Beading Traditions: Huichol


 Beading Traditions: Huichol

The beading style known as Huichol (pronounced wet-chol) is generally ascribed to a process of covering a 3-dimensional form in a single layer of beads, like a mosaic, but with distinctive patterns using geometric shapes and bright colors. In fact, this artistic style is called so because of the group of people whose long standing traditions developed, and still produce, these beautiful pieces or art.

Image by Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata via Wikimedia Commons.

The Huichol are a tribe of Indigenous people from the Jalisco and Nayarit regions of Mexico, among the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, and are descendants of the ancient Aztecs. They assert that their origins are in San Luis Potosi and according to radio-carbon dating, they have thrived in their ancestral home for more than 15,000 years. Despite the violence and cultural erasure in the wake of the Spanish invasion, and later colonialism on the tribe, pre-Columbian shamanic traditions and ceremonial practices thrive today because of the resilience and geographic isolation of the Huichol people. The 18,000 people who call themselves Huichol today are related to the Hopi of Arizona who speak an Uto-Aztecan language. The Huichol are the only Indigenous speakers of Wixárika and in their native tongue they call themselves Wixáritari, or "the people".

Image by AlejandroLinaresGarcia via Wikimedia Commons.

Image by Wonderlane via Flickr.

Huichol spiritual beliefs are depicted in their artwork and typically include representations of nature, animals, and ritual objects. Animism (the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence) is central to Huichol religion: deer and wolves that speak to man, arrows that impart prayers, serpents that bring rain or transmit skill in embroidery, pumas that are messengers of the Gods — are all widely accepted Huichol beliefs. In the center of this belief system are four principal deities: the trinity of maize (maxra), Blue Deer (iku), peyote (hikuri), and the Eagle. 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.

Image by Thayne Tuason via Wikimedia Commons.

The distinctive works created by the Huichol feature brightly colored beads impressed with wax on animal forms, vibrant yarn paintings, textiles, and many other creations. The religious and cultural significance is represented through symbology on clothing, bags, beaded animal carvings, prayer bowls, masks, and yarn paintings. Carvings, beadwork, and yarn paintings (nierikas) are created using an adhesive made from beeswax and tree resin, and each bead or piece of yarn is carefully impressed into the adhesive which is then left to harden.

Image by Mario Jareda Beivide via Wikimedia Commons.

Many yarn paintings (nierikas) and beaded sculptures have become produced for commercial consumption in recent decades, despite the imagery holding deeply sacred meaning. In fact, designs have become somewhat conventionalized, making it difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint Huichol art to specific individuals. There is some controversy in the global art world surrounding the authenticity of Huichol-made goods, considering the scale on which this commercial art is being produced.  Another point has been made that the use of traditional symbology and production of traditional designs in modern markets dissolves the sacred meaning of Huichol art. Finally, the use of non-traditional imagery that incorporates Western culture or modern images has been controversial for the same reason. Many of these non-traditional Huichol goods were produced for tourist markets, which economically benefits Huichol artisans. For some, the main purpose of producing Huichol art for commercial trade is to enable Huichol communities to retain their language, religion, and customs by continuing and expanding traditional art.

The strong sense of cultural identity as a result of isolation preserves Huichol lifeways and their artistic traditions. Although no culture is immune to change, the Huichol have succeeded in the development of a unique cultural style that is mostly uninfluenced by Western ideologies and fads. However, many pockets of Western beadwork have been influenced by Huichol designs with contemporary bead artists pulling inspiration from this traditional art style. The debate of cultural appropriation vs. appreciation and influence will always be a debate; what is not debatable is the fact that this distinct artform has a deep and rich heritage that is still continuing today and will be far into the future.

Jan 12, 2021 - Museum of Beadwork

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  • Heather Kahn
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