Bertha sits down at her bamboo table and offers us a piece of clay so we too can try our hand. It becomes apparent to me as my hands fumble with the material that there is a lot more to this ancestral art of pottery making in the Kichwa community. As Bertha effortlessly mould her piece into a perfectly shaped shallow bowl, she explains to us that one piece of ceramic takes six days to make from start to finish. All the materials and tools she uses are natural, found in her backyard, the jungle.
Once she has formed her bowl she uses a sharpened piece of bamboo to trim the rim, leaving it even and plane. She then takes a piece of dried pumpkin skin dipped in water and begins to gently scrap around the sides of the bowl, until the surface is flawlessly smooth. This bowl is then left out to dry for 3 days.
With a ‘here’s-one-I-made-earlier’ approach, Bertha picks up a dried bowl and shows us how to polish the surfaces using a quartz-like pebble from the shoals of the river. She rubs it quite vigorously until the texture of the bowl takes on an almost varnished look. Once the bowl has been polished, she begins the meticulous task of designing and painting her work of art. Her paints come from natural minerals found along the river bank, a terracotta red, ash white and a charcoal brown; she mixes each with a little water to the consistency of an acrylic that easily applies itself to the surfaces of the ceramics.
The outside of the bowl, she covers with red, the inside with white. Then, pausing to place on her glasses, she picks up a small paintbrush, which she explains to us is made from human hair. With this tiny brush she creates an intricate design in black on the whitened interior of the bowl, simply by dipping the bristle into the black paint and then placing it softly against the surface. In a matter of minutes, her art is complete and can be left to dry for a day or two before being placed in the embers of the fire to AZAR. After only 40 minutes in the burning embers the pot is taken out and varnished with a twig from a Protium tree, the heat from the pot itself bringing out a resin from the wood that gives the ceramic bowl a shiny finish.
Clay, brushes, motifs, seeds, necklaces, plant fibers… everything comes from mother nature.
Inspired by the beautiful ceramic pieces that the women from this kichwa community have made, we make promises to come back to Tiyu Yacu on the shores of the river Napo, with the time to sit down with them and learn this millennial craft passed down, unchanged, through generations.