Ayacucho – Where Art Is Life

Nor have the great masters escaped this necessity. Julio Urbano, one of the greatest exponents of the exquisite boxed scene known as the retablo de San Marcos together with his brother Jesús, is forced to spend hours working hunched over in his workshop in the quarter of La Libertad, Huamanga, modeling his figures in a dough-like clay that will form part of one of his latest works, although possibly stripped of originality and splendor. But it will be cheap, affordable within the impoverished surrounding environment and which will put food on the table and buy clothing and school utensils for his grandchildren.

Ayacucho - Where Art Is Life, Peru


And he has to make an effort not to waste his talent. Every chance he has, Julio Urbano steals some time from his obligations and dedicates himself to the pleasure and satisfaction derived from creating a work of art, one of the superb retablos which occasionally he gives to his followers.

Fragile, beautiful in their originality, the brother of the lone disciple of Joaquín López Antay, the founder of this race of artists who populate Ayacucho, surprises us a few times a year with a five-tiered retablo standing nearly five feet high, reflecting the religious fervor to be felt in festivals such as Easter Week in Ayacucho.

And there are many of them. Another is Julio Gálvez, the grand master of Peruvian artisanry for his Huamanga stone carvings. Born in the town of Vinchos, at age 52 Gálvez is one of Ayacucho’s most prestigious artists.

He has had to shelve some projects, like putting the finishing touches on a sculpture portraying the terrorist violence in his town.

Ayacucho - Where Art Is Life, Peru


Instead, he focuses on other carvings, such as the well-known egg sculptures that house a Nativity scene sold as separate pieces. The sculpture was modeled on an idea that Gálvez dreamed up with his sons, working with eggshells of ostrich, partridge and chicken, something which today is being copied all over the country). Works such as The Tree of Life and The Allegory of the World, some of Ayacucho’s greatest creations, appear once a year, because survival, Gálvez says, comes first.

Fewer and fewer

For other reasons, which also have to do with the law of supply and demand, other expressions of Ayacucho folk art are also in danger of disappearing. Like silverwork, filigree and jewelry, which is now produced by less than a dozen craftsmen in Ayacucho.

Silverwork is in dire straits. Just two artisans produce this art form today: Félix del Pino (62) and his nephew Agripino Huamán (55).

Neither of them have apprentices, as the young artisans prefer to produce objects that they have a better chance of selling, both locally and abroad.

Don Félix has stored away in a forgotten drawer of his workshop the silver molds that were once a raging success a few decades ago. One will not see the like of these jewels of silversmithy again. Today, the craftsman has to combine silver with Huamanga stone to create pendants and brooches that can be sold, although cheaply.

Ayacucho - Where Art Is Life, Peru


A similar case is that of Víctor Revoller Huamán (38), a young artisan who inherited this great tradition of embossing. While he has never come up with the kind of works of art that the master craftsmen of yore produced, such as the superb saddles and stirrups for horsemen, his creations -handbags, belts, pouches, briefcases- are delicate pieces that possibly within a few years will no longer be made.

Today, in Ayacucho, there are only half-a-dozen artisans who work at this discipline, and due to the scarce demand for their products, it is doubtful that the skill will be passed down to future generations. Many craftsmen remember the times when the superb carved gourds known as mates burilados were still made in Huamanga.

Today, this tradition has died out here, and other craftsmen elsewhere in the Peruvian highlands, who have kept the art alive.

Similarly, tinplate arts and crafts are no longer made in Ayacucho, as the last master craftsman died last year, taking his skills to the grave.

Silverwork, filigree and embossing could follow suit.

Ayacucho - Where Art Is Life, Peru


With this current state of affairs, the folk artists and artisans of Ayacucho appear to be condemned to deciding between choosing the dizzy pace of today’s market, or struggling on, making the same pieces that made their ancestors famous. A few will doubtlessly choose tradition, but more and more will grit their teeth and set out to slug it out in an increasingly competitive market.

"They have to sell their art"

Ulises Larrea, director of Industry & Tourism in Ayacucho, believes the main problem that Ayacucho artisans face is not that their talent is wasted on minor chores, but rather that their talent has not reaped financial rewards, with the odd exception. He attributes this to the fact that to date craftsmen have not succeeded in establishing commercial links with the public who are interested in their work. This is why they always have to resort to middlemen.

"First we have to make a distinction between folk artists and artisans. The former make unique works of art, while the latter make them in a series. While folk artists have received acclaim abroad and their work has access to the odd distribution network, both groups suffer from the same inability to sell their wares," he says.

Ayacucho - Where Art Is Life, Peru


Larrea believes that today Ayacucho can no longer be considered the capital of Peruvian folk art. "Many artists and artisans emigrated to Lima during the terrorism years, and due to the scarce demand for their work. In Lima they produce clay pottery, objects from Huamanga stone, Ayacucho weavings. This is why the buyers, exporters of Ayacucho art and of Peruvian arts and crafts in general, should buy the pieces where they are produced, so that the benefits reach the villages themselves”.

Larrea says the artists should learn about sales techniques, to be able to sell their art. "That way, they could cut out the middleman and make more of a profit". He claims that if sales prices come down and motifs and designs are revamped, the art forms inherited from the Wari culture and enriched by the Spanish Conquest will have a better chance of surviving.

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