Mari Solari, a Welsh living in Peru, has created Las Pallas, and amazing collection of Peruvian craft worth visiting if you are in Barranco, Lima.
Mari Solari owns and runs a stunning craft shop in a quiet back street of the Barranco district of Lima. Relatively unassuming from the outside, her house/shop is one of the best preserved villas in the area, and is home to what must be one of the most impressive collections of crafts in all of South America.
Although she was born and brought up in North Wales, Mari Solari has lived in Peru for 41 years. She is uniquely knowledgeable about the products she sells, and is never short of a story to tell. Julianexpat and Claudiaexpat spoke with Mari, and what emerged was a story of a very strong, courageous and motivated woman. The photographs were taken by Luca Bonacini.
The classic question: what was it that brought you to Peru?
The classic response; I met a Peruvian and fell in love. I was studying in interpreters’ school in Zurich Switzerland and Claudio, my husband, was studying at the University there. We got married and I came back to Peru in 1966. So I suppose I’ve been here 41 years now.
Was it a struggle for you to come all the way to Peru?
No I don’t think so. I suppose that one took it in one’s stride. I had come because I was in love and happy. I had been forewarned about the poverty, so I suppose I was expecting to see the same level of poverty as you might see in Delhi or cities of India.
The only thing that really shocked me was the dust! I’d seen lots of photographs of where I was going to live, and there were beautiful gardens. But of course photos back then were in black and white and you didn’t see dust! So when I arrived here, there were huge banana trees and wonderful tropical plants but everything was covered with dust, and that depressed me quite a bit.
Peru must have changed quite a lot in the time you have been here?
It has changed a lot, but I think when you live it, you realise it’s changing but it’s a part of you – it’s not that you come and go, so that the changes appear really strong. Lima has grown like an octopus. San Juan de Lurigancho had about 20,000 people then, now it’s 1 million.
How did your interest in crafts begin?
I was introduced to crafts by my mother-in-law, who was German, and who lost her nationality by marrying a foreigner during the war. My father-in-law was a Peruvian, a writer… a very non-typical Peruvian of the time.
She was fascinated in everything that was folk-art, and especially the work of the women in textiles. Because my father-in-law travelled a lot in Peru at a time when nobody travelled in Peru (say 50 or 60 years ago) and particularly up into the mountains, the whole family used to travel around in an old car on very bad roads.
My father-in-law also worked for the Ministry of Health, so while he was working in the hospitals, my mother-in-law was wandering around looking at what people did and had far more contact with the woman.
She was fascinated by all this, and went on to write several papers about the traditional belts (the chumpis) and their significance, and she was the first person to do this.
She wrote many papers she never published although a few were published in the Bulletin of Lima, in magazines, in el Comercio (Peruvian national newspaper) and in another magazine called “Peru Art”. The Catholic Museum here in Lima holds most of them now.
She had only just started actually – she was collecting, but not doing it professionally or commercially. She started fairly soon after doing little exhibitions in her living room where she lived in Zarate in San Juan de Lurigancho, which was an area of farmland then. Where we lived they were just starting to build on the lower parts where the first textile factory was built.
When did you become involved in the business of selling crafts?
My husband died when I’d been here ten years and that’s when I really got involved. Originally I had translated as that was my profession, but I didn’t have Spanish so it wasn’t so easy. I did translate into English though, and I even did some interpreting (there weren’t any interpreters back then).
If it was into English I could get by on it. But around then my mother in law was starting to export crafts, apart from having the little gallery and she asked me to help her. She had lots of patience I think!
So you decided to stay on after the death of your husband?
I never really thought of going back, because it was so much easier to stay on than to move three children back to rural Wales where I wasn’t quite certain what I was going to do.
My mother had died when I was young, my grandmother was old and my father was old, and all this didn’t make it very attractive to go back to rural Wales. Also I got on very well with my family-in-law.
Was it around this time that you began travelling around Peru discovering crafts?
I had travelled quite a bit with my husband, in an old pickup. We had travelled around Peru ever since the kids were very small, but then it was really just travelling and did not involve collecting crafts.
Even after he died, I did not immediately start travelling to collect. My financial situation with 3 small children wasn’t really tailored for buying very much. I bought little things, but I didn’t have a trained eye at all. Although to me at that time all the little things I bought were beautiful, because there weren’t any non-beautiful things. There were no mass-produced handicrafts at the time.
It depends. I’m now travelling more where I’m invited, and sometimes where I want to go. I do go pretty remote to find things. I’ve got quite a good network up and running.
In the past, I travelled for everything in the pickup, and took the kids with me in the back. Now I basically fly into the main regions, and then go in by car or truck, 4×4.
I’m always making new contacts on each journey. I was invited up fairly recently to the Bambas, which is in Apurimac, about 8 hours in a 4×4 from Cusco. I had known handicraft from there before, but I had never been there and hardly anyone had been there. It was very interesting to see the project.
So you travel to the places where the handicrafts are made to discover new gems?
I’m more interested now in travelling to places I haven’t been before. When I went to the Bambas, I went in through Cusco. I stayed a day in Cusco and it made me very angry, because the quality had gone down so much.
I do work with artisans from Cusco, but I’m apt to reorder orders that I have been doing for years, like Christmas decorations, but they want to know why I don’t like the new ones.
Are there more crafts being made now than before, because of the increased market?
I suppose there are more, but of the traditional crafts, the things I like, I’d say there were less. There are some projects, particularly the weaving projects in the South and in the Cusco area that are working well, and you are getting young people back onto weaving, which is promising.
I try to get things that other people don’t have. I tend to have some of the fine weavings from Cusco, but old things are getting really difficult to find now. In fact, you sometimes find more discoveries in Lima; collections that people have had for years in their own houses.
I’d say that I fight for maintaining tradition. It’s not that I’m against progress, but if the market suddenly wants Christmas decorations made at 4200m high, where Christmas isn’t even celebrated – and where all their weavings are made for a specific reason and have a specific meaning (you’re married or you’re not married, it’s rained or hasn’t rained, or an offering to the gods), I think that it’s rather sad when they say “no, we’d like you to do pale blue this year because it’s fashionable.” I think I’m about the only person who sees things like that.
Can you tell us about any interesting adventures on your handicraft searches?
Well, I went up to the Chopca area of Huancavelica with Maria Scura from the Potato Institute, who’s got a gender project going on up there. It’s very high and very remote. They are closed communities and you can only get in if invited.
In the time of Shining Path, they were completely cut off. They closed themselves in and although it was a very dangerous region, neither Shining Path, MRTA nor the police got into that area.
Tourists don’t get there still. They were totally self-sufficient. Even now, when we went in, although they knew the little jeep (it’s the only one that goes up the rough track to get to them) you still had to get out and be identified to them. That was very interesting.
So during the time of Sendero, were you still able to travel? Did you struggle to keep the business going?
I travelled a lot to the Cusco area. Cusco itself was fairly safe and I have very good friends and contacts in those areas. They would say, “do not go into those communities, they’re very dangerous at the moment, you’ve got Shining Path in possession”.
It was very necessary to have these contacts. I didn’t go into the Ayacucho area or the Central Highlands, although I was invited several times by artisans. But ultimately I decided it wasn’t safe!
However, nobody was travelling in the Cusco area at all and I got wonderful things that nobody else got. I had very little competition at the time. At the crafts fairs at the American Embassy at the time, there were only about 4 or 5 people involved. Now there are about 300 different stands at the fairs.
Are your customers mainly tourists or local people?
No, they’re a complete mixture. I’ve got a very good Peruvian market. In exhibitions for example I get more Peruvians because they know more about what I do. And I have a list. I take their names and send them invitations out every year. I get clients from years back who reappear. It’s a sort of a reminder that I exist.
Your business seems to offer crafts from all over Peru…
I think I’m one of the last traditionalists who cover….the whole of Peru is a big word, but I do cover more than anybody else does. I do almost all the departamentos: the states to the north, up in the mountains, the main groups of the Amazon, and the coast.
Finally, what would you say is the philosophy of Las Pallas?
I would say that it is to maintain, support and continue to promote traditional folk art in Peru.
Interview with Claudiaexpat and Julianexpat
Photo Credit ©LucaBonacini
except the head picture ©LorenzoMoscia