Maya, How You Haven't Changed

A millennium's worth of textiles clothe the Lowe

For more than 1500 years the basic technology of Maya weaving has remained the same. Contemporary Maya weavers still use the backstrap loom to create the dazzling textiles and clothing they wear today, just as their ancestors did in pre-Columbian times.

"Flowers for the Earth Lord: Guatemalan Textiles from the Lowe Art Museum" marks the first curated exhibition of the museum's extensive holding of Guatemalan Maya textiles and features many colorful costumes unique to the highland villages where they were made.

Curated by University of Miami anthropology professor Traci Ardren, the exhibit includes 125 textiles dating from the early Twentieth Century, many donated to the Lowe by Mesoamerican archaeologist Samuel Lothrop, who began collecting Guatemalan textiles during visits to the region in the 1920s.

Woman's ceremonial cloth (circa 1990) from Nahualá, Guatemala
Woman's ceremonial cloth (circa 1990) from Nahualá, Guatemala

The show is complemented by historical photographs and a selection of contemporary pieces from the Lowe's Maya folk art collection of wooden slingshots and dance masks and several pieces from its pre-Columbian collection. A handful of paintings and prints is also scattered throughout.

A classic Maya cylinder vase from Petén, Guatemala, circa 700-900 A.D., depicts a woman cradling a large platter on which a dance mask or perhaps a severed human head sits. She is dressed in a black floor-length huipil with brocaded god motifs.

The image trumpets the lasting appeal of the huipil, a blouse worn by a Mayan queen more than 1000 years ago that is still popular today.

Traditional Maya clothing is gender specific, typical of the wearer's home village, and often indicative of a person's background and status.

Near the ancient vase, contemporary eye-catching huipils from weaving villages such Chichicastenango, San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Comalapa, and Nahualá are handsomely displayed, as are brightly patterned sashes, hair ribbons, shawls, pants, jackets, belts, and utility cloth or tzute .

A mannequin displays a typical man's garb from the early part of the past century, featuring a knee-length shirt, striped short pants, a plain red belt, a red head cloth, and an elaborate sash emblazoned with geometric patterns. Similar men's costumes appear on two figures in Indigenous Eye Doctor, a painting by Mariano González Chavajay.

A section of the exhibit has been devoted to textiles used by religious fraternities, or cofradías, during feast days venerating the saints. These pieces are among the most elaborate garments in the show. Typically no expense was spared to create the beautiful clothing, worn only during solemn ceremonies and often used to cloak the wooden image of a saint carried in ritual processions through village streets.

One striking example is a cofradía huipil from Nebaj fashioned from three white cotton panels and featuring a lush field of red and purple animals and rainbow-hue geometric shapes decorating its center. Purple cotton fabric adorns the blouse's neckline.

A spectacular pillowcase-size cofradía tzute (ceremonial utility cloth) boasts a rich blue background with a linear design. Finished with a burst of color and depicting mythological birds such as a double-headed eagle, the elaborate detail of the cloth reflects its creation for sacred use.

At the exhibition's entrance, a pair of albumen prints by Eadweard Muybridge, the noted nineteenth-century English photographer who tooled around Central America after being acquitted of the murder of his wife's lover, document his visit to Guatemala in 1875.

In Laundry at Quetzaltenango, Muybridge captures a group of Quiché Maya women scrubbing clothes on stone washboards. Many of the ladies wear the same type of garb represented throughout the exhibit. Tzutes and other hand-woven textiles dry on the ground nearby.

In First Day of the Coffee Season, the pioneer shutterbug recorded women at a plantation ready to pick coffee beans. The figures in the photograph wear a cornucopia of different styles, including work-friendly cortes, traditional wraparound skirts allowing free movement.

On an opposing wall, Richard B. Hoit's 1936 silver gelatin print, Types of Boys from Different Provinces of Guatemala, depicts three dapper young fellows wearing the traditional traje — the local costume of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Huehuetenango, common during the period but rarely donned today.

In the exhibit there are standout examples of 1950s Mayan men's duds, including a two-panel red headdress decorated in a zigzag motif with silk tassels garnishing its four corners. It one of the oldest of its kind in the Lowe's collection

The exhibit also features a remarkable collection of wooden slingshots typically used by farmers to hunt small game in their cornfields.

Although most of the textiles were fashioned by women, the intricate slingshots, sculptures in themselves, were created by Mayan men who also carved the wooden pipe heads and ceremonial masks on display.

The slingshots range in iconography from sacred birds such as a quetzal — the national symbol of Guatemala — to dogs mating, a mother nursing her child, even a man in a coffin.

Many of the images shared in the woven textiles and wooden slingshots seem to represent mythical figures and animals central to Maya culture.

Even though the global market appears to have swooped buzzardlike upon Guatemala's master Maya weavers, and their handmade textiles have become increasingly prized by tourists and serious collectors alike, "Flowers for the Earth Lord" transports visitors to a sacred realm of imagery that conveys an undeniable sense of a people bound by deep roots and enduring pride.

 
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