MEN’S CAPES, manta cloth with designs of gods’ eyes and toto flowers, Tuxpán de Bolaños, 97 x 95 centimeters, circa 1934. All photographs courtesy of The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
Huichol Art
and Culture

ethnographic arts


In the spring of 1934, a young American anthropologist named Robert M. Zingg climbed on the back of a mule and for the next four days rode into Mexico’s dry and mountainous Sierra Madre Occidental range. He was going to a remote community called Tuxpán de Bolaños, home to the Huichol (pronounced wee-chol), an indigenous farming people who have lived in western Mexico for centuries. When he left a year later, Zingg shipped back to the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe an ethnographic collection of six hundred artifacts, forming a significant historical record of the lives and prehispanic religious beliefs of a little-known but artistically brilliant group. For the first time in seventy-five years, extracts from the Zingg collection are on view in Huichol Art and Culture: Balancing the World, an absorbing and illuminating exhibition at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe (through February 12, 2012). An attempt to understand and explain the Huichol with empathy, scrupulous observation and intelligence, the Zingg collection also is testimony to a visually rich and uniquely beautiful culture.

WOVEN SASH IN LOOM, depicts the wet and dry season serpents that wrap around the world. Tuxpán de Bolaños, 107.6 x 46.3 centimeters, circa 1934.

Still living in the same regions of Mexico today, the Huichol have an international reputation for their colorful and elaborate yarn “paintings.” In Zingg’s time the yarn paintings did not exist; the Huichol practiced their arts exclusively for personal and ceremonial use. Nor was collecting ethnographic artifacts the anthropologist’s main reason for studying the tribe. Zingg was most interested in discovering their religious mythology and ceremonies, untouched by Catholicism and passed down through long oral recitatives sung by shamans. To that end, Zingg wrote extensively on everything he saw or was told, took hundreds of photographs and made a film of the Huichol performing rituals and dances or going about their daily lives. Many of his black-and-white images of the Huichol fill the exhibit, accompanied by excerpts of his documentary film work on a small screen.

Zingg identified the wet and dry seasons as the opposing cosmic forces that frame the Huichol cycle of myths. The Huichol dedicated themselves to keeping both the dry season gods and wet season goddesses cosseted and content, thereby balancing the world physically and spiritually through the year. It also seems evident that it was just as important to balance male and female, the natural and the sacred worlds, and the forces of light and dark. Between the ancestor spirits and the gods, the Huichol made votive offerings almost daily; their arts were essential to sustaining their world and their identity.

The objects in the exhibit are arranged around themes such as clothing and textiles, music, raising crops, religious pilgrimage and art for the gods. A marvelous replica of a family altar creates an especially visceral feeling of stepping into Huichol life and thought. Found in xiriki (god houses), the shrines were dedicated to a family’s particular ancestor gods. The gifts on the altar were small, because miniature objects were believed to hold transformative powers. Among the most vivid are the nama, tiny yarn “rugs” dangling from prayer arrows. Woven on a mat of wood sticks in geometric colors of red, black and natural white or brown, the nama (beds of the gods) were inducements to the gods to rest and relax, and maybe to listen and even grant a petition or two. Zingg collected several pristine examples, their miniscule size somehow looking humble while extending a lovely, eye-catching invitation to take a break.

VOTIVE GOURD BOWL, an early example of the technique used in Huichol yarn painting. Tuxpán de Bolaños, 20 x 7 centimeters, circa 1934.

The Huichol preference for the miniature appears also in the remarkable gods’ chairs. Small-scale versions of an uweni, a high-backed, special armchair in which a shaman sat, often for twelve hours at a time, to conduct religious and curing ceremonies, Zingg wrote that the shaman sang to the gods who would come and sit in the small chairs placed next to his. The gods’ chairs were carefully decorated with thread crosses, shamans’ wands and prayer arrows hung with parrot feathers. Three of them are grouped next to a shaman’s uweni in the exhibit. Despite their child-like air, they convey something formidable, an invincible faith and belief in an otherworldly presence.

Perhaps the most compelling pieces in the collection are the beaded gourd bowls, which take pride of place at the exhibit entrance. Cut-glass beads, in compulsory colors and designs, were imbedded one by one in beeswax. Zingg wrote that any Huichol shaman was able to interpret the votive bowls: “Holding them in his hands like a book of sacred script, he would reel off a long myth as though reading it from the designs.” Red-painted bowls belonged to the dry season gods; green was for water and rain, symbolizing the wet season goddesses. Strong whorls, swirls or undulating lines of red, blue and white beads have a simplicity and gravitas befitting an offering, and a utility—a bowl could hold something—reflecting how the supernatural and the practical were intertwined. Two gourd bowls on exhibit feature what were then unusual designs, of deer—the most sacred of all animals to the Huichol, appearing everywhere in their art—scorpions, snakes and a lizard. Among the earliest examples of representational figures, the bowls are transitional, the precursors to modern Huichol art.

Absorbed as Zingg was in tracking down mythologies, the exhibit does not mention whether he recorded anything about social customs, like a coming-of-age ceremony, or a wedding, or how the Huichol buried their dead. According to Huichol Art and Culture: Balancing the World (University of New Mexico Press) an indispensable, handsome anthology of essays and photographs accompanying the exhibit, Zingg later regretted that a weakness of his work was “an inadequate treatment of the Huichol woman and child,” partly owing to their commendable reserve around a white man. Accordingly, he missed out on delving into the sacred symbolism of their complex weaving and embroidery, discussed in the book, though he noted that there were numerous references in the myths to the “magical power of the beautiful Huichol costume.” The exhibit includes several superb examples of both men’s and women’s traditional dress, all white with a lavish use of red embellishment. The wool backstrap-loom woven carrying bags, sashes and ribbons are showstoppers of technical artistry, in which any design, whether of a flower, a butterfly or a hummingbird, could bestow protection or speak to the gods.

BEADED VOTIVE GOURD BOWL, Tuxpán de Bolaños, 20.2 x 6.5 centimeters, circa 1934.

A selection of contemporary Huichol art, especially the multicolored yarn paintings, makes an almost blinding contrast with the older styles, and suggests a greater material prosperity for the people, along with changes in taste. The minutely detailed yarn paintings, which the Huichol began to produce about twenty years after Zingg left, burst with electrifying colors bordering sometimes on neon hues, and hum with an energetic, high-octane movement of shapes and forms over the surface. The equally colorful and complex all-over beadwork decoration on gourds, wooden animal figures and masks is a relatively recent innovation, full of symbols related to Huichol beliefs. Again, everything retells stories of mythic figures, though the Huichol separate their commercial work from devotional arts, which they continue to make for themselves. Only the sacred art keeps the world in balance, which is as it should be.



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