TINK NKUY DE TEJEDORES
More than 500 weavers f rom around the world took to the streets i n Cusco, Peru, celebrating the ancient traditions of their craft, and discovering a common thread.
At 4:00 p.m., a parade of nearly five hundred fully costumed indigenous weavers is scheduled to march up Main Street. At 4:15 p.m., the front of the line is ready. The back of the line is not. Unlike New York’s annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which runs with Swiss precision (a contractual imperative to appease its TV sponsors), the parade of weavers gathered in Cusco, Peru, to kick off the second Tinkuy de Tejedores (A Gathering of Weavers) is under no such dictate. The parade will start when everyone is ready and not a moment before.
In a part of the world where punctuality is notably a low priority, the growing crowd of onlookers doesn’t seem the least bit annoyed. Just watching the assortment of men and women (who have not had the benefit of a collective dress rehearsal) trying to assemble along side streets and alleyways is entertaining. There is no hint of Hollywood perfection hampering the charm of this grassroots effort. Weavers dressed in layers of bright attire featuring every shade of the Pantone Color Chart anxiously jog about the crowd looking for their identically clad fellow marchers. There are more than a dozen men from the Sallac community scattered about wearing long-sleeved green shirts the color of Kermit the Frog. How can they possibly not find one another?
At the front of the parade line stands Nilda Callañaupa, founder and president of the Center of Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC), leading sponsor of the three-day event. Nilda is flanked by four board members of Andean Textile Arts: Linda Ligon, founder of Interweave Press and author of several books on Andean textiles; Marilyn Murphy, owner of Cloth Roads and former president of Interweave Press; and Jannes Gibson and Betty Doer, both academic experts on Andean textiles. The women carry a large white banner that spans the width of the street announcing the Tinkuy de Tejedores 2013. It may not rival the stature of a sixty-foot helium-filled Mickey Mouse balloon careening through Manhattan, but who can take the crowds?
Eventually the band strikes up the ceremonial marching tune (or something close thereto), and they’re off: smiling, waving, cheering, and dancing down Main Street like any other group of spirited individuals united by a common cause, except these people aren’t like any other group. They represent South America’s brightest light for keeping its Andean textile traditions alive: a mission that defines the very core of the Tinkuy.
Ostensibly, the parade begins at 4:00 p.m. (or a few minutes thereafter). However, the seed for Tinkuy was planted nearly thirty years ago when Nilda seized upon the fragile nature of her native weaving traditions and developed a desperate urge to save it.
Born and raised in Chinchero, twenty miles from Cusco, Nilda took her nimble hands and sharp mind and began to rekindle (and rediscover) patterns and techniques of ancient Andean weaving, which in many instances had been bastardized into cheap airport art. She started with one community—her own—and began teaching the other weavers to use the techniques emblematic of their own communities. The result was a growing collection of woven “thumbprints” echoing centuries of the weavers’ native heritage. As Nilda took the teaching model from her own community and adopted it to another, and another, and another, she eventually formed CTTC: a weaving cooperative made up of nine primary communities and five hundred artisans, nearly half of whom are children being taught the ancient ways by their elders.
Born into a traditional family where a girl’s education was given scant attention, Nilda graduated at the top of her class and went on to study at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a powerhouse in the world of indigenous weaving, a description that seems contrary to her soft-spoken demeanor. In fact, at no time during the pre-parade pandemonium did Nilda appear even partially
flummoxed, and when she took her place at the head of the parade she smiled with joy—not ego.
The parade moves slowly up the street, passing by the Qurikancha (Temple of the Sun) on one side, and on the other, the usual cacophony of honking horns and street chatter emerging from four lanes of traffic temporarily compressed into two.
I quickly run up to the front of the parade to capture what I hope will be the perfect parade shot. And then I dance before the masses.
At this moment the spirit of the Tinkuy takes hold. The Argentines are tapping their tango-trained soles. The Bolivians are doing a little shake-shake thing. The Mexicans are raising their own little rumpus, and Dayabhai’, the lone weaver from India (who has never before set foot outside his country) is merrily bobbing his head as if the songs came straight from Bollywood.
Tinkuy de Tejedores should have been named the Tinkuy quickly run down the street to capture what I hope will be an equally perfect shot of the parade from behind. And then I run back up to the front of the parade as it turns the corner and enters into Plaza de Armas, where each group of weavers pauses in front of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo. and does a traditional dance. As I lift my camera with its mighty lens to focus, my hands shake uncontrollably. It is too much running for someone who landed at 12,500 feet only hours ago.
I snap a few shots, but they are worthless. Even the camera’s image stabilizer can’t counteract the effects of my slow acclimatization, and I resolve to stop being a journalist for just a few minutes and enjoy the show.
The weather is blessedly perfect. The rains that typically visit at this time of year for even an hour have held off. The number of spectators has continued to grow, infusing the participants with even greater pride. As the last person arrives at the end of the parade route (the square outside the convention center where the Tinkuy will be held), the band plays on.
The weavers soon begin clapping in rhythm, and before long everyone’s hands have picked up the beat. An impromptu round of dancing begins as Nilda is gently coerced to de los Pies Felices –A Gathering of Happy Feet.
Eventually, the music stops. The air falls silent. The onlookers leave. And as the skies begin to darken, the temperature drops. The gathering of weavers moves inside the convention center for the start of the three-day conference. Few, if any, understand the magnitude of what is about to happen.
It isn’t possible to overemphasize Nilda’s commitment to preserving ancient Andean textile arts, which also include traditional knitting patterns. The men and women who create magnificent ponchos and colorful hats, shawls, belts, and bags spend months selecting, scouring, spinning, dyeing, and ultimately weaving garments that make them experts at their craft. But they have little appreciation of the unique nature of their art in the western world.
For most of the assembled weavers, this is their first time in Cusco. For many, in fact, this is their first time venturing so far from their village. They have heard about the other communities involved with CTTC. They have seen pictures, and in some cases they have met with outside instructors along the way. But now they are all together. Not only are they mingling with other indigenous weavers from Peru, but
Two weavers from the Salac community.
also with those from all over South America and beyond.
Inside the convention center the air is warmer, but not much. I notice that none of the weavers appear cold. As usual, the tourists are the ones who don’t know how to dress.
In honor of the Tinkuy, and undoubtedly as a huge bow of respect to Nilda and her work, the Mayor of the City of Cusco is scheduled to speak. Several other local government officials have also been invited, and a common theme soon evolves: preserving Peru’s unique cultural identity. At one time, Cusco was the epicenter of the Incan Empire extending from Chile to Columbia, a status eventually usurped by the Spanish Conquistadors. And in a karmic swing of the pendulum, Cusco is once again preparing to reluctantly surrender its power.
Juan Carlos Gomez, Mayor of Chinchero, addresses the crowd with a speech that seems politically motivated. Plans for an international airport in the comparatively small town of Chinchero have recently been approved, and construction has already begun. Within four to five years, Chinchero will begin welcoming visitors able to fly directly into the ancient highlands without having to change planes in Lima. (The airport in Cusco offers only domestic routes.)
No one disputes that the new airport will bring economic opportunity to this agrarian community, which not only has its own modest showcase of Incan ruins but also, according to legend, is the birthplace of the rainbow!
But not everyone agrees that defacing one of the most scenic vistas with miles of tarmac in the heart of the Sacred Valley is a wise decision (a scenario further compounded by the disheartening fact that hundreds of local families are being displaced through the purchase of 359 hectares of farmland to complete the project).
Apparently, there are also loud grievances from hoteliers and restaurateurs in Cusco, who worry that many tourists will now choose to bypass Cusco completely in favor of traveling directly to Machu Picchu, the Andean honeypot of tourism.
After the mayor’s lecture, one weaver comments that the people and the land in the Sacred Valley are one. “If you destroy one, you destroy them both,” she tells me through a translator. Another weaver suggests that as Cusco continues to fall under the spell of Westernization (strangely, there’s only one Starbucks in town), “They [the weavers] will all have to work harder to preserve their traditional identity.”
Not surprisingly, this audience of ancient textile artisans, academics, and enthusiasts reinforces the credo: all that glitters isn’t gold.
The evening closes with a performance of professional singers and dancers. What they lack in decibels from the earlier recital they make up for in talent. I walk back down the hill to my hotel contemplating the changes afoot in
this fabled land. I try to envision a daily fleet of Boeing 777s thundering over the Temple of the Sun, and I try to imagine hives of buses offering their tarry clouds to the Incan deities. But neither vision makes for a peaceful night’s sleep.
The following morning, Nilda stands at the convention center’s podium to introduce Dr. Jorge Flores Ochoa, one of the foremost authorities on Andean culture specializing in the study of Quechua and Aymara peoples Like many of her fellow Peruvians who hail from the highlands, Nilda is not particularly tall and must adjust the microphone several times to keep it from obstructing her forehead.
“Buenos dias” she begins her address, speaking in her native tongue as those of us non-Spanish speakers quickly adjust our headsets to channel one for the English translation.
Nilda continues speaking very slowly, and I assume it is for the translator’s benefit. A technical glitch creates an awkward delay in transmission. As she continues talking while the sound engineer frantically sorts out the channel relay problem, I notice her voice from the podium is, in fact, beginning to fade. Soon, tears start falling painfully down her cheeks.
The audience lets out an anguished breath as Nilda reports the unexpected death of Dr. Christine Franquemont; who, along with her late husband Ed Franquemont had spent much of the last thirty years as an anthropologist, working and living in the Andes. Christine had flown down to Cusco from her home in New Haven, Connecticut, to participate in a panel discussion on Andean Textiles. Her attendance at the Tinkuy was professional, but for many of the people in the room Christine was also a close friend. For Nilda and her mother, Christine wasn’t like a member of the family, she was family. With equal parts grief and reverence, Nilda dedicates the Tinkuy de Tejedores 2013 to her beloved friend, Dr. Christine Franquemont.
The entire conference bows their heads in a moment of silence. No one wants to believe that Christine will not be there.
When Dr. Jorge Flores Ochoa ascends the podium dressed in a charcoal pinstripe suit with a rich brown scarf tucked inside his shirt like a handsome ascot, the crowd is still hushed with sadness. His dark attire underscores the somber mood, but the sense of grief doesn’t last. There is too much excitement bundled inside every hand-woven cape and fancy fedora strewn about the room, creating the impression of a spin-art canvas from an old-fashioned arcade.
“If we don’t understand ourselves, and if we do not identity ourselves, than we are not Peruvians.” Dr. Flores says.
Food and dress are two valuable ways of distinguishing different cultures, and if this were a conference on Slow Food, there would be spicy humitas and hot empanadas filling the aisles. Instead, the fiber artisans intently bear witness to Dr. Flores Ochoa’s sentiments. His words make them pull back their shoulders and sit extra-tall in the convention center chairs, which I suspect are intentionally designed to keep people awake regardless of the topic at hand.
Make no mistake; everyone at the Tinkuy is here to talk about weaving. But Dr. Flores Ochoa emphasizes the bigger picture: the wild fibers picture.
At present, approximately three million alpacas live in Peru. The alpaca and the llama are the only two domesticated camelids from South America. Dental records and advanced mitochondrial testing indicate that both the llama and alpaca descended from a single camelid species 6 million years ago. That animal morphed into the two-non-domesticated species we know today: the guanaco and the vicuña.
For thousands of years these South American camelids weren’t just the bread and butter of the fiber industry; they were the bread and butter. They were hunted for their meat and prized for their pelts. Their dung was a ready source of fuel, and virtually no sacrifice to the deities was complete without at least one camelid relinquishing its last breath.
Considerably smaller in stature than their cousins the llamas, alpacas were raised for their long soft fiber. They still bear a resemblance to the dainty vicuña, which possesses the finest fiber of all the camelids.
Alternatively, the llama, which typically tips the scale at 300–400 pounds, was valued for its ability to hump and haul. Llamas can pack from one-quarter to one-third of their body weight, enabling their owners to transport substantial amounts of food and supplies across the high peaks of the Andes. (And I can’t even lug around a camera!)
When Spanish leader Francisco Pizarro ambushed the Inca at the Battle of Cajamarca (1532), successfully capturing the Inca ruler Atahualpa (whom the Spaniards later killed), it initiated the conquest of the Inca civilization, and with it, the near decimation of its alpaca population.
For the next century, the Spanish conquistadors slaughtered millions of alpacas in an effort to strip away the Incas’ source of food and fuel, and with it, the cultural identity embedded in their clothing.
Fortunately, Quechua and Aymara herders managed to keep the conquistadors from finding all the alpacas and successfully sequestered a small population in the high altiplano, which is so vast and inhospitable, even the persistent conquistadors left a few stones unturned. Had it not been for these remote herds the alpaca would surely have become extinct.
Alpaca fiber comes in 22 natural flavors, a direct result of centuries of selective breeding. They are still a valuable source of protein, and quite tender when cooked just right. Their dung is still used to fuel fires, and they are still offered to the gods in time-honored rituals, a topic artfully navigated during Hugh Thomson’s presentation, “Cochineal Red, The Color of Peruvian History.”
Cochineal, the once-lucrative dye derived from a
cactus-eating insect the size of a Chiclet, has ancient roots in Peru, which currently produces two hundred tons of the dye per year. The deep cardinal red derived from the female bug is smashed and stirred to eventually create one of the foundational colors in textile history. With few exceptions, every one of the weavers, including me, has at least a few dead bugs on their back.
However, Mr. Thomson’s presentation affords scant time to this little arthropod. Instead, he shares tales from his experience as one of thirty thousand pilgrims participating in the annual Qoyllurit’i, loosely translated, “the festival of the snows.” By Mr. Thomson’s definition, Qoyllurit’i is an extreme festival. Held in May or June (late fall in the Southern Hemisphere) the festival draws many pilgrims, who travel by car or bus to Mahuayani, southeast of Cusco. From there, they must then make the remaining five-mile climb on foot, ultimately reaching 15,000 feet.
Qoyllurit’i lasts for three days and nights; it is called un matador, a killer. Music blares like that of rock stars amped on acid. Dancers stomp the ground as if the earth is on fire. Everyone takes shelter in a simple tent, or maybe a small sheet of plastic. It snows. It hails. And at the end of this hellish adventure marked with little sleep and overrun toilets, the diehards march all night long through the mountains, ending at 17,000 feet on a glacier, where they sing and dance some more.
Pregnant women save up their last bit of big-belly breath to come to Qoyllurit’i, hoping to give birth during the freezing cacophony, guaranteeing them an abundance of gifts and auspicious blessings. Surviving the all-night march is an Olympian feat; attempting it with child seems insane.
Qoyllurit’i is unlike many other Andean festivals, and not because of
its duration or location. Qoyllurit’i is a non-drinking affair, which seems uncharacteristic in a culture (Quechua) that has more terms for different stages of drunkenness than any other. Mr. Thomson cautions the crowd (whose nonPeruvians aren’t exactly rushing the stage to sign up for the adventure) that anyone caught imbibing will be handed over to the authorities: the ukukus.
Ukukus are the official guardians of the festival and have a reputation for leniency on par with the guards at Guantanamo. According to Quechua mythology, the ukuku are the offspring of a woman and a bear, and greatly feared for their supernatural powers. (Think of a raging black bear with PMS.)
Despite the convergence of tribal costumes and paranormal bears, Qoyllurit’i is touted as a Catholic festival dating back to 1780, when an image of Jesus appeared on a boulder after the death of a young shepherd boy. However, the Andean people had worshipped the earth and the mountains in this very spot long before they were seized by Christian conquerors.
As with many things relating to indigenous cultures, including the cluster of traditional Inca weaving designs represented in the room, there is an inevitable measure of external influence that seeps slowly into the story. Nowhere is that more evident than in the weavings of Maestro Máximo Laura, one of Peru’s most celebrated weavers, who among many international awards has received the prestigious Manos de Oro (Golden Hands) of Peru award.
When Máximo Laura addresses the crowd, images of his work appear on a giant screen behind him, showing almost no trace of traditional Andean geometric patterning. The elegant shades of red and blue used in nearly every ancient weaving design have vanished. Máximo Laura’s work has a color intensity that approaches strident, one of the hallmarks of his unique artistic style.
At first glance, Máximo Laura’s tapestry weaving seems completely divorced from the time-honored designs of his ancestors (see Máximo Laura, page 20). Or is it? As one crowded exotic scene unfolds into the next, depicting serpents and soothsayers in fierce geometric forms, Máximo Laura’s work feels like an otherworldly marriage between Dante’s Inferno and the rapture of the Renaissance. But that is only at first glance.
Upon closer inspection, and guided by Máximo Laura’s thoughtful explanation, much of his weaving revolves around themes taken from Andean history, using highly stylized traditional iconography. He has taken the foundations of centuries-old weaving designs, modernized them, personalized them, and released them on to the staccato stage of modern art.
“I look for a language that emanates spirituality, aesthetic beauty, and lyricism,” he explains. Máximo Laura’s
work as a contemporary artist has gained tremendous international acclaim but leaves an audience of predominantly traditional Peruvian weavers gripped with curiosity.
As a succession of speakers highlight important chapters in Andean history and note various weaving techniques from other parts of the globe, it seems the most popular parts of the conference are the coffee breaks!
Twice a day, in both morning and afternoon, everyone files into the convention center courtyard. Men and women toting hand looms, knitting needles, and drop spindles soon roost in the stone enclosure, transforming the outdoor arena into one gigantic fiber studio. The very same artisans who have been marching down Main Street are now twisting and twirling mounds of wooly stash into skeins of totally touchable handspun yarn.
It is captivating to watch an Argentinian weaver carefully craft her design on one loom and see a Mexican weaver employing a completely different technique on her loom just three steps away. Less than eight feet from the Mexican weaver, half a dozen men (still in their Kermit attire) are sitting together on a step as if they were old neighbors gathered on a stoop in Brooklyn. But these guys all happen to be knitting using such intricate patterns that the average knitter (male or female) wouldn’t even attempt a conversation simultaneously, at the risk of dropping a stitch.
Tinkuy de Tejedores is a dazzling spectator sport, not only for the audience of foreigners and casual enthusiasts but also for the weavers, who share enthusiastically with one another using the loom as their common language. I repeatedly see one weaver studying another’s technique, with little or no need for verbal explanation. Dayabhai from India has brought a floor loom with him, and at any given time there is a crowd at least three or four people deep surrounding him as his bare feet tap the treadles, moving the harnesses up and down. The backstrap weavers are mesmerized. They study the floor loom’s simple con
struction, and though it affords
greater complexity of weave, it doesn’t roll up like a window shade and fit easily into the blankets tied on their backs. Dayabhai’s loom may be fancy and full of potential, but for the Peruvian weavers, it bombs in terms of portability.
The amount of time the organizers have allotted for a coffee break clearly isn’t enough. For those attendees who don’t happen to have a loom or a pair of knitting needles on their person to whip out and start working, or, who simply aren’t even inclined to in the first place, the entire perimeter of the courtyard is filled with vendor booths selling fiber-based products of every description from the assembled artisans. Fortunately, none of them take credit cards.
During one of the coffee breaks I chat with several weavers from Chumbivilacas. They live in the southern part of the Peruvian Andes in an area I’m not familiar with. I ask them what it is near and they just shake their heads and say, “Nothing.” I ask if they have ever been to Cusco before, and again they just shake their heads and say, “No.” Fearful the conversation is falling into a bad pattern, I ask what they like the most about the conference, and they instantly begin chattering on top of one another. “Okay. Okay. One at a time,” I plead. Isabela speaks first. “I love meeting so many people!” She barely finishes her sentence before moving on to the next. “There are weavers from all over Peru! I have never seen so many weavers! There is even a man here from INDIA!” (He is likely just as astonished at being in Peru as the Peruvians are at having him here.) I ask Isabela how long it took to get to the conference, and she pauses for a moment, counting up all the hours on three different bus trips. She finally says, “Eighteen hours.” Then she goes back to talking excitedly about all the different weavers. “Did you sleep on bus?” I ask. “No! I was too excited about coming here,” She answers. “Do you miss your family?” And the moment she lets out yet another emphatic “No,” she stops and covers over her mouth with her hand. “Yes, I mean of course I miss them.” But there is little doubt, at least in my mind, that Isabela is having such a good time at the Tinkuy, she doesn’t have time to feel homesick.
I turn to Isabela’s friend, Malena, and ask what coming to the Tinkuy means to her. “Marketing,” She says. “Marketing?” Malena then goes on to talk about the importance of selling her weaving to the global market. “We make beautifully woven blankets. They are all original designs from our ancestors. But if we can’t market them and sell them, then we can’t make money.”
Malena looks over at Isabela, who is nodding in agreement. They have attended a session on marketing strategies, cost, and competition. The money they could potentially
earn from selling their weaving on the global market is more than just tempting: it borders on seductive.
Fearful that dollar signs will trump their artistic integrity, Malena seems to read my mind. “People try to copy our weaving. They make cheap imitations. It’s not even wool! You cannot make Andean weaving in China. Only we can make the real blankets and ponchos. It is in our blood. It is our identity.”
The last day of the Tinkuy, Judy Frater, founder of Kala Raksha, headquartered in Kutch, India, spoke to the crowd. Ms. Frater has dedicated the past forty years of her life working with artisans from Kutch, world-renowned for their mirrored embroidery designs. Similar to Nilda’s work with CTTC, Kala Raksha is dedicated to preserving unique embroidery styles emblematic of specific regions and cultures.
From its simple beginnings in 1993, Kala Raksha now works with nearly one thousand women in twenty-five villages, providing appropriate mechanisms to market and sell traditional Kutch crafts at a fair market price. Yet, despite Kala Raksha’s continuing success, Ms. Frater believes a vital piece of the puzzle is missing. “The importance of traditional craft is unquestionable. But it is just as important to look forward and empower traditional artisans to create their own designs. They need to create things that are relevant to today’s consumer while honoring their unique traditions.”
Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, the first design school for artisans in Kutch, was created in 2005, providing them with tools and knowledge to expand their creative capacity and significantly improve their standard of living.
The weavers lean forward in their chairs, studying the images on the big screen as Ms. Frater speaks, showing Indian women in brightly colored dress and big bold jewelry bent over a table of new designs drafted on tracing paper.
There is silence in the room. Their weavers’ minds are racing as they imagine the possibilities.
For three long days indigenous artisans have shared time and knowledge with another. They’ve sat through lectures. They’ve gathered in workshops. They’ve had plenty of coffee breaks (drinking tea), and they’ve met people from far-away lands. In many ways, it has been just as they’ve imagined. But what they couldn’t know from the moment they were marching up Main Street was how much the Tinkuy would teach them about themselves.
Never have so many people gathered in one area to honor their work. To hear noted authorities from around the world validate the importance of their craft has filled them with an unshakable sense of pride.
The Tinkuy de Tejedores has been more than a gathering of weavers (with happy feet), it has been a gathering of sweet humanity honoring the keepers of ancient traditions treading tirelessly in the modern world. Without question, it has
wF been a wild success.
A weaver from the Patabamba community and her child marching in the parade.
The parade begins with the organizers carrying the Tinkuy de Tejedores brief dance recital in front of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo.
2013 sign up Cusco’s Main Street followed by a
Tejedora weavers were unmistakable in their blue pleated skirts and lace-up boots.
Left: Two weavers inspecting Dayabhai’s loom during his absence. Right: Dayabhai, barefoot and happy.