Ancestry and Artistry: Maya textiles at Museum of Canada
A riot of colour and pattern greets the visitor as they step through the doorway into the newest exhibit on show at the Textile Museum of Canada. The wall of huipiles that is the introduction to the exhibit demonstrates how inventive Maya women weavers are, and how a simple rectangle of cloth can display so many levels of meaning.
The Mayan textile exhibit at the museum takes a multilayered approach as well – ranging from traditional backstrap-woven clothing for both men and women, to modern factory-produced cloth resewn into status-evoking traditional garb. Some interesting sidelights of the exhibit include some rather older embroidered collars and cuffs, as well as some gauze-woven pieces from the 1930s, (borrowed from the little-known collections of the Friends of the Ixchel Museum in the U.S.) and the hooked rugs from Thirteen Threads (a Maya women’s education organization) introduced as a new artisan skill by Mary Ann Wise, an artist from Wisconsin and her friend, Judy Slocum.
The exhibit includes many pieces collected by a Canadian woman doctor over about 30 years, and some clothing woven specifically for tourists during the 1970s and 80s. The ceremonial aspect of the clothing is evident everywhere, in the patterns and use of colour, and in the care with which every stitch and seam is sewn. Many of the huipiles and ceremonial clothing for men were woven and embroidered for the cofradias, the religious confraternities (originally introduced by the Spanish during the16th century), each with their own patron saint. Some cofradias were only open to elite membership, but most were linked to specific artisan guilds or occupational groups, and were also organized along racial lines. Cofradias also provided care for widows and orphans of deceased members.
Explanations of some of the woven patterns and symbols are provided in the written panels of the exhibit. For example, the double-headed eagle, symbol of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Spanish crown (under the Habsburgs), was adopted and re-purposed by various Maya groups. “Theixcot is the two-headed eagle. It is considered the nawal or animal spirit of some villages in the highlands of Guatemala. In many villages it is viewed as a bringer of good luck.” Zigzag patterns are widely seen as symbolic of a snake’s trail, and the serpent rainbow is an aspect of the Milky Way in most of Latin America. Corn plants are easily identified in many weavings, and corn is the origin of human beings in Maya mythology. Other strong symbols on weavings include the World Tree, jaguar, deer, and the turkey.
The layout of the exhibit is based on fairly typical themes: from ancient to modern; changing political contexts; the adoption and co-option of Spanish symbols; and the ever-present background of the power of the church since the Conquest. The photographs and artworks are a welcome addition, particularly the photos of Jean-Marie Simon, which evoke the moving and harrowing experiences of Maya women during the period from 1980 to 1989 when the majority of mass killings of Maya people by Guatemalan soldiers took place.
Some Canadian content is evident in the woven and embroidered pieces near the end of the exhibit. One is a wall-hanging which is dedicated to James Langley, a Canadian diplomat who advocated for aid to the Guatemalan people during the devastating earthquake of 1976. The other is a piece of cloth embroidered with dedications to Canadians who also sent aid during the earthquake.
What may be missing from the exhibit is a stronger statement about the paramount role of weaving in the lives of Maya women in the ancient past. We know, from the Spanish chronicles written during the early contact period, and from evidence provided by archaeologists, that weaving was seen specifically as women’s work, and elite Maya women were associated with the production of cloth as a status indicator and an economic benefit. The goddess Ixchel (or, more properly, Chak Chel, Red Rainbow) was represented in the Mayan codices and on pottery vases as an old woman with jaguar ears and spindles in her hair. Ixchel was the goddess of procreation, andpatroness of both healing and weaving.
Weaving, and the production of native clothing (traje) particularly for those women who lived through years of civil war in Guatemala, was a marker of indigeneity and a source of pride, but it also became a negative identifier (mainly for men) and in some areas was completelylost as a skill. Guatemala’s civil war – a 36-year armed conflict that claimed some 200,000 civilian lives before the government and guerrilla forces signed a peace accord in 1996, devastated the Maya, particularly four specific groups: the Ixil Mayas; the Q’anjob’al and Chuj Mayas; the K’iche’ Mayas of Joyabaj, Zacualpa and Chiché; and the Achi Mayas.
Many of women who began the cooperatives that now produce cloth for sale to the tourist market were widows, their fathers, husbands and sons killed or “disappeared”, and they were often barred (by circumstances or deliberately) from taking jobs which would bring in cash. Maria, a young woman who was brought in by the Textile Museum from Sololá (near Lake Atitlán) to demonstrate backstrap weaving, told me that she had begun weaving at the age of 8, because her family needed to support themselves after her father was killed. Maria Xoch Ajcalon, a community member from El Triunfo is a weaver and production manager with Asociacion Maya De Desarrollo (Asomadek). She belongs to a women’s cooperative which was founded by these widows. The cooperative was founded in 1987 involving 17 widows, with the help of a Canadian development worker, Ron Spector, who decided to invest 7,000$ of his own money as seed capital to set up an organization to buy thread and yarn and to market the women’s work in North America.
“From the very beggining, it was not so much a small-business enterprise as a community project”, he stresses. The project “A Thread of Hope” took off and “within a month, 45 other women in the community wanted to join”. As the project continued to grow, the women formed a cooperative: the Asociación Maya de Desarrollo Kamolon Ki K’onojel, or Asomadek.
In 1993, the Canadian embassy in Guatemala provided a grant of $65,000, partly to help increase the membership and to provide funding for the women’s education and literacy. The Asociación Maya de Desarrollo is now a worker cooperative of 280 women located in the highlands of Solola Guatemala. The co-op celebrates its 26th anniversary this year.
*Elka Weinstein, regular contributor to Masters in Museums.