“In my community’s eyes I am La Micaela”

By Gaby Ratner

How was your relationship with the artisan communities of Nariño born?
I’ve always thought that my bond with Aboriginal people comes from other lives. When I was a little girl I would go to my uncle's farm and spend the whole summer playing with the children of Los Pastos (that's the name of their community). As soon as I put on their fabrics, something in me woke up. I felt as if I was part of them, a very special connection was forged. When I was preparing my thesis to become a Fashion Designer, I wasn’t surprised to see that my love for veils became the inspiration for making coats using wangas, the foot-loom on which artisans weave. That choice led me to reconnect with my childhood memories. I wanted to choose a design that, beyond being part of my profession, would become a way of life. I went to Cumbal (a municipality that belongs to the Department of Nariño) to stay in the community and bring my thesis project to life. I started with three women, who to this day still work with me. They laughed, they couldn't believe what I was proposing, but they still jumped on an idea that seemed almost crazy to them. And so we started testing weaves, not one of us imagining that this job would unite us forever. It was a give and take, and that was the main objective of my thesis: to forge bridges that would allow all of us to grow.

Was the process of incorporating craftsmanship into contemporary design difficult?
Like any path that deviates from 'what is expected', the time it takes for it to be accepted and for people to learn to appreciate it is much slower. It was not easy to go out and show the world the richness of Colombian artisan work. The fact that on a local level it was not given that value within the fashion industry made it even more complex. I managed everything by myself. During the first stages, I had to pay a lot of money to even participate in the Bogotá Fashion Week and was scheduled during time slots which very few people attended. This continued until the year 2000 when I went to Expoartesanías for the first time, looking to spread our art. I always say that Expoartesanías was my cradle, the space that gave me the opportunity to interact with embassies from different countries and travel so that the beauty of our ancestral techniques could be seen and valued. I started this trend in Colombia, was the first to make fashion from artisanal design and provide work to the regional workforce, to our peoples.

What does the ruana symbolize?
The ruana is very important since, for the indigenous people, it represents power. Historically, the quality of the fabric determined which social caste got to wear it. Icat, which is a very heavy textile, belonged to the goddesses, the highest authority. The aboriginal people go to work, protect themselves from the cold - all while wearing a ruana (made from a sheep’s wool fabric, which additionally makes them waterproof). They carry the ruana everywhere. The ruana is the ruana –she affirms proudly-, and my thing is its evolution. Preparing the warp, which involves placing the threads, takes between two and three days, and then, depending on the length of the cloth, the weaving is done within a period of eight to ten days. When I receive them I leave them outdoors, in the fresh air. I have my own ritual that I learned from my community, which consists of smoking the garments with palo santo to protect them and clean them from all the hands they have passed through. It is a ceremony of cleansing and gratitude.

What rituals do you have when it comes to meeting to weave?
Something to note is that the main activity of the community of Chiles Cumbal -alongside which I have been collaborating since my beginnings-, is working the fields. They get up very early to milk the cows, harvest and plant potatoes, barley, corn..., and then they weave in their free time, mainly in the afternoon or at night. They basically weave for pleasure, beyond it being a source of income. Families get together, set up a fire and everything happens around the tulpa: the clay pot where they prepare food. While they drink the soup, they bundle up and take out the wangas -which is the loom- to begin the weaving. That moment outdoors, looking into each other's eyes, is very beautiful and a ceremony in its own way. I usually stay with them for several days and, when I arrive, the most important ritual is to go into the kitchen. In their eyes the best welcome is to give food, it is their way of entertaining. And then we start talking about "the times ahead", which is what they call the past. I design and knit at night or on the weekends, when everything is silent and my mind is blank, in order to remain permeable to inspiration. My ritual and their ritual have much in common. That stillness and the magic of the evening.

What do Doña Micaela and Don Juan Chiles symbolize for the aboriginal community of Los Pastos?
La Micaela, cacica of the Los Pastos tribe, was an indigenous warrior who defended the lands of Cumbal; a very brave woman who was highly respected by the aboriginal communities. She was the wife of the legendary warrior Don Juan Chiles “the one who facilitates access to the marvelous. The one who, akin to a spell, guides the people through deeply familiar worlds under his expert leadership. Tree of great height that roars through the earth, offering a great vision". Legend says he had enough fluidity in his walk to cross through space and time, championing for human and community rights. Nowadays, many say they still see him above the Laguna Verde with his prop and his red ruana, guarding the lands of Nariño. Within the community they call me La Micaela. In fact, in 2011 I presented a collection in her honor. I named it 'Micaela y el Volcán', an allegory to the Galeras volcano and Micaela's defense of indigenous territory. For this emblematic collection I won the Steel Pencil Award, the most important recognition for Colombian design.

What have you learned along these years of forging a relationship with aboriginal communities?
I have worked with these people all my life and was always very well received. From the beginning I was permeable to learning and they, in turn, were not only permeable to teaching me, but also encouraged by what I proposed to them. I learned simplicity and humility from them, love for daily life, for whatever is there. I’ve never wanted to leave my people, and that’s why - for 21 years now - I’ve always sought to work with the community of Los Pastos. I’ve become one of them, value their fidelity and the relationship of great affection and loyalty that we’ve built. I give them work. My commitment is that they always have economic stability. It is key for my product to become progressively more spectacular, because it makes them feel proud of their fabrics. To an artisan, being part of an Adriana Santacruz ruana is very important. I am a spokesperson for my culture but they are the true protagonists.

-A hotel to stay at? I n Ecuador, the hotel La Casa Sol Otavalo in the Cascada de Peguche. It is a special place where celebrations such as the Inti Raymi party (the summer solstice) are held. It was built based on feng shui precepts and the purifying power of its lagoons is admired by many.
-A food we should try in Pasto? Over here we have the best trout. However, if you come to visit, you’ll surely be invited to sample guinea pig meat, which is a typical food in this area that is not eaten in other regions of Colombia.
-A favorite Colombian craft? Toquilla straw hats and Mopa-Mopa art. This technique that is over 2,000 years old was developed by the Quillacingas Indians and consists of extracting grass varnish from a magical bush called Mopa-Mopa and transforming it into resin. These sheets take different forms and are dyed with vegetable dyes or can be laminated in gold or silver, it is truly a beautiful process!
-Where do you look for inspiration? I live in the middle of the mountain and have my workshop here, surrounded by nature. My habitat, its organic shapes and colors, are a permanent source of inspiration. I lead a very spiritual life, practice Chi Kung and walk with my dogs. I always say that the mountains protect me.
-When you travel, a favorite souvenir? From each trip I bring back handcrafted objects that are typical of that place. What they manufacture in the streets, those unique pieces that I discover and grab my attention due to their beauty and the dedication they symbolize.
-Your favorite materials? Sheep's wool, I love it. I live with wool, it's my second skin. Also, the natural silk that I am working with now.
-What is artisanal design in a nutshell? It is the connection with being, what comes out of your soul.
-A message you want to convey to the world about Colombian craftsmanship… I would like to tell you that fabrics are noble, they shelter the body and feed the spirit.

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