Since 1935, the German-American artists Josef and Anni Albers made 13 trips to Mexico over three decades. On each, they examined the pyramids and crumbling palaces of civilizations prior to the European invasions that began in the 16th century. They were drawn to the Grecas, ribbons of complex geometric patterns that unfolded in sand-colored stone mosaics over the high walls of Mitla, an ancient Zapotec archeological site in the southern state of Oaxaca. These buildings and landscapes inspired Anni to create works such as the legendary wall hanging from 1968 that she designed for the lobby of the Mexican hotel Camino Real.
Twenty years later, when Mario Chávez Gutiérrez (40) started weaving his first carpet at the age of 8, his father Juan, a master weaver in the Zapotec village of Teotitlán del Valle, also referred him to Mitla and instructed him to make it new to create his tiered waistband pattern. By practicing these designs, his father said, he could learn the basic techniques for using the family’s two-meter-wide wooden treadmill. Gutiérrez mastered his craft by copying his family’s designs and eventually combining them with new ones introduced in the 1980s when American carpet sellers hired weavers from Oaxaca to make Navajo-style carpets. Gutiérrez continued to refine his skills until he was able to render difficult curves – relatively unusual in Zapotec weaving mills – without errors.
Oaxaca City-based designer and textile artist Daniel Villela, 37, came across Gutiérrez’s work in 2015 at the Huizache store, which is run by a local artisan collective. Soon after, he approached Gutiérrez with a series of drawings he had made of a traditional poncholike garment known in much of Mexico by the indigenous name quechquemitl. The asymmetrical patterns he envisioned crisscrossed the clothes in straight lines and diagonals, alluding to the imperfect grid of his city. Villela endeavored to work with a craftsman whose own work was based on traditional patterns. “These contemporary designs force you to break your technique and rebuild it,” Gutiérrez says. “And if you meet these challenges successfully, you’ll find them in every piece you do afterwards.”
The resulting line, called Phigmento, is one of many that over the past decade has combined the ancestral skills of textile artisans with decidedly urban design approaches. Rather than romanticizing indigenous craft as a static symbol of tradition, these projects treat weaving as one of countless living art forms practiced across Mexico that evolve and change through their encounters with contemporary design just as contemporary designers do – today and in times the Alberses. were transformed by their encounters with ancient abilities.
INTEREST IN TRADITIONAL Mexican textiles among artists has waned over the past century, from the post-revolutionary idealism of Frida Kahlo’s paintings from the 1930s to the gallery work of Danish weaver Trine Ellitsgaard who used the loom she imported from Copenhagen to Oaxaca for 30 years to adapt and transform the materials and traditions of southern Mexico. Indigenous textiles have also been heralded as nationalist symbols, used by politicians and their wives as an abbreviation for a sympathetic (and superficial) association with rural voters, and dismissed by an urban middle class as relics with no place in a modern nation.
Today’s craze for textiles is part of a larger global nostalgia for handcrafted items – alongside ceramics, glassware, and mezcal – as an antidote to mass production with its history of unethical practices. Most Mexican weavers and textile artists work independently with their families, producing pieces for the tourism market, government sponsored competitions, and private customers, as well as for their own communities. Collaborations can cause a myriad of problems: some are undoubtedly colonial, as thoughtless designers and resellers make quick profits by treating artisans as an inexpensive workforce. In the best partnerships, the weavers themselves are an integral part of the design process.
Take a look at the Dutch-Mexican designer Emma Gavaldon van Leeuwen Boomkamp (31), who bases the patterns for her rugs woven in Teotitlán on the strong lines of Mexican Art Deco. By expanding, simplifying, and then breaking down the 1930s and 40s Mexico City barbecue work from the 1930s and 40s, and then breaking it down into vibrant color blocks, it is reminiscent of the medallions of concentric diamonds at the center of many traditional carpets. Other projects in the country’s southern states, such as Rrres Studio, run by 33-year-old Dominican designer Javier Reyes and MA by 36-year-old Mexican artist Melissa Ávila, take the opposite approach and fit the shapes of the natural world into them Carpets that channel the naive liveliness of, for example, Joan Miró’s surrealist landscapes. In Reyes’ 2018 Inner Content series, the element of water – which a Zapotec weaver might once have depicted as a zigzag flow along the carpet border – becomes sinuous lines. In her work, Ávila takes the sun, which in other indigenous traditions is represented as a series of concentric diamonds, and gives it a human face.
Further north, in the arid border state of Coahuila, 32-year-old architect and designer Daniel Valero began his career in 2014 working with Serape weavers in his hometown of Saltillo. A centuries-old tradition, the vibrantly striped ceilings may have developed there after the arrival of Spanish colonizers and indigenous settlers in the late 16th century. Serape production peaked in the mid-19th century and declined over the past hundred years with industrialization. In 2018, Valero worked with the Tamayo brothers of one of the last remaining Serape weaving families to create Bouquets, a series of 12 collagen-like rugs that transcended formal boundaries with semicircles and ellipses that flooded the edges of the rectangular perimeter. Sold under the project name Mestiz, textiles are “about mixing knowledge – not just race or ethnicity,” says Valero. “Every piece is something that neither belongs to me nor to them, but something more.”
Such creations occupy the border area between art and design, tradition and modernity, city and country, abstraction and representation: borders that Mexico’s indigenous craftsmen have always treated as permeable. After all, Mitla was a town before it was a ruin, and its ornaments – the shapes that inspired the Alberses, Gutiérrez, and countless others – may have been made from cotton before they were carved from stone. Every textile, regardless of who designs it and who weaves it, is therefore both a transfer of knowledge and a transformation itself.
Carpets courtesy of Melissa Ávila / MA, Javier Reyes / Rrres, Daniel Valero / Mestiz and RP Miller Design and Daniel Villela.