FRUITS OF THE LOOM
High in the Andes, a respected Peruvian artist is reviving interest in weaving,
which she feels captures the essence of her people
text and photos by Ellen Warner
We race down the three lane motorway at 80 mph. Suddenly without warning, it ends. We slam on the brakes and screech to a halt at the edge of a field. Bewildered, we scan the horizon until we see car tracks leading to a small road on the far side. A few days later, on a Sunday afternoon as we are heading back to our hotel, we hear music-show tunes from the '40s. We round a corner and confront a 45-piece orchestra playing on the sidewalk. Such is Cuba; a country of surprise, of whim and humour. Its charm is the unexpected. Each day is an adventure.
Visually, Cuba is a country frozen in time. Havana feels like the 1950s with James Dean-style cars and bicycles used as the principal means of transport. Outside Havana it is nearer the turn of the century. In towns horse-drawn wagons serve as buses, taxis are horse-drawn carriages or bicycle rickshaws.
Nowhere is the time warm more apparent than in the architecture. Only a handful of buildings and monuments have been constructed since the Revolution in 1959. Scarcely anything has been demolished, little has been painted, nothing maintained. Multiple families live in what used to be grand single family palacios. Laundry hangs over ornate Baroque embellishments, modestly clad people lounge in Art Nouveau doors and talk through windows of superb iron grillwork, and glimpses of ornate staircases and beautiful tiles are part of walking down any street in Havana. As a photographer with a particular interest in Cuban architecture, I have spoken to people who have been to Cuba and read considerably, but nothing has prepared me for such contrasts.
Cuba, 'the pearl of the Antilles', was discovered in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, who called it "the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen" and claimed it for Spain. Six decades later Havana was the legal way station for every galleon sailing from Spain's American colonies back to Europe. Treasures of the New World from Mexico to Peru passes through Havana, enriching the city's merchants and businessmen.
By the end of the 18th century Cuba had become the world's leading sugar producer and enjoyed unparalleled prosperity in the New World. The arts flourished and the upper classes wanted only the best for their houses in Havana and country plantations. After the Haitian uprising in 1791 French planters from Haiti poured into Cuba, bringing their taste in music, theatre, philosophy and architecture, which combined with the Spanish/Creole heritage to produce the eclecticism for which Cuba is known.
Over time, each Andean settlement developed its own weaving techniques and motifs; villages attached special meanings to animal and geometric patterns. For centuries, knowledge about textiles was passed on through observation, explanation, and practice. Girls would begin weaving yarn in small groups at age seven or eight while they watched over the village's sheep. Then, in their early teens, they'd ask women in their community for further instruction. At 17 or 18, about the time they married, they would form a working partnership with an older woman that lasted a lifetime.
But this custom started to decline in the 1970's as children began attending school rather than herding sheep, thus losing the first step in the practice of weaving. At the same time, radios and roads arrived in the hinterlands, bringing influences from radically different cultures.
Today, Callanaupa is encouraging women to use the yarn they spin, as they did in the past, and to dye it with coloring made with indigenous plants and insects. Meanwhile, her researchers are combing villages in the two-mile-high mountains that surround
Gradually, the descendants of the Incas abandoned local arts in favor of crafts produced for the tourist trade, and shed traditional clothing for T-shirts and jeans. Some women put their looms aside to farm while their husbands labored as porters on hiking expeditions. Others sold to factories the fleece they harvested from llamas, alpaca, and sheep, and did their own weaving with acrylic.Cuzco, and discovering almost-forgotten techniques and patterns. One weaving process found in Pitumarca dates back to A.D.500; another design, used in belts made in Cotabambas, is believed to have originated in the 13th century.
In the village of Chinchero, artisans have come up with 42 patterns for the center to study, and Callanaupa has set up a classroom program in which children interview weavers about their art and its meaning. Because Peruvian schools ban traditional dress in favor of uniforms, she says, "young people have gotten the impression that our two-thousand-year-old textile tradition isn't important enough to preserve."
Meanwhile, textile production is rising in the six villages where Callanaupa is active. Since her Cuzco center does a brisk business selling their goods, villagers don't need to leave home to supplement their incomes. And people are wearing traditional clothing again, "My hope is that this new generation will appreciate our culture and wear our textiles on a daily basis," says Callanaupa, "rather than only on fiesta days."