My friend Kate lived for several years in Yuma, Arizona, and worked as an environmental lawyer on an Army base. She and her fiancé Ken made numerous trips down the Mexican coast visiting the tiny towns along the Gulf of California. One particular family befriended them, and welcomed them into their home repeatedly.
The years have been difficult. Ken died in a horrific accident, leaving Kate in great mourning. Then the Mexican family’s matriarch died, leaving behind a sad but kindly husband and two young kids. But though Kate moved back to the D.C. area, she makes regular visits to the family in Mexico, and always brings interesting gifts for the kids (who are growing like weeds; it makes Kate feel very old).
Every year she sends me some memento from Mexico, most of them pieces of Huichol art. She has given me two blankets woven in the most amazing colors, a decidedly hallucinogenic wooden dog, and two intriguing crucifixes (blending several different religious traditions).
Perhaps the most recognizable type of Huichol art is the nieli’ka, or yarn painting (like the one depicted here). In traditional Huichol communities, nieli’kas are important ritual artifacts. They’re usually small square or round tablets covered on one or both sides with a mixture of beeswax and pine resin into which threads of yarn are pressed. Nieli’kas are found in most Huichol sacred places such as house shrines (xiriki), temples, springs, and caves.
In the past thirty years, about four thousand Huichols have migrated to cities, primarily Tepic, Nayarit, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. It is these urbanized Huichols who have drawn attention to their rich culture through their art. To preserve their ancient beliefs they have begun making detailed and elaborate yarn paintings, a development and modernization of the nieli’ka.
For the Huichol, however, yarn painting is not only an aesthetic or commercial artform. The symbols in these paintings spring from Huichol culture and its shamanistic traditions. From the small beaded eggs and jaguar heads to the modern detailed yarn paintings in psychedelic colors, each is related to a part of Huichol tradition and belief.
Due to longtime deliberate isolation and resistance to evangelism, the Huichol have retained much of their original culture and religion. They call themselves Wixáritari or “the people.” Huichol religion has four principal deities: the trinity of Corn, Blue Deer, and Peyote; and the eagle, all descended from their Sun God, Tao Jreeku.
One year Kate sent me this amazing yarn painting. It’s called The Jicara:
On the back, on the wood itself, the following is written:
El simbulo del cuadro
Este cuadro represento una Jicara que inicialmente isieron las diosas en un lugar muy preciso donde primeramente se reunen. estando en uno obscuridad. Ela [ella] boran una bela [vela] para combertirlo. En una lus [luz] muy grande y loponen en el centro de una Jicara que para eyos [ellos] es el mundo la Jicara y asi eyos [ellos] sienten que tenen su luz. donde se acercan espiritu de deferente. y de estas Jicara ó de este mundo desprenden pensamientos
Elaborado por el Artisto, Modesto Rivera Lemus (mi nombre en Huichol, Temay, significa hombre nuevo)
It took a while to get a decent translation. While it’s written primarily in Spanish, it’s clear that Spanish isn’t the artist’s original language. Moreover, there are a number of Huichol words in it, and I couldn’t determine what they meant. I’ve pieced together what I believe is the meaning, though I invite readers to offer better translations of the artist’s words:
The symbolism of the picture
This picture shows a Jicara [a ceremonial gourd cup or bowl] that the Gods [literally, the Goddesses] initially created in the very place where they first met. Being in darkness, they set up a candle to combat it [the darkness]—it was a very great light—and they placed it in the center of a Jicara. For them, the Jicara is the world. And thus they feel that they have its light whenever they approach a different spirit, and from this Jicara—or this world—come thoughts.
Elaborated by the artist, Modesto Rivera Lemus (my name in the Huichol language, Temay, means “new man”)
All the images, of course, have significance, and all the Huichol deities are represented. The green circles on the right are probably peyote, gifts from the sun god. Blue Deer, the Huichol trickster spirit, peeks from behind the candle; Eagle is descending to bring guidance; and the yellow-orange threads represent the hairs of Corn. We can also see Salamander, and Snake: fire and wisdom. And everything vibrates: with life, with thought, with power.
As you look at the Jicara, and read the artist’s description, what do you see? What does it say to you?