I knew that it would change my life, although I never imagined in what way. “It”, being my three month long backpacking trip through South America. I flew in to La Paz, Bolivia.
If you have never been there, you really ought to go. Another world within our world awaits you. There are old indigenous women in bowler hats and bustle skirts carrying large, stiff bags made from woven plastic. They hurry along the sidewalks crowded with vendors and improvised food booths. They and their indigenous men— in plain jeans, button up shirt and a cap— pop in and out of micros (large, flat-nosed passenger vans) used as public transportation.
A “witch’s market” found on one of the many, maze-like and steep streets sells items like coca leaves and statues depicting pachamama (mother nature) used in rituals. Artisan markets display beautiful tapestry artworks, hand-woven from coveted llama and alpaca wools. The same techniques are used to create aguayos, a type of square blanket-shawl used to guard against the high elevation cold air and also, more memorably, to carry babies on their backs. These weavings are composed of designs passed down throughout the generations. They vary according to region– something I learned during my visit to the famous Tarabuko market west of Sucre. There, the people wore weavings of red and black and maroon. They even wore strange hats, some like “shriner” caps but with colors all around, and others like pirate hats black with three points.
Other than the beautiful aguayos that I admired, there was a type of unusual jewelry that caught my eye. It had a rustic, bohemian appeal, made using micro macramé techniques. I found macramé artisans selling their wares on blankets laid upon the ground, on sidewalks and walkways.
Their macramé was alive, moving in color and shape in such a way that the pieces seemed to be replicas of extinct plants or insects. The shapes were organic, their hand-work minute. Due to the proximity to the Amazon forest, artisans incorporated wild boar’s teeth, caiman teeth (small crocodiles), and large exotic tree nuts. Others utilized semi-precious stones in cabochon form, setting them so that it seemed they were encrusted in the jewelry work.
In Bolivia and other countries, I found these street artisans sitting on curbs or benches, presenting their intricate work on the least pretentious of venues. Each artisan had his or her unique touch. I remember a man who made monstrous necklaces that took up the entire torso, using macramé to showcase feathers, bones, and fossils, who had no concept of “sellability” but rather an idea about natural objects and their inherent value. He was an Argentinean fellow in Potosi, Bolivia, traveling with his girlfriend and selling his exotic artwork. I wondered how he made a living.
One time, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a couple friends and I were having dinner at a touristic restaurant when a young artisan came to our table with a make-shift jewelry display in hand—two horizontal wooden rods with a dark green fabric stretched in between. After some conversation I learned that this young man was Colombian and had financed his entire trip from Colombia to Ecuador, Peru, and finally Bolivia by selling his macramé work to tourists and locals as he traveled. After pouring over his work I selected a boar’s tooth wrapped in knots of green. A little seed of longing was planted in my chest that night.
I looked at the macramé artisans with a new kind of admiration. I wanted to know more and so began to strike conversations with them. Most had a similar story: they were traveling, broke, and freedom-loving. They were young and old from all over the continent—traveling Latin America with hardly a dollar in their pockets and a whole lot of faith in their hearts. Their macramé artworks were a labor of love for many—those who sincerely gave themselves over to the creative discipline of crafting. Others made macramé for the passion of travel, knotting primarily for the payoff of discovering the next corner of the world using the money earned. All of them—and this seemed so unlikely to me for people living on the street—were carrying in their packs the treasures of the world.
I recall the many shoe boxes, busted plastic cases, Tupperware containers filled with toilet paper bunches and bits of torn fabric that safe-guarded the natural treasures that made my young, North American mind whizz with wonder. There were parrot’s feathers, monkey skulls, shark’s teeth fossils, lapis lazuli stones, rodochrosite cabochons, amethyst crystals, rainbow obsidians carved into masks or etched with Mayan calenders, ancient trilobite fossils, iguana skins, emeralds, ammonites, ambers, and hundreds more items found, traded, or bought by them first-hand from lapidaries, miners, and native peoples.
Thus, what began as a three month adventure turned into a three year apprenticeship into the underground world of the macramé artisans in South America. After Bolivia, I headed for Chile and I went to the Valle Elqui. Valle Elqui is a long river valley winding through the Andes, arid on the mountainside and fertile along the river. It is also the place where I would eventually meet my husband, and give birth to my daughter. With this significance in mind, I later named our business Elquino Arte (which means “art from Elqui”). When I first arrived in Elqui, I was again impressed by the intricate and fine aesthetic of macramé. Without the funds to buy it all, I set out to learn how to make it myself. Nearly all South American macramé artisans learned their craft on the road, from other artisans. Not all are generous with their knowledge so as to share it with tourists, so I was lucky when a young Chilean man offered to teach me my first knots. This is the man I would marry two years later.
Gerardo (my future Chilean husband), and I wandered our way through various countries for the next couple of years, all the way up to Venezuela. I met many artisans who were dedicated to the craft. They challenged themselves by knotting natural forms like butterflies, fireflies, and ladybugs. Small or large, each piece was proudly crafted distinctly from the last in order to boast exclusivity. The artisans improvised with wire-wrap applications and leather inclusions. Most memorably for me, they could draw with their knots. This was wild. I met a girl making a life-size money bill (a Chilean bill of 20,000 pesos, equivalent to $45 US dollars). She sat behind her blanket of bracelets and necklaces for sale, knotting her macramé bill into existence, patiently. I met a man who had a ten by eight portrait of Che Guevara on his blanket of goods. It was a black and white rendition of the classic portrait “Guerillero Heroico” by Alberto Korda (you remember because it is the famous one of Che staring fearlessly into the distance). When I asked him how much it was, he said that it wasn’t for sale; a humble artisan, living by the few dollars he makes in a day, did not attempt to sell a clearly expensive piece of artwork to an interested client.
I learned that those who choose to be street artisans, whether for only a summer or for many years, are compelled by adventure, freedom, simplicity, and the belief that the handmade-underground market is invaluable to the present super-industrialized world. These are people who live on one of the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, living from one day to the next, without a bank account, home, or car—simply their brotherhood and their craft. Every necklace made by thin threads knotted thousands of times is an opportunity to keep traveling and thus maintain their freedom from a full-time job and from the typical expectations of the establishment. Their lack of physical, financial, and emotional ties (and the breaking thereof), are what allow them to continue traveling. The continued travel gives them a global perspective only available through the experience of various cultures and the adventure of encountering what we otherwise only read about in books and magazines. It limits them to the possessions that they can carry in their luggage and thus lends simplicity to their lives. Living with so little possessions and money teaches them humility. They are people who share the street with thieves, peddlars, beggars, street vendors of manufactured goods, food vendors, other artisans of various types, street performers, buskers, and the general public between rich, poor, old, and young. Those artisans, who denounce the status quo in the act of their lifestyle, are those whom I had the fortune of meeting, traveling with, and learning from.
I have read that there are as few as two knots responsible for the innumerable variations that define the work of macramé artists worldwide. After having learned the craft of macramé myself, I can tell you that technique is responsible for the variety of creations that we see today. One artisan defines himself by the application of those few knots. A large part of technique is how we begin and end our pieces. I have learned to read knots like an archaic language, but I may never be able to replicate another artists’ work if I do not know how he or she began it. Heart is also a variable. We will find ways to create what it is that sits in the mind’s spectrum, an elusive image of what we yearn to see or yearn to feel from seeing. Undeniably, we are influenced, too, by our surroundings, our cultures, and our personal experiences.
Still, the macramé jewelry seen being sold on the streets of South America involves more than the variation in design, color, and stone selection. The jewelry is a tool. It allows its artist to choose the life of the traditional bohemian values: truth, love, and liberty. It is a means to a type of freedom, the freedom to travel, to make art, and to live by the strength and valor of one’s own mind and hands. It is a mode of expressing simplicity and joy. It expresses, too, their love of the handmade which is the traditional means of creation and sustainability of human societies. It is an act of defiance, demonstrating how little they care for the expensive cars or cheap imported plastic goods. Finally, it is and always will be humankind’s instinct to cultivate beauty.
Photos of individual macrame pieces are made by Nicole Medema of Elquino Arte
Written by Nicole Medema of Elquino Arte
You may contact Nicole at: Nicole.Medema@gmail.com
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