When you think about Colombian handicrafts, what is the first picture that comes to mind? Colourful bracelets and bags? The sombrero volteao? Coconut crafts from Chocó or traditional wayuu knitted products in La Guajira? Emeralds in Bogotá or gold from Mompox? Basketry or the classic ruana from Boyacá? Or maybe mini figurines, much like our very own ‘chiva viajera’? Well, the point I’m trying to make is that handicrafts in Colombia are so varied that it is impossible to pin down what defines typical Colombian artisanal goods.
Each region has its own specialty and this specialisation leads to a much higher quality of crafts. It’s not only every region, but within every region you will find numerous towns or even villages that are the country’s centre for something odd (much like Cucunuba and the Greek yogurt trade). Antioquia is no different and there are a number of towns that lay claim to being ‘Colombia’s number one producer of…’
We already touched upon Santa Elena’s importance as the home of Medellin’s silleteros, where the flower arrangements for the city’s Feria de Las Flores are created. Perhaps growing flowers can’t be considered under handicrafts, but the intricate and painstaking design process surely can. The displays can weigh up to 120kg and they use anywhere between 70 and 100 varieties of flowers to make complex, stunning designs. One display can sometimes take a month to complete, with entire families working flat out.
In Marinilla, there is a family-run guitar factory that has been in existence since 1860. We met the third, fourth and fifth generations of the family who explained the complicated and fascinating process they use to make acoustic and electro-acoustic guitars. The majority of the work is done by hand, with some of the more detailed instruments taking two months to make. Such is the reputation of this small, traditional workshop that Juanes has been in person to buy guitars. Now if that’s not a claim to fame, I don’t know what is.
Also in Marinilla is a religious art workshop, which my trusty sidekick Gilesy briefly touched upon yesterday. The sculptor, Alberto Soto, has dedicated himself to creating a huge variety of religious figurines, following traditional techniques in his tiny family-run factory. Some of his larger nativity scenes (all done to scale) are even used in shopping malls as part of Colombia’s wonderfully kitsch and over-the-top lead-up to Christmas. Alberto has refused to relocate his business, despite the need for a larger space, as he is determined to help improve a neighbourhood of Marinilla that has not yet received the same amount of investment and development as the rest. Yet another example of the incredible strength of paisa local pride.
Perhaps the icing on our Antioquia-handicrafts-cake was the small town of El Carmen de Viboral. While Raquira or Caldas can equally lay claim to being the birthplace of the ceramics industry in Colombia, Carmen has undoubtedly been the focal point of this industry for over a century. The town is home to the Festival de la Loza (yes, as we have come to know, Colombians will celebrate anything, even crockery), but its most distinctive feature is ‘Ceramics Street’. A new addition to the town, this 2005 project, supposedly based on Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona, adds a delightfully unique touch to what might otherwise be another small Colombian town. Each of the facades on this street is decorated with plates, yes plates, in over 20 different traditional designs. As the locals will be all too keen to tell you, a plate with one of these designs was used by Barack Obama. These far from tenuous links to famous folk just keep on coming.
The town’s Casa de la Cultura, which started off as a convent before being turned into a girls’ school and then the cultural centre, houses the town’s museum of ceramics. Believe me, this is far more interesting than it sounds. It charts the history of the town’s ceramics industry, from the golden era in the first half of the 20th century when there were more than 20 factories, through the ceramics crisis of 1970-1997 when the markets opened and cheap Chinese porcelain arrived, right up until the modern day. Captivated? I thought so.
The museum also delves into the crockery-making process, the use of local minerals to create pigmentation and the intricate hand-painting techniques used. To demonstrate this we were first taken to the country’s last remaining traditional pottery factory on the outskirts of the town. Here, three brothers use time-honoured techniques and a classic brick kiln to create basic but beautiful pots.
We also got the opportunity to see the more modern side of the ceramics industry in Carmen when we visited a workshop in the town. With many more workers and more up-to-date techniques, we were introduced to some truly stunning plates and ceramics (yes, I know I’m getting excited about plates, but why can’t we eat off something pretty?). Each item is painted by hand, some of the more complex ones taking three hours to complete.
With only three days in Antioquia, we were obviously not able to see all of the region’s wonderful and cultural towns, but it was very clear to us that handicrafts play an important role in the economy and history of many of the smaller, more traditional towns. In keeping with Colombia’s strong tradition of placing a great deal of importance on the family, most of these businesses are family-owned and run, allowing them to keep their character while at the same time moving forward to keep up with modern demands. Step into almost any town in Antioquia and you will no doubt be greeted by a happy local eager to entertain you with details of the local sausage, water pistol, rat poison or cravat industry. And you’ll be surprised at how interesting it is.