Every year on January 6, also known in the Christian tradition as Three Kings Day, people from the community wear the masks and dance around town and through the local forests. They use moves specially choreographed for each particular animal or character. These festivities also appear in Tigua paintings, as an important part of Kichwa life.

Toaquiza’s favorite is the monkey, he says, because it’s always, “cheerful, playful and very funny,” while the lion, for example, is rougher and likes to fight.

Masks of the forest

Donning wooden masks at festivals has long been a part of Kichwa culture in this region. Yet it was only in the 1970’s when Toaquiza became the first to add vibrant color to them on a suggestion from a gallery owner in Quito.

In those early days making the masks was no easy task, since neither the artisans or the necessary trees were near Tigua. The penniless artist had to travel to the town of Siquisili, which lies on the road to Quito. He brought lamb and moonshine to the local craftsmen in exchange for classes to carve the masks.

The paintings by Julio Toaquiza represent festivals that are celebrated in Tigua, especially the Christmas party. Photo by Jonatan Rosas for Mongabay.
The paintings by Julio Toaquiza represent festivals that are celebrated in Tigua, especially the Christmas party. Photo by Jonatan Rosas for Mongabay.

When he perfected the craft, he began to haul large blocks of tree trunks back home to work, where he also taught others in the community. Trees have since been planted near his home, so he doesn’t have to go so far.

The masks are made of pine and alder for durability, explains Toaquiza. But they’re also some of the only trees found in the high tundra of the Andes, also known as the paramos. Due to the high altitude (between 3,000-4,000 meters), low temperatures (2-10 degrees Celsius mean annual temperature), and relatively high precipitation, vegetation here consists mainly of grasslands and shrubs, explains one study published by the International Mountain Society in 2002.

There have been many afforestation projects in the Ecuadorian paramo, mainly in attempts to conserve soil and regulate water flows. In most cases, these programs involved foreign species like pine (Pinus spp) and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus Spp), with pine being the tree of choice as it grows quickly and is durable so is best for local construction projects, according to the report.

The researchers point out that exotic tree plantations in general have been highly criticized because of their impact on water balance, soil fertility and native biodiversity. But according to their analysis, this criticism does not necessarily apply in the harsh climate of the paramo.

The researchers say that they found that exotic tree plantations had either positive, negative or neutral effects on the local vegetation, depending on the region.  So, while there does not seem to be an “ecological justification” for pine plantations, they “should be considered as a relatively low-impact agricultural crop,” states the report.

Local connections

Near Toaquiza’s home in Tigua, there aren’t many tree plantations, rather clusters of pine trees planted by locals. One pine trunk is enough to make up to 15 to 25 masks, depending on its size, Toaquiza said. The width of the trunk also forms the basis of the size of the mask. The whole process from carving to painting takes up to 15 days, he added.

The aging artist doesn’t carve or paint the masks much anymore, but instead dedicates his time to teaching others in the community to ensure the tradition doesn’t get lost – this includes working with his seven children and 28 grandchildren.

The artist and his family say the festival in January is not like it once was, since high migration to the city and the introduction of tablets and cell phones to the community means that people don’t have the same connection to nature anymore.

But he’s convinced that Tigua art itself will not die out. The community, which is now only a group of some 20 homes and a central church, still receive both national and international tourists seeking Tigua art work.

“You have to showcase your art where it comes from,” he says, adding at least he’ll never leave.

Banner image: The masks of Julio Toaquiza have been exhibited in various countries such as Colombia and Bolivia, where it has been recognized that their art is unique. Photo by Jonatan Rosas for Mongabay.


Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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