Mexican Folk Art 101: Huichol Art

Foreword

Folk art is rooted in the history and culture of every nation. The appreciation of folk art strengthens the identity of a community and enables it to take pride in its history. In many cases, the appeal of folk art is centered on the many ways it can connect people across cultures, in the sublime appreciation of the different ways in which a community has chosen to express themselves. Folk art comes alive in different ways for different individuals and different reasons. This series will explore the many ways in which that 'magic' happens.


This series will be divided as follows:

  1. Mexican Folk Art 101: Ancestry and Modernity

  2. Mexican Folk Art 101: Alebrijes

  3. Mexican Folk Art 101: Tree of Life

  4. Mexican Folk Art 101: Skulls and Skeletons

  5. Mexican Folk Art 101: Huichol Art

  6. Mexican Folk Art 101: Talavera Pottery

The Huicholes, or Wixárikas, are a group of indigenous people living in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range which runs through the northwest, southeast, and western Mexico, and crosses the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Durango, and Zacatecas. The Huicholes speak Tewi Niukiyari, which is considered to be one of Mesoamerica’s oldest tongues (Excelsior, 2017). One of the key aspects of their culture is their close relationship between the peyote cactus and their religious beliefs. They call this cactus Tau given that they believe it is a descendant of the Sun (Excelsior, 2017). During the drought season, the Huicholes travel to Wirikuta, a sacred place in which they believe gods live and where they are able to collect peyote and use it in ceremonies to ‘find life’ (SLP, 2021). The Huichol way to make art is a tradition that has been preserved for more than 15,000 years, and which remains largely unchanged today (Museum of Beadwork, 2021).


Huichol Woman Artisans. Wikimedia. 20th Century.

At the start of the 20th Century, Huichol art began to gain popularity in Mexico, particularly the pieces that involved beads (chaquiras in Spanish). Two-dimensional objects, such as paintings, and three-dimensional objects, such as bracelets, earrings and necklaces, in which colourful representations of nature, gods, and mythical beings became the most popular. Additionally, pieces made with yarn of various hues were also popular at this time, particularly those made by José Benítez Sánchez and Mariano Valadez (Neurath, 1995).


Each piece of beaded Huichol art is unique and is inspired by the consumption of peyote during their religious rites. As it is explained by the Museum of Beadwork (2021), ‘ritual consumption of peyote (hikuri) has allowed Huichol people to communicate with their extensive pantheon of ancestral deities, and influenced the production of art with manifestations of these deities.’ Each piece is a reflection on the experience of being initiated into a religious ritual (Enciso, 2011). The most important part of these rituals, as Enciso (2011) points out, is that each new ritual is experienced as though it were the first time. That is, even though the artists have participated already in rituals in previous years, every single time they decide to participate again, they are starting from zero. Art is not made with completed knowledge about techniques or colour palettes, they do not have a finite amount of knowledge that is applied in the artistic process, each new piece is a start of a journey rather than an end.


Artesanias Huicholes. Wikimedia. 20th Century.

In order to produce beaded three-dimensional objects, such as the figurines portrayed in the photograph above, it is necessary to pick each bead by hand and using a needle to place the bead on the ‘frame’ or body of the object. This body needs to be prepared with the so-called ‘cera de Campeche’ or Campeche wax, a type of wax produced by bees in the tropical region of Mexico (Arte Huichol, n.d.). It is necessary to place each bead carefully on the wax so that the wax does not cover the bead and hide its colour away. The wax acts as a glue to keep the beads in place but it also confers a finishing gloss to the artwork. This can be best appreciated in three dimensional objects such as statues. Wearable bead art such as bracelets, necklaces, and earrings are sewn by hand with a thin needle and thread. The patterns on these pieces of art are often geometric and the palette used can have colours that can complement or even contrast with each other. Motifs such as jaguars, eagles, and hummingbirds can also be used in these types of art, and their prevalence has increased in recent years (Arte Huichol, n.d.).


The Huichol people are conscious of the necessity to remain relevant in the modern world. As scholar Rozenn Le Mur (2018) points out in their research article on how Huichol art has adapted to modern technology, due to the impact social media has had on the community Huichol art (both beaded and string or yarn art) has had to find its place in the new market. This is also why today Huichol art can even be found on footwear, alcohol bottles, helmets, and even coffee travel mugs, and why there are even tutorials on how to make simple Huichol art at home (Arte Huichol, n.d.). It is important to note that while these tutorials can be interesting and provide a closer look at the way in which Huichol art is produced, they lack the mysticism provided by the peyote and the ancestral knowledge of Huichol artisans.


Sneakers with Huichol Art. Arte Huichol. 20th Century.

Through medias, the Huichol community has been able to reach audiences across the globe, from Canada and the United States, to Europe and Australia, and the popularity of their creations continues to grow. Additionally, social media has allowed for the Huicholes to connect with other indigenous groups with whom they would have not otherwise been able to have a close relationship with (Le Mur, 2018). A downside to their growth in popularity, however, appears to be the damage that an increase in tourism has done to the Huichol settlements. As Le Mur (2018) points out, the exploitation of the peyote plants has led to a decrease in the specimens found in the wild. Additionally, the higher demand for Huichol art puts the artisanal ways of producing it at risk and the danger of the art becoming an industrial, mass-produced process is stronger than ever (Le Mur, 2018). Given that the essence of traditional Huichol art lies in its uniqueness, once the patterns and motifs become mass produced and flood the market, their distinguishing uniqueness would inevitable be diminished.


Therefore, it has become necessary for Huicholes to seek formal protection of their cultural, and religious practices as well as their way of life. The Huicholes have sought out help from the United Nations, the Mexican Government, and the International Commission on Human Rights to achieve this goal (Enciso, 2011). Legal reforms have begun to be implemented to protect the Huichol people (Enciso, 2011) but there remains work to be done to ensure that they continue to thrive in this modern, technologically driven world.


Bibliographical References:

Arte Huichol. Arte huichol chaquiras. Arte Huichol. https://artehuichol.com.mx/arte-huichol-chaquiras/


Enciso L., A. (2011, November 21). Los huicholes no van a ceder, porque su historia es de resistencia: Neurath. La Jornada. https://www.jornada.com.mx/2011/11/21/sociedad/040n1soc


Excelsior. (2017, March 21). Tradiciones: Los huicholes, una de las culturas más fascinantes de México. Excelsior. https://www.excelsior.com.mx/nacional/2017/03/21/1153279


Le Mur, R. (2018). Las estrategias discursivas de los artesanos huicholes en el marco turístico / Discursive Strategies of Huicholes Craftsmen Within a Tourist Framework. Scielo. http://www.scielo.org.mx/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0188-70172018000200097


Museum of Beadwork (2021, January 12). Beading Traditions: Huichol. https://www.museumofbeadwork.org/blogs/news/teaching-tuesday-huichol-beadwork


Neurath, J. (1995). Huicholes. Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas. https://www.gob.mx/cms/uploads/attachment/file/11223/huicholes.pdf


SLP. (2021, April 21). Muestras culturales de los WIXÁRITARI-HUICHOLES. SLP Gov. https://slp.gob.mx/patrimonio/Paginas/Muestras-culturales-de-los-WIX%C3%81RITARI-HUICHOLES.aspx


Visual Sources


Author Photo

Analicia Garcia Priego

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