Tag Archives: anthropology

The Passing of Walter “Chip” Morris, Chiapas Textile Icon

Chip Morris was one of those iconic figures who is largely responsible for the development of textile education in Chiapas, Mexico. He is known for preserving and promoting Maya highland weaving. He was there for a lifetime, co-creating the famed weaving cooperative Sna Jolobil and establishing San Cristobal de las Casas as a textile lover’s travel destination.

I got news of his passing yesterday from my pal Sheri Brautigam while I was in transit from my Durham home to Mexico City.

Walter “Chip” Morris, 1953-2019, RIP

From Kiki Suarez, founder of Kikimundo, famed folk art gallery in the San Cristobal de las Casas historic center:

When I arrived in San Cristobal in 1977, the Maya fabric here was already in decline, and neither I nor any tourists knew much about quality and we bought mediocre embroidery; we did not know about the quality of what was possible. The weavers themselves followed the tradition but many did not know the meaning of their patterns. A young gringo Hippie arrived, settled in San Andres Larrainzar, learned Tzotzil (and probably spoke it better than Spanish), and rescued the meanings in the ancient textiles, which were already at the point of disintegrating.

This man was Walter F. Morris, who we called Chip. I learned a lot with him. Together with Luis Contreras and Pedro Meza, he formed the Sna Jolobil cooperative in the city, still known today as the sourced for the highest quality Maya fabric. He took the Maya textiles to the great museums. He wrote his book, Living Maya, with Carol Karasik, that included the extraordinary photographs taken by Jeffrey J. Foxx, and then translated into Spanish.

Then, other books followed, always with the faithful and capable Carol: about how the Maya fabric here in many remote communities in the Maya highlands continues to develop instead of disappearing, how Maya women and men are preserving their dress instead of giving over to western styles — a rare phenomenon in the world.

The tours and talks by Chip that I attended were wonderful. I remember the first years here when I saw women walking from village to village, carrying their textiles on their heads. I remember how Chip was looking for, discovering, teaching the weavers themselves the meaning of their patterns, rescuing old huipil designs. I remember an old huipil from Chamula that had designs that were taken from the murals at Bonampak. Chip helped them appreciate the value of their own art that they often sold for nothing or almost nothing.

Then, he joined the fabulous Pellizzi Collection for a small salary. The Maya textile was his life and his passion and his destiny and vocation, and perhaps everything else in life could not compete with this. If today there are so many cooperatives and young people who play with new designs of the traditional Maya textile, I think this is why Chip Morris started — to leave this legacy. Unfortunately, for many years, for personal reasons, he began to withdraw from social spaces, and today many who work in the same field do not even know about him.

That’s why I write this: Let them know! This is the heritage he leaves in San Cristobal, and with many weavers and people in many communities.

Chip transcends his personal struggles for his great effort and work to rescue and recognize the Maya fabric, another textile artist, Olga Reiche, from Guatemala, wrote to me today. And, so it is …

I did not know Chip personally. I met him a couple of times in Tenejapa during my tours with Patrick Murphy, when he was guiding tourists to the cooperative operated by Maria Meza across from the zocalo. I knew that he was ailing. Most of us did. As Kiki says, we honor the contribution he made to Maya textile knowledge. We go to Chiapas because of what he accomplished. Descansé bien.

We recommend Chip’s book, Maya Threads: A Woven History published by Thrum’s Books, for our Chiapas textile study tour participants. I hope you have a chance to read it.

I’m taking a wait list for the February 25-March 4, 2020 Chiapas Textile Study Tour. Let me know if you want to go.

Oaxaca WARP Conference Kicks-Off with Marta Turok Wallace Keynote Talk

Marta Turok Wallace is a noted applied cultural anthropologist whose specialty is Mexican textiles. A resident of Mexico City with roots in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, (her parents were ex-pats), Marta was invited by program chair Judy Newland to speak at the WARP (Weaving a Real Peace) textile conference held in Oaxaca, June 8-11, 2017.

WARP attendees gather in San Pablo Cultural Center, Oaxaca

More than 70 people attended the conference. They came from Mexico, the USA, Canada, Poland and Russia.

Applied cultural anthropologist Marta Turok Wallace

What Marta talks about concerns all of us who love indigenous textiles and appreciate the people — women and men — who make them.  She asks questions, makes observations, offers solutions and consultation.  Then she steps back and listens, suggests, guides. She affirms that weavers can create their own destiny, their own future for themselves, their families and their communities. And, that consumers can more fully appreciate the history behind the cloth.

WARP president Cindy Lair welcomes participants

Traditions are powerful in Mexico.  Remote villages throughout Oaxaca continue to weave garments using distinctive iconographic designs particular to place. These weavings are rooted in centuries past, worn by grandparents and great-grandparents. There are garments for daily wear and special ceremonial occasions.

Clothing is cultural identity in Mexico. It signifies where you are from and your status in the community.

Teotitlan del Valle weaver Porfirio Gutierrez talks about history, culture

Yet, over time, clothing has changed (think cotton to synthetic threads, hand-spun to machine-spun) based on cost of raw materials, time to make, and influence of current fashion trends in the larger culture. This has an impact on style, design and quality.  As villages interact with each other because of communication and ease of transportation, there is design-crossover, too.

What is “pure” or “authentic” is no longer relevant, perhaps. Change happens and it is impossible to keep people in a box doing what they have always been doing to satisfy collectors and appreciators of tradition. What we want to do is encourage innovation, collaboration, independence and economic success.

The inversion graph, an aging population of artisans, copyright M. Turok

Marta showed a slide explaining that there is a 50% loss of traditional artisans in Mexico. Artisans are aging out and so few of the next generation are stepping in to continue the work. She asks, Why is tradition dying out?

Is the acquisition of artesania being abandoned by the consumer? What is happening in the communities to impact this change? What is in need of revitalization? How do you prepare artisans to sell at fairs and expoventas? How do they show things, take orders, fulfill and ship? Are goods priced fairly for the amount of time put into making them? What are people willing to pay because something is made in Mexico?  How do you commodify art, handmade?

Scholarship recipients present their work, philosophy of design

So, it’s not only about keeping the skill alive, it is about getting it out into the marketplace?  Once something becomes commercialized, then does that erode its value and also compromise how an artisan is compensated?

As they say, It’s complicated!

Young women from Chenalho, Chiapas, represent their cooperative

And, if one changes the scale of motifs or introduces different color palettes to satisfy marketplace demands, or adapt a textile to another purpose (think going from sarapes/ponchos to rugs to handbags and purses), is this a compromise of traditions?

Important topics of discussion during the conference included appropriation of traditional design motifs by contemporary fashion designers, fair wages, using sustainable and native materials.  “What is Fair Trade, really?” when there are no standard rules.

Speaker Eric Chavez Santiago will discuss commercialization

Marta notes that when something is handmade AND mass-produced, someone is not being paid very well.

Many of us want to meet the artisan, have a personal relationship and buy directly so that the money exchange benefits the maker 100%.  That’s not always possible, so it’s important for us to read labels, and ask who made my clothes.

We also need to be sensitive and conscious to the myth that Mexican handmade items are cheap or that we can bargain just for the fun of it.  Let’s be conscientious about the haggler mentality.

What we also notice is that most weavers are no longer creating cloth for themselves — they are weaving for the marketplace, no longer investing a year of labor to create an elaborate ceremonial huipil.  They may dress in ready-made cotton or polyester purchased at Soriana or Walmart. Why?

SOLD: Hand-woven, embroidered ceremonial huipil, San Felipe Usila. 

[Note: This “stained glass window” huipil, above, is from the Chinantla pueblo of San Felipe Usila, about 12 hours from Oaxaca up a mountain road. I know the makers. It is woven on a back-strap loom, then intricately embroidered in cross-stitch. A special piece. Size L-XL. $500 USD. Time to make: 8 months. Who wants it?]

To dress differently exposes one to racism and discrimination. We heard a story about a Oaxaca village where the mayor was so intent on assimilation, that he forbade any weaving of traditional garments. It took thirty years to rescue the tradition by encouraging a new generation of weavers to bring back their cultural identity.

During the conference, Andares del Arte Popular hosted a curated show and sale of artisans in an adjacent patio. Conference-goers could meet the makers and buy directly from them. It was a wonderful introduction to Oaxaca for WARP.

A conference of weavers, dyers, anthropologists, collectors, textile lovers

I was pleased to to work with WARP to produce this conference. I served as the on-site administrator and conference planner, participated on the program committee, contacted speakers, organized a panel discussion, arranged for hotel, meals, conference venue, transportation, and a one-day natural dye textile tour for all conference attendees.  We went to villages to meet artisans and understand the complexity of the creative work of Oaxaca. On Sunday, 12 women accompanied me on an optional walking tour of Oaxaca with a focus on naturally dyed textiles. More about this in the next posts.

 

 

 

Is Mexico’s Day of the Dead Like Halloween? Muertos Photos in Black and White.

Day of the Dead altar honoring our Dad, 2015. Selenium filter ala Ansel Adams

Day of the Dead altar honoring our Dad, American Federation of Teachers strike for fair wages, 1960’s, Los Angeles. Selenium filter a la Ansel Adams.

We just finished a week of publishing a Day of the Dead Photography Challenge over at the Facebook site I manage, Mexico Travel Photography. You might want to jump over there to take a look at some amazing shots of this spiritual celebration of life and death. Consider joining and participating if you are not already a member.

Preparing the grave with flowers, fruit, nuts and prayers.

Preparing the grave with flowers, fruit, nuts and prayers. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.

What everyone loves about Mexico is her vibrant color. Everywhere. Dia de Los Muertos is a celebration of life and death. There is nothing more vibrant than the flowers that adorn altars and grave sites, market life and costumes.

But, this post takes a turn to Black and White Photography.

Four crosses mark this family plot where generations of people are buried 10 years apart.

4 crosses on family plot where generations can be buried 10 years apart. Copper filter.

A friend asked me today, what is Muertos? Is it like Halloween?  My answer is definitely NO … and SORT OF.

Cloth imprinted with Day of the Dead theme for decorating.

Cloth imprinted with Day of the Dead theme for decorating.

Here is my short-version explanation: When the Spanish came to Mexico in 1521, they co-opted an indigenous ancestor worship tradition (Day of the Dead) and overlaid it with All Saints and All Souls Day observations. All Saints’ Day begins with All Hallows Eve, or Halloween with deep Catholic religious and spiritual tradition.

At Amate Books on Alcala, a selection of titles on Muertos.

At Amate Books on Alcala, a selection of titles on Muertos, Oaxaca city.

All Souls’ Day commemorates the faithfully departed and is most closely linked to the death and resurrection of Christ.

Skulls in the market. All altars have some form of them.

Skulls in the market. Most altars have some form of them.

The Spanish were very smart conquerors. Rather than obliterating the religious practices of indigenous people, they integrated observances to make conversion much more palatable. It is possible that Muertos was celebrated during another time of year. As with most other rituals, it moved to coincide with a Catholic feast day.

Sitting in mourning and reflection. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Sitting in mourning and reflection. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Before the Spanish conquest, Dia de Los Muertos had no link to Halloween. In recent years the US images of pumpkins, witches on broomsticks, black cats and gauzy synthetic cobwebs have migrated across the border as Mexicans born in the USA visit their family in cities and villages throughout the country. We see this blending of commercialism and ancient tradition throughout Oaxaca.

Calavera sculpture, cutting stone, San Pablo Cultural Center, 2015

Calavera (skeleton) sculpture, chiseling stone, San Pablo Cultural Center, 2015

I’m editing my photos first using Lightroom, a Photoshop editing tool. Then, I convert these photos to SilverEfex, a free black and white software editing tool now owned by Google. It’s easy to download. You can choose filters, film type and manipulate the histogram if you wish. I’m having fun with it and wanted to share what I’ve done with you.

Flowers in the form of a cross, covering a fresh gravesite. Teotitlan del Valle.

Flowers in the form of a cross, covering a gravesite. Teotitlan del Valle. Intentional?

In case you are interested it takes me from 2 to 4 hours to make a blog post. This includes selecting and editing the photos and then writing the text (or vice versa!) Thank you for reading and following.

Nature science journal confirms indigenous Oaxacans descend from Asia

The roads to the Americas: ancient Native american migration patterns

nature: the international weekly journal of science, in its August 16, 2012 issue, published new findings that the Americas was populated in at least three distinct waves from Siberia across the Bering Straits beginning 15,000 years ago.  Genetic testing has confirmed this.

According to the article: 

The settlement of the Americas occurred at least 15,000 years ago by means of the Beringia land bridge that existed between Asia and America during the ice ages. Key questions about how many migrations were involved and subsequent dispersal patterns within the Americas remain unresolved. This new survey of genetic variation in Native American and Siberian populations shows that Native Americans descend from at least three waves of migration from Asia. After the initial peopling of the continent there was a southward expansion along the coast, with sequential population splits and little gene flow after divergence, particularly in South America.

Norma’s note: Indigenous peoples of Oaxaca, like the Zapotecs, Mixes and Mixtecs, are also Native Americans.  It’s fascinating to look at ancient stone carvings and paintings at Mexico’s archeological sites and see the resemblance to Asian origins.  The indigenous peoples of Oaxaca were physically isolated and have been able to maintain their native languages and traditions over the centuries, although that is changing in recent years as more people migrate away from their communities in search of jobs and more economic security.  For more about the peopling of the Americas, you can order a full nature article.  Recommended reading: 1491 by Charles Mann.

And, there are 2 spaces left in our 2012 Oaxaca Day of the Dead Photo Expedition.  We will visit the Zapotec archeological site of Monte Alban where you can see the stone carvings for yourself!

Bonampak Archeological Site: Mayan Treasure in the Chiapas Jungle

Bonampak is at the farthest reaches of Chiapas near the Usumacinta River in the Selva Lacandon — a rainforest jungle that is almost three hours from Palenque.  It’s one of those magical places that I have dreamed of visiting but never imagined I might get to.  To get as far as Palenque and not go another three hours to Bonampak would have been a mistake.

At the Palenque archeological museum and gift shop I bought Arqueologia Mexicana magazine, Vol. X, Number 55, that features the most recent reconstruction of the Bonampak murals.  Since not all the paintings are clear and have degraded over time, archeological artists have attempted to reconstruct them using accurate colors and now infrared drawings.  The magazine discusses (in English and Spanish) past interpretations, controversies and the most current reconstruction that uses the natural plant and mineral pigmentation.

Bonampak was part of the Yaxchilan alliance and was a smaller Mayan center.  However, the discovery of the murals in the 1940’s overshadowed its more magnificent neighbor which I will write about in my next post.

  

 

It takes a special effort to get there and plenty of patience.  The tour vans leave Palenque at 6 a.m. and you don’t return until 7:30 p.m.  It’s a long day, but definitely rewarding.  I took more than 80 photographs at Bonampak and can only show you a few of them here.  Plus, there is lots of information online about the political, social and cultural history of place if you are interested in reading more.

 

 

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’d recommend staying at a lodge either at Yaxchilan or Bonampak so you have two days to enjoy these two extraordinary sites. One day is too rushed since day tours give only two hours at Yaxchilan and one hour at Bonampak. I told them we didn’t need an hour for lunch or 45 minutes for breakfast!