As someone who was born in Guatemala, I’ve come to know pieces of my country’s history by reading and researching more about it. Through its arts, I’ve also come to learn more about our great Mayan culture and traditions. It was by happenstance that I while at a lecture about the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, I learned about the exhibit Ancestry & Artistry: Maya Textiles From Guatemala currently showing at the Textile Museum of Canada (TMC).
I have always been passionate in my heritage and love celebrating any occassion that appreciates my culture. Just recently, I discovered Genealogy Bank which will allow me to find more distant relatives of mine and discover more about my family lineage. I haven’t done it quite yet but it’s something I’m looking forward to. Anyhow, days after the lecture, I attended a guided tour of the exhibit led by the museum’s curator Roxanne Shaughnessy. After the tour I spoke with Shaughnessy, who agreed to answer a few questions about the exhibit for us to better understand it. Here are her very thorough, thoughtful, and informative responses.
HM: The Textile Museum already has textiles from Guatemala in its permanent collection. How did the idea for this larger exhibition come to be?
Roxanne Shaughnessy: The TMC holds a collection of vibrantly coloured weavings, with evocative symbolic designs, from a number of communities in Guatemala. The museum displays textiles from the Guatemalan collection from time to time in our Permanent Collection Gallery. There has been a long term desire to show more of this collection and mount a large exhibition of Guatemalan textiles at the Museum. It would be an opportunity to celebrate the rich textile traditions of the Maya, and to explore the evolving manifestations of Guatemalan textiles in the 20th and early 21st centuries, focusing on ancient and contemporary influences.
About two years ago, the museum decided to put a plan in place to develop an exhibition, curated by myself. In the early planning stages, the Museum was approached by a donor, Donna E. Stewart, who offered the Museum a large collection of Guatemalan textiles, which she had collected during over 50 years of travel to Guatemala. The timing was very fortunate, as I was able to work on selecting textiles from her collection for donation to the Museum, while I was developing the thematic framework of the exhibition. This process informed the direction of the exhibition, as many of her pieces were made more recently than most of those in the Museum’s collection, and provided insights into the evolution of Maya textiles in several communities over time.
Through my research of the Guatemalan textiles in our collection and those from Donna’s donation, a story emerged about continuity and change in Maya textile traditions. Many of the 200 textiles that the Museum accepted from the donor combined with our own collection pieces made it possible to illustrate the sequences of changes in Maya textiles over time, and to chart their evolution in the context of Maya society and the contemporary world.
|Wall of Hüipiles|
HM: As curator, how did you decide the flow or layout for Ancestry & Artistry?
RS: While I was developing the thematic framework of the exhibition, I wanted the flow and layout to reflect the overall concept expressed by Carol Hendrickson that “Maya traditional dress is unique in its ability to be simultaneously traditional and new, weaving the past and present together in timeless patterns“. To convey this idea, I imagined the visitor on a journey through the exhibition, experiencing a century of dynamic change as well as a remarkable continuity in Maya traditions.
I thought about the visitor entering the first gallery and I wanted to introduce them to the exquisite artistry of the Maya textiles through a visual feast of brilliant colours and designs. Traje and Maya Identity presents an introduction to Maya weaving and identity, and the dynamic wall of hüipiles (seen above) is designed to illustrate the variety in colours and patterns of the Maya hüipil, each representing the distinctive local dress of a highland community. For those familiar with Maya textiles, I imagined their pleasure in recognizing some of the pieces on the wall of hüipiles And for those unfamiliar with the Maya textiles, I hoped it would present a dazzling impression of Maya culture.
The next section Weaving and Cosmology, provides the visitor with a window into the rich tapestry of Maya cosmological beliefs and shows how the roots of traje lie in the ancient culture of the Maya. The textiles, rich in visual imagery, illustrate how the continuity of religious ideas is expressed through woven patterns that convey symbolic information, and through clothing styles designed for ceremonial purposes.
The visitor then moves on to Tradition and Innovation where the influences of the wider world on Maya textiles are presented. Political, economic, and religious factors have had an impact on backstrap weaving, the role of traje and Maya identity. In the The Local and the Global, the exhibition explores the idea that today traje is increasingly seen as an expression of Maya unity and identity. In this last section, the visitor has been brought full circle into the present, where the textiles demonstrate that in spite of periods of pervasive violence, global influences and religious transformation, Maya people continue to innovate and express themselves through vibrant handmade clothing.
|Hüipil from Todos Los Santos|
HM: Could you share in what way have Mayan textiles evolved over time?
RS: In recent years, political upheaval, economic pressures and globalization have led to dramatic social changes; these in turn, have brought about the loss or transformation of textile-making traditions. The cost of purchasing materials, and the time involved in weaving traje, has had a profound effect on the wearing of traditional dress. Used garments, cheap and easily accessible, are now imported in large quantities from North America.
Of course weaving traditions are dynamic, and change is an ongoing process. As traje evolves, it assimilates technological and material innovations, and reflects historical influences and social upheavals. After 1930, rising numbers of tourists, an ambitious road-building program, and the wide range of imported yarns all helped to accelerate the rate of innovation. In recent years, more accessible education and the increased mobility of Maya women have exposed backstrap weavers to new ideas and materials.
Designs and styles from one area of the highlands have been borrowed and incorporated into traje from other communities. Sometimes style changes involve the introduction of different weaving techniques to accommodate new designs, and the use of hand or machine embroidery as embellishment.
HM: Given that textiles are closely tied to Mayan identity and culture, what narrative does Ancestry & Artistry give for those who are not familiar with weaving techniques or textiles in general?
RS: The exhibition offers a unique lens on textiles as sources of worldview and evolving social practices. The exploration of the interplay between tradition and innovation, aims to demonstrate that textiles can be indicators of social change as innovations in the technical aspects of weaving and embellishment reflect or comment on social or historical events.
The Maya textiles on display represent historical woven texts that are continually re-written to express the deeper underlying changes in community values and individual identity. Linking specific to global, the stories told in the exhibition have relevance beyond Guatemala, speaking to the situations of indigenous people throughout the world who have faced significant upheaval and social change, re-inventing and bringing new forms to traditions that are in danger of disappearing. The stories told through these textiles trace the continued importance of the Guatemalan textile tradition in capturing and communicating worldview, offering unique access and insight into Maya identity in the 21st century.
|Embroidery detail of Jacket from Chichicastenango|
As I walked through the exhibition, I thought of these and other questions. But I could not have summarized it better myself. It is always interesting to learn about people, their culture, and their identities by the clothes they wear. In the case of the Maya, the clothes and designs they create for themselves… definitely an informative and well spent evening.
Ancestry & Artistry: Maya Textiles From Guatemala continues at the Textile Museum of Canada until January 12, 2014. The museum offers PWYC admission every Wednesday evening between 5 to 8pm. For further details visit textilemuseum.ca.
**All images courtesy of the Textile Museum of Canada.