On Exhibit: modern art of the ancient Maya | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: modern art of the ancient Maya 

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Look upon my poverty,

Look upon my nakedness,

Please.

Give me three graces,

Three battens,

Three heddles.

So I may weave my blouse,

So I may weave my shirt,

So I may weave my shawl.

--Mayan weaver's prayer

It's easy to assume that the great Neolithic culture of the Maya just up and disappeared like the dinosaurs, leaving behind (instead of fossilized footprints) a calendar system, a pyramid or two, and a couple of stone bas-reliefs of odd-looking men whose profiles were all nose and no forehead.

Or were those the Aztecs?

In fact, the Mayan Indians didn't disappear; about four million remain in southern Mexico and Central America--direct descendants of the ancient astronomers and mathematicians who were so adept at stone carving and pyramid building that at least one theorist claims they had help from extraterrestrial beings.

You don't have to book a flight south of the border for a look at Mayan culture. A short trip southwest of the Loop to the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum brings you face-to-face with "Living Maya: The Art of Ancient Dreams," a traveling exhibition of textiles and photographs from Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state.

High in the misty mountains of Chiapas, Mayan women of the Sna Jolobil--the weavers' society--maintain one of the few living art forms of their ancient culture. They weave new designs into an age-old fabric of tradition, assimilating yet preserving. Mayan culture has survived centuries of foreign domination and technological intrusions in much the same way. When Spanish priests brought Catholicism to Chiapas, the Holy Ancestors who live in the mountains made room for altars to Catholic saints. Now the altars themselves sometimes stand side by side with TV sets.

"When a woman weaves she is continuing in the path set down by her ancestors, confirming the validity of their teachings with her work," writes exhibit curator Walter F. Morris Jr. "[She] maps the motion of the sun through the heavens and the underworld, through time and space. . . . A Maya woman weaves the cosmos as it awakens."

Morris has juxtaposed 60 examples of Mayan textile art with 30 of Jeffrey J. Foxx's large-scale color photographs of the land and the people. Foxx's photographs are consistently beautiful and evocative: gray-green clumps of pine and oak rise above vast clouds of ocean mist that cling to the Chiapas highlands, 9,000 feet above sea level; a brilliant blue sky forms a backdrop for fields and forests of an almost painfully vibrant green; brown hands hold out ears of corn--black, red, white, and yellow; a long-nosed man carved in gray stone gazes up inscrutably at the sneakered feet of tourists resting atop his monument at Palenque.

But the brown hands of the women of Chiapas, and the ancient art of weaving they maintain, are the real focus of this exhibition. The weavers' art is represented here mostly by long rectangular blouses, gorgeously brocaded or embroidered, called huipiles. A woman weaves her huipil after praying to the saints, who are believed to have taught women to weave "in the beginning of time." (Carefully preserved old huipiles, worn by statues of the saints in churches, serve as models for the student weavers of today. When a saint's huipil becomes too worn, the saint may enter a woman's dreams to inspire her in the making of a replacement.)

Combining traditional designs with elements from her own dreams and the characteristic designs of her community, the weaver forms a uniquely beautiful and meaningful pattern, in which her identity is apparent to a knowledgeable observer.

The huipiles are as evocative as Foxx's photographs. A saint's huipil is a delicate monument to devotion. A wedding huipil with feathers woven into the breast and hem represents a nearly lost art: only a few Mayan women still know how to weave with feathers.

It's hard to resist touching the smooth brocades, whose brilliant colors and stylized designs form a visual language that describes the Mayan world and its elaborate, all-embracing cosmology. Indigo blue threads represent the watery boundaries of the Pacific and the Caribbean; a diamond shape stands for the ephemeral boundaries of space and time.

"Living Maya: The Art of Ancient Dreams" runs through April 10 at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, 1852 W. 19th St. The museum offers an opening reception tonight at 6, a lecture on Mayan textiles Thursday, February 11, at 7:30, and demonstrations of Mayan weaving and story telling, along with a slide and music presentation, during the week of March 19. For details, call the museum at 738-1503.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jeffrey Jay Foxx.

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