Artesanías de Conchas Radiantes

Las conchas marítimas siempre han sido admiradas debido a su infinita variedad de tamaños, formas, colores, texturas e, incluso, de sonidos. Con colocar una concha cónica cerca del oído, inmediatamente uno se transporta al mar. Sin embargo, algunas conchas son más vistosas que otras. Este es el caso del nácar iridiscente, más comúnmente conocido como madre perla.

Durante siglos, en casi todos los países que tienen acceso al mar, los humanos han moldeado creativamente esta materia prima. El Ecuador no es la excepción. De hecho, desde hace mucho tiempo, en la costa ecuatoriana, se ha usado la concha nácar como adorno y como símbolo de estatus y de belleza. Hoy en día, los artistas ecuatorianos están redescubriendo esta materia prima para transformarla en joyas hermosas, cucharas, cuchillos y hasta en cosméticos.

Armadura animal

¿Qué es el nácar? Es una combinación de minerales que las ostras y otros moluscos secretan y depositan dentro de sus conchas. Estos minerales endurecidos envuelven y protegen sus cuerpos de parásitos y objetos extraños. La madre perla es el nombre común del nácar iridiscente. Los buzos pescan estas ‘armaduras’ resistentes y luego las venden a los artesanos, quienes las usan para fabricar piezas decorativas.

Un antiguo símbolo de estatus

Antes de la llegada de los españoles, varios grupos étnicos prosperaron y desarrollaron culturas complejas en el territorio de lo que hoy es el Ecuador. Tal como en otras partes del mundo, los símbolos de estatus eran importantes para poder diferenciar una clase social de la otra. Las joyas de concha eran una manera de que los habitantes marcaran su estatus visiblemente. Fabricaban adornos de la concha espóndilus (un símbolo de fertilidad) y de la concha nácar, que se pescaba en las profundidades del mar.

Por ejemplo, la cultura Guangala (500 a. de C. – 500 d. de C.), ubicada en lo que hoy son las provincias del Guayas, Santa Elena y Manabí, fabricaba pendientes, pulseras y diademas de la concha nácar. Una hermosa pieza que sobresale es un dije en forma de felino hecho de madre perla. Los arqueólogos infieren que esta pieza era un símbolo de estatus y que, probablemente, tenía alguna connotación mística ya que los felinos se consideraban deidades.

Asimismo, entre los Huancavilcas de Guayaquil -quienes eran entalladores muy hábiles- la clase alta vestía faldas y camisas sin mangas adornadas con placas cuidadosamente cortadas y pulidas de concha nácar. Las placas de nácar le tornaban iridiscente a la vestimenta, lo que, probablemente, reflejaba elegantemente bajo el sol equinoccial.

Como los grupos étnicos ecuatorianos siempre se han involucrado en el comercio, las conchas de nácar y de espóndilus llegaron hasta Quito! Esto se comprobó en una excavación cerca del aeropuerto de Quito en 2004. Los arqueólogos encontraron un cementerio del año 600 a. de C. con tumbas que contienen objetos muy valiosos para la vida después de la muerte; por ejemplo: vasijas con chicha, hermosas piezas de cerámica, algodón, y un poncho decorado con placas de concha espóndilus, caracoles y madre perla. En el centro ceremonial de Tulipe, Pichincha, también se hay objetos de nácar.  Algunos arqueólogos piensan que fueron usados como moneda. En conclusión, los pueblos antiguos del Ecuador valoraban mucho la elegancia de las conchas como adornos de belleza y de estatus.

Los artesanos de hoy en día

Aunque hoy en día las conchas no se consideran símbolos de estatus, durante los últimos quince años, algunos artesanos de la costa han reestablecido el prestigio original del nácar; para esto, ellos renuevan sus diseños constantemente y la combinan con materiales como plata, tagua (marfil vegetal) y la chonta (un tipo de madera).

Proceso de elaboración

¿Por qué usar madre perla? Los artesanos dicen que es hermosa debido a su luminosidad, su textura suave y los colores que emanan de su centro: verde, blanco, rosado y beige. También es firme y duradera, por lo que esto asegurará la larga vida de la pieza. Sin embargo, no todos pueden trabajar con el nácar. Para poder cortar y esculpirlo, ¡hay que usar herramientas para cortar diamantes! Más tarde, se debe limar, abrillantar y pulir. Los artesanos se pueden demorar hasta cuatro días en fabricar una pieza de un diseño elaborado. Muchos artesanos pertenecen a gremios en donde aprenden técnicas de elaboración. Todo esto conlleva tiempo, habilidad y dedicación.

Cosméticos

La concha nácar contiene minerales, calcio y otras sustancias que son maravillosos para regenerar la piel humana. Se dice que las lociones y cremas de concha nácar ayudan a borrar las manchas de sol, a eliminar el acné y a aliviar la irritación cutánea. Algunos artesanos también fabrican cremas caseras para este propósito.

Por su cualidad iridiscente, su textura y durabilidad no es de sorprenderse que desde tiempos antiguos hasta hoy en día se hayan usado joyas de concha nácar como símbolos de estatus.  Hábiles artesanos de nuestro país están redescubriendo esta materia prima que ahora, nuevamente, se abre camino en las galerías y los almacenes.

Consejos para encontrar una artesanía de calidad

Un artesano que ha trabajado con varios tipos de conchas y otros materiales naturales por más de veinte años nos da algunas recomendaciones para comprar un artículo de calidad:

  • Asegúrese de que la concha sea ‘saludable’, esto quiere decir que no debe tener huecos ni bultos. Estas anomalías son comunes cuando las conchas son viejas o cuando viven en áreas rocosas.
  • Revise si los huecos han sido rellenados con material sintético. Estas ‘calzas’ luego se caerán o se descolorarán.
  • Inspeccione el collar o el artículo para ver que sea suave, bien cortado y para ver que no tenga filos rugosos.

 

Sea shells have always been admired due to their infinite variety of shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and even sound.  Place a cone shaped shell close to your ear, and you will be transported to the sea.  Yet some shells catch the eye more than others.  This is the case of iridescent nacre, more commonly known as mother-of –pearl.  For centuries in almost every country with access to the sea, man has shaped this raw material with creativity.  Ecuador is no exception. In fact, in the Ecuadorian Coast, the nacre shell has been used to adorn, bring status and beauty for centuries. Today, Ecuadorian artists are rediscovering this raw material which they transform into delightful jewelry, spoons, knives and even cosmetics.

An animal’s armor

What is nacre?  It is a blend of minerals that are secreted by oysters and other mollusks and deposited inside their shells, coating and protecting their bodies from parasites and foreign objects. Mother- of- pearl is the common name for iridescent nacre. This strong “armor” is caught by scuba divers who then sell it to artisans who will elaborate decorative pieces.

An ancient status symbol

Before the arrival of the Spanish, various ethnic groups, which flourished in present day Ecuador, developed complex cultures.  Just like in any other part the world, status symbols were important in order to differentiate one social class from another. Shell jewellery was one way that the inhabitants marked their status in a conspicuous way.  They made ornaments from spondylus shell (a symbol of fertility) and nacre shell, which needed to be caught in the depths of the sea.

For example, the Guangala culture (500 A.C.- 500 A. D.) located in the Guayas, Santa Elena and Manabi provinces made elaborate pendants, bracelets and head pieces out of nacre shell. One beautiful piece which stands out, is a mother- of- pearl pendant with a feline shape.  Archeologists infer that this piece was a status symbol, probably with some mystical connotation since felines were seen as deities.  Similarly, the Huancavilcas of Guayaquil, who were skilled carvers. The upper class wore sleeveless shirts and skirts which were adorned with carefully cut and polished plates of nacre shell.  The nacre plates gave iridescence to the clothing, which probably reflected elegantly in the equatorial sun.  Because Ecuadorian ethnic groups have always engaged in trade, nacre and spondyllus shells made their way into Quito!  This was proven in an excavation near Quito’s airport in 2004.  Archeologists found a cemetery from 600 A.C.  in which valuable objects for the next life were placed in the grave. This consisted of chicha (a type of beer), beautiful ceramic pottery, and cotton, and a poncho decorated with spondylus shells, snails, mother-of –pearl plates.  In conclusion, ancient people of Ecuador valued shells as ornaments of beauty and status.

Artisans Today

Though today shells are not considered as status symbols, in the last fifteen years or so, some artisans in the coast have been bringing it back to its original prestige. They are doing this by constantly renovating their designs, and combining the nacre shell in new ways such as with silver, tagua (vegetable ivory), chonta ( a type of wood).

Elaboration Process

Why the use mother-of-pearl? Artisans agree it is beautiful because of its luminosity, smooth texture and the hues of green, white pink, green, beige and white which shoot out from its’ center. It is also sturdy and durable so this will ensure a long life. However, it isn’t easy to work with.  In order to cut it, and carve it, diamond tools must be used! Later on it must be sanded, buffed and shined.  An elaborate piece may take up to four days to make.  Many artisans belong to guilds in which they are taught elaboration techniques. All this takes time, skill, and dedication. 

Cosmetics

Nacre shells contain minerals, calcium and other substances which are wonderful for regenerating human skin.   It is said nacre shell lotions helps erase sun spots, eliminate acne, and relieve skin irritation.  Some artisans are also elaborating home-made lotions for this purpose.

It is no wonder ancient Ecuadorian ethnic groups used nacre shell jewelry as status symbols.  They recognized the value of the shell’s color, texture, and durability.  Today, some skilled artisans are rediscovering this raw material which is now making its way back to galleries and shops. 

Tips on finding a quality craft

An artisan who as been working with various types of shells and other natural materials for over twenty years gives us some guidelines  for purchasing a quality article:

  • Make sure the shell is “healthy” this means it doesn’t have holes and bumps. This is common when the shells are old or live in a rocky area.
  • Check if the holes have been filled with synthetic material.  These “fillings” will later on fall off our loose color.
  • Check that the necklace or object is smooth, well cut, without rough edges.

Sellos: Antes y Ahora

Desde el período de Desarrollo Regional (500 a.C – 500 d.C) en adelante, se difundió el uso de los sellos, pintaderas o estampadores, utilizados para el adorno personal, a manera de tatuajes, y quizá también para la decoración de los textiles.

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Para utilizarlos, se los bañó en pintura vegetal o mineral para luego imprimirlos, por fijación, sobre superficies planas, de preferencia. Estaban elaborados de arcilla a la que dieron forma y luego tallaron, previo el proceso de cocción del barro.

Presentaron variadas apariencias: redondas, cilíndricas con diseños humanos, vegetales, animales o también geométricas y muy abstractas; fueron especiales en este sentido los sellos producidos por la cultura Jama-Coaque, provincia de Manabí o en La Tolita, en la provincia de Esmeraldas (500 a.C – 500 d.C). Entre los manteño-huancavilca, de épocas posteriores (500 d.C -1.532), se diseñaron sellos planos de formas rectangulares, triangulares y con mango.

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En la actualidad, se los encuentra de preferencia en la costa norte y con menor intensidad en la sierra y son fuente de inspiración de muchos de nuestros productos, incluyendo algunas de nuestras únicas alfombras, como se puede apreciar en estas fotografía de Saúl Endara para Runway, en las que salen nuestras alfombras de fondo.

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From the Regional Development Period (500 B.C.E. – 500 A.C.E.) onward, the production and use of seals, and stamps used to make personal decorations like tattoos, was spread, and also perhaps the decoration of textiles.

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They were generally bathed in vegetable or mineral-derived paint and then imprinted on flat surfaces. They were formed out of clay and sculpted before the firing process.

The seals, round or cylindrical, had various designs: human, vegetable, animal, and, especially among the Jama-Coaque culture in Manabí Province and the Tolita in the province of Esmeraldas (500 B.C.E. – 500 A.C.E.), geometrical and highly abstract designs. In later epochs the Manteño-Huancavilca (500 -1532 A.C.E.) designed flat seals in rectangular and triangular shapes with handles.

Today, they are found mostly on the north coast and with less intensity in the mountains, and are a source of inspiration for many of our products, including some of our unique rugs, as can be seen in these photographs by Saul Endara for Runway (our rugs in the background).

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Chonta: Indigenous wisdom to exclusive design

Text: Carolina Matheus

It’s hard to believe that a scrawny palm with long aggressive thorns covering its entire trunk could have such a wide variety of uses for man. In fact, since ancient times, the chonta palm has been important to the livelihood of indigenous peoples in the Amazon region. Also, today, artisans are taking this precolombian knowledge a step further to develop exclusive pieces of art and design with chonta.

The two most important chonta palms in Ecuador are the chontaduro (Bactris gasipaes) and the chonta pambil (Iriartea deltoidea). The chontaduro is originally from Central America and it is found throughout the tropical regions of Latin America. In Ecuador, the chontaduro thrives in the Amazon region as well as in the province of Esmeraldas. The chonta pambil is also found all over Latin America in a variety of habitats: from forests on the steep Andean slopes, to lowland rainforests along stream margins. In Ecuador, it grows in the northwestern regions.

Curses and Blessings from the Chonta God

Chontaduro is so central to Shuar culture that every year there is an important ceremony, that takes place in March and April, in which the chonta is harvested. In the Shuar language, uwi is the name for chonta. A Shuar deity that carries the same name is in charge of bringing abundance to the Shuar people. When Uwi visits in March and April, he comes with heavy winds, which shake the rainforest. One must perform the Chonta Festivities during this season in honor of Uwi if prosperity is desired. If the ceremony isn’t performed, ancient tradition says that Uwi will take your soul. It’s not enough to perform the ceremony; it must be conducted with great care, preparation and sobriety or else Uwi will curse the people with famine. There are special ways in which the chontamust be harvested and particular songs that must be danced to, exactly as the shamans dictate. For example, if the circle of people holding hands during the ceremony is broken too early, premature death will come to that person. Similar ceremonies are performed in March and April throughout the Amazon provinces of Ecuador, however because of the tremendous religious significance, it is not considered a tourist attraction. Unfortunately, due to contact with the Western world, the Uwi Celebration is now in decline.

Indigenous peoples of the Amazon have been using practically every part of the chontaduro for centuries. The delicious fruit resembles the taste of chestnuts and its nutritional value is equivalent to that of an egg! Locals make cooking oil and flour. The wood is used to make arrows, lances, (cerbatanas) and for building the walls and floors of their houses. The young palms are sometimes used for making roofs but, most importantly, the palm leaves produce the delicious palmtito or ‘palm hearts’, which are now found in gourmet cuisine around the world. The shaman uses the sharp long spikes found in the chonta tree trunks as ‘darts’ to take out the evil spirits that cause illnesses. Yet the all-time favorite for the Pastaza natives is chicha made from chonta, a fermented beverage that is made in the Uwi Ceremony.

Chonta isn’t just important to the Amazon peoples; it’s also used by African-Ecuadorian cultures to make themarimba, a musical instrument that resonates with rhythmic sounds in the beaches of Atacames and Súa. The Colorado Indians of Pichincha also make marimbas from chonta wood for their traditional music.

The chonta pambil is less important to native cultures, yet its fruit is still eaten, and its wood is used to build traditional homes in Pastaza because it is durable, beautiful, and resistant. Artisans in Puyo (province of Pastaza) make little wine barrels and vases which take advantage the chonta’s curved shape.

Exclusive Objects

Today, these traditional uses have inspired artisans to craft objects of exclusive design. Just as indigenous peoples, one furniture designer explains that he was drawn to chonta’s resistance and durability. “It doesn’t need any kind of chemical treatment because it’s naturally resistant to parasites!” he explains. Also, its beauty impressed him: “Its dark brown color, which contrasts with its beige streaks, gives it an unmistakable and striking appearance. It’s very authentic because it isn’t like other types of wood which need to be dyed to obtain a similar hue.” Also, dark brown wood is currently in style amongst famous interior designers in Europe and the USA so this is good for Chonta furniture sales.  Chonta is fashionable not only for its attractiveness and contemporary design, but also because of the level of skill that is required to carve the chonta. Because it is very dense, full of fibers and has sharp splinters, it’s very hard to handle.  Evidence of this is the deep scars carried in the hands of these craftsmen.

Another craftsman who has been working chonta pambil for fifteen years has a similar opinion. The level of expertise in carving chonta is compensated by the striking results obtained. His creations consist of backgammon games, pencil holders and walking sticks. Sometimes he combines the opaque chonta wood with the white tagua‘vegetable ivory’ to obtain a stylish ‘ebony/ivory’ contrast. Due to the fact that chonta articles are so labor intensive, and only a few people actually know how to work with it, the finished products become very exclusive. In fact, Bill Clinton bought a chontatagua walking stick on a visit to Ecuador!

Just like the majority of rainforest plants, chonta is also an endangered species. Unfortunately for the chontapalms, rose plantations buy large quantities of this strong wood at low prices for the sole purpose of support poles for the roses. In the eyes of artisans, by making chonta woodcrafts at a small scale, they are actually helping to preserve this palm. This is because a subsistence farmer could make more for his money if he sold one chontapalm to an artisan at a higher price, instead of cutting down several trees at a low price to sell them to a rose plantation.

Applying Traditional Knowledge

According to Dr. Jaime Jaramillo, a botanist at the Universidad Católica de Quito, it would not be difficult to help preserve the chonta. A traditional technique used by the Pastaza indigenous peoples would need to be applied at a larger scale: seeds could be planted in seedbeds in rustic green houses. Then, once the plantlings (baby plants) have grown a bit, botanists could randomly disperse the plantings into the rainforest and the palms would grow. Currently, this practice is successful in the Ethno-Botanic OMAERE Park in Pastaza.

Whether it be for eating its nutritious fruits, building a Shuar house, or making sophisticated designer furniture, the proper management of chonta is important for future generations because of its nutritional, cultural, and economic value.

Bibliography:
Acosta Solís, M. (1991) Palmas Económicas del Noroccidente Ecuatoriano. Guayaquil:Universidad de Guayaquil.

Borgtoft, H.P. y Balsev (1992) Palmas Útiles: Especies Ecuatorianas para Agroforestría y Extractivismo. Quito: Abya Yala.

Gómez et al. (1996) Palmas Útiles: En la provincia de Pastaza, Amazonía Ecuatoriana. Manual Práctico. No 1.Quito: Omaere- Abya- Yala.

Henderson and Galeano. (1995) Field Guide to the Palms of the Americas. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Ríos y Borgtoft, H. P. (1991) Las Plantas y El Hombre Quito: Abya Yala y Depto. Ciencias Biológicas PUCE.

www.edufururo.com/educacion (April 8, 2007).

www.taguaspiral.com (April 12, 2007).

Personal Interviews, April 2007:

  • Peter Egli
  • Claude Belanger
  • Dr. Jaime Jaramillo

Tigua Paintings: Condor Descendants

Text: Carolina Matheus

“Pachamama and Pachakamak gathered the forces of the universe together to create the Sacred Messenger. Father Sun, Mother Moon, the rivers, trees, the winds, the stars, all lent their energies to the task.  Taita Cotopaxi and Mama Tungurahua filled the sky with lava and Ash… Wise men performed ceremonies with fire and music.  Amidst rain and lightning an egg appeared, and out came the child they had hoped for.  He was a bird, a condor. The condor was to keep the people and the gods connected” 
…Except from a Quichua legend.

In the Southern Highlands is found one of Ecuador’s most striking Andean scenery: the  Zumbahua and Tigua region.   When slowly venturing up the road from Pujili Village, one finds a beautiful patchwork quilt with hues of green, yellow, and brown.  These fields create a sharp contrast with the fucsia and turquoise clothing of the native farmers of the region.  A llama or a donkey, leisurely meandering down the road also adds quaintness to the area.   Soon, the landscape becomes more dry and infertile.   Then unexpectedly, at 3610 meters above sea level, stands the mouth of an ancient crater filled with   bright turquoise water, in the midst of this desolate scenery.  It is the sacred Quilotoa Lake, home of Quichua peoples for centuries.  It is no wonder this beautiful and strange scenery has been inspiring Tigua artists to create wonderful paintings over the last thirty years!  Tigua artists believe their art is a powerful instrument to transmit Quichua beliefs, traditions and daily life.

Colorful rural scenery 
Tigua art is extremely colorful and traditionally rather flat.  This is why it is called “naïf” art.  However in the last decade, it has begun to intergrate perspective, shading, and other more Western standards of what is recognized as “art.”  The themes depicted recreate traditional life, with bucolic scenery, quaint adobe houses, sheep, llamas, and snow-caped mountains.

How it all began: a Hungarian Helps
Throughout the entire Andean region, the descendants of the Incas continue to celebrate several traditional festivities throughout the year.  It was in one of these occasions during the 1970’s, while Julio Toaquiza was loudly playing his multicolored sheep-skin drum, that a curious tourist began to follow him.  She asked him if his drum was for sale. “Of course not!  This is from my ancestors!”  He answered wondering what this “gringuita” would do with an old and heavy drum.  “OK.  But if you ever change you mind, find me at this address in Quito.” answered the foreigner.

As time went by, and Julio faced economic hardship, he began to think “Why not sell this old drum, instead of a sheep, or animal which is much more useful?”  He ventured out into Quito, and sold the drum to the woman.  She turned out to be a Hungarian, Olga Fisch, who wasn’t a tourist at all, but instead, an arts and crafts lover who lived in Quito.  Olga had an eye for spotting talented artists and artisans throughout Ecuador, and with Julio this was no exception.   She asked him for more drums and Julio had to seek his neighbors and also search in other communities.

After a while, Julio began to wonder if he could make his drums a little different, so he began to experiment with more colors and new themes.  He dreamed of his wife spinning wool with a little dog next to her, and decided this was a wonderful theme for his next painted drum.  This was the beginning of Tigua art; dreams, and daily life were depicted on rustic sheep skin drums.  The paint came from pigments originally used to dye their ponchos.  Julio continued to experiment and develop new techniques and also teach his children.

Who would have thought that thirty years later almost the entire community of Tigua would be dedicated to painting!

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What is a Canvas? 
The Tigua painters were unfamiliar with the concept of painting on a canvas and using paint brushes. So when a craft’s shop owner from Quito suggested this, the idea of a “flat drum” seemed very odd.  But Julio had an adventuresome spirit. He started to make sheep skin “canvas” prepared with white earth and a sap from local plants until he found an appropriate surface.  His paint brushes were bird feathers, or even his son’s hair!  Julio chuckles remember this, while he proudly shows his current work which is skillfully painted with brushes and acrylic paint.

Life in this cold Andean highlands isn’t easy.  People have wind-chapped red cheeks working the steep land most days a week and if rain is scarce, crops will die and force many to immigrate into the cities.  Until the 1950’s these descendants of the Incas were not allowed to wear shoes, speak in Spanish or look at their masters in the eye.  They have undergone tremendous oppression.  Therefore, their art doesn’t only illustrate quaint country scenes; in more recent years Tigua artists have also began to illustrate these hardships of daily life.  They paint the abuses of their master, women being raped by the military, and even political strikes reach the city of Quito!  Therefore, these artists use their art as a voice to communicate not only the good, but also the bad about their every day lives in this remote region.

A New Generation
Julio Toaquiza’s legacy still continues as he has passed down his art to almost all of his seven children, including his daughter and nephew. This younger generation is very interested in reviving traditional Quechua values. They often illustrate Pachamama (mother earth) and Pachakamak (masculine spirit of creation) as well as sacred mountains such as Cotopaxi or the Illinizas. They often draw sacred animals such as owls, humming birds and condors. Some of these artists have even published books.  One artist expresses his hope that his own people, as well as others, learn and value the Quichua cosmology.

Just like the Sacred Condor is the messenger from the gods, the Tigua painters are messengers, informing the world that the descendants of the Incas still exist, and still want to preserve their traditional way of life and world view.

Sources:
http://www.mip.berkeley.edu/tigua/
www.exploringecuador.com/espanol
Personal interviews, January 2008:
Julio Toaquiza, Alfredo Toaquiza, Magdalena Toaquiza,and Francisco Toaquiza

Toaquiza, Alfonso, The Condor who Fell in Love Quito: Kuriashpa. 2002.

Capturing the Divine

In old-town Quito, the large organic shapes of brightly colored candles stand in sharp contrast to the crisp white walls of the recently restored La Ronda Street. These multihued religious candles that resemble bouquets are known as cirios. They will certainly draw you into the shop where they are sold. Perhaps candles are alluring due to the warmth and light they produce. Could this be because they are the carriers of fire, which has universally captivated the human spirit?

The discovery of fire was paramount to human development: it helped us cook but, most of all, overcome the limitations of darkness and cold. Now the fear of the unknown produced by darkness could be vanished at man’s will. For this reason, light has been associated with divine goodness and, in contrast, darkness has been equated to fear and evil. In popular culture, candles have inherited this important symbolism because they produce light and fire and represent this direct connection to the divine.

In Ecuador, this universal symbol is no exception. The presence of light and fire takes many forms in most Ecuadorian festivities, for example: blasting fireworks, bond fires or glowing candles.

The Sun’s Power

Could this be associated with the Sun worship from pre-Hispanic times? Folklore expert Carvalho-Neto sees this connection. He describes an Incan holiday, celebrated on March 21 (the equinox), called muzhuc-nina or “new fire”. It consisted of three days of fasting in which no one dared to light fire. On the third day, the Inca would stand amidst his people and extend his right arm with veneration towards Inti, the Sun God. Everyone waited in suspense: if the sun was shining, a mirror on the Incan emperor’s bracelet captured the light rays. To the joy of the people, fire was produced and a piece of cotton was lit triumphantly. However, if the day was cloudy, this was an evil omen and sticks had to be rubbed to produce fire. In either case, the flame was held sacred and the Virgins of the Sun had to guard this flame until the following year’s ceremony.
During the Spanish conquest, it is possible that this representation was transferred to Catholic candles and to fire in general.

A Symbol of Resurrection

Candles have been an important part of Catholicism since at least the XIV century. In Italy, a ceremony dating from 1377, in which great and elaborate candles are offered, still exists today. In Mexico, many convents make special candles for Holy Week. In Quito, in the Convent of La Concepción, the sisters still create beeswax candles for the same festivity. A nun explains that candles are an essential part of the Holy Week, and of almost all Catholic festivities, because they represent the Light of the Resurrection of Christ.
Yet candles have not been limited to convents. Due to this strong symbolism, many followers wanted to light their own candle during sacred times. As a result, candles made their presence felt during everyday life: from birth to death. In Colonial Quito, cirios burned during baptisms, they were held in children’s hands during first communions, and so on. Important people carefully ordered in their wills the desire to have beautiful ciriosburning during their funerals; for this, they paid large openhandedly in anticipation.

Cirios have also been present during many religious processions, which still occur in a wide range of Ecuadorian cities, throughout the entire year. Though processions are less elaborate since their prohibition in 1912, in Quito, they could not be fully eradicated. One example is the“Virgen del Tránsito” procession in August, in El Tejar neighborhood, in which altars made of cirios, ribbons and flowers decorate the balconies while the Virgin is transported on the streets.

Today, Ambato and Quito are the most famous candle-making centers in Ecuador. In Quito, close to Santo Domingo’s Church, artisans have been passing the skill of candle-making from generation to generation since 1893. “People buy our candles for baptisms, first communions, and especially right before Holy Week.”

At La Ronda Street, an artisan from Ambato and his assistant gladly explain the candle making process to passers-by: “We do everything manually, just like we have been doing for over thirty years!” they affirm. The first step is to slowly pour the paraffin, at a very low temperature, onto the candlewicks which are turned on a wheel. Later, the bouquet-like shapes of the cirios are achieved as the wax is poured into a mold. At this point, it is essential to dry the candle thoroughly, so that it will become durable. Durability is particularly important for thecirio pascual because it will be lit and placed in a church for Easter and must last the entire year. Could this possibly be a reminiscence of the muzhuc-nina?

Candles are perceived as direct ‘channels’ of connection to God. One candle maker explains: “You light a candle in the church so God can hear your prayer. I always tell my customers that if they light a candle with true faith, God will listen.”

Yet, artisans fret because light bulbs are replacing candles in some churches. They fear that somehow this will ‘interfere’ with the divine connection: “God says to make an offering with a candle, not with a light bulb! People’s faith will be affected by light bulbs!”

“No Candles Please”

Candle offerings seem to have other enemies besides light bulb enthusiasts. At San Francisco’s Church, a grayish hue tints a side altar’s walls and ceiling. This is due to the smoke of candle offerings that have been burned here for centuries. An old lady devoutly prays as she lights her candle directly underneath a sign which reads, “No candles please. Shrine under restoration.” But restoration artists are fighting a lost battle: how can this woman wait for months until the image is fixed to send her urgent prayers to God? Evidently, others have ‘bent the rules’ too, as dozens of candles lie on the ground next to the altar. “If they can’t be burned, at least they can be tossed on the floor of the shrine as an offering to God,” they seem to say.

The concept of lighting a candle has spilled over into slang. It’s common to hear someone say, when going through a challenging moment: “Please light a candle for me.” At a more symbolic level, this means: “I hope God listens to your prayer for me.”

Bibliography:

http://www.yucatan.com.mx (March 8, 2007).
http://www.eco.uva.es/santamariadenieva/loscirios.htm·cirio (March 10, 2007).
Neto-Carvalho, Pablo. (2001) Citing Cevallos. Diccionario del Folklore Ecuatoriano. Quito:CCE.
Neto- Carvalho, Pablo. (1967) Geografía del Folklore Ecuatoriano. Quito: CCE.

Personal Interviews: March 2007.

  • Ximena Carcelén
  • Susan Webster
  • Claudio Malo

Salasaca Tapestries

 

Who hasn’t heard of Otavalo’s Open Market reputation for Ecuadorian handicrafts? Yet people don’t know there are other interesting indigenous markets hidden in the Andean highlands. This is the case of the picturesque Salasaca Market, located in the Tungurahua province 13km from Ambato City.
Here, one can find a market in the main plaza, open seven days a week, full of colorful shigra bags, jet-black ponchos and most of all, the delightful Salasaca Tapestries.

Ancient Origins
Why are textiles such an important part of Andean culture? The availability of llamas, alpacas, cotton and other natural fibers combined with predominantly cold weather, allowed the development of this art. In fact, (Andean fabrics) form the longest continuous textile record in world history! Andean inhabitants were making objects out of fiber as early as 8000 B.C. Andean textiles are at least as old as 3000 B.C. Some elaborate fabrics were considered so precious, that they were used to trade goods, and even offered as sacrifices to the sun god Inti! Salasaca tapestries, though rather recent in their development, come from this long tradition of transforming fiber into art.
Once the Spanish came into the picture in the 16th century, they quickly saw the innate ability of the inhabitants and began to introduce lamb’s wool in order to establish “obrajes” (forced-labor establishments) to produce textiles for other Spanish colonies and the motherland. In fact, there are historical registers from the 19th century that record Salasaca’s prowess for weaving fine wool fabric in textile looms. They also made elaborate waist bands and fine ponchos for their own consumption, which are still produced today.

The Peace Corps: Friend or Foe?
When did tapestry-making develop? Some sources say it was in 1957 when Programa Punto IV taught three Salasacas to make tapestries based on methods for elaborating the traditional waist-bands. Later, these artisans formed a Cooperative and taught others in the village. However, most experts agree the “tapestry boom” didn’t occur until the 1960’s when Peace Corps volunteers reached Ecuador and recognized the Salasaca millenarian talent for textiles. The Peace Corps had a controversial role in the development of Ecuadorian handcrafts. Some say they intervened and influenced too much by bringing in foreign techniques and designs. Yet others say these U.S. youngsters helped indigenous communities rediscover their own talents, increase their sales, and therefore improve their lives. However, all agree that their designs and teaching changed Salasaca textiles forever. They introduced Pre-Columbian motifs from various regions of Ecuador including the Amazon region, as well as from other indigenous groups of the Americas such as Maya and Navajo Indians. They even brought patterns based on the drawings of the famous Dutch artists M.C. Escher! These became popular with tourists and sales increased.

The Otavalo-Salasaca Network

It wasn’t long until the market-savvy Otavalo Indians began to trade with the Salasacas and sell their tapestries in Otavalo and abroad as well. Later, ten Salasacas immigrated to Otavalo and taught them how to make these tapestries. Therefore, the Otavalo began to make their own innovations. For this reason, many people incorrectly believe the tapestries are from Otavalo and not from Salasaca!

Not all Tapestries are Created Equal

After interviewing several Salasaca artisans who have been making these handicrafts for over forty years, it is evident not all tapestries are of the same quality! The entire creation process requires care and quality control. First, the wool must be meticulously selected. It needs to be cleaned and combed and be 100% natural. Before, most of this wool was home-spun by women, but today this process is too laborious, so most of the wool is bought in Ambato and Cayambe. Then, the drawing is either invented by the artisan or commissioned by another artist. Once the design is established by the artisan, he (most weavers are men) will proceed to carefully weave; making sure the stitch is even, and tight. This process may take from a week to fifteen days, depending on the level of intricacy of the design. Then, the tapestry maybe delivered to other artisans who carefully add final touches such as wool chords on the edges, metal or tagua (vegetable ivory) inlays. This final process takes up to one week!

Purchasing Etiquette
Though most foreigners are told “you must haggle for prices at the markets!” , this is causing great stress on handicraft production. Artisans comment: “The tourists no longer care about quality or design; they only search for cheap prices. If this continues, it is no longer worth our time to make tapestries.” Some discouraged artisans say: “Why make a high-quality natural fiber product with original patterns, when buyers will be satisfied with synthetic pieces with little creativity? Therefore, if we wish this craft to continue existing, it may not be good etiquette to ruthlessly haggle for tapestries or handicrafts in general.

Artists and Artisans Unite
Though the general public may often not value tapestry-making, this is not the case with Ecuadorian artist. Several renowned Ecuadorian artists and graphic designers have commissioned Salasaca artisans to interpret their complex designs. They have introduced vibrant colors, abstraction, and new patterns which are skillfully represented in wool by the Salasacas. As artisans and artists unite, this could be the impulse necessary to prevent this tradition from unraveling.

Sources:
• Stone- Miller Rebecca et.al, To Weave for the Sun Thames and Hudson, Boston: 1992.

• Kyle, David. 2001, Ecuador DEBATE Nº www.dlh.lahora.com.ec May 2008.

• Salasacas http://groups.msn.com/salasaca-runakuna/artesania.msnw May 2008.
Personal Interviews:
• Artisans at Folklore Olga Fisch, May 2008.
• José Caizabamba, May 2008.
• Rudy Masaquiza; May 2008.

Zuleta: Identity on a String!

 

When the belligerent Incas reached Ecuador, they mostly found peaceful communities which were easily subdued. However, this was not the case of some ethnic groups, such as the Caranquis, found in the northern Ecuadorian Andes. As mentioned in XVI century documents, even the mighty Inca Huayna-Capac struggled to penetrate the Caranqui fortress; its remains still exist near modern day Zuleta, in the province of Imbabura. Today, Caranqui descendants continue to defend themselves from opponents that are even stronger than the Incas: poverty and the loss of identity. Their weapon, a surprising one: embroidery!

Through the preservation of the traditional art of embroidery, Zuleta women are helping entire families to raise their incomes, to become more educated and to gain national and international prestige. As a result, the Zuleta people hold their heads up high with pride.

In Andean culture, indigenous peoples have always prided themselves on their fine textile craftsmanship. The crisp mountainous air, along with the availability of cotton and of llama and alpaca wool, allowed for the weaving of elaborate textiles, rich in symbolic designs. In fact, textiles were so highly valued in Pre-Colombian times that master works were often sacrificed to Inti, the Sun God. However, embroidery is a European craft imported by the Spanish in the XVI century.

In colonial times, every self –respecting criollo young woman had to be able to embroider and sew if she hoped to ever get married! Soon, indigenous and mestizo women became attracted to the delicately embroidered designs. Little by little, the nimble fingers of indigenous women –so accustomed to spinning wool– surpassed those of their Spanish sisters. By the XIX century, indigenous women in Quito had assimilated the white embroidered blouse as a part of their traditional dress. Meanwhile, criollo women were abandoning these customary garments for the more modern Victorian and French styles. Ironically, the embroidered blouse, with its European origin, is an essential component of indigenous identity today.

 

Talent and Vision are Combined

It wasn’t until the 1940’s that Zuleta embroidery took off. Rosario Pallares, wife of former president Galo Plaza, recognized the Zuleta women’s innate ability for this art. She also saw that agriculture alone would not help the people of Zuleta to fight poverty. On her trips to Europe, she observed peasant women sitting on their doorsteps sewing beautiful embroidery. Then, she put two and two together: couldn’t Zuleta women do the same? Her husband fully supported her idea and together they set up an embroidery workshop at the old hacienda.

Fine cloth was fabricated in the hacienda’s textile looms. Nuns were brought from Spain to help teach new ideas and techniques to the women and children. At school, embroidery was an important subject. Some women remember that they had to present finely woven towels or risk failing! The nuns and teachers reinforced what was learned at home from mothers and grandmothers. Over time, the quality of materials and designs was perfected, new items were crafted and production increased. As a result, Zuleta embroidery began to gain value: sales went up, giving women an alternate source of income and, therefore, a sense of self-worth.

From the 1960’s- 1980’s, various Olga Fisch store designers cleverly combined Zuleta embroidery with elegant black gowns, jackets and capes, which were modeled on fashion run-ways. In the 1980’s, the then first ladies Eugenia Cordovez and Nancy Reagan wore these capes at official events. Soon, elite Ecuadorian women followed the trend. What was once seen as ‘low class’ was now seen as ‘chic.’

Currently, president Rafael Correa himself, has shocked many by wearing shirts with Zuleta embroidered collars to formal events, instead of ties. The women of the Asociación de Bordadoras de Zuleta agree that since the president started wearing these shirts, the sales for similar shirts and embroidered articles in general have gone up. Currently, they notice more visitors at the Zuleta market, which is held fortnightly on weekends.

 

Close-knit families

Embroidery has allowed women to raise their income while at the same time staying close to their families. One Zuleta women comments: “Embroidery helped my mother educate me as an accountant but I gave up my accounting career because embroidery allowed me to stay home and raise my children. My accounting skills have proven valuable to our family business. Nowadays, I can afford to send my children to university.” There are many similar success stories, as many Zuleteños have been able to gain a higher education.

Another mother-daughter team ponders and reflects: “Embroidery has given me life. It makes me feel good!” The mother continues with glowing eyes: “How could I not be proud of my identity? It has permitted me to travel and meet interesting people at exhibits and to give my children an education; but, most of all, I was able to stay home and raise my family.” Her daughter, a lawyer by profession, also helps with computer technology and implements new design ideas. As she cuddles her 4 month old baby, she reflects that, for her, embroidery is more a hobby. After a few more months, she will go back to her law firm, but she will continue to help her mother.

Though embroiderers are predominantly women, it is not exclusively a feminine affair. Sometimes, it’s like a big party: The daughter designs and draws, the mother and grandmother embroider, a sister will wash cloth, and the men tie the knots on the edges of table cloths and towels. At a time in which the Ecuadorian family is being divided by emigration, these family ties are a privilege.

 

Party Dress

Another evidence of this pride is that Zuleta women, young and old, still wear their traditional embroidered blouses with pleated skirts. Though some have blouses made on sewing machines –no small job– for special occasions, a hand embroidered shirt is a must. For the Fiestas de San Juan in June, one must dance the night away while flaunting a new outfit. The more elaborate and pricey, the better. In fact, an elaborate hand-made shirt can cost up to 300 American dollars!

During these times of globalization, Zuleta people are still fighting to preserve their cultural identity. Though not everyone is an economic success, the women comment: “You will not see our people begging on street corners. This, in part, is due to embroidery.”

 

DON’T FALL FOR IMITATIONS:TIPS FOR BUYING AN AUTHENTIC, QUALITY ZULETA EMBROIDERED PIECE:

  • 100% cotton cloth or linen for towels, table cloths, etc. to ensure the cloth won’t loosen or bunch up.
  • High quality thread, not made in China. In this way, the colors won’t bleed.
  • Embroidery: Stitches should be tightly woven. This shows better craftsmanship. Check the work on the backside and notice if the knots and stitches are not too different from the ones on the front side.

 

Bibliography:

  • Ayala Mora, Enrique,et. At. (1988) Nueva Historia del Ecuador. Vol 1. Quito:Corporacion Editora Nacional.
  • Obando, Segundo. (1988) Tradiciones de Imbabura. Quito: Abya-Yala.

 

Personal Interviews: May 2007.

  • Rosa Alvear
  • Glenda Mora
  • Teresa Casa
  • Pastora Chachalo
  • Fundacion Galo Plaza Lasso

Beautiful Hand-Made Rugs Spread Ecuadorian Creativity and Culture

Text: Carolina Matheus
Photos: Martina Orska

To think that it was a rug which opened the way for a weaving tradition, which still continues today!  This is the case of beautiful Guano rugs which have played an important role in promoting Ecuador’s cultural richness throughout the world.  This is because the textiles patterns are based on Ecuadorian traditional design and also because the rugs are of high quality.

“One day a man asked if he could call upon us. He introduced himself as Lincoln Kirstein. ‘I am the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.’ he said…. Among the things Kirstein noticed was a small rug, lying on the estera, which I had designed and was woven in Guano. Upon learning that the rug was my doing, he asked, ‘Would you like to make one for the Museum of Modern Art’  …with that money we opened the Folklore shop.”

After Olga Fisch’s rug made it to the MOMA, Ecuadorian rugs began to travel the world.  In the 1950’s the United Nations in New York and The Metropolitan Opera House, decided to purchase one.  Former Ecuadorian president Sixto Durán –Ballén also helped send one to Washington D.C. during his time in the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) during this time.  It wasn’t just Olga Fisch who saw the potential of these carpets; other artists such as famous architect Otto Glass also had his designs interpreted in wool by the skilled Guano weavers.   In fact, in the 50’s and 60’s “anybody who was anybody” had to design or own a Guano rug.

Weaving for the Spanish Empire

How did the rug industry begin in Ecuador?

Though quality textiles have existed in the Andean Region since Pre-Columbian times, the Spanish promoted the wool textile industry in what is present- day Ecuador.  In fact, by the XVII textiles were the primary motor of the Real Audiencia de Quito’s economy. The obrajes, large textile workshops in which indigenous people worked from dusk to dawn, sprawled all over the highlands. They were more common in the cool provinces of Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Pichincha and Imbabura. The fabric was highly valued and traveled thought the Spanish Empire, to the opulent capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru Lima in the South; and all the way to vibrant commercial port of Cartagena (present day Colombia) in the North.  During the XVIII and XIX centuries, many elite homes and haciendas flaunted these carpets, recognized for their warmth and delicate colonial- style floral patterns.

Elaboration process: 100% hand made:

Currently, in a small city called Guano in the Chimborazo province, and in Ambato, rug makers have passed down from generation to generation this textile industry they learned during the colonial period.  The rugs are still hand- made in looms in workshops, which fortunately no longer have the oppressive obraje system.

The process has several steps.  First, for a high quality rug, 100% sheep’s wool is purchased and cleaned, then dyed with aniline colors. Then, usually women wind the wool into a ball and separate it into one strand of yarn.  The weavers must strictly follow the design which is drawn on a large sheet of paper with squares on it. For the untrained eye, it looks like a prize-winning jigsaw puzzle, but for the weaver it is the map, the blue-print for the rug.

The warp is made by cotton and it is considered the “soul” of the rug.  The large vertical textile loom usually requires several weavers sitting next to one another (up to seven people!) and skillfully understanding the unspoken rhythm of combining warp and weft so that each knot is the same size. According to one textile shop owner in Ambato who has been making these rugs for 62 years, women are better workers because they are more meticulous and patient! Once the rug is woven after a process which can take up to three months, the women will cut the edged in order to even out the carpet.  As one owner explains “It is much like grooming a man’s beard which needs to be even so he can be handsome.”

Designs promote Ecuadorian Culture and Nature

Because most of the rugs are based on Ecuadorian archeology, colonial art and popular art, they promote Ecuadorian culture as they travel throughout the world.  For example, most of Olga Fisch’s rugs have native names such as Carchi  an ethnic group located in Northern Ecuador from 500 b.c.-1500 a.d.  However, her rugs have her own personal innovate design and interpretation.   Recently, other Ecuadorian artists are using the rug as a “canvas.”  They are making abstract designs based Ecuadorian animals, colors and scenery which are interpreted by Guano and Ambato weavers with precision.

Hopefully, in the future, this traditional craft will continue to transmit the richness of Ecuador’s diversity and culture as artist and buyers continue to value this craft.

What to look for when buying a good rug:

-THE MORE KNOTS AND THE TIGHTNESS OF THE KNOT WILL MAKE A BETTER CARPET.
-HIGH QUALITY ANILINE DYES
-100% SHEEP’S WOOL
HAND MADE.

Sources:

Interviews: Ruperto Muñoz, June 2008

Cotacachi Leather: Quality Government, Quality Leather

 

Who would have thought that a little city, in a small province of a developing nation, would have international recognition? This is the case of Cotacachi, in the province of Imbabura, Ecuador. Cotacachi is the proud winner of the Participative Democracy, Dubai 2000 prize, which is given to a city that has: “One of the most sound environmental, social and economic practices in its local government.” This isn’t the only prize it has received. In 2002, the Unesco honored it with the City of Peace prize for its dedication to dialogue and democracy. So, why does it have so much attention? As you are on your way to Otavalo, you must visit Cotacachi because of its cultural diversity, alluring vistas, its unique democratic government and, most of all, its beautiful leather crafts.

A Focus on Diversity and Education

As you walk towards the Cultural Center, or through the main plaza, you will run into bustling Otavalo Indians; mestizos diligently working in their shops; and, occasionally, local black people selling products as well. The current mayor, Auki Tituaña, an Otavalo Indian, has realized the importance of Cotacachi’s ethnic diversity and has therefore created an assembly in which black, Indian and mestizo, as well as urban and rural people, all participate as part of the local government. Perhaps the fact that he is one of the first Indigenous mayors in Ecuadorian history has given him a unique perspective. As a result, the Cotacachi people are becoming active citizens who are learning to take responsibility for what occurs in their city and region. This work hasn’t gone unnoticed and, consequently, the prizes mentioned above.

In a country in which presidents remain in power for an average of two years, it is exceptional that Mayor Auki Tituaña has been in office for ten years (democratically reelected). His persistence and the system’s continuity have allowed him and his assembly system to obtain improvements for his people. For example, 37% of the budget goes towards environmental cleanup; 22%, towards education; and, 28%, towards social development. This is a one of kind financial plan, in a country in which the less than 6% of the budget goes towards education! These efforts have positive results, such as better public health and being the only illiteracy-free county in Ecuador, in 2005.

Protecting the environment is also a priority in Cotacachi. One leather shop worker explains that in the last decade, they have been forced to use more environmentally friendly products for leather dying and they aren’t allowed to dump toxic waste into the rivers. He comments: “This is all for the best. We need to take care of our rivers for the future generations.” Cotacachi has the impressive Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, which protects a wide range of endangered species. In a country in which environmental degradation is rampant, the fact that local governments are emphasizing environmental protection is uncommon and admirable.

Beautiful Leather Crafts

Not only are the Government and population quite exceptional, the fine leather crafts elaborated in Cotacachi are also outstanding. This is because the artisans take great care in the elaboration process, they renovate their designs, and they offer competitive prices.

Though other areas of Ecuador also specialize in leather goods, Cotacachi is unique because great skill is put in to the entire elaboration process. All Cotacachi artisans buy already tanned leather because this highly polluting process is not consistent with the mayor’s environmentally friendly philosophy. It requires a trained eye to buy good tanned leather. Once purchased, the leather must be carefully washed and softened. Drying the leather is the next step. This must be done in the open air but without direct sunlight and it takes between 24-48 hours. At this point, grease or linseed oil is evenly applied, (previously, guarango oil, which is extracted from a type of acacia, was used). This is a key aspect in order to ensure durability and flexibility in the leather. Next, the leather is dyed in an infinite myriad of colors. Today, most of these dyes are of better quality and biodegradable. A key step occurs at this point: the leather is cut in very thin slivers. It must be done with a steady hand and with special machinery in order to ensure uniformity and a thin cut. If it’s too thick, the leather will be too rough, and if it’s uneven, it will have a very sloppy look. If the leather passes quality control, it is then ready to become a jacket, suitcase, purse, saddle, belt, wallet or any other garment conjured up by the designer’s imagination. A lacquer is applied to protect and give shine, and the garment is finally ready! It will make its way to the various shops on the 10 de Agosto Street in Cotacachi.

There are some variants to the process. For example, some stretch the leather and then beat it in barrels in order to make sure it becomes very soft. However, the artisans and knowledgeable customers all agree: hand-selected and hand-cut pieces are incomparable to industrially assembled leather.

A Just Price

Because the process is mostly hand-made, as mentioned above, it is time consuming and, as a result, large volumes cannot be obtained. For example, the owner of one of the larger and fancier shops, explains that they produce an average of 100 to 150 garments a month. Therefore, their prices aren’t as cheap as industrial-made leather goods. However, some of his suede vests and jackets -which cost around $150- would easily go for $500 in Europe or the USA. Unfortunately, he explains, many tourists want to obtain high quality garments for $30. He tells us: “This is impossible because of the care and time we put into our products!” In some other areas of Ecuador, leather products can be obtained at lower prices, yet the quality may be questionable.

About fifteen years ago, most leather products in Cotacachi had little creative design. There was only one jacket style, purse style and wallet style …not so, today. The designers are constantly traveling to Quito to buy fashion magazines and surfing the Internet to see what’s in style. Another artisan explains: “The Internet has been a great help for us! Also, we test out different designs and see how consumers react. Ultimately, the costumer has the last word on our designs.” At some shops, you can have a jacket or saddle custom-made! This is a luxury that would be extravagantly priced in a developed country. “We have to evolve and renovate all the time, or we die!” says another storeowner, while proudly showing a cow-skin and leather purse, which could easily be found in pricey boutiques in New York or L.A.

How It Began

Most entrepreneurs aren’t exactly clear on how the business developed, yet all seem to agree that saddle making was the basis. One artisan who has been working with leather since he was 13 explains: “Our grandparents and parents made leather saddles and reigns because horses were used to bring in the cattle and as a means of transportation. We made our own saddles for our personal use.” Little by little, people began to see that their goods were appreciated in other parts of Ecuador and the sales began. During World War II, change purses and belts were made and, in the 1960’s, leather jackets came in style. At one point, many Colombian tourists poured into northern Ecuador and were great clients. However, after the dolarization in 1999, Ecuador became too expensive, so they stopped coming. Today, most of the products are for local tourists and for shops in Quito and, to some extent, for foreign tourists.

Legend has it that the Cotacachi Mountain was very flirtatious and, though she married the powerful Rucu (Old) Pichincha, she had an affair with the younger and more handsome Imbabura Mountain. In revenge, Rucu Pichincha stole their first-born son, Guagua Pichincha. Because of this, Cotacachi cries every day and thus produced the Cotacachi Lake from her bitter tears. It’s not surprising that Cotacachi has charmed so many lovers, for she is very attractive and so is the city beneath her. Many people become captivated by Cotacachi’s cultural richness, striking scenery, its dedication for a better government and its lovely leather crafts. Be sure to pass by on your visit through Imbabura!

Tips for buying a good leather product:

Though the quality largely depends on the raw material and the elaboration process of the leather itself, there are some telltale signs when buying. Also, remember there is a wide range of quality and prices in Cotacachi itself:

    • Leather should be soft and flexible.
    • Leather should be thin, (unless it’s vaqueta, used for saddles, some briefcases and belts, which is thick and sturdy).
    • The finish must be good. Check the buttons and zippers: are they very cheap? Are they stitched on securely?
    • For a leather jacket: check if it is assembled by several pieces, like a ‘quilt’, or is it made of only a few pieces. In this case: “Less is more.”
    • You can bargain and haggle, but not too much. Remember all the labor that goes into the product. Bargaining too much is insulting.

Bibliography:

– Journal “Cotacachi 146 años: Multicultural, diversa, universal.” July 2007.

Personal Interviews:

– Julio Morales, August 2007.
– Pedro Caiza, August 2007

Shigra Bags: A Colorful craft which carries tradition.

 

Text: Carolina Matheus
Photos: Martina Orska

A lonesome indigenous woman with wind-weathered cheeks glides silently across the cold Andean fields.   She is planting.  The fog rolls in, and she becomes a dark ghostly figure, against the jet -black earth.   In the midst of this bleak scenario, stands out, a colorful hand bag hanging from her shoulder, the woman’s companion is her hand-sewn shigra bag, which helps her carry plants, seeds, and food.

This is a typical Andean scene which could have occurred centuries ago, or in the 20th century. This is because handbags have been part of women’s daily life since Pre-Columbian times. Archeologists have found similar handbags that are 1000 years old! Why have the hand bags withstood the test of time? This is because designers have rediscovered the Ecuadorian shigra handbag, as a practical and stylish way of carrying one’s personal belongings.

Ancient Origins

Textiles have always been paramount to Andean culture.  The availability of llamas, alpacas, cotton and other natural fibers combined with predominantly cold weather, allowed the development of this art.  In fact, (Andean fabrics) form the longest continuous textile record in world history!Andean inhabitants were making objects out of fiber as early as 8000 B.C.Andean textiles are at least as old as 3000 B.C.  Some elaborate fabrics were considered so precious, that they were used to trade goods, and even offered as sacrifices to the sun god Inti! The shigra bag, though modest compared to other Andean textiles, is part of this tradition of creating fiber crafts.

A woman’s measuring cup?

Shigra hand bags originated as a practical article created BY women and FOR women in the Central Andean provinces of Cotopaxi, Tungurahua, and Chimborazo. Until recent years, women used these bags to carry seeds and plants.  In fact, some authors believe that the different size shigras were used as a unit of measurement.  For example, a 60 centimeter size shigra, could resemble, say, the amount of quinua seeds needed to plant one acre.  Something like today’s measuring cups!

No laziness allowed!

Laziness was severely punished during the Inca Empire. The Inca commanded that even on a walk from home to the village, or when pasturing sheep, or household chores, people should never be idle.Therefore, women always had to be sewing, weaving or spinning wool, even as they walked from one place to another. It is perhaps for this reason that as recently as twenty years ago, women could still be seen walking around with multicolored fibers, a needle, and a half -completed shigra hanging from their waistband while they were herding their flock of sheep!

The Elaboration Process: Natural Fibers

How do these women make the shigra?  It is a process with several steps:   It starts off by preparing the raw material which is a resistant natural fiber from a beautiful tree called cabuya (Agave, in English).  Then, the mature leaves are sliced into long strands which must be soaked in water for 15 days in order free the fiber of pulp residue.  A this point a sewing needle is used to begin the shigra, starting from an oval shaped base, and moving upwards in a swirling circular form.  For those who sew, the technique is very similar to the crochet technique. Although the designs are created at the whim and imagination of each woman, over the years, some motifs have evolved. For example, some favorites are the vibrant zig -zag shapes called quingo in quichua, orchauto chaqui which resembles llama feet. Originally, the shigra was adorned with human and also some animal forms, but today the women have become more lenient towards abstract design.

The dying process

Before, the women dyed the cabuya with natural colors made from achote or other plants.  However, these colors would often run, so today the colors are made from aniline in order to avoid this problem. In recent years many women sell their shigras to experts in Saquisili village.  These men will finish the dying process in order to ensure a quality product.  However, some of these techniques are zealously protected so that the business will not be copied!

The shigra reinvented: Innovation and Fashion

In the 1970’s several Ecuadorian and foreign artists began to value the beauty of Ecuadorian arts and crafts.  The attractive multihued shigras did not go unnoticed!  Several artists began to recognize the potential of this handbag.  They used their creativity to explore ideas.  New colors, sizes, designs, and materials such as silver, suede, and leather inlays were incorporated.  What once was a utilitarian bag for indigenous women only; began to make the Ecuadorian and international fashion scene.  Today, quality shigras have leather straps, no running colors, and are lined inside.

The shigra has remained an important Andean handicraft because it carries a long tradition of fabric design.  It will carry on as long as artists continue to reinterpret it and value it as a versatile, and fashionable object which has an ancient story to tell.

shigra

Sources:

  • Cisneros Hernán,  Textiles y Tintes , CIDAP, FONCULTURA, 1988.  at www.edufuturo.com
  • Cuvi, P. Crafts of Ecuador. Quito: Dinediciones, 1994.
  • Stone- Miller Rebecca et.al, To Weave for the Sun Thames and Hudson, Boston: 1992.

Personal Interviews:

  • Miriam Gónzalez, Maqui, April 2008
  • Personnel Folklore Olga Fisch  April 2008.

Stone-Miller, Rebecca, pg 13.

Ibid.

Sapán-Banana Crafts: Weaving from Waste

The banana tree, originally named Musa Paradisica in 1753, is the most widely consumed fruit in the world. Perhaps this is due to its delicious taste, or its nutritional value, since it is rich in potassium vitamin A and C. It originally comes from South East Asia, but it has made its way to almost the entire world. It was not until the XVI century that the Portuguese brought it to the Americas.  Though India is the largest producer, mostly for its’ vast internal market, Ecuador is the leading exporter. Many people relate Ecuador to banana production. It is even stereotyped as a “banana republic.”  Yet, most people don’t realize the banana tree has a wide range of uses, far beyond eating its tasty and wholesome fruit.  For example, in Uganda, the leaves are wrapped for steaming a traditional dish made from goat meat, in Guatemala the same is done with pork. Throughout the Americas, a wide variety of dishes require steaming with the banana leaf.  Expert chefs say it produces an exquisite flavor.

Besides its uses in the kitchen; in the Guayas Province, Ecuadorian artisans are skillfully turning banana tree “waste” into beautifully woven crafts, known as Sapán- Banana crafts.  These crafts are innovative because from the elaboration process, to the marketing process, it’s incorporating a new approach in which priority is given to the environment and to the artisan’s well being.

How are Sapan crafts made?
It takes vision to see trash as a possible raw material for arts and crafts. This is exactly what artisans are doing with Sapán- Banana Products.  First, large banana plantations donate the banana ‘waste’.  Then, the fiber is removed from the plant’s stalk which must be carefully dried.  At this point, the artisan must remove the fiber, and begin the meticulous process of weaving the sapán.   Because the fibers are delicate, one must be very familiar with the procedure in order to make a high quality product.  Sapán is often intertwined with Toquilla straw (the straw used to make Panama Hats) because it gives more firmness and makes the fiber more malleable. The combination of the two fibers produce a myriad of brown, beige, and dark green tones which are the basis for making a variety of  attractive objects. These range from dainty bread baskets, to modern place mats, coasters, and a variety of decorative pieces. They say necessity is the mother of invention, but who would have thought to use the stalk of the banana tree to make beautifully woven objects?!
Obviously, Sapán products are environmental friendly because they are 100% natural, hand-made, and use parts of the banana tree which would otherwise be considered waste.  In this way, no new trees need to be cut down. Sapán crafts allow locals to put less pressure on the environment, and also to give locals an alternative to environmental degradation.

The People Come First
Not only are Sapán-banana crafts original in that they are environmentally friendly, under the leadership of Pro-pueblo, they are also giving priority to the well-being of local Ecuadorian artisans.  Pro-pueblo is a non-profit organization which has  boosted the local economy by teaching coastal villagers how to work several crafts using  natural materials such as vegetable ivory, recycled paper, ceramics and also Sapan Banana products.  Propueblo fosters the well-being of artisans in several ways.  For example, it promotes artisans to work from their own homes and villages. In this way, they no longer have to immigrate to the cities to look for jobs. At a time in which many Ecuadorians parents have to immigrate to the city or abroad in order to support their families, these artisans have the advantage that they can work from home, and keep the nuclear family united.  One can witness then at the San Antonio village, Guayas Province, where one can visit the shops and artisans.

Another novel approach to the sale of Sapán crafts is that it strives to give artisans a more just price for their labor-intensive work.  This is a new approach based on the precepts of “Fair Trade” in which an initial cost is previously established in mutual agreement by the artisan and Pro-Pueblo.  In this way, the artisan is ensured a just price. Through the sales of Sapán crafts, the local artisan is able to make at decent living. Before, many villagers were either unemployed or underemployed.

Novel Designs
It’s not easy to compete in today’s globalized economy.  Even artisans have to face the competition, especially from Asia.  Just like industrialized products, Asian crafts are also extremely cheap.  One Pro-Pueblo representative explains, “Because for us the artisan comes first, 90% of our costs are manual labor.  In Asia, a person is paid one dollar a day, while here in Ecuador we pay six dollars a day. Since we can’t compete with Asia in prices, we try to compete in quality of materials and design.”  This is why the Sapán artisans are constantly renewing and reinventing their objects and designs.

In a world in which mass consumption has destroyed our natural habitat, it is encouraging to see alternatives to exploitation and environmental degradation.  It is only through seeing our natural and human resources with new eyes, that we can salvage our planet for future generations.

Written by: Carolina Matheus

The Panama Hat History: An Icon of Style and Elegance throughout history

“I cannot conceive of a hat- made of straw- woven by the hand of a man, more beautiful than this one. I hold it in my hands still in awe of its maker.  Before the ribbon and leather sweatband were added, it weighed less than a letter on my stationary.  I feel the brim between thumb and forefinger. I’ve turned book pages that are thicker than this.”

Brent Black. Journalist-writer and Panama Hat specialist.

Light- weight, delicate, flexible, yet strong and resistant.  No wonder the Panama Hat, is one of Ecuador’s most world acclaimed handicrafts!  This is because it is a display of exquisite craftsmanship which has become a symbol of masculine elegance for over a century around the world.  Besides, it has a tight relationship with events in Ecuador’s history.

Ancient origins

Since Pre-Colombian times, the Panama hat fiberhas been interwoven with Ecuador’s history.  As early as 500-1500 a.d., coastal ethnic groups such as ManteñoHuancavilca, and Manta were already familiar with weaving the fine fiber extracted from the Paja Toquilla palm.  There is some archeological evidence in ancient ceramic and stone figures found in Guayas and Manabi Provinces, in which masculine figurines wear a primitive “head protection” on their heads. Though this theory needs further study, the fact that the home of the best Panama Hatweavers is precisely in this region, gives more support to this hypothesis.

A fiber with a royal name

In the 17th century creole weavers (Spaniards born in the Americas) began to learn from the coastal natives. They saw them using this palm with long leaves shooting out from the ground; for roofing, basket weaving, and making fans. Thus, the creoles developed a simple hat which they called ‘toque’ hence the name Paja Toquillawhich is the common name of the palm.   However, in the 18th century, Spanish scientists baptized the palm with a more elegant scientific name, Carludovica palmata, in honor of King Charles the IV of Spain and his wife Luisa.

Montecristi hats begin to travel abroad

By the 19th century the Paja Toquilla hat, (known as montecristis or jipijapas) had become a must for Ecuadorians in the coast. Plantation owners and plantation workers a like, saw this light-weight, and supple hat as essential protection from the scorching equatorial sun.

When did the montecristis begin to travel abroad? It was a shrewd Spanish merchant, living in Montecristi, Ecuador, named Manuel Alfaro who realized the hat’s potential. He began to export them for the use of California Gold Rush workers and became very wealthy! In fact, his son Eloy Alfaro also continued to expand the family fortune through hat exports. He was later to become president of Ecuador and it is said he financed much of his liberal revolution through these sales.  Yet it was in 1855 in the Paris World Fair that the hat was launched to world-wide prestige. “The hat did not even mention Ecuador as a participating country…. The French man Philippe Raimondi, arriving from Panama, where he lived, presented the toquilla hat in France for the first time….The fineness of the texture did not cease to impress Parisians, despite their reputation as demanding costumers, and the catalog of the World Fair mentioned a hat in ‘straw cloth’!  From then on the montecristi began to be known as the Panama Hat.  Its fame grabbed a hold of Europe and never left the high fashion scene.

The Panama Canal

It was 1904 in the hot, damp and mosquito-infested construction sight of one of the world’s most amazing engineering projects: the construction of the Panama Canal.  The United States continued, where the French left off.  The entire world had its eyes on the building of the Canal, and photos of workers wearing the airy and comfortable montecristi hat were shown in the world press.  It was images of President Theodore Roosevelt inspecting the Panama Canal which truly brought the hat to the limelight, and firmly established the montecristi as the Panama Hat forever.

A laborious creation process

To create a great Panama Hat is no easy task!  There are several complicated steps, and each one is equally important if the final product is to be of high quality.

First, in the villages near Montecristi, there are specialists in cultivating, buying and preparing the fiber. Sheaths of immature leaves or cogollos are gathered in bundles. Then, they must be skillfully separated into thin strands which must be cut and submerged under water for around 6-7 hours in order to make the fiber flexible.  There are several other steps which the palm must undergo, in order to ensure the quality of that which will become a fine hat.  When it reaches the hands of expert hat makers in villages such as Pilé, the plant needs to remain wet in order to be malleable between the artisan’s nimble fingers.  Many expert hat makers only work at dawn or in the evening so that the hot sun will not dry up this precious raw material.

According to Panama Hat expert Martine Buchet: “Though each montecristi is unique, the successive stages remain the same. At the start, (the artisan) creates the rosette, the center of the crown; this is made with eight fibers in a tight lattice. As the weaving proceeds, new straws are added to enlarge the circle and bring the crop up to the desired size.  This part can be done in a seated position… when the end of the crown is completed; the piece must be placed on a form which is itself set on a tripod stand, after which the work is carried out on an upright weaving position.”  This is a long, uncomfortable and painstaking process. Then, the artisan has to have a good eye to make a fine brim for his hat. It usually takes about a month to make one Panama Hat!  Although some finos and superfinos can take up to six months!   Once the basic hat is complete, it usually goes to Montecristi where another artisan will give the hat its “final touches.” If the result is to be an exquisite hat, the process requires skill, patience and in the last stages, creativity.  For this reason the Panama hat has become a coveted item around the world.

An Icon of Masculine Elegance

In the 1940’s Panama Hats had become a symbol of masculine elegance around the world. Therefore, it became one of Ecuador’s main exports during this time! Political figures such as Winston Churchill, Gustavus V King of Sweden, Krushev, and President of Ecuador Galo Plaza often wore one during international events.  Film stars also helped glorify the Panama Hat.  For example, Visconti’s famous movie “Death in Venice” showed scenes in which the main characters wear the hat.  Paul Newman also flaunted it. Today, Brazilians, Peruvians and Ecuadorians often wear the hat for classy occasions.

From Pre-Columbian times, to the Ecuadorian Liberal Revolution, to the making of the Panama Canal, themontecristi has witnessed important historical events. It is valued because it must undergo an arduous elaboration process, and is considered refined, yet comfortable and practical. For this reason, even though it is misnamed as the Panama hat, it remains an elegant ambassador of Ecuador to the rest of the world.

A few tips to finding a quality Panama hat:

  • The quality of the hat is measured by the fineness of its weave and the rows in its crown
  • Though Cuenca also makes beautiful hats, the montecristi should not be confused with straw hats made in Cuenca.
  • The texture should be thin and smooth
  • Look at the weave through a magnifying glass

Sources:

Buchet, Martine. Panama: A Legendary Hat. Paris:Editions Assouline.

Tamariz  de Aguilar, María Leonor. Tejiendo la Vida “Las artesanías de Paja Toquilla en el Ecuador”, CIDAP.

http://www.sica.gov.ec March 2008

www.edufuturo.com March 2008

Personal Interview: Miriam Gonzalez, Maqui Crafts, Quito, March 2008.

Buchet, Martine. Panama: A Legendary Hat.  Paris:Editions Assouline.

Tamariz  de Aguilar, María Leonor. Tejiendo la Vida “Las artesanías de Paja Toquilla en el Ecuador” ,  CIDAP.

Buchet, Martine

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