Pre-Hispanic varnish technique lives on in southern Colombian city
By Jorge Gil Angel
Pasto, Colombia, Jan 5 (EFE).- Artisanry is ingrained in the culture and identity of different neighborhoods of this southwestern Colombian city, creating a climate conducive to preserving a labor-intensive varnish technique of indigenous origin known as Barniz de Pasto.
The practitioners of that technique use a resin known as Mopa-Mopa that is extracted from trees of the genus Elaeagia, which grows in mountainous parts of Colombia and neighboring Ecuador.
The colorful designs these artisans make, including all types of shapes and figures, are applied to objects that range from wooden chairs to refrigerators, capping off a long process that begins with the twice-a-year harvesting of Mopa-Mopa-rich fruit and leaves in the Andean-Amazonian foothills of Putumayo department.
In families like the Obando household, this traditional technique has been passed down from one generation to the next and one varnish master to another.
Although the technical knowhow associated with Barniz de Pasto (Pasto Varnish) is still at risk of being lost, its inscription in 2020 on Unesco’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding may help preserve that centuries-old tradition.
“This recognition is very well-deserved for our region, our culture, our country, because it’s an artisan technique that’s unique in the world,” varnish master German Obando told Efe.
The Obando home is located in El Calvario, a residential neighborhood located on a hill in Pasto – capital of Nariño province – where German and his father Jose Maria Obando, the recipient of a Master of Masters distinction in 2012 for his work, ply their trade.
“I’ve dedicated my entire life to the legacy of my family,” German said. “I make many contributions to this technique every day: investigating, making new designs, incorporating the technique into other levels in different materials in fashion, jewelry or in domestic-use products.”
The Obandos also participate in a workshop project that is co-financed by Colombia’s Culture Ministry and aims to introduce more young people to this traditional varnish technique.
Two other artisans – Mary Hermelinda Ortega and her husband Mario Narvaez – who have devoted themselves to Barniz de Pasto since they were children live in Pasto’s working class Panoramico neighborhood.
Like the Obandos, the Narvaez family run a workshop at their home where Mary gives classes to five women interested in carrying on the legacy of their ancestors.
“It’s the heritage my father instilled in me … My family has been devoted to this for around 60 years. My father inculcated it in me. I taught it to my wife and our two children,” Narvaez told Efe.
The work of both artisans has been recognized in Colombia, while the watchmaker-like precision with which they hand-cut the finished Mopa-Mopa sheets evidences the continued development of that technique.
Mary was even chosen by the Culture Ministry to represent Barniz de Pasto artisans at Colombia’s pavilion at the ongoing Expo 2020 in Dubai and is tentatively scheduled to travel there in February.
“It’s a dream come true to take our artisan technique beyond our borders, since we’re the only place in the world” where it is used, said Ortega, who has spent nearly 30 years perfecting her craft. EFE