A shaman-artist’s yarn paintings feature brilliant colors, dreamlike imagery, and rich cultural significance.
By Libby Rosof
In the northern mountains of Mexico, there is a place where the rocks have souls and animals can turn into plants. There, in the Sierra Madre Occidental, Huichol Indians still practice their ancient, animist religion with peyote rituals and multiple deities.
Those rituals and deities are the subject of storytelling paintings by Huichol shaman-artist José Benítez Sánchez, on exhibit at the University Museum until March 31, where they are practically vibrating off the walls, so intense is their color, so compressed their composition.
These 31 paintings by the Huichol’s most renowned shaman-artist—crafted not of paint but of yarn pressed into beeswax—are remarkable not only for their beauty and craftsmanship, but for their cultural significance.
The art is modern evidence of the survival of the Huichol pre-Christian culture, protected from Spanish and Catholic influence by living spread out in small population groups, high in the mountains.
“The Huichols are the only Indian population in Mexico or Guatemala that has been able to hold onto its own ancestral culture and still follow the old ways,” says exhibit curator, Dr. Peter T. Furst, an anthropologist and cultural ethnologist who has been studying the Huichol culture and art for more than 40 years. Furst, professor emeritus of anthropology and Latin American studies at the State University of New York at Albany, is a research associate in the University Museum’s American Section. He was the go-between who notified Museum officials in the 1970s that the painting collection, now owned by the museum, was for sale.
The yarn paintings are modern creations, things to sell to tourists. But they were inspired by a religious tradition of pressing yarn and glass beads into wax-lined bowls made from scooped-out gourds. The bowls, some of which are included in the exhibit, were votive objects, associated with requests to the Huichol gods for sustenance.
Although placing the simple bowl decorations on a flat board for the tourist trade started in the 1950s, the visionary yarn paintings date to the 1960s. “I went to Mexico for UCLA in 1964-65,” says Furst, “and really by accident met a Huichol Indian who was learning to become a shaman but was making yarn paintings without any story—paintings of a bird or a deer.” Furst asked the artist, Ramon Medina, “‘Have you ever considered making a picture of your myths?’” Medina wasn’t sure how to proceed, but three days later, he showed Furst a rough story-painting.
Ben“tez, one of Medina’s students, brought a new level of craftsmanship and artistry to the work. He has had a number of gallery shows in Mexico, the United States, and Europe, but this is his first solo museum exhibit. (His work is also carried by Indigo, a Philadelphia gallery that specializes in ethnic arts.)
The paintings—the largest is 48 inches square—are complex, the yarn meticulously inlaid to create tightly interlocking images in an overall design. Ben“tez’s pieces record the vivid dreams he experiences while on peyote pilgrimages—300-mile annual treks from his home in the western Sierra Madre to the place in the desert where the Huichol ancestors and deities, and the peyote cactus live.
The peyote allows the shamans to communicate with their deities and experience visions based on the myths of their culture. Peyote, says Furst (who tried it once and wasn’t too crazy about it), “alters time and space perception. It triggers vividly colored visions that constantly are changing. That’s what you see in these paintings—symbols interacting and flowing into each other. What Benítez is doing is to fix these fleeting visions into time and space.”
These are not storytelling paintings in the same sense as Western narrative art, like “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” which has a sense of perspective and historic time. Perspective is lost to an animate world teeming with supernatural powers—deer that sing or speak and walk on their hind legs, snakes that bring rain, antlers that grow into peyote cactus. Historic time has little meaning for a culture where ancestral spirits survive and life remains little changed from generation to generation.
Although the earliest yarn paintings were made of wool, Furst says, these are made of acrylic, which offers a number of advantages—resistance to moth damage, intense colors, and shimmering twists that better express the mesmerizing peyote visions.
The show coincides with the release of Furst’s Visions of a Huichol Shaman ($29.95, University Museum Publications), about Benítez’s art and Huichol myths, which includes 68 full-color images, as well as analysis and interpretation of the yarn paintings and cultural background.
Artist and writer Libby Rosof has been making waves in Philadelphia with a new web magazine of art news, reviews and debate—roberta fallon and libby rosof’s artblog, www.fallonandrosof.com/artblog. She’s the former editor of the Penn Current, a newspaper for University staff.