Edwin Sulka - Peruvian Weaver

October 25, 2003

Edwin Sulka
Edwin SulkaPhoto: Terry Henley

As we entered the room on October 27th we were astounded by the splendor that was appearing on the walls. Some of us sat down, some of us walked around; but it seemed as though we had completely forgotten our lunch and could only gaze, awestruck, at the woven objects of art that graced the lecture room that afternoon. We were privileged to have as our guests Edwin Sulca, a member of the third generation of his family of Peruvian textile artists, and his son. Edwin Sulca comes from Ayacucho, Peru in the Andes. Ayacucho is at an altitude of 12,000 feet and has a population of 120,000. High in the Andes, it is a dry, arid land. Ayacucho in Peru and Antigua in Guatemala are the two capitals of crafts in South America. During Holy Week, in spring, both cities are completely transformed by tourism. Can you imagine what happens when a population of 120,000 becomes 300,000 for a few weeks?

There is no agriculture. The women have become herders, spinners, sharers of sheep; the men tend to become the artisans: weavers, potters, stoneworkers, and workers in leather.

Edwin spoke in his native language and his son translated for us. Each piece of his artwork is representational, often through symbols. Each one tells another story. One shows the history of the Peruvians. Another shows us a poem or a song. Another represents the Inca calendar. Another is a song of protest against the terrorism of the government but so disguised that the people appreciate it but the new government does not really know what it is. We continue to be amazed as the story of Edwin and his work unfolds. It is a story of a poet, historian, musician, storyteller, artist who is a weaver.

Edwin Sulca learned the "Punto Arwi" technique of weaving from his grandmother. Everyone learns to weave in the family, all the children - but no one is encouraged to do it as a livelihood unless it comes from the heart.

About 50% of the time to make one rug is spent on the preparations. Edwin weaves about 15 of each design. There is a drawing made without using color. The colors come to him as he weaves. That is why the later ones are usually better because by that time he has found the best colors. The weaving is done on a large, simple, two-shed loom with a comb (beater) that hangs from a wire and is brought down as each line is finished. The woven pieces are similar to kilim in that the front and back are the same. Colors are simply joined as you go along.

The first step in obtaining the wool is the shearing of the sheep. Then the fleece is sold at the wool markets. The wool is spun by hand, using drop spindles. When two threads are spun together, the wool is ready to be cleaned; this is done in the small rivers. The wet wool is beaten on the rocks to remove the grime, which the current takes away. The wool is washed with detergent to break up the fatty acids before dying. The cleaned wool is dried in the sun. Now it is ready to be dyed. Different plant leaves are collected and boiled in water. Even the same plant can give different hues of color depending on the mordant that is used. The walnut tree gives brown, the Brazil pepper tree yields blues, the cochineal insect gives reds, oranges and purples. When the cochineal is removed from the cactus, always some insects are left on the leaves so that they can repopulate. After all the wool has been dyed, a design drawing is made. The various colors are made into little balls of wool. Then, having visualized the colors in his head, Edwin begins the weaving over the cotton warp, placing the colors in from right to left. Up until about 25 years ago, the weaving was done in the flat pre-Inca style and known symbols. After that Edwin discovered a way to show three-dimensionality which adds another quality to his work.

Edwin and his son then began to walk around the room, stopping in front of each piece to tell something of its meaning and history. We followed them around, an eager audience. The history of Peru is woven into many of these works of art. It begins with the pre-Inca civilization called the Wadi. They were fisherman, weavers and philosophers. Then there were the Incas, the great peacemakers who were defeated and much of what they had built were destroyed by Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors. During the Spanish colonial period, 35 cathedrals were built in Ayacucho. There is an obelisque on the site of the last battle in South America- after this all countries there gained their freedom. Unfortunately, in the 1980's, the Shining Path founder of the terrorist movement gained a foothold- they were forcefully destroying all the old in order they claimed to create a new utopia. They said that pacifists are all part of the problem. This history is shown in pictures on the rug. At the end is the final judgement. Finish all this terror now. So men who have been killing, who are like trees that have become hardened and whose roots are drying up will once more become enveloped by nature, will learn the taste of honey as the wind blows and will once more become a refuge for happiness and sharing.

Edwin and his son told us in detail the story of eight different artworks. It would be impossible to tell it all here. Many times I found myself listening and not writing. There was such a richness of both technique and facts of life woven together that it was very touching and made us stop and just listen.

Looking at one picture you can see the green of the trees. Then, as you lift your eyes, you can see the brown of the land, the gray of the mountains on the horizon and the blue sky up above. Represented by the forms in this weaving were the words of a song that went something like this:

I wish I could be like the wind that runs across continents
and destroy all the evil of the earth,
all types of weapons;
vices like cocaine, drugs,
the tears of our children;
all of these evils, smash them into rocks
so they disappear,
so in the world there may be peace.
the sun and the moon may shine.

Another tapestry represents a song, "Thanks to Life" that begins something like this, 'Thanks to life that has given me so much - gave me two eyes, when I open them I can perfectly tell apart good and bad." Here, again, we experience the blending of music, poetry and art in a heart-warming way.

We were very fortunate to have seen his work and heard Edwin tell his stories. All his work has been catalogued and is only waiting for a curator to be published for it to be made available in book form. We wish him the best and hope that happens soon.

-- Sara Briggs