While much attention has been focused on the pre-Columbian art of Mexico, little attention has been given to contemporary indigenous art. A clear separation is made between the modern Mexican artist who has mastered the techniques of Western art and the legion of folk artists, many of whom are marginally assimilated Indians. Ancient Mexican art is placed on a par with today's art, for it, too, is valued as the beautiful mirror of a sophisticated and dynamic culture. Today's indigenous art is usually seen as "the unvarying reproduction of one model" (S. Ramos, Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico, Austin: U. of Texas, 1962). Its model may be an ancient magical symbol, the significance of which has been lost, and the object is now merely decorative. Fortunately, a closer look at the indigenous art of the Huichol shows such generalizations to be untrue.
We have found three distinct types of art among the Huichol Indians. The first is purely religious art, in which all the symbols and elements of the product have a religious raison d'etre. Such religious art once extended into all areas of craftsmanship. It was expressed in the construction of a house and the manufacture of a chair, as well as in weaving and embroidery patterns. Religious art reached a peak of symbolic meaning in the votive objects, which we will discuss later. This art form has recently lost much of its vitality. It is well described by Carl Lumholz, who carried out unprecedented and unsurpassed field work among the Huichol between 1895 and 1898 (published in Unknown Mexico, New York, 1902; and Symbolism of the Huichol Indians, New York, 1907).
Since Lumholz did his research, the Indian has developed a greater dependence on modern Mexico's products and culture. A burgeoning trade of Huichol crafts for modern materials or money has developed within the last 50 years into the widely known folk art of Huichol "yarn paintings." Unfortunately, this second type of Huichol art is most often meaningless and repetitive. Slavishly reproduced motifs are juxtaposed at random or in simple symmetrical arrangements. Sometimes the craftsman is a "mexicanized" Huichol, or not an Indian at all; though occasionally he may be a poor mountain dweller willing to sell the shirt off his back to buy some corn for his family. As we shall see, this folk art has been adversely affected by the merchant, the tourist and the "trading post."
Even more recently, a third type of art has emerged. Here, the artist, nurtured by both religious art and folk art, bridges the gap between the two forms by expressing his individual experience and love of native culture with personal forms and structures that are renewed in the adventurous double pursuit of beauty and deep religious meaning. Tutukila, a native of the Taupuri tribe, and José Benítez Sánchez, from the Wautua Huichol tribe, are two leading exponents of the third genre, which is the original art of master-craftsmanship. (Mention should also be made here of Juan Ríos Martínez and Guadalupe González Ríos, who have also shown originality and serious artistic intent.) Both artists see their racial heritage being destroyed by attempts to integrate the Huichol more fully into modern Mexican society. They exalt Indian culture and illuminate a complex network of pre-Hispanic mythology.
The works by José Benítez Sánchez and Tutukila . . . illustrate the Creation of the World as the artists envision it through their participation in ritual and devotional exercises. The text which accompanies [the art] is drawn literally from taped explanations by the artist. To this we have done no more than add data linking each story to its larger mythological context. So, we have the unusual opportunity to explore archetypes and symbols directly interpreted by their creeators. We are dealing with pictographs which are, in a way, similar to the Aztec codices in that they preserve the sacred history of a people in the throes of spiritual conquest.
There are close links between modern Huichol folk art and the craetive expression of these artists, but the later art form pertains directly to the magical religious nature of primitive Huichol votive artifacts. The artists insist that their compositions faithfully evoke the oral traditions of their ancestors. Unlike the folk artist, these artists have participated intensely in their religious traditions and rites; yet, like the folk artists, they are not the primitive mountain dwellers which Lumholz visited at the end of the 19th century. Both José Benítez Sánchez and Tutukila have functioned in urban Mexico. So, the artist is closely involved with two different social realities (Mexican and Huichol); in his work he fulfills his need to transcend the duality of his existence by tapping his inner creative strength.
"The strength that we possess comes from our Fathers," says José Benítez Sánchez. Indeed, the ethics and the religion of the Huichol are based on following "the custom" (el costumbre or hiíki): the ritual and the traditional lifestyle transmitted by the elders of the tribe, the chanting shamans, and the grandparents who are entrusted with supervising the education of children on the family ranches. In effect, the gods of the Huichol drawn in the yarn paintings are themselves ancestors who, through their supernatural feats, organized the world in which their children now live.
The story of the Creation of the World chronicles the manner in which the ancestors emerged from an amorphous existence in darkness to find the way to light and harmonious life. Having accomplished their designs, the ancestors died physically. Following the ways of the ancestors involves the women preparing food, sweeping, weaving and caring for the young, while the men work in the fields, collect wood, build thatch roof silos and houses for the ancestors, and hunt the deer. It also involves invoking the god-Ancestors and reenacting their feats in drama-filled celebrations and pilgrimages to the five points of the earth: the center and the four corners. Through this ritualistic lifestyle, repeating timeless actions and actually impersonating the ancestors, the Huichol attempt to establish a direct relationship with the animistic spirits of nature which are none other than their Ancestors. This philosophy of life culminates eventually in death, when the wise join the pantheon of the Ancestors, becoming spirit allies and guides for their descendants.
The manifestations of the Ancestors are concrete and take such forms as earth, sun, fire, water, wind, corn, deer, rivers and rocks. The Ancestors give life and sustenance to the Huichol, while the Indian renews the powers of the Ancestors by his ritualistic conduct. The traditional way draws past and future together in an unbounded present that is a never-ending process of creation. What is here now existed before the world was created, only it now has a form and an identity supported by the activity of man in his symbiotic partnership with the ancestor spirits.
This existential religion weighted with its heavy responsibilities pervades the memory, the heart, the soul and the spirit of the artist. José Benítez Sánchez celebrates it in his yarn paintings and contemplates the gap that has developed between his sacred custom and his life in modern Mexico. Separate now from his "custom," he marvels at its beauty and significance, and dedicates himself with love to the task of reifying it in his art. In this process, he maintains his disassociation with the values of the civilized Mexican, and cannot contemplate remaining in the urban environment. At the same time, however, he has broken radically from the isolated tradition-bound ways instilled in him by his forefathers in his early youth, and he has seen "the custom" from the outside as well.
"Here we see the world, but we don't know how it was born and how it was formed by Kauyumarie (the deer spirit, soul of the gods) from a woman."* Her name is Tatéi Yurianaka. Indeed, the earth was originally a woman who lived in the first world of Watetüapa. There, Kauyumarie asked her if she would like to become a world which would be ample and inhabited by the most important gods. Kauyumarie explained that through his power, she would become a gourd-bowl, which would be the matrix of the world. She accepted and Kauyumarie entered her womb, which started expanding as though she had become pregnant.
Thus Kauyumarie is represented as a Deer-Person (at upper center) within a round ball, which is Tatéi Yurianaka's womb. He is implanting the seeds of the fruits and the plants which will sustain our lives. At the very center (pea-green field) he planted the first plants which man would collect before he learned the art of cultivation: mushrooms, wild onions, wild tomatoes, chili peppers, guajes (a legume), and two types of nopal, prickly-pear cactus. Amidst this produce, the life of which is represented as flowers and seeds, he also placed an edible worm, kawí, and the iguana to serve as food for his "angels," the future Huichol. Kauyumarie brought all these products to the earth in his basket from the first world (lavender field).
Helping Kauyumarie are his divine helpers. He placed Tatewarí, the Master of Fire (at left in the green field), in charge of the deer. The deer, whose flesh will also be a source of food, is Tatewarí's special companion, for its blood is the nurture of his soul. Tatewarí, who cooks our food, has a sacrificial knife in hand, which also symbolizes the virulence of his burn. Flames are depicted near his head, which is covered with feathers of fire, and two small calabash-gourds, yakway, containing tobacco, are suspended under his arms. He walks on flowers as does the other great deity Taweviékame, the Sun (represented on the opposite side). The deer is Maxayuavi, the Blue Deer, the ancestor of our deer. Its head is turned toward a water-hole located below its neck, which it sniffs.
Taweviékame, the future sun, is placed in charge of the turkey, his special animal, the blood of which is offered to him. A ray of blue light escapes from his hand while, above it, raw corn mush, the meal of the spirits, drips from a jar.
Below (in the pink field) Pariya (right), the Spirit of Dawn in the land of peyote, and Vieruku Temaiku, the Young Vulture as a person (left), are in charge of the prayer grouds. Next to them is the rat and the small squirrel of the sierras, both sources of food for the Huichol. The latter is stuffed for the pilgrimage to the land of peyote in the East where Pariya will dwell. Another animal is the urrawiki, a sparrow.
The world is surrounded by water. Four eagles appear from the foam of the seas which circle the earth. Each eagle is a guardian of the four corners of the earth. At their birth the first feathers appear from which magical plumed arrows will be fashioned to speak with the spirits of the world. The eagles symbolize the life of the water in the four corners. Later, the sky will form above the earth as Taheimá, the third world.
Kauyumarie is seated upon his uwén, sacred chair, which contains his strength. It is his energy which expands the belly of Our Mother Moist Earth into the world. Her womb is like a prayer-bowl fashioned out of a gourd.
* This is a direct translation of the story as written by José Benítez Sánchez on the back of the painting.
The Huichol Indians of Mexico
The Huichol Page
The Huichol Center
Indian Tribe Takes Deer To Heart - Storybook Captures Huichol Stewardship by Cheryl Wittenauer
Huichol video theater
The Huichol Page - Centro Cultural
Grupo Etnico: Huichol
So Sings the Blue Deer by Charmayne McGee
The Huichols: A Culture in Transition by Susana Valadez
The Huichol of Mexico - Their Culture, Symbolism and Art
Huichol Indians & Shamanism
The Entheogenic Trinity of the Huichol
Prayer Profile The Huichol of Mexico
Huichol legend about the origin of maize
The Huichol Culture of Mexico
Visions That The Plants Gave Us. Huichol Designs.
A Brief History of Peyote
Nayarit Online - Huichol Myths Tales - Tepic, Nayarit Mexico
Huichol flood myths
Huichol Art: Yarn and Bead Art of Mexico
Huichol shamanic art
Gallery of Huichol art
The Huichol Indians - their art and symbols, from Inside Vallarta
Gallery of Huichol Art
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