Pearls from artists* # 384January 8, 2020
* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
Carnival in Oruro [Bolivia] is a glorious spectacle. It’s flash, pomp and brilliance can be enjoyed without understanding its long history and intricate mythologies. Still, the onlooker is left with a thousand questions that are not so easily answered. Behind the glitter of Carnival lie the history, the timeless myths and the distinct traditions of this mining community.
According to the Spanish writer Jean Laude, “The function of the mask is to reaffirm, at regular intervals, the truth and presence of myths in everyday life.” This suggests that masks should be studied in context, noting their association with the individual dancer and the history, myths and traditions of the community that produces them. The mask has to be animated within its ritual, comic or social role.
A first step in appreciating the masks is to understand something of the land and people that crafted them. Oruro is a mining city on the open Altiplano at 3,700 meters (12,144 ft.) above sea level. The sky appears a rarified blue, it is intensely cold and a constant wind lifts dust to the eyes. During the year no more than 125,000 people live in the city. Suddenly in the weeks of Carnival, the population doubles or triples.
Three languages, Quechua, Aymara, and Spanish are spoken in Oruro. Their use reflects an ancient pattern of conquest in the history of this land. It is said that the Urus, whose language is now almost lost, were the first inhabitants. In time they were dominated by the Aymara tribes. Later, Quechua was introduced as the Inca advanced their empire from Cuzco. Ultimately the Spanish arrived and founded the present city in 1601 to exploit rich mineral deposits found in the seven hills.
Today, descendants of the Urus live near Oruro around the shore of Lake Poopo. Elements of their distinctive culture remain but they have no wealth in comparison with the more dominant Aymara and Quechua who surround them. A further change came in the recent past because Oruro has acted as a magnet, attracting many people from the countryside to work in the mines.
On one side were the Urus, ancient owners of all the land which now only carries their name (Uro Uro = Oruro). On the other side were the miners, many of whom were Quechua and Aymara migrants. In the middle is “Carnival.”
El Carnaval de Oruro by Manuel Vargas in Mascaras de los Andes Bolivianos, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil
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