Arts & Crafts
Though they feature numerous differences from one province to another, Dominican handicrafts are a rich artistic manifestation that bring together elements of the Taino, Spanish and African cultures. They are a prism of techniques, content and traditions.
Beginnings of Dominican craftsmanship
The Dominican people have created their own interpretation of cultural processes and have created new craft expressions from their aboriginal, European and African heritage. The first handicraft pieces created in the country were for domestic use, specifically in rural homes, and traditionally constructed by groups of women.
The decorative characteristics of the local style that enriched the Taino and African pottery were lost over time, possibly due to their purely utilitarian purposes among the more modest sectors of the population. Local pottery has since remained without decorative elements.
Between the 16th and 17th centuries, craftsmen fashioned religious images that received homage in homes. These images abound in rural areas and their creators are known as “santeros”. Also, saddlery, fruit of the development of cattle raising, fomented the creation of leather articles. During this period, yokes, ploughs, halters and other instruments related to farming and, above all, to the sugar industry were produced.
The Industrial Revolution allowed crockery, pot and enameled metal receptacle manufacturing at low prices. The proliferation of aqueducts and the use of refrigerators relegated water jars and other handicrafts to rural areas.
In the 19th century, the Dominican thinker Pedro Francisco Bonó highlighted the social and economic importance of the group of activities called “industries”, according to the custom of the time, referring to the hand made production of wicker saddle baskets, saddle bags, mats, harnesses, brooms, oil jars, chairs, hats, hammocks and baskets in the Cibao communities.
Bonó called this group of small industries “guano industries”, alluding to the natural fiber used in all of them. This expression included, in addition, rope-making, an occupation that was used by Dominican artisans to produce cabuya, a colored rope, and other types of cords for saddles, packaging and rugs.
The “transportation industry” consisted of saddle bags, which transported, by mule, agricultural products for exportation, and of saddles, harnesses, straps, bags, leather thongs and chests for imported industrial merchandise. Throughout these years, pots, bread boxes, fruit bowls, trivets, lamp shades and baskets were produced, among other newly invented products.
In the first decades of the 20th century, one of the principal craft industries in Santiago de los Caballeros was the production of basins for washing clothes and bathing; basins used by housekeepers for washing food and by merchants for selling fruits and vegetables; and wooden basins for storing rice or coffee. In addition, artisans began to craft special trays for panning gold, an activity that, at the time, was practiced in numerous rivers throughout the country.
Second half of the 20th century
In 1955, Emil Boyre de Moya, director of the Dominican Institute of Anthropological Research at the University of Santo Domingo, searched for foreign advice on the use of the Igneris and Taino motifs in the country’s modern handicrafts, stimulating the creation of a type of art known as “Neo-Taino”.
The Yugoslavian artist Iván Gundrum was contracted, as he had dedicated himself to creating reproductions of Taino pieces and restoring some authentic pieces in the Instituto Guarná, in the city of La Habana. Luis Leal, the Cuban ceramist, came to the country accompanying Gundrum and both began to work in the Boyre de Moya residence. Gundrum and Leal then converted their designs into handicrafts of wood, clay, bone, horn, amber, gold and fabric with a group of artisans that crafted in the Cooperative de Industrias Artesanales (COINDARTE).
The artisan jeweler Emilio Pérez stood out in the group, as he had been fashioning amber since the 50s and had become a teacher to young artisan jewelers. The Gundrum’s designs and Leal’s instruction provided for the creation of beautiful pieces and the perfection of the group of artisans, whose works were shown in the Feria de la Paz y Confraternidad del Mundo Libre, an event organized in 1955 by the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina.
COINDARTE eventually changed its name to Centro Nacional de Artesanía (CENADARTE) in 1965. Little by little, it began losing the quantity and quality of its products, as its best artisans slowly left the center and new designs were scarce.
In the mid-70s, works in pecolite, a semi-precious stone also known as larimar, were incorporated into local jewelry. Other materials used in jewelry were horns, bone and sea shells. Elements such as clay, porcelain, bone, wood, even colored rope, horns and coconut husks are used as a foundation for forming various images, among them birds and landscapes represented in local colors.
In the late 60s and early 70s, an individual named Benyí appeared in Santo Domingo. He sold supposed Taino figures crafted in rock, figures found on the lighthouses of the Cove. According to Benyí, he excavated and found cemíes, vasijas and other fragments of various Taino pieces. Many people bought the figures. However, the large quantity of objects “found” made some doubt their authenticity. Benyí had carved his figures masterfully and then buried them to give them an “ancient” look. Upon discovery of the fraud, he was warned by the authorities and afterwards became a master artisan, teaching his craft to others for many years.
Also, private businesses began handicraft production as a business: Antonio María Freites and Camilo Lluberes created the Alfarería Artística Dominicana (ALFADOM) and contracted Bruce Kornbluth, an American who had arrived to the country in 1984, contracted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) for the Falconbridge company.
ALFADOM flourished along with the incipient tourist industry, training dozens of new artisans, many of which then opened their own stores, some with more luck than others. Already in the late 80s, the greatest production of hand-crafted clay was centered in ALFADOM and in the communities of Higüerito and Bonagua, between the cities of Moca and Santiago de los Caballeros.
In the same period, the BONARTE industry appeared in Bonao, which produced an attractive and durable ceramic, manufactured with a high-temperature, greenish clay.
Only factories like ALFADOM and BONARTE could recover and sustain themselves in a market with ever increasing demand, thanks to various advantages: they used gas ovens and high temperatures to increase the strength of the pieces, selected their materials, produced original and well-decorated designs and created smaller, tourist-oriented pieces.
Later, stylized dolls appear on the market called “Muñecas de Limé” that had a non-descript face, with a long dress, carried water in jars or sold fruits or flowers, its head covered by a handkerchief or beneath an elegant hat. The Artesanía Limé dolls, for their artistic and technical quality, have created a strong national and international demand, as they have become a true symbol in the country, opening space for other doll making designs.
The Guillén brothers, raised in the Elías Piña province in the southeast, a region famous for its legends of mythical creatures, learned the art of handicrafts with the arrival of the Agencia Esañola de Cooperación Internacional to Yamasá, Monte Plata, in 1966. The five brothers learned to fashion clay pieces and, enthused, studied and researched of their own accord, searching for vestiges of Taino culture and making reproductions based on original works. The Guillén brothers have traveled to various areas of the Caribbean to collect these pieces and hope to open a museum with all that they have rescued. They maintain an ample library on the subject and affirm that the Taino culture developed most in Hispaniola. This family of potters has undertaken a valuable community work: they are teaching a skill to various youth and a healthy form of recreation to adults, even as they spread love for our culture and traditions to all.
In 1977, the China Mission imported five species of bamboo from Taiwan and planted the first greenhouse at the dam known as Presa de Tavera in coordination with the Instituto Nacional de Recursos Hidráulicos, which governed the water resources of the country. The cooperation between the China Mission and the Secretariat of Agriculture allowed for the establishment of another greenhouse at Kilometer 59 of the Duarte highway, in Villa Altagracia, which has contributed to reforestation of creek and river banks. There, the Centro de Capacitación para Artesanía de Bambú (Training Center for Bamboo Craftsmanship) was established, whose principal objectives were job creation and personnel training. The Center has held various courses on furniture making and bamboo crafting. This type of handicraft has since enjoyed constant development.
The Secretariat of Culture has created the Programa de la Artesanía Dominicana (DEPROMART), which attempts to raise the value of national craftsmanship and focuses its efforts on the strengthening of cultural identity through the training and education of teachers, so that they may teach other courses, supporting the establishment of “artisan towns”, encouraging local handicrafts and boosting the local economy.
Dominican artistry is a prism of Taino, Spanish and African influences, a product of syncretism that characterizes Dominican culture in its entirety.
The inheritance from the Tainos and other cultures that inhabited our island before the arrival of the Spaniard is rich in shapes, materials, techniques and content.
The igneris was the first agricultural artisan group that arrived on the island. They were ceramists that produced vases of excellent form, with skill in the use of white, red and orange over the red backdrop of the clay, and on occasions with the use of black to produce true works of art. They are distinguished by their vases with elaborate figurative representations together with varied geometric motifs, cut and stippled, which form abstract decorative bands encircling the upper part of the vases.
Then came the Tainos, more skilled with wood, stone and shell, who eventually left their mark on clay artisanship with their masterful use of the line by incision, letting go of the painting of the piece and the quality of the design of the clay, but achieving an admirable synthesis that surprised the colonizers. In this way, they produced vases, pots, plates, figurines, stamps, idols, and musical instruments to satisfy their spiritual, religious, social and utilitarian needs.
Tainos were better known for their creations in wood, stone, cotton, shell, bone, gold, weavings, spun textiles and wicker. They used materials like cotton, henequen, maguey, rope and vines. They produced hammocks, fishing nets, thread, rope, rags and wicker baskets, known as haras, that served to transport fruit.
From the early times of the colony, the Catholic kings encouraged migration of artisans, who produced articles for daily use strongly influenced by the Spanish and European culture of the day.
In the first years of the colony, Spanish craftsmanship was characterized by various pieces clearly differentiated by their shapes, manufacturing and uses. Botijas, or earthenware jugs, were important part of this craftsmanship, as they were containers used for carrying olive oil, olives, almonds, honey, gunpowder and mercury.
A second type of craftsmanship from the Spanish corresponded to glass or ceramics for domestic use, especially mayólica, of Moorish origin, which was predominant during the Renaissance. These were clay objects that went through a first firing and were then decorated with stains made from a base of metallic chemicals.
The African presence in our handicrafts is found more in expressions, signs, symbols and content than it is in objects. Its contributions are clear in the spiritual, festive and cultural areas. One example of its influence is in music and musical instruments, especially in percussion and dance.
The tambora arrived to us from Africa and has become a key instrument in the rhythmic structure of national dance,
Texts excerpted from: Herencia y tradición en la artesanía dominicana.
Guadalupe Casasnovas – Revista El Leoncito
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