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July 21, 2011

Carving My Dreams in a Gourd

Irma Luz Poma Canchumani (Quechua) is a traditional gourd-carver whose work is featured in the exhibition Conversations with the Earth, opening at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington this Friday, July 22, 2011, and on view through January 2, 2012. Sra. Poma Canchumani also participated in the exhibition as a video producer. She is interviewed about her art and ideas by Maja Tillmann of Conversations with the Earth’s partner organization InsightShare. 

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

Irma Luz Poma Canchumani carving Irma: 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 Pachamama (Mother Earth). Do people spray crops? Do they care or not to sow seeds? Do they watch how the Earth is sown or harvested and where food comes from? I see little respect for life, and we all see too much inequality. This is why I created this gourd.

I am very sensitive to 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 Pachamama and soon I begin to dream. The next day I concentrate and carve 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 lifelong friend, Maja Tillman 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 evidence that people are not aware or do not know how to take care of Mother Earth.

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

Irma: In a way it did. When we filmed Conversations with Pachamama in 2009 I found much evidence of what I knew already. So I began to think about carving a gourd.

Maja: What was the process of carving the climate change gourd for the exhibit?

Irma: The gourd is a wild inedible fruit. When it is ripe, the inner part dries and only seeds remain inside. So, first of all, I had to find a gourd big enough to express all my thoughts. Because I was planning on carving 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.

After I sketched out my work on the gourd, I used a burin (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 Pachamama 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.

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

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

Irma: Yes, I get energy and the permission from Pachamama 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, its better that I not do anything.

Maja: What do you think of climate change?

Irma: My grandfather and my mother used to tell me about life in former times—their childhood, how they lived, how they planted and harvested, and what they used to eat. 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 Pachamama instead of caring for her.

Once, I cultivated potatoes with natural fertilizer [organically]. 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 knowing what is harmful for 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 do that? If you visit Achkamarca, you will find residues of insecticides, pesticides all over.

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

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

People destroy everything because the want to earn more money. We will reach a point and 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!

Maja: Please describe what you carved on the gourd. Scene 1

Irma: The 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 all 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.

Scene 2 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 respect, 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 in the twelve months.

At the end, I express how Mother Earth cries, suffers, claims justice. She cannot bear the insecticides. But people use tractors, destroy and cut down the trees, use huge fields and monoculture, without realizing the harm they are causing.

On the top of the gourd is represented the majestic Huaytapallana, my community of Cochas, my home and my mother’s place in front of Waman Wasi. All the customary dresses used by my parents and grandparents 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.

Maja: What do you expect people to learn when they see the gourd?

Scene 3 Irma: 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.

Maja: Do you like being part of the Conversations with the Earth project? What does it mean for your community?

Irma: 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.

Being in the group helps me clarify my mind; it stimulates me to do research, to 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. I hope there will be a growing awareness to cooperate, to join efforts and work to save Mother Earth!           

Thanks to Gleb Raygorodestky for inspiring this interview, 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

Illustrations, from top to bottom: Irma Luz Poma Canchumani (Quechua), with the gourd she carved for Conversations with the Earth; rubbing the carved gourd with ash, then finishing the surface with oil; three scenes from the gourd; Irma Luz Poma Canchumani. All photographs © CWE. Used with permission.

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What an art... I can't make that my self... art require a person to be creative. The step by step person definitely is not suitable for these kind of task :-)

Everything about art deserved to be posted, such a beautiful art you posted about. Thx

Now this is what I call art! Not many people appreciate the the nature of this art; it's something i wish others could understand.


This is just too good. I am on way to learn such kind of art. Its very tough.

What beautiful art! Thanks for the post.

Wow... Amazing design.

It almost looks like a tattoo.


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