Otavalo, the heart of Andean art

By Olivia Norris

The town of Otavalo is the heart of Andean art and artistry in Ecuador and is known internationally for its textile and handicraft market. Otavalo is located in the northern highland region of Ecuador. The market, whilst a great tourist attraction is also a rich display of Andean highland culture and most significantly, describes how ancient practice continues to thrive in this community. This article describes the types of products manufactured and marketed by the artisan communities and in turn considers the role of the craft community for the local economy and the role indigenous women play within this industry.

The Otavalo market is an internationally acclaimed attraction and one of the largest and best places to buy textiles in all of Latin America. While much of what is on display is aimed at the tourist market, locals from surrounding villages as well as Ecuadorian visitors from other parts of the country frequent the market. The market place in Latin America is an important and essential part of every day life and provides occupation and livelihood for many communities of people. The products sold in the market are authentically hand made and the traditional practices of weaving and sewing that are employed to make them connect makers with their indigenous culture and history. One can personally meet and speak with the artist of a product being sold as works and products are sold directly in the market. Textiles and materials depict traditional compositions, cultural bucolic scenes and customary motifs and bright bold colours are used with gusto. The types of products on offer are wide and varied, there is traditional alpaca ponchos, the famous stripy Otavaleño pants, warming scarves of all forms and colours, wall hangings, handicrafts and souvenirs, blankets, hammocks, shirts, leather belts and shoes and jewelry and more. The market place is a spectacular array of colours and a hub of economic activity thanks to the talented artisans of the community and the wealth of materials available to them such as alpaca wool.

The craft communities are important to the local economy as they provide income as well as occupation for local people. Many people in this area of Ecuador are very poor and selling your handicrafts and products is one way of earning a living. Despite this, Otavaleño artists are a special group of people and are known throughout Ecuador for their (relative) prosperity and being economically savvy, an enduring quality established throughout history. Otavaleños are also known throughout Latin America and even the world for their distinctive and irresistible colourful textiles. These indigenous artisans and small-scale producers have found a niche and work hard for themselves. A further important factor of these craft communities is that weaving is an ancient tradition of Andean culture and the economic market bound to theses activities allows for these traditions and cultures to continue. Transference of skill and artistic knowledge is passed down between families and specialties or product, based on region. This is not to say however that these sorts of communities are without problems or challenges, artisans who sell their products in the market rely solely on tourism and tourists willing to pay an adequate price for their artistry. Additionally, like within many other indigenous Ecuadorian communities, levels of education, health and infrastructure are fairly low and impoverished. Yuyari Village is a brand that supports workers through ensuring they are paid a fair amount for their work and concurrently runs educational programs to assist in the areas mentioned above.

Otavalanian women are easily distinguished by their traditional dress of long dark skirt, white embroided blouse, white sandals, colourful hair ribbons and golden jewelry. These indigenous Kichwa women play an integral part in the smooth running of artisan communities. The majority of weavers are women and historically this is a practice and work of women. Traditional dress and clothes are created and provided by the women of Otavalo to the wider community and additionally they have an important role in selling their clothes, textiles and material products in the markets. The occupation of women in this sense describes empowerment on a local and direct level and thus this is extremely important to support in a country where women must continue to battle against a culture of machismo and male dominance, particularly in the world of work.

The people of Otavalo have created a buzzing artistic industry whilst being in step with their indigenous traditions and cultures. It is up to the international community to continue supporting these communities of people to ensure their unique and beautiful work is given the appropriate credit it deserves. Any visitor to Ecuador is highly encouraged to visit the Otavalo market, it is an experience not forgotten.

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