DIALOGUES BETWEEN ANCESTRAL TRADITION AND CONTEMPORARY DESIGN
By Gaby Ratner
How did your relationship with the artisan communities of Nariño come about?
I always think that my connection with Aboriginal people comes from other lives. As a girl I went to my uncles' farm and spent the whole summer playing with the children of the Pastos (that's what their community is called), I wore their fabrics and something in me woke up. I felt part of them, with a very special connection. When I was preparing my thesis to qualify as a Clothing Designer, I was not surprised that my love for veils was the inspiration for making coats with the wangas, the standing loom on which artisans weave. That choice led me to reconnect with my childhood memories. I wanted to choose a design that, beyond being part of my profession, becomes a way of life. I went to Cumbal (municipality that belongs to the Department of Nariño) to stay in the community to pursue my thesis project. I started with three women, who are still working with me. They laughed, they couldn't believe what I was proposing, but they also jumped on that idea that seemed almost crazy to them and we started doing knitting tests without imagining that this craft would unite us forever. It was a give and take, and that was the main objective of my thesis, to build bridges to grow.
Was the process of incorporating craftsmanship into contemporary design difficult?
Like any path that goes beyond 'what is expected', the times for it to be accepted and for them to learn to appreciate it are much slower. It was not easy to go out and show the world the richness of Colombian artisanal work, and it was even more complex since within the fashion industry at a local level they did not give it that value. I managed everything alone. In the first stage I had to pay a lot of money to participate in the Bogotá Fashion Week and they put me at times when very few people attended. Until in 2000 I went to Expoartesanías for my first exhibition looking to spread our art. I always say that Expoartesanías is my cradle, the space that gave me the opportunity to interact with embassies from different countries and travel so that the beauty of our ancestral techniques is known. I started this trend in Colombia, I was the first to make fashion from artisanal design and to give work to the regional workforce, to our towns.
What does the ruana symbolize?
The ruana is very important since for the indigenous people it represents power. Historically, depending on the quality of the fabric, it determined which social caste used it. The Icat, which is a very heavy fabric, belonged to the goddesses, the highest authority. With the ruana the indigenous people go to work, they protect themselves from the cold, apart from being a sheep wool fabric that is waterproof. They carry the ruana everywhere. The ruana is the ruana – he states proudly – and mine is the evolution of the ruana. Preparing the warping, which is laying the threads, takes between two and three days, and then depending on the length of the cloth, the weaving is done in a period of eight to ten days. When I receive them, I leave them outdoors and I have my own ritual that I learned from my community, which is to smoke the garments with palo santo to protect them and clean them from all the hands they passed through. It is a ceremony of cleansing and gratitude.
What rituals do you have when meeting to knit?
Something to highlight is that the community of Chiles Cumbal – with which I have worked since my beginnings – has as its main activity work in the field. They get up very early to milk the cows, harvest the potatoes, harvest and sow barley, corn..., then they weave in their free time, mainly in the afternoon or at night and they weave for pleasure, beyond being a source of income. The families get together, set up a bonfire and everything happens around the tulpa, which is the clay pot where they prepare the food. Then, while they eat the soup, they dress warmly and take out the wangas - which is the loom - to begin weaving. That moment outdoors, looking into each other's eyes, is very beautiful, it is a kind of ceremony. When I arrive, and I stay with them for several days, the most important ritual is to get into the kitchen. For them, the best welcome is to give food, it is their way of entertaining. And we start talking about 'the times ahead', that's what they call the past. I design and knit at night or on weekends, when everything is quiet and the mind is blank, it means remaining open to inspiration. My ritual and their ritual have a lot in common. That stillness and magic of the evening.
What do Doña Micaela and Don Juan Chiles symbolize for the aboriginal community of Los Pastos?
Micaela, chief of the Los Pastos tribe, was an indigenous warrior who defended the lands of Cumbal (Colombian municipality in the Department of Nariño), a very brave woman and respected by the aboriginal communities. She was the wife of the legendary warrior Don Juan Chiles “the one who opens access to the marvelous, who like a spell makes us traverse, under his expert guidance, endearingly familiar worlds. A tall tree roars across the earth, offering a great vision." Legend has it that it had enough fluidity in its gait to cross multiple spaces and times demanding human and community rights. Today, many say it can be seen above the Laguna Verde with its strut. and her red ruana taking care of the lands of Nariño. In the community they call me Micaela, in fact in 2011 I presented a collection in her honor which I called 'Micaela and the Volcano', an allegory to the Galeras volcano, and the defense of the indigenous territory on the part of Micaela. For that emblematic collection I won the Lápiz de Acero Award, which is the most important recognition of Colombian design.
What did you learn in these years of relationship with Aboriginal communities?
I work with lifelong people and I was always very well received. From the beginning I was open to learning and they were open to teaching me and encouraged by what I was proposing to them. I learned from them simplicity and humility, the love for daily life, whatever there is. I did not want to leave my people, I was always with the Pastos community, for 21 years. I become one of them, I value the loyalty they have and we build a relationship of great affection and loyalty. I give them work, my commitment is that they always have their economic stability, that my product is increasingly spectacular makes them feel proud of their fabrics. For the artisans it is very important to be part of an Adriana Santa Cruz ruana. I am a spokesperson for my culture and they are the true protagonists.
-A hotel to stay? In Ecuador, the La Casa Sol Otavalo hotel in the Peguche Waterfall. It is a place where celebrations such as the Inti Raymi festival, the summer solstice, take place. It is built based on the precepts of feng shui and the purifying power of its lagoons is admired.
-A food we should try in Pasto? Here we have the best trout. But surely if you come to visit they will invite you to eat guinea pig meat, which is a typical food of this area and is not eaten in other regions of Colombia.
-A favorite Colombian craft? Toquilla straw hats and Mopa-Mopa art. This more than 2,000-year-old technique is developed by the Quillacinga Indians and consists of extracting grass varnish from a magical bush called Mopa-Mopa and transforming it into resin. These sheets take different shapes and are dyed with vegetable dyes or can be laminated in gold or silver, it is a beautiful process!
-Where do you look for inspiration? I live in the middle of the mountains, I have my workshop here in the middle of nature. My habitat, its organic shapes and colors are my permanent source of inspiration. I lead a very spiritual life, I practice Chi Kung and walk with my dogs. I always say that the mountains protect me.
-When you travel, a favorite souvenir? From each trip I bring back typical crafts from the place, what they do in the streets, those unique pieces that I discover and that catch my attention for their dedication and beauty.
-Your favorite materials? Sheep wool, I love it, I live with wool, it is my second skin. And the natural silk I'm working on now.
-What is artisanal design in a few words? It is the connection with the being, it is what comes out of your soul.
-A message that you want to convey to the world about Colombian crafts... I would like to tell them that the fabrics are noble, they shelter the body and feed the spirit.