Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Notes on an Exhibit of Huichol Art

From Janet Rosen at Zanshin Art:


One great pleasure in my life is knowing that despite being a pretty well-read and well-rounded person who has walked this earth over fifty years, there is still so much to learn and to appreciate.

This past week I was introduced to the Huichol people, thanks to an exceptionally well curated show at the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah. The show is ostensibly of Huichol ART. However (to turn to an earlier thread on this blog) there is no way to disassociate the art from the craft from the spiritual from the cultural well-being of the Huichol, so I say that via the art I have met the people a little bit.

The work is astonishing on all levels. As craft, it appears from a distance to be exceptionally well executed beadwork and embroidery. The first hint that something was unusual was when I came up to a highly sculpted three-dimensional mask and noted that the tiny seed beads were set with their holes sticking up, so clearly they had not been strung in place. A moment later, we saw a video that showed how both the beadwork and the yarn paintings are done:
A substrate is created of beeswax and pine pitch (both locally available resources). For beadwork, the beads are applied one at a time, with the aid of a needle, set into place, all freehand. The yarn paintings are not embroidered or in any way stitched or tied. A long section of yarn (looking like an embroidery thread) is essentially used to draw an outline, being pressed into place with a fingernail and nail scissors. The inner colors are then filled in by the same method, the artist working swiftly and surely, back and forth into the substrate until the surface is fully covered.

Artistically, the work just rocks. It is figurative, highly symbolic, and psychedelically complex (with good reason, see below). This artist/artisan is frankly amazed to realize that these compositions, however thought out they are, are actually executed completely freehand. Many of the larger yarn paintings are worlds to enter, demanding long and pleasurable study, eliciting conversations among the visitors, and are returned to for comparison after other pieces have been seen.


Regarding the meaning of the work, the show catalogue reads:


“The basis of this culture is the shamanic traditions Huichol people have practiced for many centuries. They believe that everything in their natural environment is alive and capable of feeling and action. There are a multitude of personified nature deities who are in charge of such things as animals, water, weather, and plants to whom the Huichol people send their prayers and petitions. Huichol shamans are the teachers, guides and mediators between the natural and the supernatural realms. To be a shaman is both a privilege and a demanding responsibility. Shamans conduct rituals to ensure the health and welfare of their communities and perform sacred chants recounting Huichol ancestral mythology.

“All Huichol ceremonial life centers around the sacred peyote cactus which is used in rituals to contact the spirit world. Huichol shamans obtain their power from these ceremonies and from the peyote visions they experience. Huichol art, whether two dimensional yarn paintings or three-dimensional masks and sculptures, use ancient symbols to represent these gods, to tell the cosmic drama of creation, and to document age-old Huichol traditions. With no written language, Huichol people rely on various types of artwork to maintain and communicate their beliefs and myths.”


Elsewhere in the show it is noted that for many Huichol, it is an annual 300 mile pilgrimage to go where the peyote grows and that vision quests are not unusual. Part of how the culture has remained so viable for so long is that many of its traditions are built around daily family life, and need connection with but not daily reinforcement from, the larger community (this reminded me of the similar home basis of much of Jewish life, and how it kept certain traditions alive for centuries among the “cryptoJews” of the New World.)

The yarn painting is a fairly recent aspect of Huichol life. Much of the artwork is being produced even now by their shamans as part of their responsibility to make the spiritual explicit or mediate reality for their people. At the same time there is artwork being produced specifically for sale, in order to help keep the people alive. Here is more information on that issue.
The closest parallel that comes to mind is the multifaceted and essential role of sand painting in the practical, spiritual and historic life of the Australian aborigines. To those who dither over whether or not “art is important” or try to define the difference between “arts” and “crafts” I offer these peoples as the only reply needed.


Moving to Ukiah, I will have the Grace Hudson as “my” local museum. It is a small place, with part of the building devoted to the painter for whom it is named (and whose beautiful craftsman home, the Sun House, is next door, with docent tours available) and a room of stunning Pomo baskets. The front area is given over to changing exhibits and for a small institution they have managed to put together some wonderfuls shows. Here were a couple of my favorites:


Puppets of the World

Pieces of the Past: Quilting Traditions

Landscape Interpretations

(This post was written by Janet Rosen - I keep trying to talk her into writing for BAArtQuake- until she does, I'll just have to copy a post now and then - check out her other art writings here. - Anna)

1 comment:

Janet said...

Well, Anna, seeing as you are so efficient about cross-posting my little pieces, not sure why I should "come on over" [insert big grin]
OK, as long as you promise I never have to show up for a meeting or go door-to-door to raise funds, I'll join....were do I sign up?