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The Huipil: a revisioning

By Lena Bartula

Can you remember where you saw a huipíl for the first time? For those of us whose heritage and culture is not Mexican, a first sighting may have been the gorgeous garments of Frida Kahlo, either in the film about her life, or in the exhibitions at Casa Azul, her home in Coyoacán. Or maybe it was your first vacation in San Miguel, or a museum show of Latin American textiles in Los Angeles. My own obsession began in Mexico City many years ago, with an old woman in a blouse of the most intricate and dynamic weaving my eyes had ever seen. The wearer was Guatemalan, as was her huipíl, and she wanted to sell it as much as I wanted to buy it. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was then that I became a huipilista. Since then, I have loved, collected and worn huipiles, travelled to find them, traded to acquire them, because they speak to me in the language of art, and of heart.

Exhibit The Huipil; A Revisioning
Sat, Jan 12, 5-7pm
Happenings Galería de Arte
Mesones 57
Gallery phone: 154-5366

Huipiles [Wee-peel-es] are a traditional garment worn by indigenous women from central Mexico to Central America. Usually woven on a backstrap loom, they are heavily decorated designs that in earlier times, carried secrets about the cosmos, agriculture and religious beliefs. These pictographs also identify the village of the wearer, her social and marital status, wealth, authority and individual personality.

Around 2004, after collecting them for so long, I felt the next step, as an artist, was to create huipiles not meant to be worn. I began to think imaginably about the process, knowing that I was not a weaver and probably would never be. But stitching I did know. Paper, canvas and thread became my material; themes of women’s issues, equality, truth and history became the voice. Since then, I have often stitched together incongruent materials such as cornhusks, rose petals, plastic, milagros and found objects, as a way of weaving together ideas. Letters or poems often show up, honoring the relationship between the words text, textile and texture.

The central theme that runs through this work is that the traditional huipíl is a “cover up,” hiding vital parts of a woman’s body: the breasts and the belly. In this exhibition, my aim is to expose rather than conceal the essence of a woman’s story, uncovering and revisioning, defining and illuminating. Living as an expat in Mexico is to be continually challenged…challenged to speak a language that isn’t mine, to embrace a culture not mine, to uncover and acknowledge parts of myself that might have been easier to cover up in more familiar territory. These revisioned huipiles, then, are autobiographical in a way, but they also represent every woman in her various roles of mother, daughter, sister, wife, goddess, warrior, crone or rebel, all the diverse components that make us who we are.

“The Huipil; A Revisioning” continues through Jan. 24. The gallery is open Wednesday through Monday, 11am to 6pm.

Lena Bartula lives and works in San Miguel de Allende


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