Ecuador Art Culture: Dude decoration, history’s bling, and handcrafted economics on the streets of Cuenca
By Scott Fugit
Photos by Dee Fugit
Original art by Terrilynn Dubreuil
I am a tired explorer at the end of a long day. My legs are heavy after hours of investigating Cuenca’s narrow streets, busy markets, and endless craft shops. On the home stretch, we happened across a pathway vendor, his displays of necklaces laid out on brightly colored woven mats. I’m not a jewelry guy, and have generally avoided wearing ornamentation all my life. Still, several of these wire wrapped coin designs have a hold on my eye. Most wearable art we’ve seen is made for women. These are subtle but strong, man swag for real hombres. There’s a stirring deep within me – and I hope it’s not my lunch. I’m feeling a new lust for bling, a strange craving for dude decoration. Quickly, the leather and metal art is hanging around my neck and, without warning, my strange feelings grow – it’s now a yearning to gain immense wealth and conquer an empire. What’s happening to me?
I’m not the first to feel the passion, “la codicia por el oro y plata” – the greed for gold and silver. It was the fuel of conquerors, the base emotion that powered the Spanish devastation of the Incas and shaped modern Ecuador.
In the fall of 1531, under the direction of experienced Castillian pilot Batholomew Ruiz, a ragged crew sailed south from Panama. It was a desperate voyage. Near the end of their rope, the commander, Francisco Pizzaro, was poorly fitted with food, arms and financing. The sight of starved survivors from previous voyages had discouraged recruiting. With great difficulty, they supplied two small ships and the famed navigator Ruiz launched for the South, becoming the first European to cross the equator in the Pacific. A mile offshore near the Isle of Gallo, just north of Ecuador’s modern border with Columbia, the fateful encounter occurred – the first Spanish contact with the Inca civilization. On a mission of trade with other coastal tribes, it was a covered, maneuverable indigenous raft that was obviously built by an advanced and wealthy society. It was made of balsa wood, steered with rudder oars and fitted with superb sails. But something else caught the eye of the desperate adventurers. A breathless report was later sent back to Spanish Emperor Charles V.,
“They were carrying many pieces of silver and gold as personal ornaments…. they had fine belts and bracelets, clusters of beads and burnished mirrors decorated with silver, finely woven cloths of bright colors, ornate embroidery shaped of birds, animals, fish and trees.”
The explorers had happened across local craftsmen selling bling. History was changed forever.
The report also casually mentioned that eleven of the twenty natives on the raft dove into the sea, three were captured to be enslaved as interpreters, and the vessel was completely looted at the point of a sword.
For the conquistadores, the invasion of an empire was on.
History is humbling. All I wanted was a cool necklace.
In Ecuador, art has power. It is culture, tradition and history blended together into a modern mix. Here, art still provides for the people. Dozens of indigenous groups have artisan specialties, well known in modern tourist literature. Villages surrounding Cuenca seem to have it all. Gold, silver, ceramics, fine woods, leathers, textiles, musical instruments, the Spanish actually made up a complete list almost 500 years ago.
There is another modern factor less mentioned – economics. Yes, it’s possible to find cheap jewelry imports in Cuenca, but the industry is still largely home grown and self-contained. Entire communities like Chordeleg, share multiple steps in the process – from mining and refining silver ore to the retailing of finished jewelry in scores of shops surrounding the town square. In Ecuador, craft guilds and indigenous marketing co-ops exist and thrive. Even the government seems to respect and support artists.
Older American expats may remember these community based trades. It was once a desired goal of business planning called “vertical integration.” Now, that phrase has been buried in the USA along with many others like “protected crafts” and “family business.”
Immediately, on arrival, Cuenca’s airport shops make something obvious. Indigenous art is a huge part of Ecuador’s economy, even more so locally. Could a million Ecuadorians be making a living from producing and selling handicrafts? It’s estimated that one out of every 10 shops in Cuenca is arts and crafts related – and there are thousands.
I’ve lost count, but it seems like more.
The first thing I noticed was an antique British penny. I admire things that are older than me and less weathered. I dug for my cheater glasses. Dated 1918, hanging on a decorative display board, it was surrounded by other coins, nicely arranged as pendants on leather chokers. Working the passing crowd on a staircase landing of the Hermano Miguel Escalinata, a young man was making something that is very difficult back home – a living as an artist. His was the bottom rung of the Ecuador art ladder – handmade jewelry sold on the street. Eye catching displays determine economic survival. Somehow, it seems to have worked on me.
Most jewelry in Cuenca is made for women. Beadwork, dainty filigree silver, fine textiles and tailored clothing – all for mujers. Coins as dude decoration somehow seems natural. My male sensibilities are not threatened. Plus, this old pence was oddly customized. I could see right through it. An attractive young assistant asked if I had ever seen coins being “fretted.” Nope, never. I can remember my grandmother saying not to fret over coins, but that was different.
I took a closer look and quickly bought the old British penny for $15. Economically, that doesn’t sound too smart, but this thing was cool. The artist, Matias, had removed the boring parts of the coin using tiny tools and plenty of concentration. The “O” in the “One Penny” lettering had been hallowed out with a drill bit smaller than a millimeter. Toothpick sized saw blades are used to work the angles and curves. The staff of Queen Victoria’s trident was intact, as wide as a thread. How is this even possible?
Matias invited us to meet him at his hostel the next day. As we huddled around his miniature bench and tools, we got more than a lesson in “cutting” coins. It was also Artist Economics 101. This is not a leisurely pursuit for him, it’s his full time job. Our communication was spotty, but we learned he’d been cutting coins for several years, and enjoyed the quiet nature of the work. My fretted penny necklace had taken him three hours to finish. His is a tiny world. You will need magnification or young eyeballs.
The history of coinage versus art is a long one in the land of the Incas. For them, gold and silver was never used as currency, it was always art. Their goldsmiths were consider the finest in the world, although little of their work remains today. Sculpted wall ornaments, tableware, jewelry and amazing figurines, all of gold and silver, went into the smelting furnaces of the Spanish. It was the most carefully documented phase of the invasion. In 1533, just two years after first contact with the Incas, they had nine forges operating and had converted eleven tons of precious metal objects into coins. Historians call it an irreparable artistic loss. A fifth of everything went to the king of Spain. What artifacts remain today were mostly hidden in tombs.
Still, you cannot melt tradition. Centuries later, the famed Inca artistry lives on in the streets of Cuenca.
My point is this, I have NOT become bling obsessive compared to the conquistadores. Those guys were addicted. Somehow, the historical details are lost on my wife. I bet the Spanish never heard, “Uh-huh….right…. I think you’ve got enough already…….”
Matias actually reverses history by turning coins back into objects of art. He starts with loose change collected worldwide by friends. As we chatted, he showed us a week’s work – fifteen or so fretted coins in a pill bottle. Not all cuttings are successful, some metal alloys are too brittle. Matias pointed to one intricately designed African coin that had come apart after an afternoon of painstaking fretting. He smiled, and held up the correct number of fingers, “I cried…. four hours.”
There were other questions I wanted to ask, but couldn’t. It’s rude to talk economics, but my brain eventually goes to the numbers. Can a talented artist truly survive selling cut coins on the streets of Cuenca? What is your daily net? How much are your living expenses? Is there a retirement plan?
Matias explains with help from his cute, bilingual lady friend. “Cuenca es muy bueno para el arte.” Cuenca is good for art – better than Argentina, his original home. His escalinata sales displays are technically illegal, but lightly enforced on certain days. Still, he stays mobile and can move quickly, another advantage to his tiny inventory. For his work, Matias prefers natural light and spends most of his day working near a window. He enjoys the selling part too, knows his target market and says tourist traffic is essential. Cuenca’s streets offer many good locations. For now, he’s selling every coin he can cut. I ask if his next step might be a tienda? Matias smiles and hesitates. “No, es muchos dolares,” he says. He’s a numbers guy too.
Of course, Cuenca artists are not without the vital ingredient of angst. If art is a struggle, then shouldn’t real artists be struggling? One prominent Calle Larga studio owner described his challenges. His art is little understood by his countrymen. Only foreigners seem to value Ecuador’s ancestral cultures. His materials are expensive, as is his rent. Raising a family is difficult and he must work other jobs to survive. But he remains upbeat on the Cuenca art’s scene, and proudly tells us that he is the only artista out of 11 siblings. He grins and says, “the rest are just artisans.” I did not explore the distinction.
Visiting artists can also feel Cuenca’s positive vibe. “It’s a very welcoming environment. I know many American and European painters who come here to work,” says Terilynn Dubreuil, a retired Spanish teacher and active traveling artist from Maine. She visits Cuenca for months at a time to paint. “Besides all the great scenery, I love talking directly to the local artists. There are so many people involved, it’s a very active arts community.” Could she make a living selling her art on the street? She laughs at my question. “That would be very scary.”
As Matias finishes our tiny tour, we somehow end up owning five of his amazing cut coins – for a total of $80. Did I say five? He had access to another old British penny, which I also agreed to buy. We picked it up a few days later at his favorite spot on the steps near the Rio Tomebamba. The weather was perfect, his outdoor display setting was gorgeous, foot traffic was steady and we heard rave reviews from patrons surrounding his work.
It’s a tradition as old as human adornment. Creativity joins talent, persistence and economic survival. With no website or advertising, just a small bag of tools, hours of concentrated effort and common sense marketing, Matias survives on the streets of Cuenca making art. Its low level and close to the bone. Hobbies are for wussies. If his reviews are poor, he doesn’t eat. As an artist, you could say he’s all in.
Cuenca is a city dedicated to art. Every day, hardworking artistas like Matias with his fretted coins, go out to the cobblestone streets and prove it.
“Just a quick look……” My wife Dee laughs and rolls her eyes. She’s getting used to me saying it. I’m checking out necklaces from yet another Cuenca street artisan – a friendly and talented amigo from Loja named Cristian Morocho. His designs are hand dyed macramé with a boars tusk pendant from the Amazon. What real man could resist? I immediately trade an unexciting $20 bill for this unique handmade piece of wearable Ecuador art – another one. My macho bling collection is growing.
As she shakes her head and smiles, I tell Dee “Necklaces are the only thing in Ecuador that will fit me.” I know it’s a weak excuse.
Yes, I admit it, I’m hooked. But I can stop anytime I want to. Are you thinking twelve steps? Me too.
In Cuenca, that’s how far it is to the next cool arts and crafts vendor.
Banner art is “Flower Market” a pastel by Terry Barden Dubreuil. See all her work at TravelingArtista.com.
Scott Fugit retired in 2015 to study leisure, travel writing and Ecuador. His goal is to bring real experiences and entertainment in hand-crafted articles that are relevant to expat life. He, and his photographer wife Dee, are Cuenca wannabes.
You can read Scott’s other articles here.