Colombian Indigenous Material Culture – Part 2

The following is my translation of Martha Alvarez’s conference at the 5th 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.

SENA Fashion

2. Hand-Crafty Colombia

Nearly one million Colombians live directly or indirectly off of the crafts sector, greatly contributing to the national economy. There are some 450,000 artisans, 60% coming from rural areas and Indigenous communities, and about 65% being women.

Weaving hammocks

The Artesanías de Colombia (“Colombia Handicrafts”—entity that regulates everything related to crafts in my country—has categorized and characterized the sector in three groups:

Embera basket

Indigenous handicrafts: Production of entirely useful, ritualistic, and aesthetic goods, conditioned directly by physical and social environments, constituting a material expression of culture in communities with ethnic unity, but relatively self-contained. It represents live Pre-Colombian heritage with a certain level of development.

Knitting woman

Popular handicrafts: Production of objects that are both useful and aesthetic, made anonymously by a community exhibiting complete domain over materials which are generally from each area’s habitat.

Contemporary crafts, or Neo-crafting: Production of useful and aesthetic objects within the frame of trades, whose processes offer convergence of technical and formal elements coming from other socio-cultural contexts and techno-economic levels.

During more than a decade there has been a surge in the handicraft environment bringing forth great recognition to the handcrafted product. This phenomenon has encouraged the sale of objects with design, generating enthusiasm in this type of competitive production that can be introduced to global markets.

Another prevailing characteristic is the fusion of techniques and materials: for example, you can find a traditional ceramic vessel with a decorative motif in basketry.  This added value has considerably elevated sales of these products.

3. The Wayuu Case 

The Wayuu have their settlement in the Guajira Peninsula bordering Venezuela. They have an ancient knitting tradition and create multiple objects—especially blankets, hammocks and mochilas (circular-based bags with tubular body made with needles, with woven or gauze straps).

Wayuu mochilas

Nowadays, their products present the greatest intervention from industrial and textile design, to fashion design. They can be seen at international catwalk shows, boutiques, and mingling with all sorts of objects to the point of it not being easy to recognize whether they’re original Wayuu, or not.

PROENSA fashion bag

The traditional strap, which is part of the mochila is now woven alone by the thousands, and is sold as prime material to the creation sector and leather industry. Thus, it becomes a disarticulated piece far from its essence, and prostituted by commercialization greed.

Design by Silvia Tcherassi

At the Expocrafts International fair being held in Bogotá for over 20 years, you can notice that the Wayuu stand that had a shy presence long ago, has given way to over 20 in 2010—some specialized in accessories and fashion—and next to them you can see Wayuu women promenading with their “latest designs”—objects not even they can describe when I have asked about them: blankets with trendy finish and ornaments, pricey accessories, mochilas turned into backpacks…indeed, all sorts of interventions making the originalobject unrecognizable.

Many women come to my workshop wanting to explore and learn textile techniques, and for about two years I repeatedly hear requests: —”I want to learn to knit belts, cords and Wayuu mochilas, because it’s what clients ask for all the time.” I usually wonder, and question them, “What would they feel—what would women who bequeath tradition think, when they see what their culture turns into?” They don’t answer…

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


Phones: 057+ 3112635283   – 3015991000 


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