Since 1972, Chip Morris has been captivated by the art and textiles found throughout Chiapas, Mexico. While living in the isolated village of San Andrés and learning the Tzotzil Maya language, he became fascinated by the meaning within Mayan artisanal fabrics. After studying Chinese at Columbia University and focusing on symbolism, Chip was naturally drawn to the discovery and significance of these ancient works of art. He then began researching the diverse costumes and textiles of Mexico, which has since led to his present career where he is passionately devoted to the preservation and promotion of Mayan weaving.
HAND/EYE: How did the idea to write your new book, The Woven History of Chiapas begin to take form?
Chip Morris: I was interested in modern Chiapas Mayan attire and wanted to write about how the transition from ancient to contemporary styles occurred. With this being said, I had to look at the history of Mayan textiles, which took me back 3,000 years. I began to see that designs and styles from different periods of Mayan history—Classic Mayan designs, Spanish colonial attire, the Mexican Revolution and others—were being preserved in the people’s daily and ceremonial clothing. Each of the hundreds of Mayan communities are preserving a different historical moment expressed in their dress. When you put it all together, the entire history of Chiapas is being worn by the Maya today. I thought that it could be an interesting story.
H/E: This is a large topic to cover… what was the ‘ah ha’ moment when you knew a book such as this needed to be written?
CM: Chiapas weaving has evolved dramatically in the last 20 years, with the most obvious example being from the Zinacantan, where the clothing was plain with simple stripes. Suddenly, they were embroidering flowers that covered the weavings in bright colors that were hard not to notice. The local experts were all lamenting that the Maya had changed and therefore traditional culture was going down the tubes. I realized that they were wrong, that the modifications into new design motifs were a sign of life and that very ancient traditions were still being carefully preserved in their ceremonial dress. It intrigued me that the Maya were able to be both flamboyantly creative and very traditional at the same time.
H/E: While doing research, what surprised you most?
CM: The big surprise was how little I knew. I had studied Mayan dress extensively in the 1970s, and made numerous collections, wrote catalogs, and books. I thought that I knew all about it. When I started looking at Mayan dress again after 2000, I found that I had ignored about half of the different costumes, especially those that were not made out of hand woven cloth. In the 1970s, I collected information from approximately 60 communities, each with its own textile tradition. When I looked again, I found well over a hundred.
H/E: What is your fascination with textiles as well as Chiapas?
CM: Textiles are the main visual art form of the Chiapas Maya. There are a few painters, some sculptors, but there are over a million women who weave or embroider. The sheer numbers makes for a very dynamic medium, with women competing about who can make the most elaborate and beautiful clothing that is both traditional and new. Like all art, it teaches us a great deal about their culture. But what really spoke to me, was what is being expressed within their textiles. They are like messages to one another with no regard to what we may think. When interpreting these weavings, I can listen to what they are saying about tradition, their communities, and who they are in the twenty first century. It is a very different world and that is what is fascinating to me.
H/E: Where do you see the future of traditional textiles moving in the future? Do you think a revival is in the works?
CM: Right now, there is a renaissance of weaving and embroidery in most communities throughout Chiapas. What is worn today is more complex and more technically proficient than what was made a generation ago. This is more than a revival; it is a renewal of Mayan culture. What will happen in the future, I can’t say and my record on prophesying is not good. Forty years ago, I was sure that weaving in Chiapas would become extinct, which is the reason why I made the collections. Now I am working on a new project to document how their craft has transitioned and, in many cases, improved. It may all die out tomorrow, as the clothing gets so elaborate that no one can afford to wear it. However, I hope that the production will continue for centuries, evolving, adapting, and remain creatively traditional.
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