text: Luciana Jabur
Throughout human history, textiles have played a rich part in the lives and traditions of people of all cultures, especially in places like Guatemala, land of the Mayan colored textiles. The Museo Ixchel del Traje Indigena, or the Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Dress, honors the country’s textile history in its impressive collection of weavings, textiles and dress works to conserve the traditional practice of Mayan weaving. The permanent collection features clothing from 181 communities in Guatemala.
Violeta Gutierrez, the Textile Technical Director and Adjunct Curator of The Ixchel Museum granted Handeye Magazine an exclusive interview, and spoke candidly on her vital work at the Museum. Violeta’s professional trajectory from 1994 to present is highlighted in a flawless curriculum allowing her to pave the way towards her current honorable status. She started off as the Museum guide, then was put in charge of Regional Indigenous dresses department. Later she became the administrator of the documentation of the museum’s main collection which led her to be invited to work on special work assignments including the Textile Collection of the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala, the Museum of Americas in Madrid and an international exhibition in Chile. She also does traditional textile-related field research, which is of the highest value to her job. In August of this year she was given the well-deserved current title as the museum curator.
HAND/EYE: Can you tell us what you main responsibilities are at the Museum?
Violetta Gutierrez: My day-to-day work involves making technical examinations, documenting conditions, estimating time period, recommending conservation treatment, determining the “purpose” of the attire, which could be for daily use, religious and political ceremonies and rituals. I’m also responsible for researching how techniques, fabrics, patterns have been evolving.
I feel that the Museum’s and my personal responsibility transcend the Museum’s walls. We are “Heritage Caretakers”, serving and reflecting diverse people and communities of Guatemala. Conveying the history and culture of diverse indigenous people in Guatemala through the history of the textiles is a central part of our job. We must always think ahead to future generations and how we can instill in them the respect for tradition. A textile is not a simple cloth; it carries a lot of historical information.
VG: Examining the garments is especially interesting, with various technical details to be discovered. I am able to analyze how sophisticated they were in terms of materials and techniques and establish ethnographical aspects. There is so much information you can obtain from studying different patterns, number of stitches, colors etc. which makes me passionate about my work.
Our main task is that all pieces are under the correct preservation. We have all the expertise to do that. On the other hand we face funding challenges. The Museum has more than 7,227 pieces including huilipes (blouses), su’t (kind of multipurpose fabric) worn by women and men, and cortes (skirts) dating from the late 19th and early 20th century. Since 2000, thanks to donations received from foundations, private donors and embassies, sixty percent of the collection has been securely preserved. We are still short of US$ 350,000 to conclude the preservation work of the current collection.
H/E: Do you see the Mayan textile tradition as endangered?
VG: Well, not endangered but changing. For instance, modern huipiles for a long time have been subjected to “mainstream” fashion trends. The colors and designs, variations on traditional patterns, are evolving styles. For instance, synthetic fabrics and machine embroidery are common these days, but still they are traditionally huipil-shaped. Pure cotton, handmade garments cost more* and are time-consuming, but they are long-lasting.
*a huipil can cost 4,000 Quetzales (US$ 525) which is twice as much the minimum wage in Guatemala.
H/E: Is there a particular project that you would like to see come true?
VG: Given the Museum’s strong ties with communities, I would love giving back to them all we have learned from them over the years. I dream of an itinerary exhibition that could travel to the most remote areas to teach the new generation the origins of their textiles and weaving heritage which unfortunately are not documented in the local level, I mean, in villages and rural areas. It would be a way to rekindle their traditions and make them proud of their heritage.