Text: Carolina Matheus
Photos: Iván Ceballos
“Pachamama and Pachakamak gathered the forces of the universe together to create the Sacred Messenger. Father Sun, Mother Moon, the rivers, trees, the winds, the stars, all lent their energies to the task. Taita Cotopaxi and Mama Tungurahua filled the sky with lava and Ash… Wise men performed ceremonies with fire and music. Amidst rain and lightning an egg appeared, and out came the child they had hoped for. He was a bird, a condor. The condor was to keep the people and the gods connected”
…Except from a Quichua legend.
In the Southern Highlands is found one of Ecuador’s most striking Andean scenery: the Zumbahua and Tigua region. When slowly venturing up the road from Pujili Village, one finds a beautiful patchwork quilt with hues of green, yellow, and brown. These fields create a sharp contrast with the fucsia and turquoise clothing of the native farmers of the region. A llama or a donkey, leisurely meandering down the road also adds quaintness to the area. Soon, the landscape becomes more dry and infertile. Then unexpectedly, at 3610 meters above sea level, stands the mouth of an ancient crater filled with bright turquoise water, in the midst of this desolate scenery. It is the sacred Quilotoa Lake, home of Quichua peoples for centuries. It is no wonder this beautiful and strange scenery has been inspiring Tigua artists to create wonderful paintings over the last thirty years! Tigua artists believe their art is a powerful instrument to transmit Quichua beliefs, traditions and daily life.
Colorful rural scenery
Tigua art is extremely colorful and traditionally rather flat. This is why it is called “naïf” art. However in the last decade, it has begun to intergrate perspective, shading, and other more Western standards of what is recognized as “art.” The themes depicted recreate traditional life, with bucolic scenery, quaint adobe houses, sheep, llamas, and snow-caped mountains.
How it all began: a Hungarian Helps
Throughout the entire Andean region, the descendants of the Incas continue to celebrate several traditional festivities throughout the year. It was in one of these occasions during the 1970’s, while Julio Toaquiza was loudly playing his multicolored sheep-skin drum, that a curious tourist began to follow him. She asked him if his drum was for sale. “Of course not! This is from my ancestors!” He answered wondering what this “gringuita” would do with an old and heavy drum. “OK. But if you ever change you mind, find me at this address in Quito.” answered the foreigner.
As time went by, and Julio faced economic hardship, he began to think “Why not sell this old drum, instead of a sheep, or animal which is much more useful?” He ventured out into Quito, and sold the drum to the woman. She turned out to be a Hungarian, Olga Fisch, who wasn’t a tourist at all, but instead, an arts and crafts lover who lived in Quito. Olga had an eye for spotting talented artists and artisans throughout Ecuador, and with Julio this was no exception. She asked him for more drums and Julio had to seek his neighbors and also search in other communities.
After a while, Julio began to wonder if he could make his drums a little different, so he began to experiment with more colors and new themes. He dreamed of his wife spinning wool with a little dog next to her, and decided this was a wonderful theme for his next painted drum. This was the beginning of Tigua art; dreams, and daily life were depicted on rustic sheep skin drums. The paint came from pigments originally used to dye their ponchos. Julio continued to experiment and develop new techniques and also teach his children.
Who would have thought that thirty years later almost the entire community of Tigua would be dedicated to painting!
What is a Canvas?
The Tigua painters were unfamiliar with the concept of painting on a canvas and using paint brushes. So when a craft’s shop owner from Quito suggested this, the idea of a “flat drum” seemed very odd. But Julio had an adventuresome spirit. He started to make sheep skin “canvas” prepared with white earth and a sap from local plants until he found an appropriate surface. His paint brushes were bird feathers, or even his son’s hair! Julio chuckles remember this, while he proudly shows his current work which is skillfully painted with brushes and acrylic paint.
Life in this cold Andean highlands isn’t easy. People have wind-chapped red cheeks working the steep land most days a week and if rain is scarce, crops will die and force many to immigrate into the cities. Until the 1950’s these descendants of the Incas were not allowed to wear shoes, speak in Spanish or look at their masters in the eye. They have undergone tremendous oppression. Therefore, their art doesn’t only illustrate quaint country scenes; in more recent years Tigua artists have also began to illustrate these hardships of daily life. They paint the abuses of their master, women being raped by the military, and even political strikes reach the city of Quito! Therefore, these artists use their art as a voice to communicate not only the good, but also the bad about their every day lives in this remote region.
A New Generation
Julio Toaquiza’s legacy still continues as he has passed down his art to almost all of his seven children, including his daughter and nephew. This younger generation is very interested in reviving traditional Quechua values. They often illustrate Pachamama (mother earth) and Pachakamak (masculine spirit of creation) as well as sacred mountains such as Cotopaxi or the Illinizas. They often draw sacred animals such as owls, humming birds and condors. Some of these artists have even published books. One artist expresses his hope that his own people, as well as others, learn and value the Quichua cosmology.
Just like the Sacred Condor is the messenger from the gods, the Tigua painters are messengers, informing the world that the descendants of the Incas still exist, and still want to preserve their traditional way of life and world view.