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November 2004

Highlights of Chilean handcraft

Cecilia García-Huidobro, executive vice-president of Chile's Cultural Heritage Corporation, takes up the challenge of choosing the six unmissable landmarks of our local handicraft art.

By Cecilia García-Huidobro



One of popular culture's most evident expression is craftsmanship. From generation to generation, secrets and skills pass on, maintaining a tradition that is deeply rooted in the identity of the land from where it comes from.

It is hard to classify with an aesthetic criteria what hard-working hands produce daily. However, there is no doubt that some handicraft traditions have reached in Chile an artistic level of which we can't be but proud.

Unfortunately, there are also some traditions that have lost their spirit and enthusiasm, as well as some that have been influenced by external agents that have nothing to do with our ancient roots. Others, like the perfumed-ceramics of the Claras Nuns, have died along with its makers; its techniques lost forever, leaving us only a few testimonies of something that may not come back.

In this article we want to highlight, from a critical point of view, those expressions that have reached a creative level that makes them unique and loyal reflections of the roots still present in specific areas. We look for the coherence between the components, hoping that the original sense is expressed in its shapes, making it a recognizable reference.

Nevertheless, we omit some representations that may be well-known and promoted, but that do not reach a fine composition nor a notable making. Some handicrafting has been affected by consummer's society, adding techniques and motifs that have nothing to do with their essence, eventhough a serious work may return them to their traditional path.

Spread throughout Chile, the handicrafters work individually, and their knittings, baskets, tiles, etc., are not shown as a whole. A lot of artists, some of them very talented, don't seem able to place themselves inside a collective effort, which is a basic requirement for an artistic movement that wants to project itself. There is no doubt that this is a pending issue in those schools now teaching Design, and in the offices in charge of promoting Chile's tourism.


The highlights
The following is my very subjective selection, based on the above criteria:

—Mapuche silver work:
During the 18th and 19th Centuries, one could find silver coins at the Mapuche region, a result of their commercial exchange with Argentina. These coins might have started with the development of the Mapuche silverwork, which started showing more sophistication with the passing of time, until making unique pieces of work. The "caciques" (Mapuche chiefs) had at their service artists in charge of creating jewelry for women, ritual ornaments, tools and house silverware. Their legacy is still alive, with the hammering and smelting of silver at the Araucania zone, where one can still find a large number of designers investigating and recreating ancient works, such as Amalia Chaigneau.

—Rari
The humble practice of cutting and braiding the horses manes started a wonderful artistic expression, which can be found at the town of Rari, Linares province, near the Quinamavida and Panimavida thermal baths. Transparent and coloured butterflies, angels and witches, baskets, Virgins and Natitivity scenes, are some of the most typical pieces.

—Quinchamali
This small town, South of Chillan, has the unmistakable objects made out of black ceramics, which is painted with white patterns over its surfaces. There are practical objects, such as jars and "mates", money-boxes and all kinds of decorations figures.

—Pilen earthenware
Near Cauquenes, we find the artistic expression that, in my opinion, is the most authentic in the work with clay, which is completely red in this part of the country. Just like its ancestors, it can be shaped into dishes, flowerpots or small churches. It is simplicity itself, like a hen's head acting like a cover for a deep dish, but with a moving dignity and pure beauty.

—Talagante ceramics
Near Santiago, this small town holds the last workers of a kind of ceramics which is painted in colorful tones. Its figures are typical street characters, or maybe the participants in the traditional Cuasimodo procession, with the priest, the "huasos" and the flags. It is urgent to teach the younger generations about this art, which is at extinction risk.

—Chamantos de Doñihue
Doñihue is a town near Rancagua, about an hour South of Santiago. There we find the "chamanteras", women that knit in silk and cotton beautiful cloths inspired on the Inca, Mapuche and Spanish traditions, incorporating the flowers of our central zone. Their work is so precise that it may take months to be ready. That's why this is a rather expensive product, and a symbol of luxury during official activities, such as rodeos and "ramadas".

 
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