Amazonian Ceramics From Ecuador: Continuity and Change

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Since Ecuador became a member of OPEC in 1973, modernization has begun to take hold throughout the nation. Yet despite rapid change, Ecuador's previously isolated Oriente, or Upper Amazonian region, native women's ceramic creations have maintained their ancient cultural traditions and, quite recently, have brought ethnic recognition to their people.

Some 10,000 to 12,000 Canelos Quichua people, many of them intermarried with neighboring Achuar, live in the rugged forest between the eastern slopes of the Andes and the low-lying jungles whose rivers flow into the Amazon.

Exposed to religious and secular intrusions for about 400 years, Canelos Quichua continue to maintain their basic cosmological beliefs and a number of traditions, while adopting some new introductions - contemporary clothing, machetes, and knapsacks.

As cattle raising becomes more widespread, men increasingly use chain saws to convert forest to pastures. Even faster destruction of the forest is wrought by government-owned equipment, which makes room for vast sugar or tea plantations in a matter of weeks.

Many Quichua-speaking indigenous people who live in the area surrounding the town of Puyo, capital of the province, identify themselves as Puyo Runa (Runa means person, human being in Quichua). Quichua speakers were the original inhabitants of this town. In ten years, Puyo has grown from a sleepy frontier village to a bustling regional center. Descendants of these earlier dwellers now come into Puyo from their jungle homes to shop, enroll their children in schools, or participate in the annual "Founding Day" parade where they dress in "savage Indian" garb, to comply with the parade organizer's instructions. At the same time, women often carry their ceramic creations in hand as they march, and then perform their own dance before the reviewing stand.

These Canelos Quichua women continue to produce fine pottery for everyday use and for communal ritual activities by traditional techniques of hand coiling, decorating and firing. Every woman produces basic household items - storage jars and drinking bowls - needed for making and serving aswa, fermented manioc gruel, the dietary staple. Many women also make figurines and special drinking bowls for ceremonial use.

After aswa has fermented 2 to 3 days, it is served by placing a handful of the pulp in a mucahua and mixing it with cooked water.

In addition to their presence in traditional cultural rituals, ceramics are used in "modern" ceremonies. At the dedication on May 23, 1982, of a new bridge linking a small community to the outer world, a young indigenous woman carried an exquisite mucahua as she accompanied the chosen "queen" of the village. The bridge connects two completed segments of a long road, made with heavy construction equipment. The once peaceful plaza has been transformed into a terminal, the road's end (to date). A traditional-style building once housed a native museum with a large collection of these ceramics; it has been replaced by a curve in the road, near a stand for beer and soft drinks. But tradition carries on, and during the ceremonies that day women served aswa from their bowls to the gathered crowd.

There is no specialized role of "potter," although there are variations in women's pottery-making abilities. Ability is based on a woman's integration of ecosystem knowledge, personal experiences, familial integrity and cosmology. Briefly stated, cosmology is a learning process which synthesizes ancient knowledge with vision, obtained through on-going observations and dreams.

Quichua has no words for "art" or "artist". Words most often heard in praise of ceramics are sumaj, beautiful, and sinchi, strong - the same words used to describe powerful shamans' behavior. Superb potters' creations are said to have muskuymanda, "imagery" from dreams, and inevitably are affiliated with a powerful shaman. Just as a shaman is able to communicate his synthesis of knowledge and vision through chants, a skilled potter communicates her synthesis and integration through the graphic symbolism imbedded in her creations. Materials, techniques, colors and decorations remain traditional, but a woman's choice and presentation of certain motifs from her repertoire of numerous culturally based designs expresses her thought, knowledge and integration.

Over the last decade, Canelos Quichua ceramics have gained popularity in national and international ethnic and tourist art markets. In spite of such concessions as making smaller sizes for tourists and omitting serving spouts on figurines, potters have not redirected their efforts to producing "arts of acculturation." In fact, acclaim of the ceramics, within and beyond Ecuador, has been accompanied by a growing awareness of the creators as Canelos Quichua. This recognition of the existence of Canelos Quichua as a unique people is extremely important in a world where scarcely six years ago, they were overlooked, ignored, or thought to have disappeared into national "society." To date, their wares have been included in such exhibits as Ecuadorian folkcraft/handicraft exhibits in Quito and at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C. They have been the topic of articles in Ecuadorian magazines and newspapers. High quality pottery is sold in the better gift shops in Quito for appropriately good prices, and some native people now are selling their ceramics directly to shop owners rather than through middlemen.

The road from mythology to money is illustrated by a brief saga, Sicuanga Goes to Market. A traditional small jar is known as a sicuanga manga, used by women to store precious things such as smooth stones for burnishing pottery, and to save feathers from the sicuanga - toucan - bird, from which come their four basic colors (black, white, red, yellow) - until enough were accumulated to make a headdress.

Long ago, in mythic time-space, "outsiders," as monkeys, tied up two beautiful women with palm fiber that turned into spiny vines. The toucan person, sicuanga runa, was the only warrior able to cut these bonds, which he did with his strong, sharp beak, allowing the women to continue their mission of providing food and beauty. They in return created him in his present-day form and colors. The imagery of sicuanga combines the qualities of strength and beauty. As a continuing symbol of protest, it still evokes the capability and power of Canelos Quichua people to break the bonds of political-economic ensnarement.

A new sicuanga representation has significantly penetrated the tourist market during the last four years. These carvings, first created in 1975, are carved only by Canelos Quichua men, traditional carvers of functional wood items, although subsequently, they were painted and marketed by outsiders. Today, several carve, paint and market these items. Some women are helping their husbands, to the detriment of their pottery production. This new, mass-produced, folk art has become so popular that it appeared on the cover of an ad from the foremost gift shop in Quito.

As Runa now sell their wares directly, taking a bus to Quito by traveling quickly along the improved Pan American Highway, they enter the urban side of the same modernization process unleashed in their territory on the outskirts of Quito. Women, exposed to colonization and oil exploration, respond by recording their experience in ceramic form, frequently merging them with traditional symbolic motifs. They produce a variety of expressions mocking and protesting modern intrusions, including a juke box, a malaria worker's hat, church steeples, cattle horns, an oil company boss shouting orders, letters and numbers copied from a school blackboard, or Godzilla.

The women's ability to incorporate such change into their traditional ceramic expressions reflects the enduring continuity and adaptability of Canelos Quichua people and their culture.

Since the mid-1970s Canelos Quichua potters, in collaboration with the Sacha Runa Research Foundation, have been making a unique and imaginative contribution to the general health of the Puyo Runa, as well as maintaining the high quality of their ceramics, in some cases even improving it. Many of the highest quality pieces are given to the Sacha Runa Research Foundation which sells these unique creations as works of art, not mass-produced handicrafts, to small international audiences. The comparatively high returns generated by these superior artifacts are channeled into a special medical program for the Puyo Runa. For this population, the intensity and frequency of illness has become directly proportional to increased cultural contact. Many suffer from or succumb to serious illness because they are unable to pay for medical treatment. The maintenance and careful marketing of a high quality ceramic tradition, therefore has promoted not only cultural vitality and ethnogenesis, but improved the overall health of the Puyo Runa. An Occasional Paper detailing the evolution of this project will be published by Cultural Survival early in 1983.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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