The textiles of Sucre


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Andean Adventure

The textiles of Sucre
September 2, 1997

Weavers producing their intricate designs

There are many reasons why we consider Sucre to be our favorite city in Bolivia. Pleasantly warm climate, the well-preserved white colonial buildings, pasteles and hot api from the ladies in the morning market, not to mention movie theaters with $1 double features. It is a city to wander and relax, with clean
streets and tranquil parks. But for us, Sucre’s greatest attraction is the textile museum.

The area surrounding Sucre for centuries has been a mecca for beautiful textile production, but as little as a century ago the tourist center of Tarabuco to the southeast was one of the few areas still producing beautiful work. Textiles from other areas, such as Potolo to the northwest, had long been praised and highly sought-after by collectors and museums. As intricate
works of previous generations disappeared into private hands, the work deteriorated. The traditional intricate designs became simplistic, the complex mythology once encapsulated in the patterns and motifs of the textiles became simplistic parody. Not only was an art form dying, but a view of the world as well.

Enter two Chileans, former drama professors whose previous work performing open-air theater in small Bolivian towns had exposed them to the culture and language of these mountain communities. Housed in the Caseron de la Capellania, the Antropolocicis del
Surandino originally featured textiles exclusively from the Jal’qa region, northwest of Sucre. Now the museum also features works from Tarabuco.

The focus is on the axsu, or two-piece cloth worn around the women’s waists. Jal’qa work is known for its depiction of zoomorphic figures woven in red and black. The fantastic creatures, such as multi-headed birds and bats with giant fangs, represent creatures that inhabit a natural world beyond human consciousness. Human figures, when
depicted, are small and insignificant, representing the human role in this cosmos. The bizarre creatures are intertwined in a seeming free fall through space. The better designs are like a visual labyrinth leading your eye in a discovery of new shapes and figures.

By contrast, designs from Tarabuco focus on a human-based cosmology. Llamas, horses, and human figures dominate, as does an altar with offerings to Pachamama, the earth goddess, intended to insure an abundant harvest. By all accounts, the project and
museum has brought local and world-wide appreciation to this ancient art form. A carefully structured placing system in the museum store guarantees high-quality works for tourists and collectors, as well as attention and income for the weavers. Communities are now producing works even more intricate and exquisite than the finest work of previous generations.

But perhaps the most notable signs of the project’s success has come from the men. Envious of the women’s success, the men breached their cultural stigma and asked to join the project. Sequestered for three years, the work they now produce exemplifies their unique world view. Both in color and design, their work is totally distinct from that of the women. These textiles
seems to ensure a future wherein woven textiles will continue to embody the cultural myth of these small mountain communities.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.