Arts and crafts in Colombia

With the wide variety of climate, topography and geology, it is not surprising that Colombia has virtually all the materials, fibres, minerals and incentives to create useful and artistic products. Many of the techniques practised today have been inherited from the indigenous peoples who lived here before the conquest, some indeed have not changed in the intervening centuries and are as appropriate now as they were then.

Gold

Gold is very much associated with Colombia. It was gold that brought the Europeans to the New World, and where they found it first. The indigenous peoples had been using it for many centuries though not as a simple 'store of value'. Only when it had been made into jewellery, body ornaments or items for sacrificial rites for their gods did gold have value for them. It must have been incomprehensible to them, as well as a tragedy for posterity, when the Spaniards melted down the gold they obtained in order to ship it back to Europe.

Many of the
sierras
in the west of the country have traces of gold in the strata. Through erosion in the rainy climates of the region, panning for gold in the rivers was productive and probably has been practised here since around 800 BC. Even some deep shaft mines have been found in west Colombia.

The Quimbaya of the Cauca Valley produced 24 carat gold containers, helmets and pendants in their ascendancy from 1000-1500 AD and also worked with
tumbaga
, a gold-copper alloy. The Tolima of the Magdalena Valley made artefacts of pure gold and the Wayúu of the Guajira string beads, sometimes covered with gold, a tradition that continues today. When the Spaniards arrived, the Muisca of the Boyacá/Bogotá area were modelling figures in wax and covering them with clay. They then fired them, removed the melted wax and filled the mould with gold. By carefully prizing open the mould, they were able to make many replicas, thus inventing mass production.

Virtually all of today's techniques of the goldsmith were known to the early peoples of Colombia and there is a fine presentation on this subject at the museum in the Parque Arqueológico in Sogamoso, Boyacá .

There are some good bargains to be had in Colombia for gold items, notably in Bogotá and Cartagena. Perhaps the most interesting place, however, is Mompós, Bolívar, where there is a tradition of fine gold filigree work.

No-one visiting Colombia should miss the Banco de la República's wonderful gold museums. The central collection of gold artefacts is in Bogotá but there are other smaller presentations in the main cities around the country, always worth a visit.

Textiles

Although Colombian textiles cannot rival those of Guatemala or Peru in terms of design and spectacular colour, some areas of the country have some fine traditions. For the Wayúu,
'ser mujer es saber tejer'
(to be a woman is to know how to weave). Cotton was available in north Colombia and textiles were traded for wool from the Santa Marta
sierra
nearby, also used as a raw material. The Cuna of northwest Colombia still make the decorative panels for garments known as
molas
. A speciality is the
mola
made of many layers of coloured cloth sewn together, then cut out using the different colours to create a pattern or a motif.

One striking costume is found in the south near Silvia, Cauca, where the indigenous Guambiano weave their own blue and fuchsia costumes as well as many other wool garments and blankets.

Basketry

By its nature, articles made of vegetable fibres do not survive for very long, but we know that the Spaniards found many examples of indigenous work in Colombia. The basket- weaving techniques of the Muisca have continued in Tenza, Boyacá, where people still use
caña de castilla
(Arundo donax), which is easier to work with than bamboo. The whole local village works in this cottage industry.

Another similar community enterprise is in Sandoná, Nariño, where, in addition to basket weaving, Panama hats are a speciality. Panama hats are so named for where they were initially sold, rather than where made. The workers on the canal in the early part of the 20th century were the first customers, followed by those passing through. They were made in Ecuador and in Sandoná where the local
iraca
palm fibre is used. Hats are also made in Sampués, Sucre, from 'arrowcane' which grows in the river lowlands nearby and good basket weaving using palma iraca can be found at Usiacurí, south of Barranquilla.

The finest quality basket weaving in the country is to be found along the northwest Pacific coast of Chocó where the indigenous Cholo use
werregue
palm to weave a texture so fine that the finished product can look like clay and be used to carry water. They have a flourishing trade nowadays in coarser but more colourful palm weaving products.

Wood

The Cholo also make interesting 'healing sticks', which have magical as well as healing powers. These are about 50 cm long with a pointed end and carved figures above. Held against the stomach of the patient, they drive away the evil spirits and cure the illness. Carved wooden masks are a feature of indigenous crafts in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the north and the Sibundoy people of Putumayo in the extreme south of the country, used for festivities and rituals. Interesting wood carvings are made by the Puinave people near Puerto Inírida. Wooden masks appear in the carnival in Barranquilla.

Perhaps the most important wood
artesanía
is found in Chiquinquirá (Boyacá). Carved musical instruments are a speciality and many other items including all sorts of items made of
tagua
nuts gathered in the forests of the Chocó and Amazonas. Guitars are also found in Marinilla near Medellín.

Leather

Leather and woodwork often go together, and the arrival of cattle brought the necessary raw material. Now, finely engraved leather covering carved wooden chairs and other furniture is made in Pasto (Nariño), an important centre.

Barniz

An added craft is that of the resin locally called
barniz
. This comes from seed pods of
Eleagia Utilis
, which grows at altitudes of over 2000 m in Putumayo. Nowadays, the resin is extracted by passing through a mill or by hammering. Previously this was done by chewing the seeds, commonly known as
mopa-mopa
, supposedly because of the strange sound made by the chewers attempting to speak as well as chew at the same time. After
extraction, the resin is dyed and expertly stretched to paper thin sheets into which designs
are cut to decorate wooden objects including masks, each colour produced individually, finally covered with a protective lacquer. Pasto is the most important centre for
barniz
.

Pottery

The best known pottery centre in Colombia is Ráquira, Boyacá. A large selection of products is made for household and ornamental use including many small items and are sold here and in towns round about. The large earthenware pots made here today are identical to those made by the Chibcha centuries ago. A similar pottery centre across the country, Carmen de Viboral, Antioquia, also produces ceramics that are known throughout Colombia.

Imaginative and amusing ceramics are made in Pitalito, Huila. This form of popular art, pottery adorned with scenes of everyday life, is typified by representations of the
chiva
, the omnipresent brightly coloured bus seen in many parts of Colombia.

A more unusual line of production is the 'blackware' made at La Chamba, Tolima. This small village is beside the Río Magdalena near Guamo, not generally marked on maps. The process involves using closed kilns, thus cutting down the use of oxygen which thereby causes the iron in the clay to turn from red to black. La Chamba is now a household name in Colombia and is finding acceptance abroad.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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