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Updated: Jul 6, 2018

More of a warrior shield than a bag, Colombia's woven mochilas are an item of clothing, a symbol of coming of age, a political statement, and even a memory in thread. They also happen to be exquisitely beautiful. Here I show you five of mine from different regions of this sacred land.

A Wayúu mochila handwoven by Iris Aguilar in La Guajira, Colombia. The mochila is laid out upon a Wayúu ceremonial gown. Photograph: conqueredbycolombia

The mochila is a woven style of bag you can find all over Colombia. From region to region, the bag changes its colour and its texture. The warmer its homeland, the brighter its colours. The mistier her mornings, the more muted her song. Each mochila tells her own unique story, and this story belongs to the poet weaver who stitched her thoughts into her yarn. These bags have traditionally always been woven by the women of Colombia, and to learn how to weave her, is almost to learn how to become a Colombian woman itself. As Iris Aguilar, a Wayúu tribal matriarch taught me during my first visit to Colombia: "you do not choose a mochila - a mochila chooses you". And once your mochila has chosen you, she is your protection and your strength for all your moments to come.

The Wayúu Mochila (La Guajira department)

When my Colombian friend would visit me when I still lived in London, she always came baring gifts. On one occasion about ten years ago, she brought me freshly ground coffee from a finca near Ibagué, an emberá necklace, and this Wayúu mochila. Woven by Iris Aguilar in the department of La Guajira, this mochila proved peculiarly suitable for a London girl accustomed to bracing gales. Five years later I would know firsthand the cleansing and consecrated winds of Jepirra (Cabo de la Vela in Spanish) - where the souls of the Wayúu return upon death - and I would also meet Iris at Bogotá's ExpoArtesano in 2011. The hand-crocheted flowers set against the earthy browns in this mochila I now know to be reminiscent of the wood of the typical homes you find in that region of the country guarded as they are by fierce cacti, and mirage veiled sands. The tassels are made to secure your journey to the afterlife.

The tassel of a Wayúu mochila from Cabo de la Vela / Jepirra, La Guajira, Colombia. Photograph: conqueredbycolombia.

The Arhuaca Mochila / Tutu Iku (Magdalena department)

A sketch of an Arhuaco man with his double mochilas and poporo. Drawing: conqueredbycolombia.

Iconic in terms of Colombian cultural identity, the Tutu Iku has become perhaps the signature Colombian mochila for its elegance aesthetic, simplicity in design, and sturdy construction. Woven principally from the fibers of the agave leaf or from sheep's wool, these bags are worn by the Arhuaco people on top of their forehead as well as across the body. Because of the material from which it is made, the resulting mochila has hues of grey, brown, white, or sometimes black. Traditional symbols may also be woven into the design. Cotton is sometimes used to make these bags but is reserved for village spiritual leaders who are referred to as Mamos.

An Arhauco mochila hangs on the door of my casa campesino in Antioquia, Colombia. Photograph: conqueredbycolombia.

The Guanes Mochila (Santander department)

Made of 'fique', a fibre similar to hemp, this mochila from Curití', Santander exudes rustic integrity and a deep authenticity. This particular style of weaving is a modern interpretation of the mochilas worn by the Guanes, an indigenous people who inhabited the Santander and northern Boyacá region prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. You can read more about these people and their traditions here: http://www.casadeculturapiedradelsol.gov.co/?p=5095.

A Guanes mochila from Curití, Santander, Colombia. Photograph: conqueredbycolombia.

A rustic Mochila from Santa Fe de Antioquia (Antioquia department)

I have to be honest here; I am not sure if this mochila is strictly speaking 'Antioquian'. (The traditional bag of the region, the 'carriel', deserves a separate essay all of its own, and is quite different in shape and origin from the mochila.) On a day trip to Santa Fe de Antioquia a few years ago, I purchased this bag whilst perusing the pretty tamarind sweet stalls which enfold before you in the plaza of this historic town. Made from fique and coarsely woven to a wabi sabi tuft at the base, this is the preferred mochila for grocery shopping in the region. This bag fits beautifully across the torso, and so when you are wearing it, it feels like a part of your own body, and not an appendage.

A fique mochila from the market place in Santa Fe de Antioquia, Colombia. Photograph: conqueredbycolombia.

The Kankuama Mochila (Magdalena and Cesar departments)

This style of mochila was the most recent to my collection. The Kankuamo people also hail from the Santa Marta region, like the Kogi and Arhuaco peoples, but more specifically from the lower Sierra Nervada area / Umunukunu and up towards the Cesar department. Unlike their neighbours however, their mochilas embrace a wider colour palette and are woven from a thin width of fique / maguey. Natural dyes are used for the beatification of the threads and taken from, for example, the eucalyptus, purple leaves, the Brasil tree (paubrasilia) and coconut.

EXPOARTESANO 2018 will be held at the Plaza Mayor Medellín Centre for Convenciones y Exposiciones from the 29th of June to the 8th of July, 2018, 10.00am - 20.00pm, Calle 41 N° 55-80 http://www.expoartesano.com.co https://plazamayor.com.co/eventos/expoartesano-2018/ http://www.artesaniasdecolombia.com.co

EXPOARTESANO is an artisan crafts fayre to support the cultural and ancestral traditions of Colombia and her people. Buying crafts directly from the sellers at EXPOARTESANO fayres not only guarantees the authenticity of your purchases and also ensures that the creators are receiving a fair price for their labour. Please support these traditions and these peoples so that future generations can also enjoy the beauty of these traces and testimonies to Colombia's cultural and anthropological history.Thank you.

#ColombiaArtesanal #Expoartesano2018 #MásCulturaMejorPaís

P.S. Go and see your bank manager beforehand... (just a warning!)