A Look Behind the Peruvian Art of Gourd Carving
With magnificent hand carvings, artisans craft stories of celebration and tragedy into dried gourds—a tradition practiced for more than 4,000 years
Communicating through art is no easy task. As far back as 40,000 years ago, humans used visual art to capture the oral tradition and preserve ancient stories for future generations.
Katya Milagros Canto Lazo and Blanca Violeta Canto Lazo, two sisters from Huancayo, Peru, are carrying on an ancient storytelling heritage that has been passed down from generation to generation in their family. At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Canto sisters will host both a craft demonstration and a narrative session.
The art of gourd carving has been practiced in Peru for more than 4,000 years, with artisans using gourds, or mates burilados, to tell both communal and personal stories. Joshua Cogan, an award-winning photographer who aims to document vanishing cultures, went to Huancayo to photograph the Canto family and the ancient craft that they have long mastered.
The Canto sisters did not always plan to learn the family tradition; they left home for school, but rather than move to the city afterwards like many other people, they decided to return in their community to practice this ancient art form.
“I was 6 or 7 years old when I first went to Lima, I felt like all the cars were coming to run me over,” Katya Canto says. “It wasn’t like [home] where I could peacefully run through the fields, I could have a river, I could have the freedom of my imagination. That’s what I most value about here. I look at nature as an inspiration to design something; I look at an herb, a plant, and I can ask my elders what they are used for.”
The sisters, who were greatly influenced by their father, Ponciano, see great value in continuing his craft as a way of preserving the local customs and stories of their family. Katya Canto recalls the excitement she felt as child seeing her father's work. “For example, when I was 8-years-old, I saw that the crafts of my father [were] always sold to Lima, and, like any child, I said, ‘I’m going to go to see it.’”
People from the valley at the basin of the Mantaro River, who are known as huancas, produce carved gourds, masks, jewelry, embroidery, ceramics and textiles for the national and international markets. In the 1930s, after the introduction of highways and railroads brought low-cost industrial products into the market, many of these crafts evolved from functional to decorative, replacing the use of the traditional vessels.
On the gourds you can see stories ranging from cultural events—celebrations, folklore, myths and tragedies—to displays of everyday life. However, carved gourds incorporate more than just visual storytelling as the textural qualities of the gourd offer a new perspective to understanding the story itself.
The gourds are brought to Cochas from traveling merchants, and after a gourd is skinned, cleaned and dried, artists can begin carving to create a three-dimensional design. Some artisans even use a burning technique, called quemado, to incorporate varying shades of brown to the art. They may also use the process called fondo negro to create black backgrounds on the carved gourds using fat and straw ash.
The Canto sisters use small engraving tools to create each design by hand. They practice an ancient tradition, incorporating new designs for a new market; yet, the traditional heritage is evident in the works of art that they create.
Blanca Canto plans to study interior design so that she can help publicize gourd carving by incorporating it into the design of people’s homes. Katya Canto is currently working on a piece that will tell the stories of her grandfather’s travels; the piece will take years to complete, she says.
“I can give expression to all of the knowledge that I have so that it doesn’t get lost,” Katya Canto says.
The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival featuring Perú: Pachamama will be held on June 24–28 and July 1–5 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Katya Milagros Canto Lazo and Blanca Violeta Canto Lazo will be telling stories and sharing their work Thursday, June 25, at 2–2:45 p.m.; Saturday, June 27, at 2–2:45 p.m.; Thursday, July 2, at 3:30–4:15 p.m.; and Saturday, July 4, at 2–2:45 p.m.