TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Huichol Yarn Paintings: Visions Destroyed by Poison

We normally think of using yarn to knit, crochet, or weave into garments, bags, rugs, hats, mittens, and other functional objects. The Huichol of Mexico, however, use it to "paint" sacred images that are connected with their Spiritual life. The yarn paintings evolved from making images from found objects (shells, nuts, twigs, etc.) and pressing them into a mixture of pine resin and beeswax. The first major exhibit of yarn paintings was held in 1962 in Guadalajara with simple images. (Wikipedia) Since then, especially Huichol who have migrated to the cities, the technique has been elevated to an elaborate art form with distinguished artists selling their work for several hundreds of dollars.

Wikipedia map of Huichol area

The Huichol refer to themselves as Wixáritari ("the people") in their native language. (Wikipedia) An estimated 7,000 remain in their native lands in the Sierra Madre, while another 13,000 have migrated to other parts of Mexico. The terrain in the mountains is rugged and difficult to traverse. This has meant a difficult life for the Huichol in eeking out a livelihood from poor soil, but it has also been the reason for them maintaining their culture and belief system intact for so many centuries.

Huichol homeland terrain, photo courtesy of the Huichol Center

The Huichol practice a peyote-based religion of ancestor worship that is centered on nature. Juan Negrin writes:

"The story of the Creation of the World chronicles the manner in which the ancestors emerged from an amorphous existence in darkness to find the way to light and harmonious life. Having accomplished their designs, the ancestors died physically. Following the ways of the ancestors involves the women preparing food, sweeping, weaving and caring for the young, while the men work in the fields, collect wood, build thatch roof silos and houses for the ancestors, and hunt the deer. It also involves invoking the god-Ancestors and reenacting their feats in drama-filled celebrations and pilgrimages to the five points of the earth: the center and the four corners. Through this ritualistic lifestyle, repeating timeless actions and actually impersonating the ancestors, the Huichol attempt to establish a direct relationship with the animistic spirits of nature which are none other than their Ancestors. This philosophy of life culminates eventually in death, when the wise join the pantheon of the Ancestors, becoming spirit allies and guides for their descendants.

The manifestations of the Ancestors are concrete and take such forms as earth, sun, fire, water, wind, corn, deer, rivers and rocks. The Ancestors give life and sustenance to the Huichol, while the Indian renews the powers of the Ancestors by his ritualistic conduct. The traditional way draws past and future together in an unbounded present that is a never-ending process of creation. What is here now existed before the world was created, only it now has a form and an identity supported by the activity of man in his symbiotic partnership with the ancestor spirits."

Indigo Arts Gallery: Peyote Mother (#JBS13)
Huichol yarn painting by Jose Benitez Sanchez, Nayarit, Mexico, c. 2005, $235

The Huichol are as colorful in their dress as reflected in their paintings. The following three photos are courtesy of The Huichol Center's archives, an organization dedicated to providing the Huichol with social services, health care, literacy and empowerment:

Huichol Shaman

Huichol Peyote Face Painting Ceremony

Huichol children

Wikipedia photo of woman and child

The Huichol are adept at many other forms of textile arts. They weave, sew, embroider, decorating their surroundings and clothing with bright, colorful motifs, much of which incorporates religious symbolism in the same way, although in a simplified version, as the yarn paintings. I have noticed that many cultures around the world who live in difficult, arid terrain work in these bright colors, while many forest peoples work with an earthier color palette. Perhaps this is one way to balance out the lack of or over abundance of color in Nature. Many of the Huichol crafts have found their way to the tourist market or to retail outlets who strive to help theml earn income in this way. Hands Around the World works closely with Huichol families and market dolls like the one in the photo, as well as beaded work (also embedded in bees wax and pine resin) and many other crafts. Indigo Arts Gallery is a gorgeous site with ethnic art from around the world. They sell top quality yarn paintings, portraying each Huichol artist with sensitivity and a good history on both the item and artist. The piece below and one earlier in the article are two examples of the beautiful work they have available.

Indigo Arts Gallery: Peyote Ceremony in the Sacred Land of Wirikuta (#MRC11)
Huichol yarn painting by Maximino Renteria de la Cruz,
Nayarit, Mexico, c. 2006 $4,200

Unfortunately, life for the Huichol, is not as bright and colorful as their paintings and art. All of these attempts at marketing their work has not brought in enough income to bring them out of poverty. So, many Huichol leave the Sierra Madre Occidental for periods where they will work as cheap labor in tobacco fields. The following video explains what happens:

These people are being poisoned, plain and simple. Pesticides that are illegal in the United States are used openly by companies in Mexico and other developing countries. The Huichol and other laborers are given no protection or guidance in how to use them. They are dropping dead. Like so many indigenous groups around the world, these people are considered expendable. The Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and Traditional Arts identifies the problems facing the Huichol in detail. They also have instituted viable options to combat these problems. The Center is requesting help from the International community to help them achieve the goals they have of literacy, increase job opportunities in the Huichol lands, promote sustainable agriculture, and, above all, that the Huichol achieve recognition as part of the "First People" movement, where indigenous groups receive government recognition as a people who need to be protected from the intrusions of modern development.

As Susana Valadez from the Huichol Center states, "It is sad to think that this viable living culture might soon be converted into remnants under glass at the local museum..."

More Huichol crafts available at the Singing Shaman Traders.


1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't have guessed yarn as the medium. Fascinating.

    Living in the desert, without much color in the natural surroundings, I can totally relate to the need for expressive color.


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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