3-D Art History: the cascarilla dresses of Loja

Dress by María Dolores Coronel
"Cortezas de Esperanza," or "Bark of Hope," is the title of an on-going, extraordinary exhibition that is the culmination of six months of research into the history of cascarilla in Loja. Cascarilla, from cinchona tree bark, is an ingredient in quinine malaria medicine. The exhibit opened in the autumn of 2016 and has toured, and continues to tour, around the city and province bringing a fascinating way to engage with the past through the work of a dozen artists.

I'll be doing another blog specifically about the history of cascarilla and how Loja became known as the "Pharmacy of the World" when Spaniards discovered that indigenous peoples were able to cure malaria using tree bark. This article is about the art project which relates that story in visual form.

The project was conceived by José Carlos Arias, coordinator of the Municipality's Historical Archive, and then the artwork was executed by a dozen Lojano artists. Each of the 12 dresses depicts an aspect of the cascarilla narrative over the span of several centuries.

The couture dresses were designed by Augusto Celi, each different in fabric and style from the others, but also intended to evoke a sense of the era that each represents. They were then assigned to the various artists for final decoration and elaboration.

The Lojana and Lojano artists were María Dolores Coronel, Paulina Salinas, Margarita Guevara, Antonieta Maldonado, Tanía Sáenz, Yorqui Llacxaguanga, Rina Guamán, Alivar Villamagua, Diego Villavicencio, Franco Correa, Sandra Jimbo and Raúl Flores. It should be noted that while the project was a collaborative work overall, each artist was allowed their own interpretation and expression of the assignment. The end result is an interesting collection of unique pieces, united in concept but vastly different in achievement.

These works are truly three dimensional and to be fully appreciated one really must see them up-close-and-personal, walking around them to "read" all sides of each depiction. The dresses are protected inside glass cabinets which allow for this to happen.

Exhibition in the Alfredo Mora Reyes, 2018
The research efforts for the project included on-the-ground hiking of the surrounding areas of Loja to locate any still existing trees (about 30 were found), and a thorough examination of the archives which resulted in uncovering 481 documents dating as far back as 1659 wherein the king of Spain asks for cascarilla from Loja.

It is important to note that the Cortez de Esperanzas project is homed at the Historical Archive but travels several times a year to other institutions throughout the province. The mission: to convey the history of this plant that contributed so much to the good health of humanity.


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