The Art of Life

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Who knew weaving was pure poetry of the soul?

Monica Malo Piedra did. And soon, the rest of us at IdiomArt’s weekly Art Salon understood as well.

The renowned Ecuadorian artist and CIDAP award winner recently took a group of weaving newbies on a spellbinding anthropological and history journey. It’s safe to say; those in attendance will never look at a square of fabric or brilliant tapestry the same again.

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The native Cuencana has been creating fabric masterpieces for more than 30 years. She learned first, from her mother, who taught herself to shear sheep and researched designs from magazines to incorporate into weavings.

But Monica wanted to create her own designs. She began to teach herself, experimenting with materials and observing others. Eventually she moved into the jungle where she spent five years embracing the history and talent of the Schuar people.

“It was like my soul connected with their weaving,” she said, through translator and host Berenice Cárdenas, a local art historian and curator.

In the jungle, Monica had a woodworker create her first loom of four simple sticks. She learned new ways to weave and began experimenting with colors. A Uruguayan

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Monica Malo Piedra

professor later taught her loom weaving techniques and she began to “play,” she said.

Monica read constantly. She absorbed all she could about techniques, fabrics and dyes, and found herself drawn to history and anthropology. She deeply believed that to understand and create textiles, she had to understand the indigenous people’s history, and their way of living and thinking first.

For the next 15 years, she lived a simple life in Susadel. She began to work with the women of the community, many of whom had given up the skill of weaving to men. While the women gathered and prepared the materials from animals and plants, it was primarily the men who were using the threads to create woven textiles.

“I needed to recover the ancient memories,” she said, by reminding the women of their pre-Colombian roots.

Still, the collective self-esteem of the women of the village was so low; it took time to convince them to experiment with the threads they created. Soon, the older women were recounting history, remembering their grandparents, recalling childhood incidents and sharing their histories with each other. Young women joined the group and even men participated.

“It was very interesting to see what the women did in their weaving. Houses, flowers, domestic things, encrypted in ancient symbols, began to emerge through their memories,” she said. “The men created condors, large animals, donkeys, all images they worked with in daily life.”

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The project blossomed as Monica and a friend raised money for looms and hosted workshops to share techniques.

“It was an empowering process for the women,” she recalled.

Monica continued her mission when she left Susadel and moved to Riobamba. There she created weaving groups of all ages of women who were “recovering their essence” through their work.

For the next hour, Monica taught us about plants and insects that produce vibrant dyes. She educated us about how lunar phases and water affect plants to such a degree that the same hue is rarely replicated. We learned the differences between threads woven of the hair of llama, alpaca, vicuña, and even bats. We found that, with keen observation, we could identify the heritage of any indigenous group simply by the woven clothing they wore.

Ultimately, she said, textiles are not just a piece of cloth.

“When you see a tactile piece, look beyond the image, colors and fabric,” she said. “Think about the raising of the animals or plants that produced the thread.”

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Consider the relationship of the work to what surrounded the artist, she said. For instance, an evening star to a Navajo weaving friend was the North Star, but that same celestial sight is Venus to Ecuadorian artists who do not have the same night sky.

As a young girl, a wise man told her: “Those who know how to weave know the art of life.” She never fully understood that sentiment, Monica said, until she spent years among indigenous populations absorbing their craft.

“The yarn – the warp – is like a house without structure. The weaving creates the strength of the structure. And, like life, you can change it, take it apart, and rebuild it,” she said.

Part historian, part anthropologist, and all artist, Monica ended her presentation with a poetic philosophy. Clearly, for Monica, weaving is a metaphor for life.

“Words are threads wove between human beings,” she said. “Society is an immense fabric made from the need for communication, equal reception and solidarity among individuals.”

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Monica’s new gallery is expected to open mid-month in the San Sebastian neighborhood. IdiomArt’s weekly Art Salon features a wide range of art-related talks and presentations each Friday at 10:30 a.m. IdiomArt is in El Centro, at Presidente Cordova 1-77 between Manuel Vega and Miguel Angel Estrella. Art Salons are $10 and reservations are not required. Contact studio@idiomart.net for more information.

Tale of Two Holidays

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I’m not sure when the holy Three Kings Day became the biblical-turned-satirical Day of Innocents, but in Cuenca, January 6 has become that.

I wasn’t sure what to expect for my first “Day of Innocents Parade,” also known locally as “The Parade of Masquerades.” But wearing a unicorn headband to stand next to a family that included a clown, Snow White and another unicorn, I knew it would be fun.

First, a little background.

I grew up on the border of Mexico where January 6 meant celebrations, religious parades, masses and the “rosca” cake. Parades on the theme celebrated the arrival of the three wise men into Jerusalem to visit Jesus at his birth. Also called the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6 recognizes the end of the Christmas season, the 12th night.

In Mexico, colorful costumes denoted kings, as well as Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Religious ceremonies cited the story from the bible. Then families gathered for neighborhood celebrations featuring the round cake with a tiny plastic baby hidden inside. Whoever received the piece of cake with the baby in it was responsible for the celebration the next year.

There exists a Holy Innocents Day – also known as Childermas, and Feast of the Holy Innocents. It’s a holiday that falls on different days in the Western and Eastern Christian churches. In Western churches, it is celebrated on December 28 and in Eastern churches, it is celebrated on December 29.

The holiday commemorates the massacre of children by King Herod as he was attempting to kill baby Jesus. The story of Herod is told in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 2:1-18. Herod, king of Judea, was unpopular and always feared being overthrown or killed. The bible says Eastern astrologers asked Herod about the birth of the “king of the Jews.” He sent them to find Jesus and to report back, but they were warned by an angel to return home by another route. In anger, Herod ordered that all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem to be put to death.

In Cuenca, the two traditional holidays merged 38 years ago, spitting out a unique, carnival-like celebration that more closely resembles Halloween – with a touch of April Fool’s Day.

While one of the 28 units in our parade faithfully depicted the heart-rending edict of King Herod, none of the others were religious, or remotely serious. Said to be among the largest Day of Innocents parades in the country, this year’s floats ranged from political commentary on the Odebrecht scandal that involved off-shore bank accounts to social themes such as protection of wildlife.

The winning float was “Ecuador Post-Apocalyptic,” created by students and faculty at the University of Azuay. The elaborate four-car float was a commentary on the endangered environment with costumes inspired by the movie Mad Max.

And, of course, there were the Gringos. For the first time, expats were granted a permit to march in a local parade. The idea was hatched by Ned Flottman, a former Dallasite and, ironically, a high school buddy of one of my college roommates.

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Ned dreamed up the “The Old Gringo Cuenca Appreciation and Kazoo Marching Band.” Ecuadorians were charmed by the kazoos and the costumed characters that happily interacted with the thousands of spectators along the street.

We were thrilled by Bolivian indigenous dancers as well as a scantily clad and high-flying dance troupe. The Planet of the Flowers, resembling Planet of the Apes, brought gorillas that passed out hamburgers made of foam (still haven’t figured that one out.) There were two “marching bands” featuring oversized and out-of-step participants.

Everywhere, children were laughing and adults were cheering. It was a remarkable, inclusive event.

Finally, I should note that this crazy, family friendly and very interactive parade is organized by two local groups. The Amistad – or Friendship – Club and… the National Union of Journalists. Odd bedfellows for sponsorship of this mixed-up parade, but there it is. In reading the rules set out by these partners for the parade, I came across this: “The use of live animals, advertising of any kind and the use of alcoholic beverages are prohibited.

“It is forbidden to use words that violate the honor and dignity of the people, the mockery and scenes that ridicule and denigrate women. In addition each delegation must be escorted by clowns and security personnel.”

Oh Cuenca! What a treasure you are!

Shared Visions

The Shaman made me laugh.

The leader of his Achuar community, a revered elder in full regalia, was chuckling. Having met him earlier in the evening, I was enchanted. Sumpa introduced himself to me as I was admiring tables of beautiful handicrafts at a benefit for the Achuar foundation, IKIAM, and Cuenca’s Hogar de Esperanza, in their Minka restaurant.

DSC_0778The Achuar are one of Ecuador’s 14 indigenous nationalities. They existed relatively unknown,  deep in the Amazon rainforest, until the 1960s. It was then a few missionaries entered the territory, promoting Catholicism and making the Achuar aware of other forms of development.

In the early 1990s, as outside interest in the indigenous group grew, the Achuar began to further organize themselves to protect their land and their interests. They formed the United Achuar Nation. They united in their decision to keep their land free from natural resource development, such as logging, mining, and oil.

The Achuar are a “dream people,” and their dreams warned them of the dangers of the Western World’s thirst for oil. Estimates of their dwindling population range from 6,000 to 10,000.

Tonight, Sumpa is dressed as if he was at home, thousands of miles away, in the wetter lowlands of the Amazon rainforest, east of the Ecuadorian Andes, near the Peruvian border. Granted, Cuenca’s cooler weather encouraged a layering under his traditional dress. Still he looked every bit the authority.

DSC_0751According to the event organizers, shamans are honored for their knowledge and their connection to nature. They serve their communities by attending to people who have illnesses or are experiencing problems in their lives.

His weathered face gave him a fierceness, accentuated by the black chevron markings on his cheeks and nose. A vibrant head ring of yellow, black and red feathers from three native birds, called a tawasap, crowned his graying head. He wore a wrap, called an itip, covering his lower body from wait to feet. His simple cotton shirt provided a canvas for crisscrossed white, black and red beads and seeds, and the intricate beaded turquoise pendant around his neck.

Sumpa was perched on a chair in the middle of the room, watching the performance of his countrymen who were dramatizing a tale of the hummingbird. The story involved a hardworking man and his lazy brothers and a father, portrayed by Sumpa, who lived with two beautiful daughters.

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The Achuar women are, at the very least, beautiful. With long, black straight hair and bright eyes, they have drawn circles on their cheeks to indicate they are the keeper of the family. Some have added stars to represent strength. Two of them wear braided belts with seeds that shake as they walk.

The complicated fable – presented in the Achuar dialect – involved trickery, men turning into birds and women turning into frogs. While the drama was entertaining, Sumpa’s unmitigated joy watching the silly antics of the actors was infectious. I clapped as much for him at the play’s end, as I did for the rest of the cast.

But the evening produced a somber message as well.

The Achuar’s spokesman, Napoleon, or Napo, was in Cuenca to educate. It took the group 11 hours in a canoe and eight more on a bus to reach their destination. Born in the Amazon, he grew up with a dream of creating a force to fight for the survival of the rainforest. Now, serving as the president of Fundacion IKIAM, it is what he does.

Napo is dressed similarly to the Shaman, without the beaded adornments. His face markings are slightly different, with inky black design on his chin emphasizing the seriousness of his demeanor. At 26, he is an accomplished speaker of multiple languages and is passionate about his homeland.

DSC_0740While Ecuador currently is reducing the amount of oil drilling it is conducting in the rich southeast Amazon, the new president of Brazil produces a grave threat, Napo said. The newly elected hard-right Jair Bolsonaro has promised to roll back protections of the rainforest and the rights of indigenous people in Amazonia.

“Twenty percent of the oxygen we breathe around the world comes from the rainforest,” Napo said. More than half of the world’s estimated 10 million species of plants, animals and insects live in the tropical rainforests and one-fifth of the world’s fresh water is in the Amazon Basin.

He stops to give us a mini science lesson, explaining the relationship of the rainforest to carbon dioxide.

While humans continue to pump massive amounts of CO2 into the air by burning fossil fuels, coal, oil and natural gas, a major driver for climate change. Under natural conditions, plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and absorb it, then turn it into oxygen which is released back into the air. Without the rainforest, Napo explains, the greenhouse effect becomes more significant and climate changes will increase.

“If we lose the rainforest, we lose everything, wisdom, knowledge, culture…our lives,” Napo says. “It is our market, pharmacy, ferreteria (hardware store) and origin of life.”

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His companions are nodding in agreement. I look at them and wonder, again, at the grand plan that placed me in a privileged home in El Paso, Texas, and located this passionate group in the wilds of the Amazon. I think about my passions for the border, for a reasonable and humanitarian answer for immigration, for the protection of women and children.

Napo and his neighbors are worried about their livelihood, their future, the global climate and health. We have the same hearts, the same drive for change, and the same fears. We live in different worlds, but share universal concerns.

DSC_0725“I was born in the rainforest. I feel the rainforest in my brain and in my spirit. Please protect the rainforest for our generation,” Napo says.

My heart aches for him and the future of the next generations. Yes. We have the same passions.