Manos de la Ronda: Challenging the notions of artisan craft

17/Mayo/2013 | 12:11

By Lance Brashear
[email protected].com

Many people do not know the story of Colonel Harland Sanders. But they know his face. It is plastered on signs and buckets of fried chicken around the globe, including Ecuador.

In 1952, Colonel Harland Sanders sold the first Kentucky Fried Chicken Franchise. We know it today as KFC. Sanders was in his early sixties at the time, an age when most men retired or died. His story is fraught with hardship and perseverance. KFC began only after Sanders’ sit-down restaurant failed.

Before KFC became global – today there are more than 15,000 locations in more than 100 countries, serving 12 million people a day - it was local.

And Quito entrepreneurs Luis Guachamin and Jadira Bonilla want Ecuadoreans, and anyone else who visits their shop in Quito’s La Ronda neighborhood, to remember that before fried chicken became part of the local culture in Quito, there was something else in Ecuador, namely fried guinea pig.

“This is an ancestral plate,” says Luis. “This was eaten before the Spanish came, before the Conquest. It is something with much more meaning for our culture.” Though Ecuador does not have an entrepreneurial story to rival that of Colonel Sanders, they don’t need one. Images often speak louder.

Luis and Jadira do not sell food. They are the creators of Vulgomasetre, an urban design company that sells t-shirts, notebooks, and stickers with images that celebrate Ecuadorean identity.

Rosita Frie Cuyes, or RFC, is Vulgomasetre’s way of showing how local identity can become subjugated to global brands and obscure a culture’s collective memory.

In English, RFC stands for Rosita Fries Guinea Pigs and the logo is a parody of Colonel Sanders and his American fried chicken. At Vulgomaestre, Luis and Jadira show that memory is inextricably linked to artisan craft.

“The idea of the brand is to rescue identity and in order to rescue identity what we do is appropriate that which is modern with the likes of youth, urban tendencies, fashion, various things,” explains Luis.

“We take this brand (KFC) because of the impact it has. Worldwide it is one of the most recognized…it is so well-positioned in the Ecuadorean market even though it is not from our culture. So, what we do is utilize it…to awaken the youth [and say to them] this is not yours, this (he points to RFC) is yours,” says Luis.

Though RFC is one of their more recognizable designs, all of them celebrate Ecuadorean culture by offering an alternative to the global images that are ubiquitous throughout the country or by personalizing a general image that reverberates with young people.

For example, an image of human skulls parodies the “Virgin del Panecillo,” a giant virgin monument that overlooks Quito from a downtown hillside, appealing to a young, urban, gothic subculture in Quito.

“This is very attractive to the youth,” explains Jadira. “If you are going to use skulls…use them with our representations.”

Then, as if on cue, two young Venezuelans enter their shop. Lester and Jesus, both 24, with skateboards in hand, excitedly scour the displays of stickers. Each buys one for their helmets. They’re visiting Ecuador, making their way to the coast for a week of skating and surfing, but detoured to Vulgomaestre after hearing about it on the street. The images resonate with them.

“I feel like…it mixes the urban with the patriotic of Ecuador and to me it is incredible,” says Lester. “With the urban we understand the national.”

By using their own, local designs and refusing to mass produce them, Luis and Jadira are the maximum expression of artisan craft workers. Their creations are the unión of art and utility and they embody the spirit of local production.

Luis and Jadira are just one of a dozen craft workers who are on hand every day in La Ronda, old town’s traditional walkway where tourists get a glimpse of old Quito, with a contemporary spin. “Hands of La Ronda” is a program of selected artisans who are attempting to attract more visitors and more activity to La Ronda during daytime hours.

Luis and Jadira, like all of the artisans, are on hand not only to sell their products, but to talk to customers about their ideas and what it still means to be a local artisan.

Next door to Vulgomaestre is Geraldo Zabala of Zabalartes, an artisan toy maker. His yoyos and spinning tops do not challenge contemporary notions of culture. They are culture, albeit from a different time, when kids still played with wooden toys. And his prices seem from yesteryear too, offering products for as little as $1.

“There were once many workshops here in La Ronda in the historical district,” he explains. “Now there are few, they have gone missing.” His only friend in the late morning hours seems to be his lathe, on hand for work and demonstrations for the few clients that trickle in.

Zabala’s challenge is shared by those who operate another workshop up the street. El Rabel, formed by six graduates of the Escuela Taller, a recently closed trade school that taught the professions of wood working and restoration, is a display of hand-crafted furniture, adornments, and sculpture. Their current workshop is not onsite, though it is within walking distance and customers are welcome to visit.

Jose Luis Jimenez, one of the six, works on a bargueño, a small desk or safe box whose design originates from 16th century Spain, and is a collection of cubby holes, carved and decorated with elaborate inlays. Nearby one of his partners, Roberto Betancur, restores a wooden angel while a third, Edwin Ullco, refinishes an old desk.

“This is an artistic profession that has passed from generation to generation,” Jimenez says as he fits together the drawers of the bargueño. “This is not a machine. It is done piece by piece.”

The partners of El Rabel came together in part because their school has closed. Though each of them graduated, they utilize the schools workshop to facilitate their own pursuits. What they lacked was a space to demonstrate their talents, something La Ronda can give them. As a result Ullco says, “The people begin to value art, which is what we have.”

El Rabel´s message, their concern, is the same as Zabalarte. They beg not to be forgotten. They seek relevance in a corner of the city that does not want to be forgotten.

Vulgomaestre underscores their needs and limitations. Unlike the woodworking artisans, Vulgomaestre has the option to reproduce their craft over and over, in effect mass producing it, something impossible for Zabalarte and El Rabel. But they choose not to. Luis explains that they limit their production to 25 shirts because what has been lost culturally and needs to be rediscovered is so broad and profound that it makes no sense to concentrate on just one or two.

“We cannot focus on having 12 things that we publish and sell a thousand times,” says Luis. They are too busy examining their own culture from a thousand angles and offering it locally, one at a time.

Ciudad Quito

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