Mexico travel tips: Huichol Indians folk art
For those planning a Mexico vacation, a visit to the Sierra Madre in the western region of the country will be one of the highlights. This is the homeland of the Huichol Indians, one of the few indigenous peoples to resist the Spanish conquest and the catholicism brought with it.
Numbering less than 20,000, their greatest concentrations can be found in the states of Jalisco and Nayarit. Their settlements are scattered in an area that is ruggedly beautiful with mountains, high mesas, and steep canyons.
Their origin is as mystical as their art. Some say they are descendants of the Aztecs, others suggest they originally came from Asia (which would give credence to the thought that they are connected to certain coastal tribes), and others believe they are related to the Hopi Indians of Arizona.
Devotedly spiritual and deeply connected to nature, they believe all life is sacred. Ceremonies revolve around their trinity: deer, corn, and peyote. Inspiration for their art is believed to come from these ceremonies. The vivid colors within the art are part of their interpretation of these visions.
The Huichol believe they evolved from spirit animals, and in some circles they are known as the wolf people. The ability to transform oneself into a wolf is a very old shamanic skill, passed through the ages. However, there are only a select number of shamans who are able to master this technique, and are held in high esteem by their neighbors. The shaman is the vital link between the Huichol and their gods.
Their traditional dress of vibrant colors and exquisitely embroidered symbols on white cotton provides an unmistakable identification. Symbols include deer, jaguar, serpent, eagle, corn, peyote, scorpion, wolf, and many more. Each of these animals is honored and respected in the symbolic world of the Huichol.
The beadwork and yarn paintings of the Huichol are available throughout the country, but commercially, the greatest concentration of their art can be found in Tepic, Nayarit. Some of them set up tables along the west end of the plaza which are then filled with a varied selection.
If the selection at the zocalo is not enough, there are several stores in the vicinity that can provide you with more options. There is also a Huichol co-op with a great selection of beadwork and yarn paintings. If you’re able to establish a connection with one of them, perhaps you’ll be fortunate to visit their community overlooking the city.
The beaded pieces begin with a wood-carved figure that has been allowed to dry. Then a mixture of beeswax and pine resin is applied to the surface of the wood. The artist will use a long pin, quill or any object small enough to insert through the hole of the beads, which are then applied onto the beeswax, one bead at a time. Men, women and children all participate in this application. The women, due to their smaller fingers, are a bit more nimble when applying the beads. All, however, are a pleasure to watch as they move rapidly from color to color and symbol to symbol. Masks, animal figures, offering bowls and ornament pieces are the end result of this tedious process.
For the yarn paintings, a similar technique is employed with the exception that they now work on a flat surface, working with scissors. Today's yarn paintings are produced using tightly spun acrylic yarn. Older yarn paintings, if you’re lucky enough to find one, were made with wool.
When considering a beaded art purchase, there are several things to remember. The bead art comes in two bead sizes: very small and very, very small. The spacing of the beads determines quality. Tightly placed beads with complex designs command higher prices. Even more so with the smaller beaded pieces. With the yarn paintings, look for tightly spun yarn and, like the bead work, closely placed yarn strands.
Because the beeswax mixture is a primary part of the artwork, exercise caution when leaving the piece in extreme heat for extended periods of time. If that occurs, be careful in handling it, placing the piece in a more temperate climate, and your artwork is safe. Properly displayed in your home or office, it will provide years of enjoyment and a glimpse into an other worldly vision.