The mopa-mopa is a shrub-like tree that grows in the highland jungle of the Tropical Andes. It lends its name to a decorative technique utilizing its resin to create colorful varnish designs on wood crafts, which has been practiced by artisans in the area of the Putumayo and Nariño departments of Colombia for 2,000 years. This technique, popular in and around the city of Pasto, is one of the few craft traditions in Colombia originating from the country’s indigenous past. Preparing Barniz de Pasto (Pasto varnish) takes several days. Mopa-mopa resin is cooked until smooth and elastic, then stretched and run through a mill to produce a fine texture. Dyes are added to hot mopa mopa, then it is boiled and stretched again to make sheets from which shapes are cut, heated by the artist’s hands, and applied with glue.
Because of its unique and ancient history, the craft of mopa-mopa was declared a part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2018. It is also a threatened artistic practice: according to UNESCO there are only ten harvesters and thirty-six varnish masters working with mopa-mopa today. Gilberto Granja is one of those masters. He began learning Pasto varnish techniques at 20 years old in the workshop of master mopa-mopa artist Rosa Mejía Vda. de Torres. After three years under her tutelage, he opened his own workshop, and has been practicing the craft since the 1960s. The pieces that come from his workshop, finely carved woodworks (egg-shaped cases, bowls, platters, and other table wares) embellished with varnish veneers cut into the shapes of flowers and leaves, are inspired by the beautiful natural landscape of Gilberto’s home and are declarations of his love for the land.