Peruvian artisanry ranks possibly amongst the most varied arts and crafts found on Earth. Proof of this stems from the growing network of exporters who each year exhibit the creativity of Peruvian artists on markets in Europe, Asia and North America.
The diversity, color, creativity and multiple uses of Peruvian craftwork make it a fundamental activity not just to forge Peru’s identity, but also ensure the survival of thousands of families, and even entire communities such as Sarhua and Quinua in Ayacucho. These small works of folk art that have sparked the admiration of all and are the legacy of centuries of history imbued with pre-Hispanic forms and symbols, that blending with or surviving alongside other art forms brought over by the Spaniards.
This multiple and complex identity is paradoxically one of the reasons for the marked tendency of Peruvian artisanry to approach modern naïf art, giving creations a touch of tenderness and innocent wisdom.
The high standards of quality of Peruvian artisanry can be appreciated in the harmony of the geometric designs weaved into textiles, the painstaking detail in the scenes of everyday farming life carved into the gourds called mates burilados and the cultural melting pot to be found in the colorful boxed scenes called retablos.
It is also found in the bizarre cosmic vision of Shipibo jungle Indian patterns, the fine carvings done in Huamanga stone, the fleeting wonder of the carpets made from flower petals, fireworks and giant wax candles, the complex Baroque style in wooden carvings, the beauty in gold and silverwork, and the countless forms taken on by the clay used in pottery. But these works of art are just one side of a people who communicate principally through their art, using a language based on the key elements of abundance, fertility and faith in the future.
The abundance of minerals and semi-precious stones in Peru have made it possible to develop creative metalwork since pre-Hispanic times. The oldest example of goldsmithy in South America dates back to the Chavín culture (1.000 BC). Later, priceless pieces were found in the areas of Chancay, Paracas and Cuzco, as well as superb work done by the Mochica, Chimú and Lambayeque cultures. In the late 1980s archaeologists discovered the Royal Tombs of the Lord of Sipán corresponding to the Moche culture (600- 1.200 AD). The tomb of the warrior priest featured ceremonial dress and ornaments worked in gold with techniques that were highly advanced for the time. These techniques, used even today by artisans working with jewels, sculptured pieces and utensils, include alloys, smelting with laminated pieces, chiseling, soaking, smelting gold threads, filigree, and applications, incrustations and clasps.
This art form dates back to artisan traditions during the Vice-regency, and involves the creation of objects linked to religious and even magical ceremonies. The departments of Ayacucho, Cuzco and Huancavelica produce the greatest variety of figures. These traditional images include the retablo de San Marcos or cajón, crosses, saints, Nativity scenes, the Holy Family and the many different portrayals of the infant Christ. These figures are made from a variety of materials, including dough made from potatoes, medlar seeds, plaster, glued cloth and maguey, the local fruit. The most common images produced by this art-form include religious images with long, stylized necks created by artisan Hilario Mendívil and his wife Georgina in the artists’ quarter of San Blas in Cuzco.
Modern Peruvian weavers are heirs to a longrunning pre-Hispanic tradition that was developed across the length and breadth of Peru. Outstanding work includes the Paracas funeral shrouds and Inca and Ayacucho Wari weavings. The oldest textiles ever found were uncovered at the pre-Colombian temple of Huaca Prieta in the Chicama Valley, and are believed to date back 4.000 years. Preferred materials –which are still used today– include brown and white cotton; vicuña, alpaca and llama wool. Other materials occasionally include human hair and bat fibers, and more commonly, gold and silver thread. In addition, natural dyes are still used today, combined with aniline and other industrial dyes, while the vertical loom and pedal loom are still the most commonly used tool for weaving blankets and yards of cloth. Key weaving departments include Ayacucho, Cuzco, Puno, Junín, Apurímac and Lima. Cuzco decorative work often features the tika, representing the potato flower, and the sojta, a geometric design symbolizing the sowing season. Cuzco weavers produce a wide variety of chullos (woolen caps with earflaps), woolen cocaleaf pouches, blankets featuring geometric patterns, cummerbunds and chumpis weaved by the meter, like the ones sold at the Sicuani market, or in the Sunday market at Písac. Ayacucho is another major textile center, as it is a region where over the past few decades artisans have gained a following for their tapestries of weft and warp with abstract motifs.
In Quinua, a village located 40 km from Ayacucho, pottery is the town’s main activity. The quality of the red and cream-colored clay lend these works a unique characteristic. Despite their simple, almost childish forms, they are highly expressive. Quinua is best-known for ceramic pieces such as small churches, chapels, houses and bulls called the toro de Quinua. Local potters have also become popular for figures such as peasant farmers, gossiping neighbors and a variety of religious themes.
The best-loved ceramic figure to come out of Puno is the torito de Pucará, the ceramic bull that is one of Peru’s best-known pieces of pottery. The figurine was originally made as a ritual element during the cattle-branding ceremony. The bull figure, which is also a flask, was used to hold the chicha which was mixed with the blood of cattle and drunk by the high priest conducting the ceremony. Puno potters also make churches, country chapels and homes, whose apparently unassuming design is covered with a white glaze. The figures are decorated with flowers and dashes of ground glass. Other common motifs include musicians, dancers and various elements of flora and fauna from the Lake Titicaca area.
Cuzco’s pottery is heavily influenced by Inca tradition. In a movement that has revitalized Cuzco art, known as Inca Renaissance, potters have created a vast collection of pieces. These include the Tica Curuna (a flower motif), ppucus (dishes) and various types of colorful crockery, such as keros, arybalos, qochas, ayanas and raquis. Another trend in pottery is the so-called “grotesque” tradition, originally created by artisan Erilberto Mérida, and apparently inspired by the figures in Quinua pottery. This style comprises rough, unpolished figurines such as peasants and Christs, with deformed and even tormented facial features with oversized hands.
In the jungle, in addition to the Arabela, the Shipibo women living around the Ucayali River produce pottery from a highly malleable clay called neapo. The most common decorative motifs include the well-known geometric lines or designs, which artisans use to represent their vision of the world. The most elaborate objects include globets carved into shapes that are halfhuman, half-beast, which take on different positions, showing clearly-defined sexes. The potters also frequently craft huge jars shaped like animals such as tortoise and some of the local bird species.
Tiny human figures, animals from the highlands, images of Christian saints and pre-Columbian gods, stars, mountains and lakes are just some of the elements found in the colorful world portrayed by the cajón or retablo de San Marcos. This art form, brought over from Spain, dates back to the dawn of Western civilization and was preceded by Roman portable images made up of three slabs that closed over each other. In the rest of Europe, this art form was known by the name of frontpieces, giving way to the monumental friezes that featured in church altars between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The closest resemblance to the Peruvian retablo is the Caja de Santo, a sort of portable altar used in Spain as part of the paraphernalia of Catholic rituals. The Ayacucho artisans saw the portable altars as the perfect means to bring together two religious traditions –their own and Catholicism imposed by Spain– without arousing suspicion amongst colonial authorities bent on stamping out pagan idols. The retablo features two levels: the upper level, which portrays the Heavens, with saints and sacred Andean beasts, and the lower world, portraying the world down on Earth. These retablos were originally limited to the area dominated by Ayacucho shepherds and peasant farmers. And in fact the Ayacucho artisans are the ones to have kept alive this tradition, that is such a vital part of Peruvian imagery. The bestknown craftsmen who make retablos include the late Joaquín López Antay, Florentino Jiménez and Jesús Urbano. These three men gave rise to three schools or trends of the retablo: one which features a magical-religious current, another that focuses on regional customs and another with historic and realistic content. Today, styles and themes have multiplied as Cuzco emerges as yet another major retablo production center.
Huamanga Stone Carvings
There are several kinds of stone that are used for carving in Peru: granite, basalt, andesite, piedra del lago (found in Puno), and the white alabaster known as piedra de Huamanga. Huamanga stone carvings started up in colonial times due to the scarcity of marble and porcelain. The early motifs dwelled on the infant Christ and other religious images such as saints, crosses, virgins and relics. Later craftsmen were to develop new religious motifs and images linked to the Creole culture (for example the image of the vicuña standing over the Castillian lion). Today, Huamanga stone carvings portray Nativity scenes within oval-shaped recesses, replicas of the monument of the Pampa de la Quinua (scene of a famous battle for independence), as well as other figures; all with a rough finish and mainly offered as souvenirs.
Wooden carving as an art form heavily influenced by religious polychrome sculptures took off in colonial times. Artists made retablos, statuettes and decorated furniture in churches and convents whose complex Baroque style reached its peak in the famous San Blas pulpit in San Blas church in Cuzco. One of the current wooden carving centers is to be found in the town of Molinos, near Huancayo. There, artisans make a range of objects from utensils and decorative pieces to toys, featuring acrobats with movable arms, as well as a series of animals including roosters, ducks, horses, donkeys, lions and a veritable bestiary of mythical beats. Other finely carved pieces include the bastones de Sarhua, where the painted boards (tablas) are made.
When you visit Peru, you will have the chance to contact these artists directly in their workshops. If it's shopping you're looking for, you will find numerous stands and permanent exhibit sites in Lima on Petit Thouars Street in Miraflores, where exponents of art forms from all parts of Peru display their work.