Saturday, December 6, 2014

Artisans in Colombia: "The Essence of Our Work is Fading"

By: Ayleen Cabas Mijares
Produced & Edited By: Megan Laird

Traditional artisans strive to keep their unique cultural expressions alive in the modern market

© Courtesy of: Artesanias de Colombia

A Historical Art

His hands dive into boiling water and take out a mass that looks like gum at first glance. He stretches the mass with his hands and mouth, then smashes it with a hammer, and puts it back into hot water. Eduardo Muñoz will repeat this process at least thirty times to distill impurities from the material, which he will later use to impregnate plates, vessels, canvases and sculptures with indigenous culture. The “gum” are the leaves of the mopa-mopa tree transformed into varnish, and Muñoz has devoted to this material for more than fifty years.

To witness Muñoz work with mopa-mopa is to lay eyes upon a craft whose origins trace back to the 10th century A.D. Inhabitants of Pasto’s indigenous community—established in the current capitol of south western Colombia’s Department of Nariño—used the material to craft and decorate water resistant objects. The technique appealed to the Spanish conquistadors, and throughout the colonial period, Pasto artisans decorated utensils with characteristic images of European culture.

“This is an example of how an extraneous influence can kill a culture,” Muñoz says. “The varnish didn’t reflect indigenous legends and cosmovision anymore. I try to bring it back by working with the same materials and techniques the indigenous used. I always do research on Pasto culture to accurately represent it.”

© Courtesy of: Luis Angel Arango Library
Muñoz is among many whose ultimate goal is to rescue ancient Colombian traditions. The conservation of traditional artisanship techniques and the culture behind them has been part of Colombia’s governmental policy for decades. However, the preservation of cultural patrimony is an intricate task and many artisans still fear the disappearance of their traditions in the midst of the sector’s modernization.

Perishing Through Adaptation?

Artesanías de Colombia (Artisanships of Colombia)—the government corporation that coordinates Colombia’s craftsmanship policies—celebrated its 50th anniversary this year.

“We hope to keep helping the artisans improve their quality of life and promote their craft in the modern market,” says Ariadna Padrón of Artesanías de Colombia. This year, 8,000 artisans have taken advantage of the company’s services.

The corporation offers programs to develop artisans’ skills in making and marketing their crafts. Iván Moreno, also of Artesanías de Colombia, works side by side with artisans to see how they can improve their products by incorporating sophisticated materials and design technology, to a degree.

“A multidisciplinary team of professionals meets regularly with artisans to think about new and sustainable practices that can reduce the production costs and make their products better, more eco-friendly and profitable,” Moreno says.

© Courtesy: Eduardo Muñoz Lora
However, as Artesanías de Colombia advocates for the improvement of artisanship, many of its essential features might be getting lost in the process. For UNESCO, the special nature of artisanal products derives from their distinctive characteristics, which can be utilitarian, artistic, culturally attached or socially symbolic. The last two are the most important and difficult features to preserve.

Muñoz says many traditional artisans perceive the government and Artesanías de Colombia as trying to save something they do not fully understand. “It’s impossible for them (as people born and raised in another culture) to apprehend the ancient traditions that make every piece of artisanship unique. They cannot reach the heart of cultures. Despite of their good intentions, the essence of our work is fading.”

Even within the government there are different opinions about how to safeguard artisanship. “The efforts are currently focused on improving the artisans’ quality of life from an economic perspective,” says Juan Henao of the Ministry of Culture. “Policy makers fail to prioritize the fact that these crafts are manifestations of our cultural identity as Colombians.”

Henao works in the Ministry of Culture’s Division of Immaterial Patrimony, which develops policies to sustain the survival of traditional arts. The goals of the division are to ensure the proper documentation and diffusion of artisanal practices, and encourage artisans to keep teaching their craft to new generations.

© Courtesy: Eduardo Muñoz Lora
Since 2009, The Division uses the national Representative List of Immaterial Patrimony—inspired in a similar tool created by UNESCO—to give recognition and financial aid to communities that wish to protect their cultural heritage. “Each community has to present a plan to protect and improve their cultural expressions and a panel of experts help them implement it,” Henao says. 

“Entering the list means the community has to work harder for their traditions, which can be discouraging for some people who think of the list as a mean to get State funding.” 

Despite of these preservation mechanisms, the continuity of many crafts is still compromised since the activities do not have the necessary followers. Some ethnic groups just fail to recognize artisanship as part of their cultural heritage.

Henao remembers an Antioquian community that denied the cultural value of their hand-made baskets. Some scholars, based on sound archeologic findings, tried to include the community’s craft in the national Representative List of Immaterial Patrimony. “While visiting the community, we discovered it didn’t recognize baskets as an expression of their ancient culture,” Henao says. “They made baskets for utilitarian purposes. We couldn’t do anything to support the craft.”

Muñoz knows this kind of frustration well. “I try to teach my son the importance of Pasto tradition,” he says. “He helps me do some pieces, but this isn’t his passion. He studies design and he’d rather spend his hours in the computer… This world is not made for people who work for months to create something special and don’t receive the proper recognition or income for it.”

The private sector also attempts to make its contribution to the preservation of traditional crafts. The School of Arts and Crafts of Santo Domingo offers embroidery and carpentry courses in order to avoid the disappearance of these occupations.

© Courtesy: Eduardo Muñoz Lora

“Students don’t have enough resources to continue their education,” said Laura Mejía, the school’s director. “It is difficult to contribute to their crafts and business models in the long run.”

Colombia strives to assign a just value to artisanship, since its competitive advantage in the market lies in something intangible: the craft’s cultural background. For Moreno, “the challenge is to make the activity profitable so artisans can dedicate their lives to the conservation of their traditions.” Despite the government’s accomplishments, Muñoz’s anxiety remains. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to ensure the survival of my craft. We, the artisans, represent the cry of all cultures that are being slowly crushed by modernity.”

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