Steve Downey with the Peruvian shaman, Sama Lita, and his sculpture in Cusco, Peru
In 2009 I was invited to represent the UK in an International Art Symposium in Cusco, Peru, creating a sculpture in one of the main squares along with other artists from Peru, Germany, Finland and the Philippines, over a three-week period. I took the opportunity to travel around Peru and Bolivia for around two months, visiting many wonderful places.
I was very impressed with Bolivia, particularly the salt lakes and the mines at Potosi. Here over the centuries more than 8 million people have died in the mines. I went down one of these highly dangerous mines and met some of the miners and visited some of 300 separate devil sculptures that the miners themselves had created.
Miners inside the Potosi mines
The miners are generally devout Catholic and worship the Virgin Mary, but they believe that the Christian God cannot enter the mines, which are ruled by Satan, or 'Tio' as they call him. Hence over the years they have created these 'Tio' sculpures and each day at the start of work they worship the sculpture particular to their part of the mine and offer gifts of tobacco, alcohol and pretty objects. If they fail to do this, they believe their life will be threatened that day, and indeed there are many fatal accidents on a regular basis.
"The Mountain That Eats Men" in Potosi, Bolivia, where 8 million people have died
There are hundreds of children working in the mine, some as young as 8 years and frequently these are the sole bread winners for their family, their father having died in the mine! This aspect is superbly told in the prize-winning documentary film "The Devil's Miner", which tells the story of a young miner and his brother.
I was greatly moved by my visit and it led me to create a series of artworks based on my experiences.