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.

Contact: http://marthalvarez-textil.blogspot.com/

Phones: 057+ 3112635283   – 3015991000

 
 
 
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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.

Contact: http://marthalvarez-textil.blogspot.com/

Phones: 057+ 3112635283   – 3015991000 
Colombia

Cartago BORDADO under Colombian sun

Photograph: /www.bordadosdecartago.com/

Cartago, Colombia – Cartago, in the department of Valle del Cauca, is undoubtedly one of the world’s prolific embroidery cradles. This Colombian area about 180 miles southwest from the capital city of Bogotá, exemplifies the rural simplicity, beauty, and fun rhythm of Colombia. The town is known nationally and internationally for its excellent embroidered textiles and apparel by artists who are true maestros of thread and needle.

Embroidery in the Valle del Cauca has developed from generation to generation to the point of making it a much appreciated regional tradition. Entire families in Cartago are devoted to this craft, dividing design and embroidery tasks among family members who embellish blouses, skirts, headbands, ruanas (poncho-like coats), guayaberas (traditional tropical shirts), bed and table linens, and more.

History of Cartago Embroidery– Spanish conquistadors brought the first hand-embroidered items to Cartago—a city they founded in 1540.

Hand embroidery became an institution since 1890 when the Vincentine sisters began to teach it in the school they ran. At the beginning, in colonial times, Spanish women were responsible for continuing the art of embroidery. Later on, mestizo women adopted the tradition and established small family enterprises that gradually obtained national and international acknowledgement and fame.

Characteristics of “Cartagüeno”

(carta/weh/no) Hand Embroidery

Cartago embroidery uses the floral and geometric design that characterizes Andalusian embroidery.

Four basic stitches are prominent: flat, crossed, looped, and knotted. Almost a hundred stitches are derived from the above, among which the best known are: cross stitch, stem stitch, cord stitch, relief stitch, flat-pass stitch, sand stitch, double Bastille, crow’s foot stitch, arrow stitch, star stitch, and angel stitch, among others.

Lately, natural materials from the Colombian flora—mainly banana leaf fibers and fique sisal (a xerophytic monocot native to the Andean regions of Colombia) are being added to traditional embroidery and have become fashionable in the textile industry.

I leave you with this fun Colombian cumbia video of Cartago so you can chair dance!

—Silvia Piza-Tandlich, translation