The legend of the sleepy potters

Descendants of the sun worshipping potters of La Atalaya can still be found handbuilding pots. Just don't arrive during siesta.
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The Independent Travel

At the Canarian Museum in Las Palmas the walls are lined from floor to ceiling with shelves of grinning skulls. These are Guanches, the aboriginal Canarians who lived here before the Spanish conquered the Canaries in 1401. The Guanches inhabited caves, the god they worshipped was Alcorac, who was strongly identified with the sun, and they mummified their dead.

At the Canarian Museum in Las Palmas the walls are lined from floor to ceiling with shelves of grinning skulls. These are Guanches, the aboriginal Canarians who lived here before the Spanish conquered the Canaries in 1401. The Guanches inhabited caves, the god they worshipped was Alcorac, who was strongly identified with the sun, and they mummified their dead.

In the following rooms were examples of their craftwork, mainly dusty baskets and clay terracotta pots. These quiet, humble vessels marooned in glass cases, simply adorned and unglazed, had been put together with careful, persistent fingers, giving them a finesse that later examples lacked.

The tradition of handbuilding pots continues today in Gran Canaria. It seemed apt that the ancestors of a sun-worshipping people on a volcanic island should make pots from volcanic clay. Intrigued, I decided to visit the ateliers of Bandama Mountain.

Setting off by bus from Las Palmas I found not the expected crocodile line of trekking tourists wearing baseball caps but a bleak, forlorn mountain slope. Two shuttered and silent houses and a volcanic panorama were shrouded by cloud. I hurried up a steep slope towards a golf course - a tiny miracle of green elegance with a white veranda next to a smart hotel. "We have no rooms," said the man in reception with the assurance of one who hasn't looked. "The nearest hotel is in Santa Brigida, 20 minutes by foot," he added, with the assurance of one who had never walked it.

The local potters, it turned out, can be found in a small village called La Atalaya, four kilometres east of Santa Brigida. I arrived there just in time for their three-hour siesta. La Atalaya has a small square painted with murals of the local pottery and portraits of some of the inhabitants. I came across several ateliers, tantalising in their locked-up secrecy, with paintings on the walls of women sitting in the mouths of caves in the 1900s, rhythmically scraping and shaping urns.

People still live in cave houses in La Atalaya; dwellings that attach themselves, limpet-like, to the volcanic mountain, reaching back into the scraped-out hollows of rock. The walls are painted in brilliant greens, yellows, pinks and blues, and finches in bamboo cages are hung outside with geraniums, begonias and cacti in chipped clay bowls and tin cans.

Finally, La Atalaya began to stir. A woman approached a huge studio, and disappeared. Rushing forward I caught a glimpse of a garage before the door swung shut. Disappointed, I began to wonder if all the shut doors I had taken to conceal studios were, in reality, something more mundane. But then I stumbled across the main pottery studio of La Atalaya.

Outside was a woodburning kiln with pots lined up to be fired. Inside, a group of six or seven makers were handbuilding with the volcanic clay and river sand, shaping with shafts of bamboo and stones the traditional vessels that were made thousands of years ago. On the wall of the studio were line drawings of the permitted patterns to follow: copies of the pots I had seen in the museum in Las Palmas.

One of the potters told me that the studio was set up by a well-known local called Panchito, who had learnt the traditional techniques from his mother. He died in 1986, but by establishing the studio as a centre for learning, he ensured that a new generation of potters would continue the tradition.

I asked the potter what was the point of slavishly imitating this tradition so many centuries later, (no modern equipment is used at all in the studio of La Atalaya - no turntables, no wheels, no electric kilns). He replied that the people are continuing a tradition which predates the arrival of the Spaniards and of which they are very proud.

"Individualism does come out," argued the old man. "Every pot is unique. If you want to experiment with glazes and the wheel, you can, but here we concentrate on the ancient methods."

It is a tradition that is also an attempt to ground people in their own culture in the face of the disconcerting ebb and flow of well-heeled tourists.

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