This exploration/activity gives a brief overview of the art of the Huichol Indians and their culture, focusing on the connections around the concept of unity. It includes a guided art investigation using Huichol works from Mingei International Museum’s collection and a hands-on art project inspired by the designs and process utilized by by Huichol art makers.
Huichol Culture and Art
Thought to be descendants of the Toltec and the Aztec cultures, the Huichol, or Wixarika as they refer to themselves, live among the Sierra Madre Occidental Ranges in northwestern Mexico. The Huichol culture survived colonization by the Spanish, due in part to their chosen location, and today thrives much the same as it always has.
The Huichol culture is known worldwide for their colorful yarn paintings and beadwork. These works connect deeply to the Huichol’s shamanistic spiritual beliefs and the complex cosmology and deities that can be seen throughout their work. The Huichol are firm believers that art and life are inseparable, so themes often include a retelling of a spiritual journey with a strong reverence towards nature. Symbols such as The Trinity (the deer – the spirit guide, the corn plant – wisdom and the peyote plant – knowledge) would be known by all within the culture and hold strong spiritual meaning.
The Huichol have adapted to the global market by adding brighter colors to their color palette and by flattening their compositions, making them easier to ship. The Yarn Paintings, used for both decorative and spiritual purposes, are created by coating the wood base with a mixture of beeswax and tree resin (natural glue), followed by the addition of colored yarn that is carefully laid down revealing complex figures and designs, leaving no surface uncovered.
Unity in the work of the Huichol
Unity, cohesion and harmony are underlying themes in Huichol compositions. All of the different forms and figures seem to come together in a cohesive way, telling a deeply detailed and symbolic story. In the 1978 book, Art of the Huichol Indians, Barbara G. Meyerhoff proposes that both internal and external unity is experienced by the Huichol. Internal unity refers to the loss of ego and consciousness (during religious/shamanistic experiences) and external unity refers to the connection between a person and their environment.
This sense of unity, cohesion and harmony in Huichol work and life can be seen in the piece from Mingei International’s collection below.
Consider this work and the concept of unity by using the following guiding questions:
- What does the concept of unity and/or unification mean to you? How would you expect that to be conveyed in a work of art?
- How is the concept of unity presented in the Huichol work above?
- Does the concept of unity exist in mathematics?
- Is there unity between mathematics and art? How so?
Yarn Painting Project
After exploring the concept of unity in Huichol art, create your own Huichol yarn painting using unity as a component of your design.
- Colored yarn
- Elmer’s Glue
- Cardboard or Cardstock
- Chalk or Pencil
Note: Use thicker yarn for younger students.
- Learn about the Huichol culture by viewing and creating yarn paintings using cardboard or cardstock, Elmer’s glue and colored yarn.
- Learn about the Huichol culture and their strong reverence and respect for nature, and then use nature as a theme in an original work of art.
- Understand that art is made from a variety of materials, highlighting the use of colored yarn to make a painting as opposed to using paint.
- Gain experience in manipulating non-traditional materials in order to realize a design.
- Cut the cardboard or cardstock to size, deciding what size will be manageable for students to fill in. The project takes time and larger pieces may cause frustration when trying to fill entirely with yarn. 5” by 5” is a manageable size.
- Prepare and complete an entire example.
- Prepare the materials.
- Draw a simple design with chalk or pencil on the cardstock. Both materials can be erased easily. Due to the time and skill needed to execute the full design in yarn, a simple design is suggested.
- Place the glue over the outline of your design and lay down yarn over the glue, starting with the outlined area and moving inwards.
- Fill in the details with desired colors of yarn.
- Cover the entire piece with yarn.
There are several techniques to utilize in working with yarn. Students can estimate the length needed and cut pieces of yarn. Students can cut several small pieces of yarn and find a place for them. Students can also spiral the yarn. The only technique to avoid is bunching and overlapping. Each piece of yarn should have its own place on the cardboard.
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, multiple authors (1978). Art of the Huichol Indians.
Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York
David, K. & Primosch, K. (Nov. 2001). Instructional Resource – Art of the Huichol People: A
Symbolic Link to an Ancient Culture. Art Education, Vol. 54, No. 6