La Mano Animada The Spirited Hand.
Since 1988 talented men and women have traveled from as far away as Cusco, Peru to share their cultural heritage and unique artistic talents. Artists from Mexico and Peru have demonstrated a variety of craft disciplines which include: mask making, textile design, wood carving, ceramic sculpture, and Peruvian retablos.
What Is a Retablo?
Retablos are portable altars or talismans used by the people who inhabit the Andes mountains of Peru. Originally this art form was introduced by the Spanish as an altar to house statues of saints. This allowed the shepherds and farmers to bring a sanctuary/church to their fields during important agricultural activities such as planting, harvesting or the shearing of sheep and alpaca.
The early retablo figures were carved from a soft stone found in the Huamanga region in the Province of Ayacucho. As the stone became more scarce, craftsmen incorporated other materials to sculpt their figures. Most recently, retableros use wheat or potato paste mixed with plaster to shape their figures. These ingenuous artists use the same mixture to make molds and now create huge scenes depicting life in the Andes. The retablo is no longer just used in a religious context but as a folk art medium that incorporates secular activities as well.
Representing Two Worlds
When the figures are all made they are painted and placed in a simple wooden box that may contain various levels which in turn represent the importance of the scene. The first level represents the physical world (Kay Pacha), the land we inhabit. Figures that represent animals and people are placed there. The second level represents the celestial/spiritual world (Hanan Pacha). Images of saints are placed there. These saints represented the patrons and protectors of farms, harvests, and the good fortune of the community. Scenes that are placed on the upper levels are meant to symbolize the highest good or those qualities which we seek to attain. In simpler terms, the upper level refers to the celestial plane and the lower level refers to the earthly plane.
The boxes have hinged doors on the front and a triangular header on top. The box is usually painted with flowers and plant motifs native to the region. The colors of the various plants also represent such qualities as peace, fertility, unity, valor, and abundance.
Retablo Workshops for All Levels
The past school year Peruvian folk artist Joel Nunez Rojas and I visited elementary and high school students and taught retablo making using a variety of materials found in most school art departments. Self-hardening clay worked the best to make the figures; in addition Joel demonstrated his own method using wheat paste and plaster. We made the boxes by cutting up pieces of corrugated cardboard into various three dimensional rectangular shapes and hot gluing shelves inside. We used cardboard for the doors and hot glued small strips of cloth or leather to the sides to serve as hinges. We covered the assembled box with a layer of papier-mache strips.
The figures were made simply to convey a character or portray an activity, they were no more than three inches tall. Details were painted on later after all the figures were made. The painted figures were hot glued to the various levels in the box depending on the scene's relationship to the theme of the retablo.
The boxes were designed and assembled to accommodate the figures. In some cases scenery or landscapes were painted inside the box to indicate a place or enhance the activity portrayed by the figures. The outsides of the boxes were mostly painted with the plant motifs of the Peruvian retablos. However, some students created integrated scenes both inside and outside the retablo, displaying ingenuity and originality.
Individual students made their own retablos or core groups of students worked collectively to develop a retablo based on a common theme. Some group retablos had up to four levels depicting various scenes; this allowed everyone a chance to collaborate and contribute.
The workshops were adapted for elementary, middle, and high school students. Students worked during several art periods to complete the project. I would estimate between four and six art classes to make a retablo.
Joel Nunez Rojas is the son of Heraclio Nunez Jimenez, master retablero from Ayacucho, Peru. His ancestors were retableros and passed their knowledge on to the succeeding generations. He attended the University of Huamanga in Ayacucho and received a degree in Anthropology. He is currently the Sub-Director at the Ministry of Industry and Tourism for the Cusco region.
When not investigating and writing about Andean crafts, Joel works with his wife and sons making retablos that they sell at their store in Cusco. His family still makes the traditional Retablo Ayacuchano figures using potato or wheat paste combined with plaster, which are then painted and placed in wooden boxes.
Joel has participated in national craft fairs, expositions, and lectured on retablos, Peruvian crafts, and Andean folklore at the Universities of Huamanga (Ayacucho) Cusco, Puno, and Pontifica Catolica in Lima. He has organized and overseen the instruction of craft classes in the provinces of Puno and Cusco. Senor Rojas is the author of Qoyllorit'y; Rite of the Andes, Corpus Christi Festival in Cusco; Calendar of Popular Fiestas and Folk Art of the Inca Region; and Andean Weddings and the Textiles of Puno.
RELATED ARTICLE: NATIONAL STANDARD
Students know and compare the characteristics of artworks in various eras and cultures.
John Patrick Picciano is director of "La Mano Animada," a visiting artist program in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Web site: http://www.cyberportal.net/picpuppet/ index.html