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Artisans of Sierra Nevada De Santa Marta, Colombia

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Colombia is an ethnic mosaic of culture, folklore, arts, and crafts. The different roots and traditions of the Native Colombians, Spanish and Africans, (as well as various other external influences), produce this colorful fusion.

As such, the imagination of Colombia’s indigenous craftsmen and the degree of their decorative elaboration is extraordinarily stunning.

Craft tradition goes back to the pre-Columbian period. The great variety of plants and materials available contributed considerably to the diversity of native crafts. Weaving had the most diversity, followed by basketry and pottery. Even though weaving was already well developed by this time, sheep (and thus, wool) were only introduced by the Spaniards. After the Spanish Conquest, the Indians incorporated such Spanish materials, inventions and techniques into their work while still adhering to ancient practices and patterns. For example, even today, primitive hand looms are often used by craftsmen in many indigenous communities.  

Indigenous Communities on Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

Today, four indigenous groups live on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a famous Colombian massif. These groups are the Kogui, Arhuaco (or Wintukua), Wiwa (or Arsario), and the Kankuamo. All of the four communities believe the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the heart of the world.

While clothing, language and social organizations vary among each tribe, they all share a common image of the cosmological world through their view of creation: the Law of Origin. This law is written everywhere in the Sierra and contains the principles and rules that govern the material and spiritual lives of the indigenous communities.

Unfortunately, due to the plundering of archaeological sites for growing marijuana and producing cocaine, the inhabitants of the Sierra have suffered serious social, ecological and economic problems since the 1970s.


Wiwa Tribe

Members of the Wiwa tribe are integrating into mainstream Colombian society by attending modern schools and working in modern jobs. However, the Wiwas continue to respect traditional principles as well. Both women and men wear white clothing and keep their hair long. Wiwa crafting also demonstrates adherence to custom: their bags are made out of agave and wool and are weaved in a traditional circular design that represents the womb. Furthermore, when they become an adult, Wiwas receive a poporos (a spiritual container which will be discussed below) as a traditional rite of passage.  

Wintukua Tribe

Wintukua means “the sacred leaf for talking about the ancients”. Members of the Wintukua tribe live on the southeastern slope of the Sierra, where they reside in two reserves in the upper valleys of the Guatapuri, Ariguani, Chichicua, and Nabusimake rivers. Wintukuas speak a Chibcha language known as Ijkan.

The Wintukuas share a commonality with the Wiwas and other indigenous groups: as they go about their daily activities, they chew coca leaves, which are mixed with lime. The roasted coca leaves (Erythroxylum novogranatese) are kept in shoulder bags, while the lime is kept in a poporos, a container often made out of a gourd.

For indigenous groups on the Sierra like the Wintukuas, chewing coca leaves and using the poporos are fundamental aspects of their relationships with the spiritual world. It is said that coca allows Wintukuas to have “peaceful communication” with their ancestors. The leaves help them remember and recite the myths, chants and genealogies of “the ancients” during long nocturnal sessions. Because the poporos also represents a Wintukua’s “partner”, it helps them perform other types of spiritual work: in addition to carrying lime, they also keep their thoughts and their words in “her” (the poporos) so they do not get carried away by the wind.

(It is important to note that only men chew coca leaves, while women gather them in handbags known as mochilas.)

Gorawin Torres Chopporo Was Born Into The Wintukua Tribe. Gorawin and her family still live in their village, but they spend the majority of their time in Santa Marta, where they share a home with two other families. In both Santa Marta and her village, Gorawin makes mochilas. Mochilas are large shoulder bags with layered geometrical designs. They are used to store their poporos and other personal objects.

Guided by her grandmother, Gorawin’s craftsman journey started at the age of 5. Still to this day, family continues to be an integral part of her crafting. Whenever Gorawin is back in her village, making mochilas with family members provides an important source of bonding time.

Gorawin’s Crafting Process

Gorawin takes a lot of pride in sourcing the alligna (“skin of the sheep”), weaving the skin hair thinly, and creating four different colors from the sheep. When crafting handbags, Gorawin often combines this sheep material with colored yarn to create decorative motifs for a modern design. One handbag can occupy Gorawin’s time for a month and a half. She also spends time crafting necklaces, as well.

Gorawin’s Inspiration

Each of Gorawin’s handbags and necklaces are inspired by “the ways of the forest”. Through her daily walks in the lush forests of the Sierra, Gorawin’s eyes were opened to nature’s more subtle forms of beauty: the simple arrangement of leaves made a multitude of unique paths; the trees were placed throughout in organic, gorgeous designs; even the way the plants swayed in the wind was beautiful in itself.

Gorawin’s strong connection to nature can also be observed when she incorporates zoomorphic figures (such as snakes), or the four cardinal directions in her craft. These directions (and the artful work they inspire) represent a variety of concepts including stages of life (youth, adult, death), seasons of the year, aspects of life (like spirituality) and the four elements of nature.

Gorawin’s mochilas also incorporate concepts of femininity and masculinity. Feminine patterns are fuller bodied and have softer edges. In comparison, masculine designs are tighter, sharper, and more rigid. Gorawin skillfully combines both in the vibrantly detailed handbag she is shown wearing above.


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