A quiver full of prayers
Nature, supernature, and the Huichol
Mexican yarn paintings are popular with folk-art collectors for their vibrant colors and bold designs. The story behind this form and its creators, the Huichol people of remote western Mexico, are the subject of a fascinating new exhibit and book by the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture and the Museum of New Mexico Press.
Both the exhibition, sponsored in part by the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, and the companion volume, Huichol Art and Culture:
Balancing the World, highlight the collection of Robert M. Zingg, the first American anthropologist to conduct extensive fieldwork among the Huichol people in 1934 and 1935. This collection of sacred artwork and ceremonial objects obtained by Zingg has been in storage for years but is being exhibited to shed light on the ways of this relatively unspoiled traditional culture.
The Huichol’s remote homelands in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains — south of Mazatlan, west of Zacatecas and north of Guadalajara — have allowed them to maintain pre-Christian, pre-Hispanic traditions that are rich in symbolism, mythology, and ritual.
The Huichol were encouraged by outsiders like Zingg to create the yarn paintings as a commercial folk-art product. Starting in the 1950s, this craft brought money to the Huichol community but allowed the people to maintain a cultural boundary. Traditional Huichol art practices continued, while in workshops set up closer to distribution centers, commercial products were developed by Huichol artists and craftspeople, ending up in galleries, shops, and museums all over the world.
Zingg’s collection of traditionally decorated votive gourd bowls, shamans’ chairs, feather work, embroidered clothing, prayer arrows, and beaded jewelry offers insight into an indigenous culture with a highly developed visual aesthetic. The images and designs that decorate these artworks are even more elaborate in the yarn paintings.
“The show is really about the Huichol people and their culture,” said Melissa Powell, MIAC’s curator of archaeology. “Theirs is a living culture.” C. Jill Grady, a Santa Fe resident and cultural anthropologist, wrote her dissertation on Huichol culture and co-edited Huichol Art and Culture with Powell. Both were on hand at MIAC’s basement studio to offer a preview of the objects from the Zingg collection that would soon be moved upstairs.
“These are religious pieces,” Grady said. “The designs are dictated by Huichol mythology.” She picked up an arrow decorated with a feather and tiny woven squares of fabric. “These are prayer arrows,” she said. “They shoot prayers to God.” The tiny pieces of fabric are called nama, and they represent little beds for the gods to rest on while they listen to the prayers.
The idea of balance central to the Huichol religion is reflected in the culture’s almost obsessive relationship to the seasons, according to Grady, who lived with the Huichol during her doctoral studies. In Huichol mythology, the rainy season is the domain of the female deities, while the dry months belong to the male gods. The dry season is a time for hunting deer and collecting peyote for ceremonial purposes, which requires a 300-mile trek to the desert north of Huichol territory. The rainy season is a time for planting and honoring the goddess of corn. According to Grady, the exact number of prayers and offerings made to the dry season gods are also made to the wet season deities. Balance is the goal.
Many of the votive objects Grady and Powell chose for the exhibit — like the string of tropical feathers used to summon the gods or the lacquered gourd bowls decorated with beads to be used in ceremonies — are not only beautiful, but their purposes fulfill specific functions. The bowls, for example, are fitting offerings for the rain goddesses: they hold water; they imply femininity.
Shamans, both male and female, play important parts in Huichol culture, and Powell noted that Zingg brought back a shaman’s chair and two miniature chairs — decorated with prayer arrows, thread crosses, and shaman’s wands — where the gods are invited to sit during ceremonies.
Girl with ceremonial face painting, Las Latas, 2008;