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A selection of Maya textiles.

A tradition alive in the treads

The Maya exhibit at the U's Goldstein Museum delivers a feast for the eyes.

By Pauline Oo

Published on June 9, 2005

If you look long enough, you'll start to see the animals and the human figures; and the geometric shapes will no longer seem random. Initially, upon entering the Goldstein Museum of Design, you'll be dumb struck by the explosion of color.

From now until September 17, the U's Goldstein Museum in McNeal Hall on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul is playing host to more than 75 items of clothing and textiles from Guatemala and 50 color photographs of Maya people from various regions of the country. If you've never been to Guatemala, this exhibit--"Maya Textiles from the Guatemalan Highlands"--will entice you to visit. If you have, the exhibit will jog your memory of time spent in this Central American country.

Maya versus Mayan

The term "Mayan" is only used to modify the word "language"--thus, it's "the Mayan language," not "the Maya language." To describe anything else from the culture, such as the people or textiles or food, use the term "Maya"-- which is used with both plural and singular nouns.

The collection and photos, which date from 1930 to the present, comes courtesy of University alum Richard Hanson. The Twin Cities photographer approached the museum about five years ago with the idea for the exhibit. Hanson, who has traveled to Guatemala and other Central American countries every year since 1973, owns about 600 textile pieces from the Maya people. This exhibit represents "a 30-year retrospective" of his travels to Guatemala and his love affair with an indigenous culture, he says.

To better appreciate the exhibit, pick up the two-page guide listing the objects on display when you arrive at the museum. The guide, which is divided by geographic region, is indispensable for understanding what your eyes have latched onto or what your fingers feel compelled to touch--the majority of the clothing and textiles are not encased in glass, allowing you to get that much closer to the intricate weaves and design details. Each huipil (tunic or blouse-like garment for everyday wear or ceremonial purposes), tzute (utility cloth), faja (belt), corte (skirt), and cinta (hair ribbon) in the exhibit was woven with a back-strap loom at a particular village in Guatemala. And each village is known for a distinct weaving style or design. For example, the huipil from Chichicastenango has three woven panels, with heavy brocade extending down the center panel; and the huipil from Nahuala has large stylized animal or human forms.

Guatemala is one of the few places in the world today where traditional textile arts from an ancient culture survive. The Maya civilization spans more than 3,000 years in the rain forests and mountains of what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. Guatemala has about 3 million Maya Indians living in its highlands--this number makes up nearly 60 percent of the country's total population.

"I grew up in a Scandinavian textile tradition and was very curious about [the textiles in] other traditions," says Nelson, a skilled back-strap weaver. "The Maya get such incredible and sophisticated results from such simplistic ancient tools and techniques." The back-strap loom comprises several sticks of varying widths, a strap for the back, and some rope. To weave, you tie one end of the loom to a post or tree and attach the other end to a strap that goes around the your hips. You get tension on the loom (necessary for the weaving process) by moving specific parts of your body.

Nelson also credits his love of textiles from Guatemala to the weavers' uninhibited use of "electric" color. "Every trip [back to Guatemala] is a totally new adventure, there's always a revelation about the textiles and culture," he adds. "Maya textiles easily could be a lifetime study, and it is for me."

The Goldstein Museum, which is part of the College of Human Ecology, is located at 241 McNeal Hall. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday; and 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free.

(Nelson will present a photographic travelogue of Guatemala and the Maya culture on Thursday, June 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Minnesota Center for Photography in Minneapolis.)

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