She was born in Wales but fell in love with Peru. Ever since Mari Solari discovered Peru's rich landscapes and traditions, she became an advocate for the country's craftsmanship. In her colorful home in Lima, Mari founded Las Pallas, a must-see store filled with Peruvian popular art and textiles.
The bright cobalt-blue and yellow house with green louvered windows is probably the most noticeable building in an already very colorful road: Cajamarca street, in the bohemian neighborhood of Barranco, Lima. This photogenic road has been filled with murals, picturesque houses, street art, local art and design projects, and even small parades organized by Barranco residents, for almost 40 years.
Mari Solari and her family were one of the first to move to the neighborhood, at a time when historic Barranco - once a seaside favorite for summer houses - had been abandoned by homeowners flocking to the growing city. Seizing an opportunity, Mari bought an early-1900s Barranco ranch in a woeful state, and lovingly restored it. It’s been her home and livelihood ever since.
Born in Wales, Mari Elizabeth Morgan fell in love with Peru from afar. More precisely, she fell for Peruvian, Claudio Solari - whom she later married - soon after arriving in the South American country almost 60 years ago. Young, fresh out of interpreter school in Switzerland, and quite unaware of the cultural history of her new residence, Mari was received into a family intensely active in Peru’s cultural scene.
Her father-in-law was the famed Peruvian writer and playwright, Enrique Solari Swayne, recognized for his regionalist perspective, and her mother-in-law, Gertrudis Braunsberger, was a collector and connoisseur of traditional Peruvian arts. Mari was quickly introduced to the diversity of landscapes of the coast, highlands and rainforest, as well as the richness of traditional art expressions.
When she was widowed merely ten years later, Mari and her three small children remained in Peru. Encouraged by her mother-in-law, whom she accompanied on trips to visit artisan communities, Mari decided to devote herself to her newly-discovered love for traditional Peruvian arts.
She named her store Las Pallas – after a traditional carnival dance of Incan origin, Las Pallas de Corongo, which she enjoyed watching for its beautiful garments – and dedicated a couple of rooms to the precious objects she’d collected from different artisan communities. Over the years, the store took over the entrance, hallways, even the charming patio, all showing the Spanish spirit of the old coastal home. Eventually, the limits between store and house were blurred, with Mari integrating her own living room for special occasions, and enthusiastically allowing visitors to go through her own private collection, with pieces that could never be for sale.
Mari has travelled far and wide throughout Peru, especially in the Andes and avoiding well-trodden touristic routes. The threat of domestic terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t quash her adventurous spirit; only Covid has prevented her from moving, but she keeps in touch with artisans and associations, whom she refers to as dear, long-time friends. “What I’ve always wanted is to revaluate Peruvian craftsmanship and establish a fair relationship with the artists,” Mari reflects. “I’ve fought to promote tradition; I look for quality and authenticity and I pay for it. It’s for the greater good of all.”
Most tourists, Mari believes, associate Peruvian craftsmanship with bright colors and a distinctive folk style, when in reality the country's traditional arts are diverse and hard to define. Each community holds their own styles and techniques, textile motifs and patterns are rooted in the history of their villages, and there are plenty of sober palettes and aesthetics, such as those favored by the Awajún community in the Amazon. Few places in Peru can display with fidelity the variety of the Peruvian artisan production, but Las Pallas is certainly one of them.
By Mari’s estimate, 97% of its items are handmade and traditional. The other 3% are traditional in technique and motif, but not made of natural materials. “Some artists can no longer access natural fibers and materials. But the quality of their pieces is so good, and they are so wonderfully done, that I include them”, Mari explains.
Walking through Mari’s blue, green and yellow-walled interiors reveals a delightfully eclectic mix of ceramics, textiles, traditional garments, hats, mates burilados (engraved gourds) and retablos (scenes sculpted in clay, wood and stone). Mari has recently received two typical shawls and a three-meter-long tapestry from the north region of Peru: the latter took about four years to be hand-loomed.
Amazonian traditional arts hold a special place in Las Pallas, with highlights by Shipibo-konibo and Awajun ceramics, cushmas (tunics) made of natural fiber, and contemporary paintings. There are antique pieces too, although no older than 50 years for anything older needs special permission to leave the country from the Ministry of Culture.
If you venture beyond the patio and peek inside Mari’s private rooms (pictured above), you’ll find her own collection of mostly antique traditional objects. She has some Colonial and Republican pieces, and – by her own estimation – the best amulets and offerings on earth, which she has leant several times to museums. “You just can’t buy [these items] in the artisan market,” she says.
Mari loves the Amazon – the bugs and mosquitos, not so much – and knows the coast well, but feels nothing compares to the Andean landscapes: Cusco and Puno in the south, Huancavelica, Ayacucho and Tarma in the center. “Not the cities, though: I spend little time in cities and go into the outskirts, to the small villages,” she clarifies. “These places are fabulous for their natural setting and their people.”
When she first arrived in Peru, she traveled often to Wales, primarily to visit family who still lived there. In the years since, she has barely returned. “I think Peru became my life,” she says. Mari’s love for her adopted nation – which is undoubtedly reciprocal – can be felt throughout her home.