By Gina Baldivieso
La Paz, Jan 29 (EFE).- Ekeko, the Andean god of abundance, is the star of an exhibit at a museum in the Bolivian capital featuring renderings of the deity in materials ranging from plaster to stone to surgical masks.
The figures, including creations by contemporary artisans and donated family heirlooms, are part of the 123-piece collection of the Juan de Vargas Costume Museum in La Paz, more than half of which is featured in “Alasita: Tradition that Endures in Time,” director Monica Sejas told Efe.
Last Monday marked the start of Bolivia’s month-long Alasitas festival, added in 2017 by UNESCO to its list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity list.
“Alasitas” are miniatures of items such as paper bills, clothing, car and houses. The idea of the alasita – the word means “Buy me!” in the indigenous Aymara language – is to acquire a miniature artifact corresponding to something the buyer wants.
After having the alasitas blessed, whether by Andean shamans known as amautas or Catholic priests or both, the buyer offers them to a figure of Ekeko.
While the custom goes back well before the arrival of the conquistadors, it has undergone a dramatic evolution. Originally, the offerings were made to a stone effigy of the hunchbacked god Tunupa.
“It was said that a person who had a hump was struck by lightning and could fulfill these wishes. He symbolized abundance,” Sejas said.
And in pre-Columbian times, the festival began on the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, Dec. 21.
It was during the colonial era that the figure of Ekeko assumed its current form: a short, portly mustachioed man with white skin, pink cheeks and pale eyes, bearing cash, food and other worldly goods.
Historians suggest the Ekeko was modeled on wealthy land baron Francisco de Rojas or perhaps on his son-in-law, Sebastian de Segurola, who was named Spanish military governor of La Paz in 1781 during the Inca rebellion led by Tupac Amaru II.
After breaking the Inca siege, Segurola ordered the start of the Alasitas festival moved from December to January to commemorate the successful defense of La Paz.
“In our epoch that same structure of this personage (Ekeko) is maintained, but there is also variation,” the museum director said.
The oldest figure in the current exhibit is an Ekeko Sebastian from the start of the 20th century, accompanied by three others with movable heads that were made in 1917.
Also on display is a “peasant” Ekeko crafted by artist Graciela Astorga. With its dark complexion and indigenous features, the effigy is “more representative of the people,” Sejas said.
Other noteworthy Ekekos are Pamela Tola’s 2019 creation out of newspaper, a 1997 glass version by Carlos Ramirez and a leather effigy laden with oil derricks and ships.
There are plaster, silk, stone and wooden Ekekos, as well as ones made of soap or salt, and even a 1925 “gringo” Ekeko with blond hair covered by the traditional Andean wool cap and a sombrero.
In the section set aside for past winners of La Paz’s annual Alasita craft competition, the visitor can view Claudio Maldonado’s metallic Ekeko in the guise of miner, which took the prize in 1981, and the figure that received top honors last year, made by Albertina Viscarra de Fuentes from surgical masks.
“We have put them together to illustrate the difference, because this (the 1981 prize winner) is a very different Ekeko from the one we have in the present,” Sejas said. “We are marked by the times, by what we are experiencing in every stage of our lives.” EFE gb/dr