Coming up in Mexico City from November 15-19, is ORIGINAL. This is a major textile and folk art event that will attract visitors from all over the world. We have organized a long weekend tour to Mexico City that will take us to ORIGINAL every day where we will meet and have private conversations with some of the leading fashion and textile artisans in the country. Want to come last minute? We have a space for you! Send an email.
Yesterday afternoon I went to visit my dear friend Arturo Hernandez in Mitla. We sat for a couple of hours in his studio, sipping tea, talking about design and making. He is one of the invited artisans participating in ORIGINAL. The Mexican Ministry of Culture has organized and promoted this event and in order to attract the best artisans from throughout the country, most of whom do not have the funds to travel to Mexico City and cover meals and lodging expenses, is underwriting costs to enable them to participate. Arturo will travel by bus with two huge packages of handwoven and naturally dyed rebozos, throws, bedspreads, and ponchos.
Arturo modeled the multi-colored poncho, all made with natural dyes, that he will wear for the Pasarela, a fashion parade, that we will see for the opening.
Appropriation of what Mexico calls its cultural patrimony — textile designs that are centuries old and part of a community’s identity — has pervaded the fashion industry. This expoventa, held at Los Pinos, the former home of Mexican presidents in Chapultepec Park, seeks to overcome this practice by bringing indigenous textile design to the forefront.
During our tour, we will discuss the history of Mexican fashion, indigenous design and creativity, what is and isn’t cultural appropriation, meet and talk with cultural anthropologist Marta Turok, designers and promoters Alberto Lopez Gomez, Remigio Mestas, 1/8 Takamura, and Ignacio Netzahualcoyotl. We will have plenty of time to walk the expo, take in the catwalks, and dine at some of the finest restaurants in the Centro Historico. As if that isn’t enough, our friend and art historian Valeria will guide us on a narrative tour of the Diego Rivera murals.
Here is an excellent article, Mexico fights plagiarism, that I recommend that you read. The article features Ignacio Nezahualcoyotl, who we will meet and talk with at ORIGINAL 2023.
Many of you may have heard about the remote mountain village of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec. It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive up the misty mountains beyond Teotitlan del Valle and San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Oaxaca. It is way off the beaten path and tourists rarely visit there. During our recent Oaxaca Summer Mountain Tour, ten of us ventured out into Oaxaca’s Sierra Mixe. Yes, they speak Mixe here, and the tribal group is one of 16 different groups in the state. It was quite an adventure, first starting out on the soon to be completed (they say) superhighway to the coast. We got off at the Ayutla exit, miles past the road to Hierve El Agua.
Many know Tlahui (as it’s called locally) as the village whose traditional blouse was copied verbatim by French fashion designer Isabel Marant and passed off as her own in 2015. This became the outcry for what we call today Cultural Appropriation, an issue that continues for indigenous communities around the world, and especially in Mexico. While these designs cannot be copyrighted because they are centuries old, there is an ethical question: Are ancient indigenous villages entitled to recognition and compensation for their original designs?
In Mexico, we call this Cultural Patrimony, defined as an object having ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the indigenous group or culture itself, and which, therefore, cannot be alienated, appropriated, or conveyed by any individual regardless of whether or not the individual is a member of the indigenous group.
Our destination was the workshop studio of Fernando Gutierrez Vasquez, a weaver and natural dyer, who uses locally sourced alder wood (palo de aguila) tree bark, the traditional dye of the region, to color blouses, dresses, scarves and shawls (blusas, huipiles, bufandas and rebozos).
The workshop space is terraced in three levels on the side of a mountain. We look out at misty mountains, most of the peaks shrouded in clouds. Tlahuitoltepec is a village of houses cantilevered into the surrounding hillsides connected by winding roads carved into the landscape.
Our first stop was at the dye studio where we saw vats of alderwood fermenting for a week in a cold water bath. This releases the color from the bark. Alderwood trees require humidity to grow and they are rich in tannic acid. This is a direct dye and doesn’t need a mordant to affix the color to the fiber.
The cotton skeins will be soaked for three days once the fermenting process is complete. When one puts the dyed skeins in direct sun, it deepens the color. Some of the pieces I saw looked a golden mahogany color. Oak bark, which is also used here, gives a rich beige color because it contains less tannin. The color can vary depending on the variety and age of the oak. The end result can be a surprising and unpredictable process — scientific up to a point! Fernando also maintains an indigo dye vat.
The weaving happens after the yarn is colored. The cloth will be woven on the flying shuttle treadle loom that has four harnesses. On the mid-level, weavers are working at four looms, their feet dancing, the looms singing.
There is a rhythm of harmony and creativity here. The beater on the loom sounds as if it is a Native American drum beat, a heart beat, living threads. Various patterns in the cloth can be achieved based on how the pedals are manipulated.
On the top level is the embroidery studio and gallery. Here women and men in the family cooperative work at embroidering the traditional village designs into blouses, shirts and dresses. This is machine embroidery but it is free-form. The creativity of the embroiderer is reflected in the work. The embroiderer guides the needle to create complex images without using a template. None of the sewing machines are electronically programmed. Each garment is unique based on the hand and eye of the men and women who operate the machine. This is definitely an art form.
The Spanish never got to Tlahuitoltepec during the first centuries of the conquest. It was too far, too remote. It was not until recently that the dirt horse path was widened and paved over.
We enjoyed a home-cooked lunch of chicken soup, fresh vegetables and rustic, stone ground tortillas under the palapa as the mist lifted and the sun peaked out. And, we enjoyed the gallery and the opportunity to meet the makers and purchase directly from them, knowing that this experience would be mutually satisfying for all of us.
After lunch, we made our way to the studio of famed potter Silvia Martinez Diaz, where we saw a demonstration of an ancient technique used to make bowls, pitchers and cooking vessels. No potter’s wheel is used here. They use the coil technique to hand build even the largest pieces, that are then fired in a wood kiln or open pit much like the New Mexico pottery I know.
As we left the village in mid-afternoon, we all agreed this was a special highlight of our week together.
Note: In Mexico, death is a continuum of life and a celebration. We still have spaces open for our Day of the Dead Culture Tour. Consider joining us to understand this rich and meaningful pre-Hispanic tradition and how death and mortality are considered in Mexico and the USA.
Many of us find comfort in the handmade. We know that most handwoven, embroidered, appliqued, and other ornamental elements of cloth are made by women, many of whom live in rural areas that struggle with poverty, lack of access to health care and limited educational facilities. We buy, collect, wear handmade not only for its innate beauty, but because we are supporting women and families. The social justice of textiles is cross-border and cross-politics.
Yet, political boundaries separate tribal groups and families, too. Think of the Maya of Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala, who were separated by the Usumacinta River post-Mexican Revolution. Think of the Pakistanis and their cousins who live in Gujarat, India, separated after the partition that created the Muslim and Hindu nations.
Textiles know no borders, grew in similar ways on different continents, using the same techniques, explains Yasmine Dabbous, PhD, an anthropologist who is based in Beirut, Lebanon. Founder of Kinship Stories, she delivered the keynote address at the Weave a Real Peace (WARP) Annual Conference that I attended via Zoom on Saturday, June 19, 2021.
Textiles are the human common denominator, creating connections and giving us the capacity to communicate beyond the politics of national borders. Textiles promote cross-cultural exchange and migration. Ancient trade routes expanded our capacity to understand and fuse differences. As human beings, we desire to create or appreciate creativity, and travel has given us the ability to blend different techniques and designs as creators and makers. Across the continents, peoples exchanged fabrics, culture, art, techniques and language.
Visually, we see the similarities of designs: the infinite circle of life, the Eye of God, the butterfly, mountains and rain, the life affirming force of the sun, the power of lightening, the duality of light and dark or man and woman. Common threads point to common interests, dreams, fears and needs. We seek meaning in textiles that share these common motifs even though there was no physical connection between makers from disparate parts of the world.
The symbols of cloth point to fertility and childbirth, abundance, protection, universal hope. The Evil Eye represents fear of the unknown expressed in the embroidered mirrors of India, glass beads of Egypt, amulets in Southeast Asia.
The Social Justice of Textiles now points us to what we value and what we need to pay attention to: handmade beauty of slow fiber or mass produced fast-fashion that results in pollution, cheap prices, subsistance labor in abusive factories. Disposable clothing in a disposable society represents, I believe, deep dissatisfaction that yields multiple marriages, self-indulgences and self-destruction.
Fabric has a lot to teach us. Whether it is embroidery, knitting, sewing, weaving, piecing, dyeing, designing, these are art forms practiced by both women and men. It is a way for individuals and communities to rise out of poverty, to overcome war and refugee experiences. For the individual, the meaningful act of creating can eliminate sadness and depression, is empowering and healing, may resolve conflict, and overcome the ravages of lingering colonialism.
When we purchase clothing to wear, we have a conscious choice to make. Will we invest a bit more to buy something that is created by hand that will directly improve the lives of the makers? Will we choose a low-cost, factory-made garment that will serve us in the short-term? Either way, it is important to be aware of our own reasons and motivations, as well as our own willingness to understand ourselves, others and the world we inhabit.
There are no intellectual property protections for indigenous makers in the international court of law. IP laws cover individuals, not cooperatives or communities. We must also be aware of “knock-offs,” what textile leaders are calling cultural appropriation or cultural plagiarism. This is rampant in the design world, where native symbols of meaning and spirituality are replicated only for the purposes of commercialization and profitability, made by invisible labor hired by factory owners who work under the most oppressive conditions. We call these sweatshops and they follow the international labor market, moving to countries where manufacturing is the most profitable, taking advantage of the lowest hourly wages with no benefits.
One way we can all reassure the continuity of native cultures and fair-market value is to buy directly from artisan makers, and when this is not possible, to purchase directly from representatives who understand and support their endeavors. Please help spread the word!
I am offering textiles and jewelry for sale in my Etsy Store. I support artisan makers. If you are interested in making a purchase, please see the Etsy Store, then send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org When you buy direct from me, I will offer you a 10% discount and a $12 flat rate mailing fee. You may purchase with Zelle, Venmo or PayPal. Thank you very much.
In addition to cultural appropriation, there is a debate raging about what to call the hand-woven, back-strap loomed garments from Mexico that many of us know as huipiles. This is plural. The singular is huipil. (Some huipiles for sale below!)
How do you say it?
(or What do you do with a banana? We peel. — Thank you, Mary Randall)
Caftan (kaftan) or tunic is a misnomer. I am reminded of this via a text message this morning from Ana Paula Fuentes, who introduced me to Las Sanjuaneras some years ago and was the founding director of the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. I promised her that you and I would have a discussion about Mexican clothing as a way to spread the word about culture.
I just want to set the record straight that I called these garments thus because it is what the American and Canadian marketplace knows and understands as a fashion definition. We’ve been acculturated since the 60’s when these garments came to us from Europe and North Africa and Asia as casual wear, beach and pool wear, loungewear. Now, with Covid-19, the idea is being reintroduced to the world of contemporary clothing as a perfect solution to comfort while we are homebound.
Let’s have the conversation: Clothing origins from Mexico deserve to be called by their true name. Huipil. Bluson. Blusa. Rebozo. Quechquemitl. Etc. And, we can spread the word about the quality of Mexico’s indigenous weaving by using the true name of the garment. People need to know these are huipiles. Not caftans or tunics.
Bluson: A short, cropped flowing version of a huipil, usually waist-length or hip-length.
Blusa: A blouse, more fitted than free-form; a universal term.
Rebozo: A shawl whose origins are from the Philippines via Spain.
Quechquemitl: A triangular pull-over shawl, scarf, cover-up that is pre-Hispanic and the first indigenous garment.
So, help us out here. When you wear one of these garments, call it a Huipil. Together, we can be influencers and talk about Mexico as being a fashion innovator rather than a follower of Euro-centric style. You give value to the weavers this way, too. Thank you.
Still some beauties from Las Sanjuaneras For Sale
To Buy: Please email me email@example.com with your name, mailing address and item number. I will mark it SOLD, send you a PayPal link to purchase and add $12 for cost of mailing. Please be sure to select Send Money to Family and Friends! We also accept Venmo and I can send you a Square invoice (+3% fee) if you don’t use PayPal.
Yes, I agree that Carolina Herrera’s new 2020 resort collection, just unveiled, is beautiful. The collection, the company says, is inspired by Mexican indigenous designs. When you look at the clothes, some of the designs are startling — exact duplicates of textiles made by hand in Mexican villages for centuries. Excusing this behavior because it is beautiful, ignores deeper questions about race, culture, heritage, history. Why don’t we call it what it is? Plagiarism. Stealing. Copying.
Okay. I’m angry.
Outrage is not based on whether a fashion house creates a beautiful line of clothing for it’s ultra-rich clientele nor does the beauty as a subjective assessment, figure into the discussion.
It is based on how and why indigenous people create the cloth they wear, who has authority and power, and who receives recognition and compensation.
Yesterday, Vanessa Friedman, fashion editor of the New York Times, wrote Homage or Theft? Carolina Herrera Called Out By Mexican Minister. It fuels the conversation about cultural appropriation issues, a hot topic today among those of us who respect indigenous people and what they make. Theirs is a history of culture, family, storytelling, spirituality and belief, through cloth as a cultural expression.
Lifting designs out of context violates the very foundation of culture. We have a hard time understanding this in the USA because we are bred in a culture of be more, earn more, get more, compete more. Here in Mexico, culture is based on community, family and ancient rituals. Clothing interprets this.
What fascinated me most was reading the comments from seemingly intelligent, considerate readers of the New York Times. I encourage you to read the comments section. There are over 450 comments. Overwhelmingly, people feel that:
the Herrera designs are beautiful and unique, and in no way resemble the indigenous clothing style of, for example, the Otomi traditional embroidered dress
there are no legal restrictions on design, and runway designs are being copied and mass-marketed everywhere
imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
artists and creatives take their inspiration from wherever they want
political correctness in art and fashion has gone too far
I was surprised to read the responses that confirm that the Western world is either ignorant of or doesn’t appreciate the issues of disenfranchisement facing talented people, who are marginalized with little or no voice and have no legal protections. I am angry that people are blinded to human rights. Someone said, There is no such thing as cultural identity.
But, why should I be surprised? Indigenous design theft is only one more version of the power and wealth imbalance of conquerors with their attendant racism.
Here is what I wrote in the NY Times comment section in response to the Vanessa Friedman article:
Here we go again! This is a recurring theme of the privileged who think that “borrowing” from indigenous cultures is equal to paying homage, respect, and XXX Many of you label cultural appropriation as PC. It’s actually a real problem in Mexico when poor people living in remote areas have no voice to protect what belongs to them. People living and creating in indigenous villages for thousands of years don’t know about PC. They do know that working the cloth takes months. They learned it from their grandmothers and the designs include sacred symbols that have cultural, spiritual and social meaning. There is no context for the designs that haven been lifted and repurposed for the ultra-rich. There is no compensation to villages whose designs have been stolen. These designs are unique. Unlike music or architecture that builds upon what came before. It is different. These are designs copied verbatim. You get thrown out of college for that! Remember? Yes, the CH designs are beautiful – but because the original designs are beautiful. Let’s get it right. Let’s collaborate, not steal. Let’s employ at a fair wage. Let’s justly compensate. This is not about liberal or conservative. This is about doing what is right in the world. I’ve been living part-time in Oaxaca and working with indigenous artisans for years. Their lives are humble, they are generous, and they are concerned about loss of culture because clothing here is identity. We can help, not hinder the cause.
In response to Gail Pellet on my Facebook page, I say:
We have seen here in Mexico with the Isabel Marant case of stealing Tlahuitoltepec designs, that lawsuits don’t work. The indigenous designs are too old to be covered by copyright and patent protection, and are legally considered part of the public domain. However, the patrimony of Mexican pre-Hispanic culture is at risk. Invasion continues in its modern form.
And, in a conversation with Carry Somers, founder of #fashionrevolution on her Instagram page, I noted:
… the luxury brands are stealing our indigenous/native designs without compensation. There is a poverty of ethics in our world.
She says: We need to look to the Nagoya Protocol to protect indigenous knowledge around biological resources and need some comparable protection for indigenous designs. Let’s hope @susana.harp.oaxaca (singer turned senator from Oaxaca) can do something about this.
Please read the NY Times feature, then the comments, and comment, too, if you like. Please don’t comment unless you read the article. Thank you.
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Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle