When textile artist Porfirio Gutierrez works at his loom, or wanders through the picturesque mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, he often thinks about his ancestors. And the ancient skills they have passed down through the generations.
Zapotec — the place of gods
Gutierrez is a descendant of the Zapotecs, an ancient civilization originating in southern Mexico. For centuries, the Zapotec people have created intricate, hand-woven textiles. It is a tradition that Gutierrez and his family are continuing, with what he calls “functional works of art,” inspired by the natural world.
“One of my memories as a child is walking up into the mountains above the hill to collect the plants that my parents needed for making their dyes, almost like a pilgrimage,” he recalled. “They would tell us about the respect that we need to have towards our Mother Earth, as well as where the plants are growing, what colors they give us and the best time to collect them.”
These were basic principles in understanding how to work in harmony with Mother Nature, Gutierrez explained.
Journey with the threads
Using the bounty of Mother Nature gives the family’s handicrafts a warm, soft look and feel. The vibrant earth tones and symbolic designs are representations of their ancient culture.
In the past, such textiles would be used primarily as blankets, Gutierrez said, but starting in the 1970s, they began to be used mostly for rugs and tapestries. “These are pieces that could be used as a centerpiece, or wall art, or as a rug,” he said, while holding up a colorful, woven rug.
Native Art market
Gutierrez was speaking from his booth at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, which recently hosted a two-day Native Art market. It offered visitors a rare opportunity to purchase traditional and contemporary artwork by some of the finest Native American artists from across the hemisphere.
Other crafts on display at the market included silver and semi-precious jewelry, ceramics, fine apparel, handwoven baskets, traditional beadwork, dolls, paintings and sculptures.
Like Gutierrez, many of the artists shared how they, too, were inspired by nature for their work.
Traditional artist Jhane Myers, for example, uses elk teeth and buffalo bone for some of her jewelry.
“Each elk has two ivory teeth, so I do these necklaces, and they have buffalo bone beads,” she said, pointing to a long necklace she was wearing made of the ivory-colored materials. “I try to use all the same items that we used as a traditional Native people 200 years ago,” she added.
And just like her Comanche/Blackfeet ancestors, Myers and members of her community try to use every part of the animal. “Like the Buffalo and the elk, we use everything, not just the teeth,” she said. “We also eat the meat and tan the hide.” She creates dresses made from elk hides, and pointed out that there are a multitude of other uses for the animals they harvest.
Visual artist Kathleen Wall breaks clay out of the earth around Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico, where she’s from, to make her signature dolls.
As she spoke from behind her booth at the art market, she was surrounded by dolls of varying sizes, each with their own serene face and individual paint job.
“This piece here, she is hand built from the bottom up and I use a coil technique,” she explained while cradling one of her dolls. After the coiling, which means arranging or winding something in a joined sequence of concentric circles or rings, she lets the clay dry, then scrapes and sands it and then uses a kiln for firing, she explained.
“Like so many Pueblo potters working today, I feel that I’m fulfilling my grandmother’s legacy, passing on the knowledge of Pueblo potter.”
Wall says she sculpts expressions of joy onto the faces of her Native clay figures, which is a reflection of the beauty of Native culture in and around her life.
Vivian Cottrell has been making baskets for 46 years, a skill inherited from her Cherokee ancestors.
“This is part of our culture, our heritage, our history. It makes us who we are,” she said.
She uses river cane to create her baskets, and natural plant materials to dye them. It takes her two days on average to boil the materials together in a large kettle, which gives her pieces a natural, earthy tone.
For the artists, being able to display their crafts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian — a place dedicated to Native American history and culture — was especially meaningful.
“This is really important for me to be in such a hallowed space,” Myers said. “It’s not only hallowed but it’s happy. And for me it’s so important to see my other fellow artists here because you have people from all different types of nations offering different types of art, so it’s like a family place; it’s almost like coming home.”
“I would say this is one of the most important institutions that aims to honor the traditional ways of arts, knowledge, wisdom, and promote it,” said Gutierrez. Like many artists, he fears that the time-honored traditions of their ancestors are in danger of disappearing.
“So I feel like I need to contribute to their preservation,” he said. “And the only way to preserve it is to actually employ these old ways of making the arts, and teaching younger members of the community about our ancient traditions.”
Gutierrez said he is also grateful for institutions like the Smithsonian for celebrating and honoring Native people, and for creating opportunities for them to promote their work.
The museum, a short distance from the U.S. Capitol, has been holding the annual market since 2006. Hayes Lavis, the museum’s cultural program specialist, says his hope is that visitors will take away from the experience of the art market “a realization of the contributions of native people to the Americas.”
“They were here first, they’ve always been here, they’ve gone through a lot of adversity and they are still thriving, strong, creative cultures,” he said.
The art represented in the market doesn’t just reflect the beauty and rich history of Native cultures, but the strength and resilience of the people themselves.