ZORAIDA Montaño rarely has her home to herself. For almost two decades, her home has also been the house of cutlery, a site where thousands of Cubans and foreigners arrive each year to be astonished. “You can not close the doors to your children. You must help them. I like that people come constantly, anyone is welcome,” she states.
On entering, one understands why Zoraida had no objections when in 1998, her son, Víctor Rafael Blanco, decided to turn the house into an altar of works made from spoons, knives, forks, and all kinds of kitchen utensils; why she had no qualms on allowing the patio of her home, located in the center of the city of Ciego de Ávila, to become a metalsmithing workshop, and the front room to become an art gallery.
Standing in the kitchen, she confesses, “I do not know any English, my dear. Sometimes the tourists talk to me and I nod without knowing what they are saying to me, until someone explains. What I do know is that people love to visit because the Pauyet group is here, a symbol of Cuban culture.”
The house brings to mind The Story of Spoons and Forks, one of the short stories included in José Martí’s children’s magazine La Edad de Oro (The Golden Age). Standing in Zoraida Montaño’s patio, with a shelf full of jicoteas (type of turtle) and plants, one has the impression that “you’re in the center of the earth, where fire is like the sea.”
There the alpacca melts in an oven. The same alloy of zinc, copper and nickel invented by Maillot and Chorier in France in 1819, and designed to imitate silver cutlery, which was initially known as maillechort in Paris. Today this alloy, also known as German silver or nickel silver, continues to stand out for the ease of working it at room temperature and its resistance to corrosion.
It was precisely alpacca that marked the beginning of the Pauyet group in Zoraida Montaño’s house. According to the Yoruba religion, widely rooted in Cuba, Pauyet is a word of African origin, which means “hand with silver staff” and is an attribute of the Osha (divinity of the Afro-Cuban religion) Obatalá.
“Among the founders there was one who firmly believed in the Orishas (Yoruba deities) and chose the name because alpacca resembles silver,” explains Raudel Ruiz, a member of Pauyet for seven years. Also a member of the Cuban Association of Artisans and Artists (ACAA), Ruiz states that there was no better way to identify an initiative designed to make small sculptures using alpacca cutlery as the main raw material.
From the beginning, the Pauyet group set out to innovate, creating pieces that were simultaneously useful and beautiful. All the talent of several generations of artists (most of whom are self-taught) came together, ensuring the project became known both within and beyond the island. As a result, Pauyet has participated in more than 55 exhibitions in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Portugal, Spain, Canada, Italy - where it had a gallery for two years - and Russia, where it participated in the traditional White Nights Festival in 2012.
“We are around a dozen workers and only one, who is an art instructor, has specialized training. The others are self-taught; the majority are young. Pauyet has transcended to become a school of artists, artists who have left their mark on the group and who have gone on to produce work of their own,” notes the artisan.
According to Ruiz: “All those who have been in Pauyet have left their mark. Their designs are still reproduced because they are part of the group. All creations with aesthetic value endure. In addition, each member can exhibit individually. We respect the individual and the collective.”
Since stainless steel replaced alpacca, and this type of cutlery is hardly made anymore, the raw material used by the group is mainly obtained from people who collect and sell it across the country.
Pauyet also receives abundant donations from its visitors, and is developing a novel line of jewelry, which predominantly uses black coral and abalone shell. “There are customers who come for the first time, see the work we do, and the following year they arrive, even from England, with a backpack full of alpacca cutlery. There is no nicer gesture than that,” Ruiz points out.
Meanwhile, he adds: “We conduct a thorough check of the raw material, what we consume and buy monthly, and there is a total balance. We do not worry about it being exhausted. With what we have, at the pace that we work, there is cutlery perhaps for seven or eight years more. The future of Pauyet depends on the human aspect, not the material.”
Many specialists have noted that the project is more than a workshop-gallery-house; it constitutes a cultural center, a sample of the best of 21st century Cuban metalsmithing, which is socially and institutionally recognized.
By providing direct exchanges with artisans, the possibility of observing the productive process and acquiring unique pieces, in a Cuban family home, Pauyet is also a tourist attraction included as part of almost all the excursions coming from Jardines del Rey, in the north of the province of Ciego de Ávila.
“We are mainly visited by tourists from Canada and the United Kingdom. In high season there are Russians, Poles, and French. Likewise, many customers come from other geographical locations in Cuba, especially foreigners who opt for the circuit modality and go to Trinidad or Camagüey,” the interviewee tells Granma International.
The length of the process to make a piece, of course, depends on its complexity and the skill of the artisan. “The range of tastes is very broad and that’s what we work toward. However, the most popular pieces are cars and motorcycles, birds, horses, which are symbols of strength and rebellion, and any piece that can be given to a woman,” Ruiz explains.
On the other hand, he adds, the group also works to order. “We had never made a pig, for example, but a campesino came and ordered one for his father. Then came some Canadians, who raise pigs, and they adored the reproduction of that piece, which for us was simple.”
Pauyet also sells its works in several galleries in Havana, in some belonging to the Cuban Cultural Goods Fund located in important tourist destinations, and one awarded to the group by the same institution in the Ciego de Ávila municipality of Morón. Pauyet has also designed numerous awards, among which the prizes for the International Billfishing Tournament and the Cubadisco competition stand out.
In 2014, the group participated for the first time in an art festival in the United States. “Among more than 500 artists in competition, the group won the second prize in sculpture for a Quixote series,” Raudel Ruiz recalls.
With two awards at the International Crafts Fair held annually in Cuba, the nomination in 2006 for the UNESCO Award of Excellence for Handicrafts, the Artisan Mastery seal and the Manos prize, the highest distinction awarded by the ACAA, the initiative founded by Rafael Blanco feels its work is well-recognized.
“As if dressed in silver,” in the words of Martí, the group’s works are finished in Zoraida Montaño’s patio. They go from being cutlery to expressing the most authentic of human imagination. From there, they are stored in the memories of all those with the artistic sensitivity for that which is different from the norm.