Wrapped in shawls and long gingham dresses, the traditional market women of La Paz, Bolivia, gaze impassively at the photographer. They are surrounded by heaps of drying herbs, colorful packets, clay figures and llama fetuses. Through the doorway behind them, the fluorescent-lit walls of a modern pharmacy are stocked to the ceiling with contemporary potions and elixirs.

As a signature image for Vance Gellert's new photo show, opening today at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, "The Mercado de las Brujas" encapsulates the juxtaposition of ancient and modern that is at the heart of his four-year project. Organized under the aegis of the artist-run Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, the show features about 100 dramatic color photos Gellert has taken since 2004 when he made his first foray into the mountains of Bolivia and Peru in search of traditional healers and ritual practices. With that and subsequent trips, he has spent about eight months in South America, gradually penetrating deeper into age-old customs and shedding his own confusion and ignorance about what he saw.

"Until well after the third trip, I still felt that I didn't understand what was going on or what the images meant," Gellert said recently during a preview tour. But the people he met "must have recognized something in the stupid gringo asking questions in broken Spanish, because they went along and kept showing me things."

Medical mysteries

The project is the fruit of an observation Gellert made more than 30 years ago when he was working on his 1975 doctorate in pharmacology at the University of Minnesota. All healers, whether they're native shamans or Western doctors, use rituals, customs and healing environments to persuade individuals to believe that the practitioner can help or cure them, he said. In doctors' offices, white coats, stethoscopes and lab charts all contribute to the air of scientific authority that conveys reassurance. In ethnic cultures, chants, potions and ritual gestures have a similar effect. In the South American areas he toured, a kid's visit to the school nurse generally begins with passing an egg over the child's body, breaking and "reading" the egg to diagnose the problem.

"We engage in rituals to lower the anxiety and remove the discomfort," he said. "It's all part of the cosmology of healing."

After finishing his Ph.D. and a postgraduate research fellowship, Gellert abandoned pharmacy because he objected to the way politics and economics skew research in the field, he said. He subsequently got a Master of Fine Arts in photography at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and later co-founded what is now the Minnesota Center for Photography.

But always in the back of his mind simmered the idea of following up on the work of his hero, Richard Evans Schultes, a pioneering ethnobotanist who, starting about 1940, spent 14 years in the Amazon studying plants and their uses, many of them subsequently endorsed by Western scientists.

"It was crazy. I had no idea how it was going to work," he said of his first trip. More recently, Gellert has begun to mine the intersection of ethnography and medicine, working with the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota and an "integrative medicine" project at the Mayo clinic in Rochester.

Power of 'smoke and mirrors'

The show is divided into two sections. The first, occupying a spacious gallery with avocado-green walls, immerses viewers in the often picturesque world of contemporary Bolivia and Peru. There are colorful photos of festivals, sheep-filled mountain valleys, medicinal plants, markets, vendors and practitioners. Tradition and modernity are often cheek by jowl: a huge jar of snakes preserved in alcohol sits on a counter before a wall of liquor and sodas; a guy in chic navy bathing trunks displays a torso and arms covered with Santa Maria leaves, brilliant-green foliage with cleansing and anti-itch properties.

"Santa Maria leaves are the Handi-Wipes of the jungle," Gellert joked.

The dark-walled second gallery catalogs many of the customs and practitioners he encountered. Among them are rituals that involve wrapping the body in flowers, blowing smoke, reading tarot cards, placing stones on the body, boiling lead, passing eggs and rubbing the body with a live guinea pig that is then eviscerated and its entrails studied to diagnose the problem and offer a cure.

Behind a scrim of photos printed on sheer silk panels are images and individuals associated with the ayahuasca, a vine brewed to make a hallucinogenic drink used in various ceremonies.

Though Gellert titled the show "Smoke and Mirrors," he said he did not want to imply that the practices he photographed were hoaxes. Quite the contrary. His South American research has convinced him that rituals and belief systems -- the smoke and mirrors -- are essential to the healing process because they create the context in which health and equilibrium are restored.

"The things we relegate to smoke and mirrors are the most important part of healing," he said.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431