The Huichol, Their Legacy and Modern-Day Challenges
Published Feb 3, 2011 - (Updated Aug 30, 2013)
When we think about the Huichol and their art, images of artists clad in traditional outfits, patiently attaching small beads to various pieces of carved wood in the shape of masks or animals in several shops along Puerto Vallarta’s Malecón, easily come to mind. But in today’s Mexico, there is much more to the Huichol, an autonomous and resilient culture that dates back to pre-Columbian times, than meets the eye. Approximately 15,000 Huichol inhabit the remote mountains of Jalisco and Nayarit today, keeping alive many cultural, spiritual and artistic traditions that are now long extinct in most parts of the Americas. At the same time, the Huichol, who call themselves the “Wixarica,” face enormous challenges today, as they struggle against the benefits and side effects of adopting modern ideas or methods into their lifestyles or having them inevitably imposed upon them by Mexico’s private and governmental enterprises.
For example, their religious beliefs, which include four principal deities, have clashed head on against attempts to school them according to standards established by Mexico’s Secretaría de Educación Pública, the entity that governs all public school programs throughout the country. And despite the fact that many of their religious rituals involve the consumption of peyote, a small spineless cactus known for its psychotropic properties, the Huichol’s access to alcoholic beverages was very limited. “That is, until the beer companies came to us,” comments Susana Valadez, who came to Mexico to study the Huichol over 30 years ago, in order to fulfill graduation requirements for UCLA, ultimately marrying into this very guarded community and making their survival her lifelong project. “Alcohol abuse-related problems are destroying the very essence of the community.”
In response to these and other modern-day forces that threaten the Huichol culture with extinction, the Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and Traditional Arts was established in 1981 to provide alternatives to the tragic scenario that has destroyed so many indigenous cultures throughout the world. Founded by Valadez, the center’s goals can be broken down into the following six specific strategies.
- Economic self-sufficiency
- Sustainable agriculture and elimination of hunger
- Medical assistance, aid to the impoverished
- Educational enrichment and leadership opportunities
- Aid to tribal leaders and religious practitioners
- The Huichol Center Ethnographic Interactive Database
Pivotal to the center’s success is the sale of high-quality, original Huichol art, such as that available at Galería Tanana in Sayulita. The non-profit gallery was established by Valadez, allowing people interested in the Huichol to have access to the finest expressions of their art and craft, without disturbing the delicate balance of their communities.
Both personal and captivating, Huichol art dates back millennia. Shamans have visions during spiritual rituals that are transcribed into carvings, yarn and bead art, which have evolved into t-shirts, prints and delicate jewelry items for men and women. Also intriguing are the spiritual masks, votive bowls—known as rukuri—and animal figures covered with esoteric symbols created with colorful beads. So fascinating are these objects, many of them have graced covers of important magazines around the world, such as Elle, Vogue and Rolling Stone.
Upstairs at Galería Tanana is an open space suitable for cultural events including yoga lessons, art exhibitions and film screenings. Presently under development, Valadez hopes that, as the gallery consolidates itself as the official outlet for The Huichol Center, sales and donations will increase, thus allowing for the improvement of their facilities. (The Huichol Center is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the IRS.)
Galería Tanana is located along Sayulita’s main access road, Revolución 22. Please call (329) 291-3889 for more information.
Mexican Folk Art: Opinions you can Trust
If you are a serious folk art collector or have appreciated the valuable collections at world-class museums such as the Mexican Fine Arts Museum in Chicago, the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe or the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, you are in good company here in Banderas Bay. Along with Susana Valadez, Kevin Simpson is a trustworthy local authority, not only on Huichol art but also on high-end Mexican folk art from other parts of the country, which can be admired and purchased at his El Centro gallery, Peyote People. “We develop personal relationships with particular artists, paying attention to their trajectory, exhibitions and awards,” he comments. “This allows us to provide collectors with photographs and background information that can further educate them about the process an artist goes through to create their work.”
The piece Tree of Life, created by Saulo Moreno and featured on this article, is a case in point. Moreno, who has become one of the most collectable folk artists working in Mexico today, was trained as an artist at the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City but quickly rejected the city’s hustle and bustle, opting for a more humble life in the small town of Tlapujahua, Michoacán. Now in his 80s, he developed and perfected a unique papier mache and wire technique called alambre. Author Chloë Sayer, one of the foremost experts on Mexico’s Day of the Dead, has promoted his work extensively through her seminal books on the subject throughout the world, including England, where one of the largest collections of his work resides permanently at the British Museum. Tree of Life, along with other pieces by Moreno and other important Mexican folk artists, is on display at Simpson’s Peyote People.