•COMING IN SEPTEMBER, 2015•

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

by Emery Roth

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Una Via, Peguche




PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  We were in Peguche to buy a rug. What that has to do with the little man who accosted me in the square, I'm not sure. Perhaps they have no connection at all. In the Otavalo region many of the villages have taken on an identity attached to the particular craft cultivated by the native population there. We visited a village known for its leather-goods and then another for its woodworking. Although there was nothing I wanted, the beauty of the work and the vitality of the villages was inspiring. Raquel told us the villages in the area compete annually for awards to claim the title of best.

Peguche was where José Cotacachi, a weaver, had his studio. The trip had been worth it; his rugs were magical. Owning one would be a privilege.  I did my best to communicate that, and I wondered about his lack of responsiveness. I could read his demeanor as arrogant, timid or simply due to the gulf between our languages.  With Raquel's help I asked if I could photograph him at his loom, and he sat down and wove for a few minutes, but he avoided eye contact, had his attentions elsewhere; he wove the rows, it seemed, as if it was a ritual he felt obliged to submit to. Perhaps I misread the signals completely. Perhaps it was just late.

I especially wanted to communicate how beautiful his work was as we would not be buying one of the magical rugs I so admired. Their designs were filled with visual paradoxes and creatures that quickly reminded me of M.C. Escher, though his source was native imagery. Hanging about his studio they enlarged it, opening spaces behind the walls. Each was a new adventure. Jane and I were both impressed but a bit concerned that kind of spacial ambiguity might be unsettling underfoot. 

We had chosen a beautiful, though clearly inferior, rug at a lower price to spread in our dining room. It would be the sole, lasting, tangible artifact of our travels in Ecuador and Peru, and we would treasure it for itself and for its connection to this beautiful studio. I wanted to communicate that and my admiration for the weaver's artistry and to maybe learn a bit about what moved him, but by the time Raquel was closing the deal, I knew that would be impossible. I'm not sure why.  I retreated to the plaza where there had been some photo ops, and I left Jane to see things through.

It was an ugly little square, "Plaza Cultural," they called it, dominated by a one-story church whose facade reached up in flat imitation of a belfry with an opening in which were hung two tiny bells that seemed capable of little more than tinkling. Two columns in a style best described as Las Vegas Greek surrounded what could never be called the portal, and the whole silly facade was crowned with a cross.  I really wanted to photograph some large, black ovens along one side of the square and the ancient women dressed in black who were busy there, but it seemed improper to photograph the women without speaking with them first. Jane would be out momentarily, and it was getting late. If communication was even possible, it would involve more time than we had left; tempting as it was, I would not photograph the crones at their labor.

Some young girls, barely teens, passing through the square, posed saucily, tried to get me to take their pictures. They would probably ask for money.  In any case, engaging seemed unwise. As I turned, the barefoot man waved to me. He wanted my attention. He pointed to the belfry and made the sign of the cross as he tried to speak.  He kept opening his mouth, urgently trying to tell me something, but no sounds came out. He was insistent. What did he want me to do? He kept pointing, mouthing wordlessly. I smiled and tried to make a sign that I didn't understand, couldn't comply. I wanted to understand, but in the end, I changed the topic.  Could I take his picture.  He seemed happy to pose and happy to take the coins I gave him afterward.  I'm still struck by the brightness of his eyes, and I wonder what it was he would have said and how he fits into this world in which I'm such a stranger.