The future is behind, the past is ahead

Pro Helvetia South America, Performing Arts
Black and white picture of tree trunk
Yvyrasacha is a combination of the Guarani (‘yvyra’) and Quechua (‘sach’a’) words for ‘tree’

In an interview, Bolivian theatre artist Diego Aramburo talks about cultural exchange, their long-term collaboration with director Boris Nikitin, and Yvyrasacha, a festival created to strengthen the performing arts scene and reflect on artistic practices

A theatre artist from Bolivia, Diego Aramburo reflects on the idea of displacement, of rethinking ideas and definitions of issues such as gender or cultural identity. In that sense, they have expanded their connections and exchanges not only within their country but also in different social contexts.

‘I believe the basis of it all is to strengthen the local and personal thinking so as to take it to the point of universalisation,’ Diego explains. ‘It is not such a problem when you know there are things in common, and all we need is to horizontalise them.’

For a few years now, Diego has been in exchange with Swiss artists as well. After a first research trip to the country in 2018 (there would be another the following year), they started a connection with theatre artist Boris Nikitin. The initially swift one-hour meeting they planned in a train station (due to their tight schedule) ended up in a four-hour chat. ‘We skipped the following appointments because it was such a good encounter,’ Diego recalls.

The talk developed five years ago into ‘The Conversation Project’, a long-term project that consists of a series of exchanges between the two artists. These talks, dealing with their realities and the realities around them, were recorded, transcribed and edited, and should be published soon by Brazilian magazine and publishing house Antropositivo.

Those exchanges also took place in their theatre practice. Among many actions, Diego participated in Boris’s It’s the Real Thing festival in Basel in 2019, and Boris took his ‘Essay on Dying’ solo to the 2024 edition of Yvyrasacha, for which Diego is the artistic director. The Bolivian event, which runs from La Paz to Cochabamba, was created three years ago as not only a festival. The purpose was strengthening the country’s performing arts scene and further reflecting on artistic practices.

‘Exchange is important, yes, but we have to overcome the concept that it’s only about exhibition. How do we regain that exchange in which not only the artists feel they are exchanging, but the public also experiences an encounter with others? This is leading to rethinking many festivals, which I think is very healthy,’ says Diego.

Black and white portrait of Diego Aramburo
Bolivian artist Diego Aramburo © S. Orihuela

With Pro Helvetia, you have participated in many exchange projects and, over the years, connected with various cultural realities. How do you see those exchanges between such distinct contexts?

I believe the basis of it all is to strengthen the local and personal thinking so as to take it to the point of universalisation. I always end by saying that Andean thought is so unique that time is understood backwards. When I explain why the future is behind and the past is ahead, how this is understood, Western academics will end up quoting Walter Benjamin. I tell them: yes, but the other way around. Benjamin comes after, Andean ancestral thought comes before. So, Benjamin resembles Andean thinking, rather than Andean thinking resembling Benjamin.

And we can also begin to question what ended up being the habit, a central place for the academy, the Eurocentric thinking. It is not such a problem when you know there are things in common, and all we need is to horizontalise them. That has been the basis for establishing all these dialogues, so that it generates a tension, but a healthy tension.

Your practice deals with displacing designations (cultural, of gender). So how to displace yourself without losing a bit of your identity?

It is very notable how some artists from the Global South end up studying in Europe, I would even say that they yearn to be inserted in Europe, to be part of it completely. And that’s where you lose it, I think. Surely people need to adapt. So, it is in this exercise of adaptation that we can gradually lose our identity.

My bet was always to study in the south. On several occasions, when I was in Europe or Canada, I was told, why don’t you stay here? But my head, my art, my culture, my thinking and my inspiration come from my roots, which are in Bolivia. Surely, I have learned to process all that experience in a more conceptual way. And that enables this universalisation I mentioned. But that comes from having decided never to leave this place because it wasn’t sufficient just to extract ideas. By living here, I am part of it and I also give back to it.

And also, knowing that I can move around is very important to me. Maybe because in Bolivia there is not a very established market, you have to move internally, and regions vary a lot. So, to displace, to move and change between cultural views is part of the internal way of thinking. My displacement perhaps comes from that. It turned out to be a strategy, a habit, which has many virtues, not only for expanding the market, but also for the exchange. The encounter with diversity is fundamental.

Does this displacement and exchange sometimes happen in terms of funding as well?

In fact, in the absence of funding sources in the country, I often end up investing what I earn abroad to produce in Bolivia. This happens when I am invited to do something specific abroad, to direct, to stage plays, to create in a context in which I am paid for the production.

Regarding your collaboration with Boris Nikitin, how did it start?

I had seen one of his works in Germany and, when I went to Switzerland, I had asked to meet him. It was very difficult due to our schedules, we would end up meeting at the train station in Zurich, in a one-hour slot we had in common between meetings. But we ended up talking for four hours, so we skipped the following appointments because it was such a good encounter. And from there we started talking and ended up doing what we are doing now [‘The Conversation Project’].

How is that process going? The project went through the pandemic and your conversations addressed your realities.

It is a long-term project. The pandemic certainly provided a point of interest, but it came after the series of political crises we had in the region, including the one in Bolivia. Having started with all those crises, the conversation was nourished by things that weren’t just an exchange about our realities in artistic and cultural practice. It ended up being a conversation that encompassed many things and needed time to process. The exercise of transcribing what we were talking about, of reviewing it, was also contributing to that distance. And besides, one of the premises from the first meeting we had, regarding that one hour turned into four, was time. So that we could really meet, so that it wouldn’t just be a conversation, but an encounter. During the pandemic we had many conversations online, but we are meeting physically, whenever we can, in Europe or in South America.

Were new connections created from these experiences?

There is something that comes naturally to me and I find it very enriching in these cross-cultural encounters. From the dialogue with Boris and following a participation in an event at Kaserne in Basel, a dialogue with the creator Beatrice Fleischlin arose in a very organic way. As I have a very particular paternity situation and she has a very singular maternity situation, we began to generate a creative process, a form of writing that ends up expanding these exchanges. I like the way these expansions take place, the way the dialogues and encounters are extended.

About Yvyrasacha, it is not only a festival, but also a tool to strengthening the local scene. How did it start?

Yvyrasacha is a project to strengthen the performing arts in Bolivia. It started as something very local, not necessarily with an educational purpose, but with an informative one, to empower practices. And this came from other projects that had similar aims, with regards to training, production and dissemination in Bolivia. We ended up bringing those efforts together in something that has a bit of all of that. That’s where we got the name Yvyrasacha: ‘yvyra’ and ‘sach’a’ mean ‘tree’ in Guarani and Quechua respectively. Thinking about this concept from the root, of strengthening a trunk that will later sustain the potential to bear fruits.

We did a couple of national events, but having worked with consultants from different places to strengthen the Bolivian projects, the next step was for there to be an exchange. So that people who are working abroad can talk to people who are working here, and for that we started a more international festival. In the case of Boris, he presented his work [‘Essay on Dying’], but he usually follows the presentation with talks afterwards, which interest a general public and also people who work in the performing arts, talks on conceptual and formal issues. Another participant, Silvia Gomez [Brazil], she came to have a slightly longer exchange, she gave a workshop on dramaturgy, an exchange on how to think about creating.

Room with film projection and public watching
Silvia Gomez’s film ‘A Árvore’ (‘The Tree’) was shown at Yvyrasacha, followed by a talk about her writing process

Festivals have changed in recent years, especially with the financial crisis and climate change. They plan more extended activities and think of expanding the programming in the region. Do you think Yvyrasacha also responds to that?

Of course. Just a few years before the pandemic, festivals were going through a crisis in the way they were traditionally conceived, there was a need to rethink their meaning. Surely the economic crisis demanded reflection at that time, but it also had to do with a crisis with the audiences. In 2017, I remember clearly, it was very strange to go from one festival to another and feel that the same thing was being done everywhere. Something had become distorted. That required festivals to start to rethink themselves, and the environmental crisis also played a part.

Exchange is important, yes, but we have to overcome the concept that it’s only about exhibition. How do we regain that exchange in which not only the artists feel they are exchanging, but the public also experiences an encounter with others? This is leading to rethinking many festivals, which I think is very healthy.

After a few editions, how do you see the strengthening that you were talking about?

In Bolivia, the total lack of support and funding makes it much more difficult and critical to carry out a project, be it a festival or a creation. But there have undoubtedly been extremely valuable things in this experience. We must see how to move forward because, as there are very few resources, the teams are reduced. That undoubtedly puts us in check. However, the type of festival that is being proposed is, I believe, the new way of thinking about festivals. There are things to adjust, but the perspective is the right one. And then we have to see how to survive, and even, hopefully, how to expand it.


Diego Aramburo is a Bolivian artist, playwright and director who works internationally, invited to direct productions for official theatres around the world, as well as touring and performing with their company Kiknteatr. Since 2021, they are the artistic director for Yvyrasacha festival. Diego has twice received the Medal of Honour from the country’s Legislative Assembly for their contribution to culture. Diego’s texts have been translated, published and staged in different countries and languages and their work is divided into two main lines: interdisciplinary investigative creations and large format ‘strictly theatrical’ stagings.