THE COCA LEAF IS NOT A DRUG:
Maximo Laura & The Andean Way of Love and Beauty
By Sasha McInnes for Embellish Magazine
A favourite tee shirt worn by Peruvians, young and old, has a logo on it of a coca leaf* with the caption “La Hoja de Coca no es Droga” (“The Coca Leaf is not a Drug”). Over the recent past, it has become iconic of the movement to de-mystify this very special but generally misunderstood leaf; to honour it and return it to it’s proper place of respect. After many years of looking outside of the country for identity by previous generations, many Peruvians have become increasingly proud of their heritage and the sacred coca leaf plays a starring role in this awakening.
Artist Maximo Laura believes that every one of us on this earth has an “exclusive responsibility” to be what he calls “children of this order, an expression of our time” and he would happily celebrate the simple, yet profoundly meaningful and somewhat provocative message on a tee shirt. Through his art, Laura’s intention has always been to speak to a contemporary audience about contemporary issues, bearing witness to our day and age as one who is living, experiencing and contributing to it in the now. In particular, his tapestries reflect a very personal attention to the interaction of human beings with the natural world, with each other and with spirit. His call is for us to be awake to it all.
The modern descendants of the HUARI/WARI live, in many respects, as if the Spanish had never arrived. The twenty-first century is present only in large towns and cities such as Ayacucho, the place of Laura’s birth. Residents of villages and small towns still sprinkle chicha and the sacred coca leaf to Pachamama (mother earth), work the land in much the same ways as their families have for generations; weave and braid textiles almost identical to ones found in ten-thousand-year-old tombs; and wear a combination of pre-conquest and Spanish Colonial dress, meticulously and exquisitely made, with beautiful embellishments. When I traveled among these people and saw the work of their ancestors in Museums, I felt that I was in touch with something extraordinary and enduring beyond anything I had experienced before. This is particularly true of the times I have sat across the kitchen table from them, eating potatoes with home-made cheese, listening to their stories and enjoying their jokes and teasing.
Born in 1959 in Ayacucho, the capital of the ancient Wari/ Huari Empire, in the southern highlands of Peru, Maximo Laura is the fifth generation of his family to become a weaver. His father, Don Miguel Laura Pacheco, was a Master weaver and celebrated musician, highly respected in his community for his meticulous work, deep love for his heritage, land and family. Don Miguel was dedicated to teaching his children many values: honesty, integrity, respect, discipline, responsibility and curiosity about all things. He nurtured their creativity, intelligence and imagination by telling them ancient stories when the sun went to bed, which held them entranced and opened worlds and ideas in those young minds that his eldest son, Maximo, would later explore personally and make visible to us through his art.
Among Laura’s childhood activities was playtime with his friends: old tin cans, balls made from discarded cloth or plastic, recycled newspapers and socks, sticks in all shapes and sizes, along with other discarded or natural things he and his friends found along the way, were their toys. He celebrated at festivals and ceremonies where he would dance with abandon and uninhibited joy, dressed in a rainbow of colourways. He honoured Inti the Sun, Mamaquilla the Moon, Quyllur the Stars, Misuka the Cosmos and Pachamama, Mother Earth. He drank Chicha (corn beer) and ate what was grown by his mother, Dona Eusebia “Josefa” Taboada Flores, in her beautiful and lovingly tended huerta (vegetable garden) and also what she was able to find in the markets, where the locals joined together to barter their produce and other goods. Dona Josefa fed her children well from her huerta and through her example, she taught them to respect Pachamama and all the gifts that came from Her.
Play and work were coherently integrated into Maximo’s life at a very young age. At 7 he moved seamlessly, from playing in Don Miguel’s workshop, to participating in the work of dyeing the yarn from fleeces which he had carefully washed until clean in a river a few kilometers from his home and made ready to be spun on a puchka (drop spindle) into yarn by Dona Josefa for Don Miguel’s weavings. He was awake and working before the sun appeared. Before heading off to school, he would do chores in the workshop, preparing it for Don Miguel’s arrival and weaving small pieces with simple designs for which he received a tip from his father.
As a young man Maximo Laura nurtured and supported those younger than himself in his barrio by organizing sports teams, teaching life skills and encouraging young girls and boys to work hard for what they want - to never give up on themselves or their dreams to succeed in life. He is beloved for this generosity and one cannot walk beside him down a street in the city of Ayacucho without being frequently stopped by someone with a beaming face and sparkling eyes who remembers the validation and encouragement they received from him as a child. They want to hug him in that wonderful Andean way that warms the heart. He opens his arms back to them in humble delight.
When he grew into a man he moved to Lima to study Hispanic Literature at university and created his own studio/workshop in order to support himself and his family which by then, included Teresa, his partner, and Paola, a beloved baby daughter. He loved story telling. He wrote poetry. He studied European Art History and devoured all the books on this subject that he could find in libraries and could afford to buy at second hand bookshops. He made ends meet by selling his weavings and managing a small export company. He had been expressing his culture through simple iconography and colour combinations for many years and had reached the point where he needed to expand his workshop in order to meet the emerging demand for his work.
Bringing other weavers to Lima from Ayacucho, including members of his extended family clan, made it possible to meet those demands and under his watchful eye and careful attention, his workshop and studio continued to grow and prosper. This was no longer play or tips from his father for Maximo and the discipline he learned from Don Miguel made it possible for him to begin producing enough work to support his family and give him the time and space required to develop his own style which had been simmering inside for some years.
What began emerging from the looms of Maximo would travel around the world, earning medals, acclaim and a following of admirers, including other artists, from many nations. Collectors wait eagerly for each new series; his tapestries hang on the walls of museums, in the offices of corporations and embassies. He is one of Peru’s most successful Ambassadors abroad. To his surprise and delight, other Peruvian weavers began to emulate his work and techniques; and theirs became known as “From the School of Maximo Laura”.
Laura sits at his loom and what appears are his fish, his condor, his hummingbird and other winged creatures, his llamas and alpacas, his frogs, his turtles, the magical and mythical creatures and spiritual beings of his inner world and that of his ancestors, the coca leaf and other plant beings, the lovers - interpreted for us in a new and extraordinary way.
Laura’s tapestries employed flat weave in his early work and because of the juxtaposition of colours, the sensation of 3-dimensions was created. But Laura advanced quickly beyond optical illusion to the reality of 3-D, with the incorporation of additional weft yarns that raise portions of the design above the primary surface in addition to techniques, which some refer to as soumak, but which are created in the moment as the weaving evolves and the design calls for it.
Also simmering and operating inside of Laura and expressed through his art is The Andean Way, which is based on certain principles which are meant to guide the lives of Andean people. The first Principle is MUNAY which in Quechua, means LOVE. It isn’t only about romantic love, although it is about relationships. MUNAY is a deep, abiding love that comes naturally from the heart; it does not expect anything in return but simply radiates emotional warmth and caring; it is a love of acceptance, thoughtfulness and kindness. It signifies tranquility, beauty and harmony. It is what Laura strives to express in his life and art and most recently, it plays a starring role in his series of 30 tapestries called “MAMACHA Coca”. Deeply moving is the sweet and tender energy emanating from these tapestries which honour the coca leaf and the feminine. This is work that emanates light, poetry, lyricism and the celebration of love and life itself.
We can see Laura as a dedicated environmentalist because his sincere commitment to Pachamama and everything on Her is very evident in his iconography and a palette that includes every colour of the rainbow - the entire spectrum, in tones both bold and subtle. Everything he creates and everything he does he strives to do with intention - to achieving balance, harmony and spirit and being grounded there, in his culture and the worldview his ancestors left to contemporary Andean peoples and which Laura re-creates as his own.
Maximo Laura possesses other gifts passed down from his ancestors. Another Principle of The Andean Way is AYNI, a Quechua term for reciprocity, generosity and building relationships. He is deeply and uncompromisingly committed and dedicated to his country and his people and is rooted there; it informs most everything he does. He expresses his AYNI commitment in many different ways, including by teaching others what he knows. Laura often travels through Peru to isolated communities to teach children and young people to weave, with the intention of using this medium to preserve culture and to provide an additional means of sustaining families. He searches out weavers working in isolation and encourages them to enter competitions, create work for exhibitions and to keep going; to overcome the challenges they face, like an Aikido Master, moving around obstacles rather than butting up against them. He also practices AYNI through welcoming students through Internships in his Lima studio and by teaching during the PUCHKA Peru Textile Tours, a small touring company of which Laura is a member of the management team.
Because of his commitment to others, Maximo Laura was honoured by his government, via UNESCO and recommended by its Member States, as a Living National Treasure. He received the UNESCO Prize for Latin America and the Caribbean. He has also received the Manos de Oro (Hands of Gold) award, a recognition that fills him, and everyone who knows him, with pride. In Peru Maximo is recognized as a Grand Master and AMAUTA**.
Despite his significant accomplishments, recognition and success and the respect and love in which he is held not only in his in own country but internationally, Maximo Laura is unpretentious, humble, and modest and considers himself a “very lucky man” who “owes any richness that the viewer sees in my work, to the rich history and the work of thousands of anonymous artists over time; my work is an inheritance, re-interpreted..”
Founder, PUCHKA Peru Textiles/Folk Art/Market Tours
Victoria, British Columbia Canada
* Coca is a vitally important element in Andean religion and society. It has been used in the Andes for millennia, and is woven into the very fabric of life, featuring in every festival, traditional ritual, every social and economic exchange besides its many medicinal uses.
The coca leaf is NOT a drug. Controversial yes, but misunderstood. Cocaine is to coca as ivory is to elephants: a derivative, and very different from the “whole beast”. Cocaine is obtained by chemically extracting the principal alkaloid from the coca leaf and discarding the rest. Most cocaine users are abusers, and the effects are then toxic and addictive. Coca leaf, however, contains a complex of fourteen alkaloids, significant amounts of vitamins A & E, plus iron, potassium, calcium (lots of sodium too, incidentally), and various other minerals in trace amounts (source: The Incredible Leaf – Cochabamba, 1992). It helps maintain blood sugar levels when protein intake is low, which is one of the reasons for its popularity among the highlanders. It is also said to help regulate the heart rate during the changes in altitude that one undergoes while traveling in the Andes.
** In pre-conquest times there was a special, revered and precious body of individuals called Amautas who had an important mission:
To keep the chronicle of the cities, to teach civics/ citizenship and theology.
An Amauta was a reciter of history, a creator of poetry. They acted as an inspiration to others. They organized solemn feasts and festive events. They offered their happiness and positive energy to the people. Their work was heavy with honour.
An Amauta is chosen by the Great Spirit to follow a special path, beginning as an apprentice and later, initiated by another Amauta in an ancient ritual.
Humility and simplicity as well as an ability and dedication to open their hearts to all are their main characteristics.
An Amauta listens to all in the same way and their knowledge is there for anyone to hear. Their footprints and actions are guided by the ancestors and the Great Spirit.
Amauta is the union of heaven and earth, it is the bond between all beings. It is the balance and force that is within all of us in our pure state of being.
Amauta means: s/he who loves all without distinciton of race, creed, social class or colour An Amauta is an earth icon of the land of Latin America. S/ he represents wisdom, history, masterful accomplishment.