Los Años Viejos
After arriving at Santiago de Guayaquil airport in Ecuador, I drove southwest to Ayampe on another South American Fable&Co. artistic endeavor / personal surf escapade. It was close to the turn of the new year referred to as Los Años Viejos. Almost immediately from the moment our car journey began, my eye was dancing over the many-hued, different-sized objects we were passing. They peppered the scenery, filling shops, rooftops & lining the roads. Many questions sprung to mind about their purpose & meaning. The intrigue was all I could think about.
After some city & island hopping I arrived in Santa Cruz. By this point my mind was stirring with ideas as to what these animal & human-shaped effigies were all about. Strolling along Charles Darwin Avenue with many other keen observers, the volume of effigies or “viejos” increased. Designed with purpose, pride & skill I wondered if the rest of the world knew about these fascinating creations.
Superheros, Chinese fishermen, aliens, football players, politicians, tigers & a towering Poseidon stood tall, their shadows casting a reserved darkness against the clamour of their presence. Not all the viejos were immediately recognisable, many seemed like reimaginations of what could be local celebrities or even, local everyday people. On closer inspection I studied their form. It appeared to be papier-mâché with some kind of solid yet lightweight framework beneath to hold the sculpture in place. The paint applied to the viejos varied from a high glossy sheen to thick matte coverage with skillful gradation & blending.
Each creation had a sign with a blurb about what it was, allowing not only spectation but insight for the viewer. With subjects raised such as endangered animal species, illegal fishing & military occupation, there was an unashamed frankness to the messages the viejos projected. Undeniably it was political art, yet formed with a satirical edge. A silent protest tinted with pop art colours & cartoon playfulness. This really was some stylish & creative communication with a very willing audience. I came across a printed sheet about Los Años Viejos which gave deeper insight into the mystery.
The tradition of the making of & then burning of the viejos dates back to the infamous yellow fever epidemic of 1895. Guayaquil in particular, suffered badly at this time. As a result, a tradition began on that date. People filled coffins with the clothing of those who died & set them alight citing that the bad luck of the past year would be reduced to ash & bring with it luck & prosperity for the new year. This symbolic practice & ritual purification still stands strong in sentiment, though the materials have shifted from coffins to viejos. Charmingly, it is considered good luck to have a viejo fashioned in your likeness, as this means you are not only doused in flames, but doused with the honour of bringing good luck to the people of Ecuador in the coming year.
The process of how the viejos are made is a finely tuned art mastered by friends, families & co-workers alike. Dissecting one of these effigies means finding old clothing stuffed with the sawdust & newspaper creating a humanesque body shape. Cardboard, tissue paper & paper form the outside layer with a thick slather of paint disguising all beneath it. Finally, an intricately fashioned mask is added for the face. Set alight at midnight, the viejos must be burnt entirely otherwise the bad luck may persist. A competition is held to decipher who will win the “best viejo in town” measured by applause, an event reminiscent of a gameshow style clap-o-meter. It seems to the humble bystander visiting just for a short time, this festivity is comprised of artistic mastery, revelry & unity.
The air was electric with sparks from firecrackers, flames & cheers as we witnessed brave individuals leap twelve times over the effigies to the delight of their friends, each jump representing a month of the year. Many threw coins onto the viejos & rice across the fires as a further fuel for superstitious good luck. To British eyes, it could be an amalgamation of Guy Fawkes Night, Christmas & New Year with Los Años Viejos managing to illuminate an intermixture of history, politics, satire & superstition within it’s burning embers.
At first I was intrigued. Then amazement set in. The efforts put in by all to celebrate & commemorate the past & future in a fusion of humour & history is unparalleled to anything I had seen before. Fable&Co. are drawn to bold & provocative designs – designs with clear messages, inciting reaction & discussion. In Ecuador I witnessed a unique representation of these many forms, which saw modest beginnings end in a spectacular resolution. The beauty lies in its temporary nature, that while there is little to show this event took place a week later, enthused voices continue to talk about it for years after.