Creating carnival

16 Jul, 2011 | Camilla Swift

Culture and Art

Since arriving in Bolivia in February, I’ve been looking forward to Carnival, and my experience in Oruro last weekend certainly didn’t let me down. Colourful streamers, confetti and banners lined the streets where children, armed with espuma, were spraying any unsuspecting passers by (gringos being amongst the most popular targets), and cholitas were selling Cerveza Paceña and a variety of typical Bolivian street food. Thousands of high-spirited spectators, dancers wearing the most colourful, eccentric costumes I have ever seen, accompanied by several bands, in the folklore capital of Bolivia: El Carnaval in Oruro was an amazing sight.

Everyone looks forward to Carnival but, for most, the three days of party and excitement are gone in a blur, while for the artisans who intricately create the costumes by hand, it is the culmination of months and months of hard work.

My second day after arriving in La Paz I went to Calle Los Andes to meet the artisans in their workshops, where everyone was busily working away on all the beautifully handmade carnival costumes. So elaborate and colourful are these outfits that, at first glance, it’s hard to believe that they are indeed done with needle and thread. After having met these skilled artisans, and seen their work in action, I learnt that they are not only beautiful works of art but that each contains a wealth of meaning and tells its own story.

With Carnival less than a month away, for every craftsman time was precious. But between extremely busy schedules I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to artisans in three different workshops about their work. Genoveva Paredes and her nephew Franz Machicado specialize in embroidery, while Saturino Ibañez Paredes is a metalsmith, and Hilarión Casas a young man whose talent lies in making masks.

Genoveva Paredes, 40, whose parents also worked in embroidery, tells me about the process of making costumes from scratch: “After the measurements are taken, the fabric is put into a wooden frame, it is here that we start the embroidery, using various components including pearls, sequins and beads. We make the costumes in large quantities, a hundred costumes per week, all embroidered by hand. We work from six am until one o´clock the following morning.”

“Each dance tells a story” her nephew Franz Machicado, 34, explains, “The Caporales come from the Yungas - there’s the Capataz for example, who managed the slave labourers, and the Diablada from the mines - all this is represented within the dance.” His favourite dance is the Morenada: “I would love to dance the Morenada in Oruro, for the rhythm, music, the dance and its history, everything.” He adds, “It’s not only those who have money who dance, but of course those who have the dance in their heart, those who have devotion to the Virgen del Socavón.

Having worked on these costumes since October of last year, the beginning of Carnival is now only three weeks away but, despite the looming entrada, Machicado tells me that he and his family are feeling relaxed: “As we get closer to Carnaval, at times it can get stressful, but we are also happy. We are excited to present the costumes and share them with everyone. It is satisfying to see all these costumes that we have made with care by hand, being used by the dancers in Carnival. We travel to Oruro for Carnaval too, so we get to see it all in action which makes us feel joyful and satisfied.”

A costume costs around $240 - 270 and prices can vary due to the fluctuating price of material, but Machicado tells me that they lead a normal, simple and humble life, like any other person.

It’s a family tradition that goes back generations. However, as Machicado explains, when someone wants to work in crafts but doesn’t come from a family of artisans, they are taught step by step how to do everything: “It’s like a school purely for embroiderers - a personal private school because there are no institutions.”

I suggest that the relationship between a veteran embroiderer and his pupil is much like any masterapprentice relationship, where the apprentice is trained by the master passing on his knowledge. “It is similar,” says Machicado, “but an experienced embroiderer always keeps something back. He doesn’t reveal all his secrets when he teaches; he always keeps something under his sleeve!”

When asked what advice he would give to someone who knows nothing about Carnival and can’t decide whether to go, Franz Machicado’s eyes light up: “Come and see the most beautiful Carnival that we have in Bolivia, and keep it in your heart forever, for the rest of your life” he responds with great enthusiasm.

Saturino Ibañez Paredes, 68, showed me his designs and detailed etching in metal - it is evident that he is extremely passionate about his work. What is different about Paredes is that there is no family business built around his trade. As he explains, his parents “didn’t work in this field, I learnt it alone. I learnt a few techniques from a toy-maker who worked in metal, then I taught myself the rest and started working on Carnival masks and metal work.” I asked him what ‘life lessons’ being a craftsman has taught him: “You learn that no-one is perfect; we want to improve all the time, everyday we learn something new.”

Crafts and mask-making are wonderful artforms that Hilarión Casas hopes to pass on to his children. “Our culture is shown through our work, and to be recognised as an artisan is a gain for art and for manual work,” he told me.

It is so easy, when caught up in all the celebration and spectacle of Carnival, to overlook the dedicated work of the artisans. At the event itself in Oruro, their costumes looked incredible and made Carnaval what it is. I feel lucky to have met the people who created this visual focal point of Bolivia’s biggest fiesta, and seen how it all comes together.

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