Inspiring Peru’s Indigenous Weavers

TEXT: APRIL ORCUTT

How could you rekindle a dying (and dyeing) textile art and inspire indigenous people to revive their millennia-long traditions while paving a path to creative success? Hold an annual contest! That’s what Nilda Callañaupa – noted weaver, scholar and director and president of the Centre for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (El Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco or CTTC) – has done as part of her lifetime work of helping her Quechua people living high in the Peruvian Andes Mountains reclaim their historic art and become expert weavers. Her plan has worked, much to the benefit of both the weavers and those of us who love textiles.

Callañaupa is a remarkable woman whose persistence in encouraging a revival of traditional weaving forms, ancient symbolism and natural dyes overcame resistance from elders among her Quechua people, who are descended from the Inca, as well as formerly uninterested younger members. She pointed out that if they improved their artistic skills, they could sell better quality textiles to tourists for more income.

Then, a decade ago, Nilda teamed up with Jim Kane, founder of Culture Xplorers, which designs individual trips emphasizing local-culture connections, to develop the Weavers Awards. Artisans from nine villages in the greater Sacred Valley (Valle Sagrado) who are learning and sustaining their ancient textile heritage compete in both individual and community-wide categories for around US$7,000 in prize money.

The Weavers Awards, held at the CTTC’s smaller weaving center in the village of Chinchero about 20 miles northwest of Cusco, honor the weavers and are not intended to be a show for the public. However, Culture Xplorers works with Callañaupa to invite textile aficionados on tours focusing on Inca traditions to attend the award ceremony, which she presides over. I attended the 2014 awards and was delighted to meet Callañaupa and to see both the intricacies of these artists’ work and the joy on the faces of the winners, who could now afford to get medical or dental care or send their children to school.

The 2016 Weavers Awards take place on 10 Aug. at the CTTC annex in Chinchero, which is about 50 miles from the iconic ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu.