Human Interest

Seeds, fruit become art in hands of elderly Bolivian couple

By Gabriel Romano

La Paz, Dec 9 (EFE).- Rufino Mamani and Francisca Chambi, an elderly Bolivian married couple, have found a unique way to pay the bills while achieving artistic fulfillment, collecting tropical fruits and seeds that they transform into attractive animal figures.

Although he tells Efe he often lacks time, the 74-year-old Mamani still churns out his creations inside a simple workshop at his home in southeastern La Paz, where toucans, monkeys, elephants, bears, owls, rheas and other creations showcase the artist’s skill.

His facet as an artist dates back to 2014 when he won a contest in Caranavi, a town in the subtropical Yungas region of central Bolivia, and was given further impetus when the La Paz mayor’s office recognized his work at that capital’s Alasitas fair, a month-long cultural event in January and February.

Mamani showed resilience following the death of his parents and since he was a young man has made a living with his hands in a variety of jobs: construction worker, painter, gutter maker, locksmith and farmer.

But he always had an artistic side as well.

“My husband would see beautiful things (in nature),” the 64-year-old Chambi told Efe, noting that for him, for example, some exposed roots could be transformed through art into snakes.

Serving in her role as main assistant, she helps out by preparing the seeds or smoothing out the surface of the coconuts or cacao beans that her husband will later use to make his different figures.

Using only a knife to carve out details, or a mechanical saw for larger pieces of wood, he transforms a pine cone into a hedgehog or a parrot, a cacao bean into monkeys, owls or cats and the seeds of the cusi, a palm native to the Amazon rainforest region, into bears or ostriches.

Mushrooms become elephant ears and coconut fiber simulates monkey or cat fur in the skilled hands of Mamani, whose finished works can be sold for anywhere between $2 and $70 depending on the their size and quality.

His creations also include exact replicas of hanging nests, which are found high up in trees and made by small passerine birds known as weavers.

Mamani said that most buyers of his creations are looking for a “rustic” look that he achieves by using motacu (an Amazon fruit), mango, palm or peach seeds to craft the animal figures.

Although the artist plans to keep working for as long as he can, he said there are challenges that come with age.

“When you’re old, you don’t have the strength to carry (things) every morning … Sometimes I fall, there are things that fall out of the car or my body gives out on me,” said Mamani, who also suffers from hearing loss.

His forays into the woods every three months to collect material, a task that can take up to two weeks, also take their toll.

Chambi says she helps her husband sell the animal figures on the street, though adding that this task has been complicated by their inability to obtain a permit for a fixed market stall.

She told Efe it is unlikely that any of their four children will follow in their footsteps, adding that they are busy with their own occupations and have not worked to acquire the necessary skills. EFE


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