Artisans of the World
Peru sculptor Antonio Olave is inspired by faith and passion.
ANTONIO OLAVE PALOMINO IS SURROUNDED by angels. He sits amid paint-splattered carving knives and a bevy of brushes alongside open jars of muted and earthen-toned pigments. Four unfinished, slender wooden sculptures sit on his workbench — precisely shaped figurines soon to look like the shiny, gold-leafed saints, virgins, and angels on the shelves around him.
He works quietly and seemingly contentedly in his studio and gallery along a narrow street in the San Blas Quarter, a popular neighborhood of artists and craftsmen centered by the San Blas Church (Cusco’s oldest) with its gilded silver altar and massive biblical and conquistador-inspired oil paintings from the Cuzco School art tradition.
Olave’s workbench is caked in plaster and paint — testament to his more than 60 years as a sculptor, driven by his faith and passion to create imaginary religious figurines. With a sliver of sandpaper, he gently smoothes the hand of a sad Jesus child, the one he calls “El Niño Manuelito.” It’s a sculpture he carves over and over again — a work that has made him one of the most famous artists in all of Peru.
“This is my original creation,” affirms the 86-yearold Olave, his throaty voice still strong and assertive. “Religion inspires me, and in my gallery there are many works of Niño Manuelito.”
While there are many images of a young savior, Manuelito is unique because the boy is seated with hands at his foot, stemming from a tale the artist heard back in 1975. As the story goes, Olave had traveled three days by horseback and bus to the highlands of Vilcabamba to repair an earthquake-damaged Jesus image and altar for a local church. While there, he heard the story of the shepherd boy Q’alito, who raced to the aid of a crying friend who stepped on a cactus spine. Q’alito is said to have then stepped on a thorn himself to show compassion for the child.
“I heard the story and that’s why I made the sculpture of Niño Manuelito in this position,” Olave explains. “That inspired me to make the child in a likeness of a young Jesus.”
Since then, his sculptures gained popularity as Olave would sell them at the Santuranticuy crafts festival every December 24 in Cusco’s central Plaza de Armas. “Many Cusqueñas wanted to have Manuelitos in their homes for Christmas,” he recalls, “and they would fight to get one.” Today, they’re fixtures in nativity scenes throughout the country.
A proud moment for Olave was when Pope John Paul II blessed his Manuelito during a 1985 visit to Sacsayhuamán, a sprawling Inca ceremonial esplanade outside Cusco. He recalls the Pope returned the child sculpture, but Olave insisted he keep it as a gift saying there are already many in Peru.
With help from his son, Olave also carves figurines and shapes pottery in traditional Inca designs. “We preserve the old ways, making ceramics like the Incas. We use the same materials and colors extracted from nature.”
In his gallery stand side-by-side Inca and Colonial Spanish figurines — what he calls a “wedding” of the two cultures. “I have a lot of respect for the Incas and Spaniards too because I learned a lot about their art,” he admits. “I consider both cultures very important in my life.
“We preserve the old ways, making ceramics like the Incas.”