People of the Earth
BY Annie Waterman | July 21, 2011
The Textiles of the Mapuche
The Mapuche people say, “We are part of nature, and nature is part of us.” They are a culture rich in tradition and religion, settled throughout the lush forests and mountain terrain of Southern Chile and Northwestern Argentina. For countless generations, weaving has played an integral role in the lives of Mapuche women. This ancient craft is being revived with the help of Cholchol, a Chilean based non-profit organization, empowering over 200 women artisans. These textiles are more than beautiful pieces of art, but centuries of history that speak of the Mapuche’s profound connection to their land.
These woven fabrics were traditionally made as functional pieces in soft, earthy colors including blankets, ponchos, blankets, and shawls. They are rich with motifs, telling ancient stories about their close relationship between the living and their ancestors. Women incorporate symbolic abstract figures, which are represented by diamonds, zigzags, geometrical lines, crosses, medicinal plants, stars, eyes, snakes and more. For example, geometric eyes symbolize are the window of one’s soul and diamonds signify containers used for storing and distributing ceremonial drinks. These symbols capture concepts of union, community, spiritual forces, charisma, levels of prestige, and the earth's elements.
The Andean cross is commonly represented on the “Trarikan” ponchos worn by “lonkos” or chiefs. This is an intricate weaving and dying technique otherwise known as “ikat,” which is passed down to specific weavers within a community. These ponchos are particularly sacred and respected, embodying a sense of pride, status, wealth, masculinity, social ranking, and adulthood. They are often given as gifts and used for various ceremonies. This garment is distinguished by the interlocking geometric patterns, representing “the infinite.” They are exceptional in their bold cross pattern of black and white and occasionally seen in shades of red and deep purple. Black represents the color of a noble man and the deep red tones are associated with authority and blood, a sign of life energy.
The most commonly seen Mapuche technique is called the “Nimikan,” which is widely practiced today. Both techniques are made on a vertical loom called a “Huicha Huichahue,” which means “standing on the floor”. All patterns and symbols come from one’s mind, where the weavers become architects, mathematically dividing and calculating the number of horizontal and vertical threads used on the loom.
The weavings are not only unique in their iconography, but in the connection that is made between the artisan and their work. Johanna Perez Ray from the Cholchol foundation says, “When a women completes a weaving, it is like giving birth to something.” They take pride in this craft and feel it is important to be a part of the process from start to finish. A spiritual bond is formed as all materials are sourced from one’s land, from the fruits and vegetables used to make their natural dyes to the sheep that they raise for their wool. These pieces are cultural expressions which are regaining value, and therefore allow the Mapuche women to work from home, reviving and sustaining their traditional ways of living.
For more information, please contact Johanna Perez Ray at Johanna@cholchol.org or visit www.cholchol.org.