With Mother’s Day just around the corner, my grand-daughter and I were crafting some beads and charms for her to use in creating a hand-made gift for her mom. As we looked through my high-school-vintage jewelry box for ideas, we came across a pair of Huichol earrings that I bought on a visit to Mexico for her parents’ wedding back in the 1990’s. The seed beads were so tiny and the craftsmanship so precise that it’s downright embarrassing to recall that I paid only $3 for this delicate work! If you admire this sort of exquisite artistry, then it’s time to get over to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on Museum Hill to see the Huichol exhibit currently on display there.
Featuring the Robert M. Zingg (great name, huh?) collection from the Laboratory of Anthropology, this exhibit, though small, is broad enough to show a variety of media that demonstrate the patient work of this indigenous culture. Just before you enter the Huichol show, you can view a retrospective of the work of the late Maidu/Portugese painter Harry Fonseca, well known in Santa Fe over the past decades. If you have enjoyed Fonseca’s work over the years, this is a nice opportunity to see it again, along with a video interview recorded with the artist before his passing. It was particularly interesting to see his piece on the Maidu creation story before viewing the Huichol versions of creation. As Fonseca says, “Because the story is so wonderful and creation stories don’t end, I’m part of it, you’re part of it, everybody’s part of this story that’s continuing to unfold.” This is a perfect sentiment with which to approach any art exhibit, because we are all part of a continuing story, and ancient cultures like those represented at this museum endure because those who are living the traditions recognize that they are part of this continuum.
Creation myths abound in all cultures, and the Huichol are no exception, with tales of beginning rendered in yarns and beads. I remember my grade school days in art class, laboriously making yarn paintings that used the same technique as the Huichol, but, oh my, what a difference! These intricate and colorful stories in yarn, pressed into beeswax spread on a board, were part of a concerted effort to preserve traditional crafts while creating a viable commercial product for this Native culture. While the early efforts were more basic, by the 1970’s, the imagery became increasingly complex, with artists using thinner yarns to tell more complicated tales. The early works had a more muted palette, but later works benefited from the greater range of commercial dyes. As the artists became more skilled, they also began to balance the fuerte (strong) and bajito (soft) colors in combination to create more subtle artistic effects, in conjunction with anemotional goal of moving back and forth between feelings while maintaining balance and control, an ideal state of dynamic equilibrium to which we can all aspire.
The Huichol were considered by Zingg to be a strikingly visual culture, using lavishly decorated objects to communicate with their spiritual world. Dance staffs are painted, hats are embellished with red felt crosses, feathers and animal tails, even the miniature chairs set out at ceremonies for the gods are decorated with visual prayers and offerings. I found the diminutive size of the offerings to the gods to be quite charming in its modesty, as if understanding that the gods already know their own grandness and don’t wish to overwhelm their supplicants. These miniatures are believed to hold transformative powers, and with the Western concept of a multitude of angels on the head of a pin in mind, it was enchanting to see a wee woven rug or bed, nama, on which the gods were invited to perch. Ditto for the thread crosses, tsikuri, which are made as a petition for the health, safety and well-being of Huichol children and are similar to the familiar Ojo de Dios (Eye of God) crosses that Santa fe school-children all seem to make in art class. Small scale can be so refreshing!
And the beadwork! Votive gourd bowls, used for ceremonies, are lavishly decorated with seed beads and then “read” by shamans who are able to recount long myths from the design. Votive objects also frequently display the recurring theme of balance, with representations of wet and dry seasons, requests for aid and thanks for aid received, or images of male and female deities from the Huichol pantheon. Beading extends to personal accessories as well, shown here in several pairs of earrings, all far more elaborate than my humble pair.
As a textiles graduate, I was naturally drawn to the weavings, demonstrated in this exhibit by clothing for both men and women, along with ribbons of intricate interlocking designs, both abstract and representational. I especially liked the pocket belts of small woven bags of mixed designs, perfect for stashing tobacco, art supplies, a snack or a peyote button, a key ingredient in certain ceremonies of many Native cultures. The larger woven pouches on display were useful for freeing up one’s hands on a trek through the rugged sierra that is the habitat of this enduring culture.
Once your eyes have drunk their fill of Zingg’s collection, you can stop at the excellent Colleen Cloney Duncan Gift Shop, where you can admire, or even purchase, some of the Huichol crafts on display for sale. While not at the bargain basement price I paid for my earrings in Mexico, many of these items are quite reasonably priced, and it is always a pleasure to buy from a museum shop, because you are assured that the artists are both respected and treated fairly. And of course, just being in Santa Fe itself, with its broadly cross-cultural population means that you may encounter a modern Huichol passing you on the Santa Fe Plaza – who knows?