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Alejandro Suyon and the Making of Chulucanas Pottery

jim-carmen
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Alejandro Suyon and the Making of Chulucanas Pottery
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Chulucanas is a town in northern Peru, on the Piura River in the Andean foothills, about an hour east of the city of Piura. This part of Peru is heir to a long ceramic tradition that includes the Vicus, Moche and Chimu pre-Columbian civilizations. However, Chulucanas pottery is far from an indigenous creation. This guide reviews the history of Chulucanas pottery and describes how it is made in the workshop of one of its most respected practitioners, Alejandro Suyon (or Sullon) Paz.

The Chulucanas Style

In 1920, an earthquake forced four families of potters from the town of Simbila to leave their homes in search of a new clay source. They found it along the Piura River and settled in a section of Chulucanas called La Encantada. Their production was local and utilitarian until 1967, when Gloria Joyce, an American nun with interests in pottery and anthropology, arrived.

Sister Gloria saw the potential for the Chulucanas potters to sell their work outside of Peru and inspired by ancient Vicus positive / negative burnished pottery, then recently discovered, encouraged the development of what has become known as the Chulucanas style. From 1967 until 1973 Sister Gloria helped the potters select better clays, construct more efficient kilns, and devise new molding and slipping techniques. She also encouraged them to sign their work, something that became characteristic of Chulucanas pottery, but is not common with other Peruvian crafts even today.

The success of the Chulucanas style initiated by Sister Gloria led to other outside involvement in later years. In 1980, the Italian government donated modern clay processing equipment and for six years ran a training program that included new wheel-throwing techniques, the creation of new and improved kilns, and the use of colored pigments in clay slips.

In 1994, the Peruvian Asociacion de Exportadores arranged for two designers from the Connecticut-based Aid to Artisans, Tom Vinaut and Mimi Robinson, to work with Chulucanas potters to create new shapes and and designs that would be even more appealing to foreign buyers. Vinaut and Robinson also helped the potters with their export connections. Lima-based exporters invested heavily by buying in bulk from several workshops.

About 250 potters work in Chulucanas today. Annual production has exceeded $1 million since the mid-1990s, making Chulucanas pottery the most economically important of all Peruvian crafts. In 2005, it was declared a "Producto Bandera del Peru" (literally, "flag product of Peru"), a denomination given products that symbolize Peru internationally, the first and so far only craft to be so honored.

Some so-called Chulucanas pottery is not made in Chulucanas but elsewhere in Peru. This copying is thanks in part to to success of the style but is also due to the migration of some families out of Chulucanas, particularly to the Lima suburbs. Concurrent with this out-migration has been the appearance of more women potters, as their husbands, who previously had managed the enterprises, have taken up other occupations. To protect true Chulucanas pottery, in 2006 the Peruvian legislature passed a law stipulating that only pottery actually produced in Chulucanas could be signed and marked "Chulucanas."

The Workshop of Alejandro Suyon

As is the case with other Peruvian crafts, Chulucanas pottery is largely made in home workshops. The following description is based on the workshop of Alejandro Suyon. Now in his 50s, Suyon learned the craft from an elder brother who has since left Chulucanas. His work is rooted in the earliest methods, although his more recent output shows the impact of other influences as well.

The first step in making the pottery is the collection of clay from deposits along the Piura or nearby Chira River. Selecting the right clay requires a practiced eye, and the potters themselves underake this. After collecting the clay, they mix it with clear spring water (never river water) and a coarse sand from the banks of the Piura. This substance is then spread out on a clean floor and worked with bare feet in a sort of ritual dance that may last as long as an hour.

Once the clay has been prepared, it is rolled out, then shaped over a round river stone held in one hand while it is resolutely tapped or pounded with a wooden paddle held in the other. The pounding makes the sides of the vessel thinner and more compact, eliminating any air pockets. The piece may be given its final shape on a potter's wheel. Molds are not utilized.

Alejandro uses a river stone and a wooden paddle to shape a vase.

The clay is in a leathery state after the shaping is completed, and a white background slip is applied to the whole of the exterior of the piece.

Alejandro's daughter Giovanna applies a white background slip.

While the background slip is still humid, it is burnished with river stones until it is homogenous and smooth. It may require more than one application of the stones before the clay has reached the appropriate consistency. This operation must be carried out with great care to keep from cracking or otherwise damaging the vessel.

Alejandro's wife Rocio uses a river stone to smooth a slipped vase prior to fiting it.

After drying in the sun, the white-slipped and burnished piece is placed in a wood-burning kiln and fired to a temperature of 700 to 900 degrees Centigrade (1300-1700 degrees Fahrenheit). In times past the firing was done not in a kiln, but in a pit dug in the ground.

Alejandro places a burnished vase in a wood-burning kiln for an initial firing.

The pottery emerges from the kiln hardened and smooth, ready for decoration. In the classic technique, a mixture of sand and ash is used to paint the designs. The ash mixture may be brushed on or applied with a wooden stencil. Moden techniques have replaced the ash mixture with liquid clay slips (called barbotilla), which can be colored more easily. In either case, those portions of a piece that are to be black are not covered, but left bare.

Alejandro's son-in-law Jose decorates a vase with a clay slip (barbotilla).

The decorated piece is then placed in a second kiln filled with mango and / or banana leaves, either fresh or dried. The smoke and resin produced by the burning leaves render the unprotected areas a shiny brown to black. The color obtained is a function on the type and quantity of leaves burned in the kiln. A given piece may be smoked more than once, until the desired effect is achieved.

Alejandro stokes a second kiln with dried mango leaves.

This second firing is not hot enough to harden the slip, which serves to protect the design and transfer the colors, and after smoking, it is washed off. The ash mixture used in the production of classic Chulucanas black and white pottery acts in a similar way, preventing the white background from darkening, and when washed off, leaves it exposed.

Giovanna washes a plate to remove the barbotilla.

After the decorative slip is completely removed, a clear floor wax is applied and the piece is buffed with river stones.

Alejandro's granddaughter Desmarais buffs a finished vase with a small river stone.

The finished pieces are usually signed by engraving in the bottom. They are signed by the male head of the family, although as illustrated above, the production may have been a collaborative effort.

Chulucanas potters use this same basic technique to produce a variety of pottery, not only what may broadly be termed vases, but also bowls, plates, boxes and figurines, among others. The wax covering not only protects the pottery but makes it highly water-resistant. However, most Chulucanas pieces are not lined and are intended to be decorative rather than functional. They may be cleaned with a damp cloth and if their sheen becomes dull may be waxed and polished again (with a dry rough cloth like a cheese cloth).

In addition to our own field research, the following articles have been helpful in writing this guide:

The Art of Chulucanas Pottery. www. tenthousandvillages.com/catalog/story.detail.php?story_id=99.

Chulucanas. In Artesania Peruana: Origines y Evolucion (pp. 66-72). Lima, Peru: ALLPA, 1992.

Denominacion de la Origen Chulucanas. www. rree.gob.pe/portal/enlaces.nsf/ 3f08cf1720c1dbf4805256de20052913d/ 82b1b12cf18f52d4052573770071bab9?OpenDocument.

How do Potters in Chulucanas Work? www. incalink.com/CULTURAchulucanas.htm.

Photographs by Edgardo Ruiz

Copyright 2007 Don Pepito Imports LLC

 

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