National Geographic
Menu

Carving my Dreams into a Gourd: Mother Earth & Climate Change

Irma Luz Poma Canchumani (Quechua) is a traditional gourd-carver whose work is featured in the exhibition Conversations with the Earth : Indigenous Voices on Climate Change at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, DC) from July 22, 2011 through January 2, 2012. Mrs. Canchumani also participates in the exhibition as a video producer. In this blog, she is interviewed about her art and vision by Maja Tillmann of Conversations with the Earths partner organization InsightShare.

 

Photograph © Rodrigo Otero. Used with permission.

Why did you decide to carve a gourd on climate change?

I come from a peasant community, Cochas Grande, which means “big lagoon”. On behalf of my community, I want to express the need to harmonize the whole world.

Since childhood, I have always liked to explore how life was in former times. I am interested in understanding how we are treating Mamapacha (Mother Earth). Do people spray crops? Do they care or not to sow? Do they watch how it is sown or harvested and from where does the food come from? I see little respect for life and we all see too much inequality. This is why I created this gourd.

I am very superstitious with my dreams. When I meditate in the evenings, I am alone with the moon, I look at Waman Wasi (the local sacred mountain) and think of Huaytapallana (the regional sacred mountain) and of Mamapacha and soon I begin to dream. The next day I concentrate and carved my dreams into a gourd.

I have always had in mind that people can gain awareness and behave soundly with Mother Earth. Discussing with my good friend Maja  the many things I can express with my art, we arrived at the topic of climate change. We talked about how the trees are being chopped down, how natural plants that protect Mother Earth are being destroyed, that there are almost no medicinal herbs left. When I see the mountains without trees, without herbal plants, it is an evidence that people are not aware or do not know how to take care of Mother Earth.

Did filming the videos as part of the Conversations with the Earth influence your decision to carve the gourd?

In a way it did. When we filmed in 2009, I found a lot of evidence for what I knew already. So I began to think about carving a gourd.

What was the process of carving the gourd?

The gourd is a wild inedible fruit. When it is ripe, the inner part dries and only seeds remain inside. So, firstly, I had to find a gourd big enough to express all my thoughts. Because I was planning to carve a gourd on climate change with many scenes I wanted to depict, I knew I needed a huge gourd. I found five of the same shape and bought them from the middlemen from Chiclayo, Piura and Trujillo, who bring gourds to our community Cochas. I still have the other gourds, so I can make many more.

Photograph © Katell Chantreau. Used with permission.

After I sketched out my work on the gourd, I used a burin (a chisel) to engrave images. I don’t improvise, but concentrate deeply. It is better to be alone. I sort out mentally what I want to draw. Before I start, I sketch the main parts with a pencil. After that I engrave all the images directly onto the gourd.

When I work with the gourd, I honor Mamapacha and the majestic Huaytapallana who provides pure water. I concentrate so deeply that for moments I feel that I am dreaming. I interpret my dreams in thoughts and then I carve them. Once I finish engraving, I rub paper ashes on the gourd so that it gets black and then I apply cooking oil to clean it.

Photograph © Katell Chantreau. Used with permission.

I worked day and night because it takes seven months to make a gourd, including the research. But I enjoyed carving so much that I will probably make more gourds, because I am researching new aspects that I can add.

Do you use coca leaves as a ritual to concentrate and to get a beautiful gourd?

Yes, I get energy and the permission from Mamapacha, as well as intelligence and wisdom. Coca leaves are sacred. When I chew the leaves before I start to work, I ask all my desires in my heart and my Holy Mountain Huaytapallana fulfills them. If the coca tastes sweet, my work will be good, if it tastes bitter I better don’t do anything.

What do you think of climate change?

My grandfather and my mother used to tell me about life in former times – their childhood, how they lived, how they planted, harvested and what they’d eaten. I see that life was better before. People were honest and loved each other. When I was a girl, my grandfather Rufino and my father Augustin grew potatoes. If somebody passed by during harvest time, we would give them something. Today, if you walk along the fields, people don’t even recognize you, they don’t even offer you a glass of water. I have reflected upon these things. It is a pity that we don’t care anymore for other people. I can tell that we are losing our culture. Everything is hate and envy, trash is all over, nobody sets the right direction. We are polluting Mamapacha instead of caring for her.

Once, I cultivated potatoes with natural fertilizer. My mother and I took them to the Market in Huancayo. Our potatoes were not perfect and nobody wanted to buy them. Other vendors sold big potatoes and people bought them without understanding what was harmful to them.

When I was a child there were water springs, trees and many plants in Achkamarca. Nobody has been taking care of that landscape; they even poured kerosene into the spring. I ask myself why do they have to that? If you visit Achkamarca, you will find residues of insecticides, pesticides all over.

I observe all of this and express it in the gourd with the idea that Mamapacha is suffocating, she is vomiting, too much contamination. Nobody cares for Mamapacha.

There used to be many trees. My grandfather would cut down one tree and plant 20 new trees. Today, everyone cuts down trees, but nobody replaces them. The mountains that I recall from my childhood are now naked, unprotected. No shade for the hot season.

I observe all of this and express it in the gourd with the idea that Mamapacha is suffocating, she is vomiting, too much contamination. Nobody cares for Mamapacha.

People destroy everything because they want to earn more money. We will reach a point when there will be no water and a lot of money. Would we be able to eat money or drink money? This time is coming soon. Cities have water scarcity, and there are water wars. Everyone is claiming that there is no water but nothing is done to face the necessity of protecting Mother Earth. Who is going to stop this? We all must gain awareness and take care of Mother earth!

Please describe what you carved on the gourd.

First part deals with marriage in former times. Getting married was a matter of respect and honor between husband and wife. We had been educated that way, our parents giving us love, honesty, and culture. They have taught us how to look after plants and how to dress properly. Today, women have lost the divine taste to dress properly.

I also describe here everything I know about medicinal plants. As a child I would collect passion fruit and healing plants with my mother. We raised our animals according to certain rules. All animal droppings were used for natural fertilizer. We never had to buy it.

The second part deals with the agricultural calendar – the twelve months of the year explained on the basis of each ritual related to a Saint we celebrate each month; as well as sowing and harvesting according to the moon, the stars and other signs in nature.

Photograph © Rodrigo Otero. Used with permission.

We observe animal behavior, cats, frogs, and birds. We listen to the river, if it sings or talks. This is our custom. We also pay respects, offer gifts to Mother Earth in the form of coca, cigarettes, and alcohol. The Apus (mountain divinities) recognize us as their children and welcome us. When we approach Pachamama and the Apus, we are confident and do not feel fear. Why should we fear them if they provide us with all we need? That is what I explain, one by one for all the twelve months.

Photograph © Rodrigo Otero. Used with permission.

At the end, I express how Mother earth cries and suffers, demanding justice — she cannot bear the insecticides. But people use the tractor, destroy, cut down the trees, use huge fields, monoculture, without realizing the harm they are causing.

On the top of the gourd are the majestic Huaytapallana, my community of Cochas, my home and my mothers place in front of Waman Wasi. All the customary dresses used by my parents and grand parents are depicted, as well as the agricultural tools used by men to work the fields. I also show how people pollute the river. It is like rubbing detergent, soap and plastic in your mouth, in your eyes – the river chokes, becomes blinded. When it rains, the river goes wild because it does not see – it’s blind.  This is why there are so many floods.

Photograph © Rodrigo Otero. Used with permission.

What do you expect that people learn when they see the gourd?

I wish that everyone who sees the gourd appreciates the art and follows the content. They must gain insights and think about the traditions of respecting Mother Earth.

I also want people to recognize where our food comes from and which food is the best for us. A perfect big potato does not mean that it is the best kind.  I prefer to eat small potatoes, not necessarily perfect, but that have been cultivated naturally. The big ones have chemicals and hormones in them.

I hope people tell others about what they have understood and explain it to many other people, so that we all can regain a good feeling towards Mother Earth. She gives us so much – everything! That is not well understood by everybody.

I hope that people, who have the chance to see the gourd, get together to do something for Mother Earth. If they don’t, we will all regret it.

Do you like to be part of Conversations with the Earth project, and what does it mean for your community?

I love it and I congratulate all the people who are part of Conversations with the Earth! They are the people who want to save Mother Earth.

Photograph © Rodrigo Otero. Used with permission.

Being in the group, helps me clarify my mind and it stimulates me to do research, learn and inspires me to act. When I went to Copenhagen and Panama I got in touch with other cultures. I have seen similarities and I have learned many new things. In Copenhagen many people asked me about the way I dressed. I told them, the colors of the embroidery come out of my heart full of love and happiness. Other people told me that their countries are also very affected by climate change, illness, and lack of water.  I think we should help each other instead of just waiting for external help.

I hope people take time to see the gourd, the videos and the photographic exhibition in the Museum on how climate change is affecting us local indigenous peoples. I hope there will be a growing awareness to cooperate, to join efforts and work to save Mother Earth!

 

Thanks to Maruja Salas for helping with the translation and editing, Katell Chantreau and Rodrigo Otero for the photographs, and most specially to Irma Luz Poma Canchumani for giving the interview and for being so positive and full of energy.

—Maja Tillmann

All photographs © CWE. Used with permission.

This blog was first published on the National Museum of American Indian blog.

For the most recent updates from Conversations with the Earth, including Irma’s videos, please follow us on CWE Facebook, YouTube Channel and Twitter@ ConversEarth

Comments

  1. moira anne bush bastos
    Brasil
    August 7, 9:20 am

    It’s wonderful to see this art being broadcasted all over the world. These gourd ( mates burilados) have been my researh since 2005. It’s very difficult to understand a story – that is drawn, when you don’t belong to that Culture. It seems that we still have an “exotic look” for this kind of art. These gourds are lovely books. where we read “burin” it means BURIL ( the instrument they make to carve the wooden skin of this plant. Congrats

  2. mzuri
    kenya, nairobi
    October 9, 2011, 2:41 pm

    interesting, we have gourd carvings in Kenya as well, mainly north east of kenya region – a pity though because it is art that is fading away, interesting read.

  3. Samantha Bangayan
    http://www.whatlittlethings.com
    September 24, 2011, 10:51 am

    What a beautiful tribute to a talented woman! I’m a Canadian expat living in Huancayo, not too far away from Cochas, and have seen the effort and talent it takes to complete one of this gourds, especially the gigantic ones! The message and wisdom she shares through her art means a lot to me and it’s why I decided to move to Peru. I really appreciate National Geographic sharing this with the world!

  4. Web Designer
    September 22, 2011, 5:14 am

    Excellent and helpful post… i am so glad to left comment on this. This has been a so interesting read, would love to read more here….