Adorning the Earth: Kichwa Pottery
Deep in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon, thin-walled ceramics covered in elaborate geometric designs adorn the daily lives and celebrations of the forest’s largest indigenous community. They are the work of the sindzhi muskuyuk warmi—women of strong vision—who breathe life into the traditional craft of Kichwa pottery.
The process starts, like most aspects of Kichwa life, with the forest. Manga allpa—pottery clay—is gathered from riverbeds and ditches along the forest floor. To avoid upsetting any forest spirits, special thanks and reassurances are given to the allpa mama, the earth mother, and the women are careful to take no more than they need, promising aloud that they will use it well.
After returning home, the vessels are shaped by hand without use of a potter’s wheel. Sections of clay are rolled out, coiled together, and smoothed into shape. The most popular shapes are those of a mukaha (a drinking bowl), and a tinaha (a vase or jar). Some create stylized figures of animals or humans, and a few brave women venture to depict the forms of feared spirits such as the man-eating Huri-Huri.
Once the vessel has been formed, the painstaking process of decoration begins. Three primary colors of clay are used: red, black, and white. The black and red pigments are reminiscent of the colors of wituk and manduru, two trees that feature as a pair of amorous, misadventuring human sisters in Kichwa creation stories and that are used by cultures throughout the region for personal beautification. The pigments are carefully applied using a brush made of human hair—often the artist’s own—which is sometimes only one or two hairs thick. The process of decorating a large piece of pottery may take days since each carefully created line builds on the next. Customary designs include geometric motifs, forest imagery, animals, and mythic figures.
When a piece of pottery is completed, it is fired over an open flame, sometimes in a pit or large bowl of ashes. The most prized wood for these fires is that of the piwi, a fast-growing tree that dominates the skyline of previously deforested parts of the Amazon and burns into a fine white ash. When the ceramics have been thoroughly baked, they are pulled off the fire and glazed with shillkillu—tree resin—which hardens on the still-hot surface of the pottery, forming a varnishlike surface.
Kichwa pottery is produced for daily use, special occasions, and, more recently, touristic and international art markets. In a Kichwa community, ceramics are used to store food, beverages, and traditional plant medicines. Perhaps most importantly, mukahas are used to drink aswa, a fermented drink made from mashed manioc tubers that is the staff of life for many Amazonian peoples. On festive occasions where large amounts of aswa are drunk, mukahas may even be thrown into the air, falling back down to the ground and shattering in celebration.
Far from being purely functional, however, pottery traditions represent a potent, living part of Kichwa culture. The ability to create well-formed, beautifully decorated ceramics is a prized skill for Kichwa women, who combine generations’ worth of technical knowledge with their own experience and artistic flair. The most admired of the potters are able to embed their works with shamanlike integrations of vision and knowledge, displaying their synthesis through powerful graphic symbolism.
Although many aspects of Kichwa culture have faced decline due to the dominance of mainstream Hispanic society and the conveniences of modern life, new markets and renewed appreciation for indigenous art have left many optimistic about the future of a craft that has been cherished for generations—and, if the sindzhi muskuyuk warmi have anything to say about it, will be for generations to come.
— Emma Westhoff
Special thanks to Janis Nuckolls and Tod Swanson. Additional information from puyocabana.com/quechua-kichwa-pottery. Pottery photos by Tod Swanson and Elizabeth Swanson Andi. Forest photos by Elif Ilkel.
To learn more and support indigneous Kichwa communities by donating to Shiyarina Amazonian Resilience, visit andes-fieldschool.org.