Colombian Indigenous Material Culture – Part 1

The following is my translation of Martha Alvarez’s conference at the 6th WTA International Biennial of Contemporary Textile Art in Veracruz, Mexico. I find Indigenous cultures a fascinating source of inspiration and stamina from the human point of view, far beyond being the textile basis we already knew about.              —Silvia Piza-Tandlich

Indigenous Material Culture Within the Global Frame of Contemporary Crafts

This conference poses reflection upon the present situation and weaving practices—as well as their resulting objects of material culture, within the context of the Indigenous world—interferences in these practices, and changes generated in order to introduce objects into the global market.

1. Indigenous Material Culture & Crafts

A society’s material culture arises in order to provide the necessary elements to satisfy utility and ceremonial basic needs as far as housing, transport, attire and accessories. To Indigenous groups these are objects of identity, world representation and, at the same time, an extension of the universe.

Maruamake – Kogui village

The object is made in a tight relationship between the Indigenous and their natural environment, allowing self-stocking up with materials that are going to transform, with a permanent dialogue with their surroundings.

Kogui dwelling in progress – Sierra Nevada

Generally, weaving is a feminine occupation and gathering materials is a masculine task, with few exceptions such as the case of Arhuaco, where man gathers material and weaves cotton for his characteristic attire and cap. Since the woven object is produced and matter is transformed by the Indigenous themselves, they don’t have a real understanding of the value it might have at market, which is the reason why many times intermediaries buy it cheap, and sell it for a lot of money.

Embera woman at work

It is important to mention that the woven object carries a great symbolic and cosmogonic charge upon its creator and the bearer. An arhuacan bag is designed and created according to the person using it, because it denotes the comings and goings of its owner’s life, which is to say the thread is the course of life itself. Werregue basketry shows an entire shamanistic ceremony, or a daily scene such as weaving, thus turning us into its collocutors.

Arhuaca bags

These elements become crafts when produced in series with the aim to exchange them, supply a market, and receive supplemental income, thereby losing a great deal of its primal intent.

Colombia has over 80 Indigenous cultures who own an ancestral weaving legacy: basketry, cord making, needle and loom knitting. Some stand out for the aesthetic value of their elements, such as Wayuu, Wounaan, Embera, Sinú, Kogui, Arhuaca, Cofán, and Inga—to name only a few. Each has specialized in distinctive products, well-liked in national and international markets (more so the latter), such as the case of Werregue and Wounaan baskets, or Wayuu and Arhuaca bags, or Embera and Inga chaquira (beaded) knitting, or Cofan and Inga belts.

Embera woman, weaving

These elements come as legacy from trade, myth, and tradition, generation after generation. They are preserved thanks to having daily-use character and, through time, they have transformed due to external influences. That is how certain fibers get replaced, and natural original pigments become synthetic. Shape and color are also changing due to trends, globalization, or more competitive market demands.

Werregue baskets

Due to the great aesthetic, practical, and ethnic value of Indigenous knits, their products have become popular in craft markets, and with collectors and specialized galleries, formalizing its creators’ role within artisan associations. Now with this status plus active entry into the artisans’ sector, they can receive ongoing capacitation and consulting such as the agreement between Indigenous authorities and Artesanías de Colombia (“Crafts of Colombia”)or some other specialized outfit, offering capacitation in the fields of organization for production, administration and business development, capacitation and consulting in crafting processes, design and re-design, innovation, product development, and marketing.

U’wa grandmother, knitting

I would say there are two clear lines of production: tradition, and innovation or intervention. In the latter the industrial designer gives instruction as far as transformation of material culture objects, orchestrating and/or sometimes imposing criteria, which sometimes lacks knowledge of ethnic processes and dynamics, and even disrespecting know-how, practice, and tradition. These resulting products are in great demand in certain marketing segments, but they’re not taken inside the community for obvious reasons.


Author, Martha Liliana Alvarez Ayala is a Colombian textile artist, consultant and independent researcher.


Phones: 057+ 3112635283   – 3015991000


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