In this global world, it is often difficult when traveling to tell the difference between traditional handcrafts and those invented to satisfy the tastes of modern tourists. After a week in Paraguay I now know that ñanduti and ao po’i lacework and embroidery are authentic Paraguayan handcrafts, but because of my ignorance I missed out on a number of wonderful opportunities.
THE KUETUVY PEOPLE: INDIGENOUS ART
Soon after arriving, I spent a few days with the indigenous Ache people and one night my hosts appeared in camp with handcrafts to sell. I purchased an armadillo and tapir, carved out of palo santo wood, and then I saw similar carvings that were cheaper in Asunción. I paid no attention, however, to the authentic pindó leaf mats used for hundreds of years by the nomadic Ache people to keep the cold night air off their families.
The woven fabric and baskets the Ache people use to carry their few belongings are among the first items to have been fashioned by hunter-gatherers, aside from the tools they needed to hunt. Traditionally, Ache women used large, wide-mouthed vegetable fiber baskets that hang in front of their bodies and are supported in back. These baskets, which can carry food and even small children, were used exclusively by women, in the same way that only men carried a bow. Although I didn’t see any baskets, I did come across the traditional vases made in the village: their beautiful, shiny woven black interior is waterproofed with a natural wax and coal covering. Although they are ancient, the bows and arrows are not considered handcrafts because they are still in use, unlike other objects that have become ornamental commercial pieces.
ASUNCIÓN: TRADITIONAL OR “FOR EXPORT”- STYLE?
There are many stalls selling handcrafts in downtown Asunción. And here is where one begins to doubt the singularity of objects and their origins. An artisan carving a wooden retablo points to an open book with an irresistible name: La belleza de los otros (The Beauty of Others), by Ticio Escobar. The book contains a map of Paraguay highlighting different indigenous cultures and an analysis of the art created by each of them. He also sells woven bags made by the Ayoreo, Chiriguano, and Nivakle people from the Chaco region and explains how they spin the fibers of the carguata tree and die them with a mixture of earth, ash, and seeds to achieve a variety of colors, from earth tones all the way to black, passing through an entire array of reds, ochers, and browns. He also tells me about the traditional carving of palo santo, lapacho, cedar, guatambú, and timbó wood to make human figures as well as animals, flowers, leaves, tools, and masks. The Jesuits introduced the carving of religious figures, which became popular throughout the country. And now, because I am writing this article, everyone tells me I must visit Areguá, just twenty kilometers outside Asunción, and look at their handcrafts. Arazí, my hosts’ daughter-in-law, offers to drive me; we leave early the next day because we’ll have to return the car by 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
LUQUE: SILVER FILIGREE
We drove through Luque, a town known for its silver filigree handcrafts, an art born in the East and introduced to Paraguay during Spanish colonization. Silver, generally purchased from Bolivia, is melted down and made into a strand so fine you can use it like silk embroidery thread. This delicate work is extremely impressive and the people of Luque are proud of the skill and imagination, handed down from generation to generation, they put into their unique pieces.
AREGUÁ: DISNEY, STRAWBERRIES, AND MUD
According to local legend, Tupâ and Arasy created the world on the hills of Areguá from a mixture of mud, the blood of a nocturnal bird, jungle leaves, and a centipede. To bring their sculptures to life, they sprinkled them with water from Lake Ypacarai, along the banks of which Areguá was founded in the 16th century.
The town’s main street is lined with artisan’s workshops and stores. There is a bit of everything, but the pottery is especially remarkable. Arazí and I get out of the car and walk about 300 feet. It’s strange to see traditional ceramics next to brightly colored ceramic cartoon characters like SpongeBob, Mickey Mouse, and other Disney creations. The bright green frogs, toads, and owls are part of the traditional representation of local fauna. Certain ones make me laugh, others I find charming, and still others are not at all convincing. They say —although it isn’t true— that there’s no accounting for taste. All around I see examples of newly appropriated subjects, crafted using the same ancient techniques used to make figures rooted in thousand-year-old traditions.
The soon-to-be-wed Arazí discovers some gorgeous vases for the center of her table and excitedly looks for little angels for the bed of the son she already has. She is as happy here as trying on rings in Luque. But eventually we move onward in search of the Artisans Association of Areguá, outside of town. We get lost and wind up at the frutilla, or strawberry fair on the outskirts of the city. We buy half a kilo and eat them in the car, right out of the bag: they are exquisite. We then turn back towards Areguá and buy some whole grain and honey crackers off a cart to complete our lunch as we pull up at the entrance to the Association.
It’s Saturday afternoon and people are resting, chatting, and sharing the inevitable tereré in the shade of a huge mango tree. Patricio Olazar and Pedro Cristaldo and his wife Lisa don’t mind the interruption; we’ve come from afar and they welcome us like queens. They run the Association and operate the threechamber oven, which reaches temperatures of up to 2,373 degrees Fahrenheit. It was donated in 2006 by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and they show us the oven proudly. “We’ve got the raw materials, and now the technology as well,” says Pedro. We hope to make porcelain. I ask how they expect to compete with the Chinese porcelain that floods the market. “We don’t compete,” he states emphatically, “ours is handcrafted traditionally, which gives it a different value; we don’t think we’ll be in the same market.” “And why not?” I ask, “Why porcelain if people come here looking for the traditional Areguá ceramics?” He smiles and shakes his head, as if to say: “This woman understands nothing.” “We’re potters,” he answers loudly. “Porcelain is the ultimate ceramic; it is the most refined technique a potter can achieve.” And then I understand: driven by a desire to achieve greatness, these people dream of porcelain.
They tell us how they trained for an entire year with the Japanese to learn to use the Noborigama oven. They fired it every three or four months for more than 40 hours (although the entire process, including the initial loading, firing, cooling, and unloading lasts nine days), but it took five years to master the operating techniques. This is the only traditional oven in Paraguay capable of firing enameled porcelain. The enamel is also made from natural products, a mixture of ground sedimentary clay, kaolin, quartz, and other non-toxic minerals. Lisa demonstrates the liquid enamel process by submerging a piece. The Association hopes to be awarded the National Institute of Technology and Standards’ environmental product certification as well as the Paraguayan Institute of Handcrafts’ product certification. They have already implemented traceability mechanisms and begun to export to Japan, Italy, and France, although they still have trouble keeping up with demand in Argentina and Brazil of the delays in certification.
It’s the women in Areguá who paint the pieces after they’ve cooled, and sell them too. Cristaldo and Olazar complain about a lack of business training. They say there’s a market for clay pots, now highly prized because cooking food in clay pots gives it a different flavor from food cooked in metal pots. They sell these pots in shopping centers where chefs from upscale hotels and restaurants purchase them.
After showing us the oven, Patricio gives us a demonstration that is also a lesson in the history of pottery. Sheltered by the enormous mango tree, we watch as the skilled, darkened hands of this quiet man meet the wet clay and a variety of wheels to make flasks, flowerpots, and wineglasses appear —almost perfectly symmetrical shapes newly invented especially for us. We’re amazed by the clay and gasp in joyful admiration as the crockery emerges. It is the miracle of creation and I begin to believe that Tupâ and Arasy really did create the world.
But we move on to another world, one of industrious women secluded in their homes. We return to Asunción by way of Itaguá, the land of ñandutí, a spider web-like lacework (ñanduti means spider web in Guaraní) extremely prized by European traders. Ñandutí is a colonial art form probably related to the lace from the Canary Islands that is embroidered onto cloth placed on a wooden frame. The cloth disappears once the ñandutí is finished. I am told that not long ago certain artisans used their own spindles to make thread but that now everyone uses industrial products.
One salesman told me that 90% of women in Itaguá work in the ñandutí trade. My instinct tells me not to believe everything a salesman tells you, but it is obvious that the handcraft is a major source of income in this town. Many of the shops on the main street sell ñandutí exclusively. “Where can I find someone who embroiders?” I ask. “Where?” exclaims the salesman, “in any one of these houses!” But it’s Saturday, and siesta time. Finally, one of the saleswomen remembers: “Ña Celsí embroiders on Saturday afternoons.”
Her grandson welcomes us and carries his grandmother’s chair out onto the porch. The young man is a university student in Asunción. Ña Celsí would have liked to study too but it wasn’t allowed. Like nearly all the women of her generation, she’s had a difficult life; she’s been embroidering since she was seven years old and is over 90 now. She still enjoys embroidering, along with TV soaps and the fresh breeze on her porch. Age occasionally has its rewards. Her smile is rare and authentic and only reluctantly does she allow her picture to be taken.
YATAITY: AO PO’I
We didn’t get a chance to see the spinning and embroidering of ao po’i in Yataity, the birthplace of this craft which lies about 125 miles from Asunción in the Guairá department. During the Francia administration (1812-1840), imports were forbidden and women, deprived of European fabric, spun cotton so they could weave and embroider clothing for their own personal and domestic use. This spun cloth, similar to canvas, is called “authentic” ao po’i. The cloth made nowadays has been transformed over time by the imagination and skill of women who have added embroidering, pilling, lace, trim, and delicate cross-stitching.
I can appreciate the patience, skill, and detail required for the tanned, weather-beaten hands of someone like Ña Celsí to weave the ñandutí, but I’m not so convinced by the combinations of so many different colors. I like the rustic, traditional ao po’i much better. After returning from my guided tour with Arazí, in Asunción’s La Recova handcraft market, I purchase an ao po’I tablecloth —all in natural colors— for my mother, who knows the value of the tiny stitches of embroidery.
WHAT I TOOK AWAY
Returning to Montevideo, I fill my suitcase with some key chains made from caña hueca (Phragmites communis) with holes spaced just right to imitate the sound of the caburé bird, the toucan, and the parrot; the carved animals I bought from the Aché people; a oven bag like the ones the Chaco people use; a colorful cotton sash used by the Paraguayan gauchos; some placemats decorated with ñandutí; and a ceramic container with a modern design that I bought on the main street of Areguá. I lay them out like treasures between my clothes and cover them all with the ao po’I tablecloth. Too bad about the pindó leaf mat I let slip by.