, by a similar token, those which have been generated by surveillance cameras and satellites, exist ‘up there’ in the cloud, finding in cables, screens and hard drives material form as part of the techno-capitalist system. Artists, on the other hand, have attempted to subvert and critique its principles, infrastructure and structures, ergo this exhibition.

Upon entering, one’s eyes don’t know where exactly to look; there are multiple sightlines onto numerous works from different artists but that’s certainly not a bad thing. As such, striking juxtapositions between historical material from the 19th century, such as Charles Nègre or Louis Vignes’ photographs, and contemporary works by Lisa Oppenheim, Trevor Paglen, Andy Sewell and Simon Roberts come to bear. What emerges is a tension between the sky as something sublime, as something which, for centuries, represented a way of ‘divining the future’ as James Bridle has put it, versus the far-from-romantic means we conceive of it today: a digital phenomenon that transfers and commodifies our data, with dramatic consequences for climate emergency and geo-politics. ‘Will the immense carbon footprint of the technical cloud accelerate global warming to such an extent that in the future it will be rare to see many faced cloud creatures floating by in the sky?’, is just one of the powerful research questions driving the exhibition. Organised with skill and clear focus, Songs of the Sky. Photography & The Cloud has been curated by Kathrin Schönegg of C/O Berlin, who was also the recipient of the 2019 Rencontres d’Arles Curatorial Research Fellowship.

3. Ritual Inhabitual, Geometric Forests: Struggles on Mapuche Land
Chapelle Saint-martin Du Méjan

Native to the temperate rainforests in southern Chile are medicinal plants and a rich biodiversity that have bore witness to endless cycles of construction and destruction. Monocultures of pine and eucalyptus have now come to dominate in service to the hugely lucrative paper pulp industry in the region, Chile being the world’s fourth largest producer from its 2.87 million hectares of plantations after all. The Mapuche (“people of the earth”), meanwhile, have lived on this land long before the country was founded and now find themselves at the heart of an ongoing battle: their spiritual relationship with the environment is at odds with an aggressive, global economy based on the exploitation of natural resources, leading to violence between nationalist organisations, industrialists’ private militia and the army’s specialist anti-terror squad. In response to this conflict, Chilean collective Ritual Inhabitual, created by Florencia Grisanti and Tito Gonzalez García, embarked on a five year photographic and ethnobotanical investigation that encompasses delectable Wet Collodian plates as well as large and medium format colour photographs of members of the Mapuche community, plants, trees and cloning laboratories of a forestry company. That this project encompasses a broad range of cohorts is one of its strongest features, for it offers a multi-vantage point perspective onto the subject at hand. Deftly translated by the exhibition’s curator, Sergio Valenzuela-Escobedo, whose careful choreography of the space highlights these competing factions, Geometric Forests: Struggles on Mapuche Land mediates the political desire to open up a debate on the nature of consumption at large.

While aesthetics may write the script in other environmentally-concerned exhibitions, here a form of infrastructural activism that reflects on the actual conditions and implications of its own making is evident. The exhibition is therefore highly commendable for harnessing the possibility of thinking and talking otherwise about making art in a less extractive fashion, allied with the admission that an entirely eco-friendly exhibition of images is an impossibility. One obvious example of mitigating impact has been to reuse existing frames from previous exhibitions. Similarly, printing directly onto material surfaces bypassing the need for paper or gluing the print onto an archival cardboard as opposed to an aluminium substrate in the event the former cannot be achieved. Even some of the temporary exhibition structures are stripped back to show the bare bones utilisation of wood, itself dismountable and reusable. There is also a kind of in-built critique present in the blurb of the accompanying book, published with Actes Sud, with a particularly striking section revealing a consciousness and self-awareness. It reads: ‘3029 kilos of Munken Kristall paper and 814 kilos of Soposeet paper were used for the book, as well as 220 kilos of Munken Kristall paper for the cover. Based on 24 trees for one tonne of paper, 96 trees were needed to transform those 4,063 kg of paper into 2,200 copies of this book.’ Clearly, in Geometric Forests, its participants take up the responsibility to call for new socio-environmental-political forms of collaboration. Maybe, via the propositions and practices contained in this exhibition, there is a way forward together, a sustainable means of co-existence.♦

Les Rencontres d’Arles 2022 runs until 25 September 2022.

Tim Clark is Editor in Chief of 1000 Words and Artistic Director for Fotografia Europea in Reggio Emilia, Italy, together with Walter Guadagnini and Luce Lebart. He also currently serves as a curatorial advisor for Photo London Discovery and teaches at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University.


1-Vanessa Winship, from the series She dances on Jackson, 2013, part of But Still, It Turns. Courtesy the artist and MACK.

2-Curran Hatleberg, from the series Lost Coast, 2016, part of But Still, It Turns. Courtesy the artist and MACK.

3-Kristine Potter, Drying Out, from the series Manifest, 2018, part of But Still, it Turns. Courtesy the artist and MACK.

4-Trevor Paglen, CLOUD #865 Hough Circle Transform, 2019, part of Songs of the Sky. Photography & The Cloud. Courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery 

5-Andy Sewell, Known and Strange Things Pass, 2020, part of Songs of the Sky. Photography & The Cloud. Courtesy the artist and Robert Morat Gallery.

6-Noa Jansma, Buycloud, 2020-21, part of Songs of the Sky. Photography & The Cloud. Courtesy the artist.

7-Ritual Inhabitual, Paul Filutraru, Rapper in the group Wechekeche ñi Trawün, Santiago de Chile, 2016, part of Geometric Forests: Struggles on Mapuche Land. Courtesy the artists.

8-Ritual Inhabitual, Biotechnology series, Chile, 2019, part of Geometric Forests: Struggles on Mapuche Land. Courtesy the artists.

9-Ritual Inhabitual, Geometric Forests series, Chile, 2018, part of Geometric Forests: Struggles on Mapuche Land. Courtesy the artists.