Making a Scene

Tito Medina records vignettes of highland Peruvian life on gourds

Gourds have been used in Peru for at least 4,500 years centuries for utilitarian and decorative purposes. Artist Tito Medina and his workshop of carvers use a uniquely Peruvian style to tell stories great and small about their culture and their everyday lives…in gourd form.

Known locally as mate, gourds are grown and dried in coastal regions where water is plentiful. Many centuries old trade routes along which raw gourds traveled country are still intact today. Many rural homes still use gourds to drink home brewed corn liquor – chichi – or to store quinoa and rice.

The motifs carved into gourds show us significant community events, and even give a window into the private lives of the carvers’ families. Pastoral scenes illustrate the chores of daily life – farming, cooking, weaving, and hunting. Religious ceremonies – weddings, funerals, and feasts – are also depicted. Carefully rendered plants and animals give us a catalog of the living things surrounding the carvers. When viewed together, these gourd form an important historical document, with every aspect of life and death shown in great detail.

The sgraffito technique which transforms humble vegetables into storytelling documents has changed very little across millennia of gourd carving. Once dried and washed, the artisan uses an awl shaped from a nail to scratch through the hard outer surface of the gourd creating the pattern. Then liquid chalk or ash is used to fill in the carved surface and illuminate the design. Sometimes artisans use hot metal to heat-engrave shadows. Recently, modern dyes capable of penetrating the hard surface of the gourd have been added to increase the range of colors and appeal to modern buyers.

While the gourds have a utilitarian history, there are several artisans who have taken the traditional carving to a new level. The central plateau communities of Huancayo and Ayacucho have become home to some of the most accomplished carvers in the region, and Tito Medina is one of the best.

Tito’s family has been carving gourds for more than four generations. His ancestors made mostly utilitarian goods, and were known for their quality craftsmanship. But Tito’s parents started developing a more decorative outlook in the Seventies and Eighties, just as six-year old Tito came into the business to work alongside his family. At this time, characters and images on the gourds became smaller and more detailed: more complex stories and completely carved surfaces clearly showed off an artisan’s carving and storytelling skills.

When Tito started working independently, he incorporated more carving and a more contemporary design aesthetic, advancing the art form and creating a place for himself among the small cadre of artisans forging a modern market for an ancient tradition.

Tito has pioneered the use of mixed materials, adding silver accents to his pieces beginning in the early 2000’s. This has helped to elevate the perceived value of his gourds. He has also added contemporary geometric patterns to his pieces, and sometimes pierces through the gourd to offer a glimpse into its unfinished interior.

The Medina taller (workshop) in Huancayo employs 12 to 15 artisans. Under the Tito’s direction his craftsmen learn the Medina family’s techniques to produce thousands of pieces each month for customers around the world, mostly exported to boutique stores in the United States and Europe. The taller’s export work consists mostly of ornaments and figurines created from the smallest gourds. The shop also produces numerous small boxes and miniature nacimientos (Nativity scenes) with the holy family housed in a stable formed by an open gourd. This relatively high-volume production work allows the public at large to have a piece of ancient art in their homes.

But Tito’s personal passion is his collector’s line. Some of his larger works, measuring two dozen centimeters in circumference, take months to create, and he is only able to make several dozen pieces in a given year. Demand for his work is high, with pieces ranging in price from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Tito designs his collectible work with an eye to preserving the craft’s ancient forms. Celebrations, pastoral life and the events of the everyday life are his muses. Each scene is rendered with hundreds of precisely detailed individual miniature portraits floating across its surface. With such limited production, most pieces are sold directly to visitors to Tito’s shop on Petit Thours in Lima, or at his taller in Huancayo.

Tito’s children are still young, but he is hopeful they will join him in learning the family business, and that their influence will continue to advance the art form in the coming years.

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