The process of building pottery by hand looks simple. But when you create your works of art in the time honored manner of the Quichua, simple is deceptive. Hours of work go into the making a single bowl.
The Quichua still use these bowls for ceremonies and for drinking chicha, a fermented drink most often made from plantain and sweet potato. There has been a concerted effort to create a market to sell the bowls to tourists and bring much needed money into the community. There is debate about how to accomplish what seems like a simple goal. More on that below.
These beautiful works of art are for sale and each bowl cost a mere $5 a piece. When you consider the hours of labor it takes to make each one, that $5 seems very little even when you consider that the monthly minimum wage in Ecuador is a mere $318. Yes, a typical monthly wage here wouldn’t even buy an iPad in the United States. An artist would need to sell 64 bowls a month just to make the minimum wage and that does not include cost of supplies.
So you would imagine that artists would be looking for ways to increase their prices. But in the small shop we visited, a bowl that had more delicate painting or whose shape was exquisitely symmetrical cost the same as the average bowl. There were no signatures of artists. In fact, there was nothing to let us know whether the work was of a single artist or of many.
At the time we visited the ceramic shop, I was reading a book on education in Latin American communities and trying to wrap my head around a concept so essential to indigenous peoples that it is causing strife between many governments and the people they are trying to educate. The Quichua, and many other native peoples, do not believe the individual is in any way more important than the community. In fact, when a person exerts their individuality, maybe by signing their works of art, they are choosing a path separate from that of the community:
Another potential problem inherent in marketing Quichua ceramics is the issue of individual versus collective identity. Traditional Quichua culture is communal. The group identity comes ahead of the individual. OPIP labels the ceramics in their store by community rather than by artist. At the same time there are several Quichua artists who have moved to Puyo and started to produce an individual line of ceramics. Estella Dagua is perhaps the most accomplished. Her work far excels the other work in OPIP’s store from a Western art perspective. Her pieces are larger, her designs more complicated, her figures more animated and the final presence of the work more finished or resolved. By all formal standards her work is superior and will easily command much higher prices in the first world markets. And yet, she is shunned by the Quichua community as a capitalist who is out to distinguish herself from the community.
So while this small shop was attempting to earn an income from traditional work, at the same time, it is prevented by the overall community from marketing in a way that honors the artist or rewards exceptional artistry. This isn’t just a problem for the Quichua in Ecuador. Many local artists struggle to sell their work for the actual price it takes to make the product. While visiting a small glass factory near Quito, a conversation with one of the artists was very revealing. He enjoyed selling to Americans because we didn’t argue with his prices, or at least, we didn’t try to bargain to the point that his sale was worthless. Local Ecuadorians seemed to believe that his prices were marked up on purpose and would want to pay much less than he was asking. They seemed not to understand the process involved and the cost of both labor and supplies. That essentially capitalist motivation to make a sale and maximize profits is a huge negative to many Ecuadorians. They seem to struggle with finding a balance between capitalism and socialism. Yet, we struggle with the same ideas in the United States, just in reverse. We often honor the individual to the point of distraction and forget that each of us has a place in a community.
A unique problem in creating an artist society within the Quichua culture is that is has never been traditional. Making pottery has been only a part of a day’s work:
In one of my visits with families in the Quichua communities I met a woman who was selling her ceramic turtles for 30 cents. I bought a few from her and her disappointment was quite obvious. When I asked what she had expected she and her husband expressed an interest in an order for 200 or 300 turtles a month. When we discussed the amount of time it would take her to produce this volume it became obvious that she would be unable to maintain her fields and other aspects of her traditional lifestyle. In short, she would be trading her present multifaceted traditional work for a low paying piece work occupation.
I hold great respect for artists and their individual accomplishments and a part of me wishes that the Quichua culture could make a place for those who shine in a similar way they allow a single person to be a shaman and hold great power within the tribe. But it is not my place to say. So, instead, I am left with a few questions.
Can one culture support another monetarily without essentially changing it?
Are my purchases helping to keep a culture alive or are they essentially preventing the culture from existing at all?
Or am I just assigning too much power to myself as an individual, believing that my acts make any difference at all?