“Cuenca, a city of Handicrafts”
Originally called Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca, this city is located in an inter-Andean valley of the Ecuadorian southern highlands, capital of Azuay province. Cuenca is located at 2,538 m. a. s. l., and has an approximate population of 580,000 inhabitants. Its surface is 15,730 hectares and its weather presents temperatures ranging between 14ºC and 18ºC, throughout the year.
The valley in which it is situated is surrounded by mountainous systems of exceptional characteristics which also have a hydrographic system consisting of four main rivers: Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Machángara and Tarqui, which cross the city from west to east.
The Centro Histórico (historical downtown) displays a wide architectural wealth in about 200 hectares. Here we find a lot of colonial and republican style buildings, an significant archaeological area, the handicrafts neighborhoods -of colonial origin-, some central markets, the Barranco del Tomebamba area with Paseo 3 de Noviembre, and several sites of interesting landscapes and cultural relevance, which show the reasons why Cuenca was declared a World Cultural Heritage city.
The Cuenca canton is divided into 15 urban and 21 rural parishes, represented by their corresponding Boards of directors before the City Hall of Cuenca.
Since the beginning of Cuenca’s history its inhabitants have found in crafts a form of subsistence which allowed them relative independence. The towns known as Cañaris, located in the current parishes of Cañar and Azuay in pre-Inca times had achieved a great ability to work raw materials provided by the surrounding environment, samples of their pieces of work circa 2,000 years BC, in ceramics, lithic and, later, metals such as silver and gold, not to mention the craftsmen who should have worked in perishable materials such as those woven in vegetable and animal fibers.
The Inca presence contributed with new artisan techniques, which were perfected until the arrival of Spaniard conquerors, when other trades appeared: tanners, roof-tile-makers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, tailors, silversmiths, and farriers, among others. According to the colonial regime this knowledge had to be transferred from the teacher to the apprentice through a contract developed with the presence of a scribe.
Many pre-Hispanic craft trades continued and were coupled with new technologies brought by Europeans, such as jewelry, ceramics, sculpture, and textiles; but others were necessary for the construction of the new city; among them the most relevant, that last until today, are blacksmiths and smiths, carpenters, roof-tile-makers, plaster-assemblers and, it is not even necessary to mention master pieces such as paintings and sculptures developed with such major techniques that were endowed to emblematic artists of this city.
In the early years of the Republic, art and craft schools were created, from which important works had emerged, and later considered artistic heritage for the city. Although, almost always, artisans are anonymous, some names can be found in the history of Cuenca such as: Gaspar Sangurima, Miguel Vélez, Enrique Alvarado, and Antonio Ramírez.
The Spanish city was plotted in checkerboard city layout, being located in certain places, the craft trade neighborhoods that until now are preserved as the Barrio Las Herrerías (wrought iron), the neighborhood of the Ollerias (ceramics), the Tinsmith's shop and saddlery in the Barrio El Vado, wood-oven bakeries in Todos Santos, and rural parishes such as Sinincay that stands out in marble work or San Joaquin in basketry; and the city center characterized as the original commerce area of the city, where there are several workshops and craft shops.
Cuenca continues to be an emblematic city in Ecuador's artisan work, for its excellence, wide dissemination and diversity. These attributes are recognized at the American continental level by being designated by the Organization of American States - OAS - in 1975, as the headquarters of the Inter-American Center for Handicrafts and Popular Arts -CIDAP-, an international public institution created in order to safeguard and promote the Artisan crafts and folk art of America.
The wide cultural, artisan and architectural wealth were sufficient reasons to reward Cuenca as Cultural Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO, on December 1, 1999.
Traditional handicrafts and craft-jobs in Cuenca
Goldsmith and Jewelry
Master work, wide knowledge of materials, ancestral techniques and identity designs, characterize the goldsmith's shop and jewelry of Cuenca as the most outstanding craft activities of the city, whose tradition dates back to pre-Hispanic times when Cañari culture had proven to shelter skilled goldsmiths making pieces used both for ceremonial purposes and personal ornamentation. Later, with the arrival of the Incas, and then with that of the Spaniards, new techniques were taught and learned, eased by the existence of several nearby gold mining sources which led to strengthening jewelry in Cuenca.
Pottery and ceramics
Cuenca is considered the capital of ceramics in Ecuador. Its ceramic tradition has an important indigenous content that was later mixed with the techniques and designs brought by the Spaniards.
“Toquilla straw” and basketry
The case of toquilla straw weaving in Cuenca is particular, it arises from the initiative to bring master hat weavers from Manabí, a province recognized for their expertise in weaving this fiber, to teach the craft to local craftsmen. The results exceeded expectations, becoming an important area in hat production and establishing the most important export houses in the city. At the end of the nineteenth century and until the first half of the twentieth century, a large part of the peasant and urban population knitted their hats, competing with the traditional Montecristi.
The smelting and forging of iron was developed in Cuenca from the Colony time and was basically intended for the development of utilitarian objects, such as door plates, hinges, knockers, Gothic-style locks, tillage tools and hardware.
As a historical reference, it is known that the Cañari people, former settlers of what is now Cuenca, knew the spinning of cotton, and needles have been found in copper and bone, which gives the clues of a knowledge and use of the thread not only for knit but to sew, embroider and ornament.
Embroidery crafts are practiced in Cuenca and its surroundings, mainly in the parishes of Baños and Sayausí, being a form of cultural expression loaded with symbolisms and expressions, typical of a culture immersed in a rich tradition. It has been keept, among other reasons, because of the presence and validity of the popular costume, religious celebrations and the tourism market.
The saddlery was, from the first colonial years, one of the most linked jobs to the economic activities of the city and the parish, due to the need that the Spaniards had to manufacture saddles and implements for their cargo and riding animals, to more than certain objects and containers of great utility among the nascent population of Cuenca. Until the middle of the last century the existence of a significant number of saddlery in Cuenca gave account of the indisputable importance of this trade.
Tinsmith has strong colonial roots, dates from approximately 1682. This job was very useful for developing household goods and faming utensils.
The techniques in the elaboration of tin objects can be summed up in the trace, the cut and the different folds, to then proceed to the assemblying and then welding to make the finishes. However, the details in each moment of the process require singular attention, patience and care, because that is where art, ingenuity, skill and knowledge of its artisans are appreciated.
As a result of the presence of the Colonial School Quiteña, in Cuenca important artists emerged who were dedicated to the elaboration of sculptures and wood carvings with exquisite quality and details, such is the case of Gaspar Sangurima (18-19 centuries). In addition, sculptures, altars and carved doors can be seen in the various wooden architectural elements in colonial and republican houses, as well as in churches and convents.
Marble and Stonework
This job has been practiced since colonial times. The first works were the fountains in courtyards of the convents, public squares and home interiors, later sculptural works of great importance were created. For the construction of these works the artists used simple tools (chisels, combos) and local marbles, so there are many marble craftsmen who appear in the history of Cuenca.
Pyrotechnics is a job that has been kept since colonial times, being used for religious celebrations, especially Corpus Christi, and nowadays they are used for all kinds of parties.
It is known as "cohetero" (rocket-pilot), the craftsman who makes gunpowder and other chemical based devices, becoming a very dangerous work that requires great knowledge and skill. The work generally involves the whole family and operators are rarely hired.
The craft workshops of jewelry, embroidery, saddlery and ceramics are mostly located in the historic center of Cuenca. These workshops almost always have small dimensions and are divided into two areas, one for display and sale of products and another for the workshop in the back of the store. For other activities, the workshops are located in the periphery, emblematic neighborhoods and rural parishes, such as basketry, pyrotechnics, marble, woodwork, Las Herrerías neighborhood, among the most prominent.
There is no artisan census of the city, however according to a study conducted by CIDAP and the University of Cuenca, based on the population and housing census that took place in 2010, it is estimated that there are 10,064 artisan artisans in Cuenca, which represents 77.2 % of the artisan population in the province of Azuay. Of which the majority are craftsmen in the sewing and embroidery trades, pottery, jewelry and silverware, wood carvers, basketry, leather, blacksmithing and forging.
Many artisans belong to several associations, which provide them with certain benefits such as trainings, sales spaces and the benefits of law, backed by the National Board of Artisan Defense.
Most of the artisan crafts in Cuenca have been transmitted from generation to generation by artisans and families of exceptional mastery and creativity. The learning takes place in the workshops, where the operators and the apprentices work under the direction of a teacher. Formerly it began at a very young age, where the apprentice carried out activities related to tasks that would give them skills and experience in the management of materials and tools. At present, this modality is no longer very frequent, especially in handicrafts that do not represent greater economic income. Even so, the artisan does not limit access to anyone who wishes to learn and has turned his intention to instill in the youth the love for traditional crafts, which always make of Cuenca a rewarded city for these talented crafts people.
The Municipality of Cuenca has the Escuela Taller (Workshop School) which provides training in such areas as masonry, plumbing and gastronomy, but there is no public training school aimed at teaching crafts; while, private schools provide spaces to train those interested in traditional techniques. On the other hand, jewelry, ceramics and blacksmithing learning take place individually.
Dissemination and Marketing spaces
The commercialization of handicraft items is carried out through several channels such as direct sales in their own businesses, or through distribution in galleries throughout the country, and national and international sales. There are recognized artisans in their branches of expertise who receive requests, from abroad, for the elaboration of exclusive pieces to be sent outside the country, individually and, not for export, such is the case of jewelry, gothic locks in blacksmithing, embroidery and straw (toquilla straw). The crafts of Cuenca contribute significantly to the economy of Ecuador.
Centro Interamericano de Artesanías y Artes Populares –CIDAP-. The greatest impulse to the training and promotion of craft trades has been carried out by CIDAP, an institution that throughout its 44 years has permanently organized events for local, national and international crafts: conventions, technical meetings, international seminars, inter-American meetings, exhibitions, museum shows, researches, competitions, fairs, workshops and training courses.
The Cuencan crafts have a deep connection with culture and identity. They are the reflection of its inhabitants and constitute an economic, tourist and communicative potential of the city. They are the expression of the people, of their past, their faith, symbolism and ideals. It will pass from generation to generation and will move forward interacting and adapting to modernity, and they will not disappear because they carry a strong cultural load of belonging and identity.