Sitting on the floor, deep in concentration, Marta Llampa interlaces red and black threads that converge in sinuous shapes, gradually forming khurus or mythical creatures through a unique, age-old technique rescued from extinction by the Jalq’a people.
Jalq’a women put many hours into making these world-famous weavings, which are the most ancient textile crafts of the Andes mountains. They devote so much time to it because “the money we earn selling these textiles has improved our community’s quality of life,” Llampa, a weaver from the rural village of Caraviri, told IPS.
Caraviri is located 64 kilometres from Sucre, the capital of Bolivia and of the southeastern department (province) of Chuquisaca, which, with Potosí, is one of the two departments home to Bolivia’s 26,000 Jalq’as, a Quechua-speaking people.
This special form of weaving almost disappeared in the 1970s, when the technique was appropriated by textile producers from other parts of Bolivia and the world. This, combined with a process of acculturation of the Jalq’a people, resulted in the craft being abandoned by its original creators.
Efforts to rescue the technique began in 1986 with the establishment of the Southern Andean Anthropologists’ (Asur) Foundation for Anthropological Research and Ethno-Development, which operates in Chuquisaca and neighbouring Potosí.
The foundation implemented the Rebirth of Indigenous Art programme, “with the aim of salvaging the traditional Jalq’a weaving technique, in order to save such a precious art from extinction,” Asur representative Alejandra Lucia told IPS.
The idea originated with Verónica Cereceda and Gabriel Martínez, two Chilean anthropologists who are also husband and wife.
“When they discovered the beauty of these cloths and started learning about the place they came from, they found that the (Jalq’a) people were living in extreme poverty, with no running water or electricity, and a high infant mortality rate,” Lucia said.
So they set out to rescue the traditional local pallays or weaving patterns, as a way of helping the people who created them. They began working with a group of women in a small community.
“The grandmothers collaborated with their minds and provided the technique, the girls contributed their hands and eyes, and that was how we began recovering these textiles,” Lucia said.
Neither the promoters nor the weavers knew what results, if any, their efforts would yield. But their work paid off, and the women started earning their own money and participating actively in the economy of their homes and community.
Before this initiative they had no income-generating activities – only the unpaid work of cleaning, cooking, raising the children, tending to the farm animals, and planting and harvesting the crops.
Asur now works with 150 weavers from different communities, although Caraviri is still the centre of its activity.
Llampa earns about 175 U.S. dollars for each cloth, which takes two to four months to weave, depending on how complex the design is.
That sum may not seem like much, but for this mother of two teenagers it makes a huge difference. “We used to live in great poverty and now we can cover our basic necessities,” she said, adding that she would like to have more hours to weave, but that would mean neglecting her duties to her family and home.
The communities also receive aid for various development projects from the provincial government of Chuquisaca, tourism director Verónica Rojas told IPS.
One such project involves opening up a store to sell Asur weaver products directly to the public. The business will be managed by the weavers themselves and all proceeds will go to them.
Under this project they will also receive ongoing training to enhance production of current weavings and to make other products, such as mantillas and different items typical of the region.
“It takes us two to three months to make each piece, depending on the size. Every design is unique because it comes from our minds – that is how we were taught by our mothers and grandmothers since we were very small,” said Balbina Coragua, a weaver from the Maragua community, also near Sucre.
Since she has only one son, who is fully grown, she can devote more time to weaving, and earns an average of 200 dollars a month. “My life and my family’s life has changed for the better, and it’s satisfying to know that it’s because of my pallays,” she told IPS.
The task of making the clothes worn by the Jalq’a people is also a woman’s job.
Jalq’a men and women typically wear white bowler-type hats with embroidered ribbons. They also use white pants and shirts over which they don dark, woven ponchos with stripes of subtly different colours that blend together, giving a monochromatic appearance from afar.
The most outstanding of these is the axsu, two long woven cloths with pallays, which are worn over their almillas (blouses) and typically dark skirts, and are stitched at the waist. This was the main garment worn by Quechua and Aymara women from the fifteenth century on, and today it only survives in some cultures, like the Jalq’a.
The axsus worn on festive occasions have elaborate designs and are richly ornamented. A woman’s outfit is completed with a lliklla, a thin embroidered shawl or half-cape.
Many axsus are exhibited as art in celebrations and ceremonies.
These are woven fabrics that date back 4,000 years and represent some of the most ancient, intricate and elaborate expressions of Andean cosmogony.
They are also a form of language, through which each community depicts its common identity and distinguishes itself from others.
For that reason, their pallays are interpreted and read like texts that tell the stories, thoughts and views of each community and each artisan.
Thus, when these garments are worn or exhibited, the Jalq’a can recognise each other and identify the different communities.
They are not only the most ancient Andean woven textiles, but their patterns are also considered to be the most expressive, in a country enormously rich in woven and embroidered designs and styles.
The landscape woven by the Jalq’a is the “Ukhu Pacha,” a sacred world described by these women artisans as a disordered and chaotic space, a place of darkness, death, dreams and fears.
The strange figures that populate it are the khurus, mythical animals that the Jalq’a people believe appear when you find yourself alone or in a remote place.
There are three types of khurus: imaginary or nonexistent; known but rendered unreal – horses with extremely long tongues or tails, and cows with elongated backs, for example; and more realistic animals such as monkeys or llamas.
Inside the khurus are what are known as “uñas,” which are the wawas (offspring) of these constantly-reproducing creatures.
The wawas are not of the same species as their parents, so that a dog may spawn a bird or a cat.
The weavers describe this confusion as “chaxrusqa kanan tian,” a phrase that means that the universe portrayed “must be disorderly.”
The results are immensely beautiful textile products possessing a unique expressiveness. The quality of these cloths elevates them above the category of craftworks, making them valuable works of art that are part of the world’s cultural heritage, and which the Jalq’a people are struggling hard to protect, overcoming many difficulties.