In 2015 I spoke with Mariana Rivera, a young anthropologist of Mexican origin who loves to weave and to tell visual stories about what this activity means to her and to other female weavers.
Mariana produces short films that she has projected in different festivals throughout Latin America, including the EDOC in Quito, where I met her. This is an abstract of that conversation. You can see her audiovisual work at the end of this post.
How did you learn to knit?
I wanted to learn when I saw a student weaving busily in college. I always wanted to have a woven swimsuit, because of this desire, maybe a bit vain, I became friends with the student so she could teach me how I could make one.
Little by little and without realizing it, more women gathered to our knitting circles. We knit and knit, it became like an obsession. We became a group of fifteen students who organically formed a collective of weavers. Our group was called Xico, which in Nahuatl means navel or belly-button. This was in 2008.
Xico has to do with life and with creation. Knitting for us, was to give life to our thoughts and feelings. Life is woven and shaped through to a thread that comes out from the umbilical cord, or navel.
What is knitting and weaving for you?
Weaving has to do with the feminine side and with women in general.
In many cultures, the loom is a form of writing and a way in which women give life to their thoughts, their concerns and their ways of feeling. What you live in a certain period of time is materialized in a specific textile piece.
Weaving is constancy and creativity, it requires that you first learn the textile language so you can then create new things.
Weaving and giving away our textile work is to offer a part of ourselves. In many cultures, handwoven pieces are given away. For example, when an amusga woman marries, she weaves a garment for her husband. This symbolically represents that she is giving away her fertility.
How did you begin to find these meanings in weaving and knitting?
At first, it was intuitive. While learning to knit in the collective, I realized that apart from being an encounter with others, there was also an encounter with myself. While weaving I was abstracted, it was a cathartic, healing and revealing act. In those moments I became aware of many things, in which in a normal day and busy urban life, I would not have given myself the time to do. For the other women of the collective, weaving also gave them that reflexivity and the space to talk with themselves.
From these intuitive discoveries, I began to involve myself more formally, from anthropology to the investigation of Traditional Latin American textiles.
I was in Bolivia, where there is a very strong relationship between the textiles and indigenous communities. I read books, met and interviewed weavers, and it was there where those first insights materialized. The weaving craftsmen actually spoke of weaving as an act of giving life.
To what other places has this research on textiles brought you?
I traveled to Colombia where I met the anthropologist, Isabel González. Isabel had begun a process of Textiles and Memory six years ago, with women who had been victims and survivors of the armed conflict in that country.
These women had lived very difficult experiences, without the opportunity to speak or heal their pain. They found in the act of meeting, a space to share their experiences and embroider them as an act of healing. They embroidered tapestries where they explicitly told things that they had kept for many years.
The women who were part of these collective sewing workshops in different communities in Colombia realized that the narrative potential of the textile could be a political weapon or a denunciation of their stories. These tapestries made them visible in a context where women in the midst of violence do not have a voice.
At the end of the process, there was a meeting called Memory Week, where many women who were part of the sewing workshops gathered in Medellín to weave a collective tapestry. The stories came together and intertwined. In that meeting, I once again realized that weaving has a great transformative potential.
I returned to Mexico very inspired from my experience in Colombia. I saw that in my country, which is going through a political situation very similar to the one in Colombia, indigenous women also do not have the opportunity to express themselves publicly. They are retracted in their feelings, and were not allowed to talk about their femininity and their experiences.
I am very attracted to an indigenous amuzga community of called Xochistlahuaca, in Guerrero. This community still retains its language and clothing deeply rooted in its culture. There is a long tradition of waist-loom and most women wear daily the garments they weave.
I had the opportunity to go to Xochistlahuaca to give workshops through an intercultural university. There, I got in contact with the textile cooperative La Flor de Xochistlahuaca, which is one of the oldest cooperatives in the community.
The women of this textile cooperative were transforming themselves through the economic empowerment that having a store and going to fairs gave them. Being a woman was transformed because they no longer needed to depend economically on men. They are choosing not to marry, and are giving more importance to their personal life than to the traditional view of family.
A lot of history of the meaning of the loom and its symbols has been lost. The women of this culture are buried with their huipiles (dresses), and it is very difficult to find a record of the textile narratives because the earth has swallowed up the information.
I feel that textiles, being a narrative form, were possibly prohibited to the indigenous communities during the Spanish conquest. Many of the techniques were lost in the imposition that they, the weavers, could no longer weave the history of their people. Some women even say they were forbidden to ask their mothers and grandmothers what some figures in the textiles meant.
Many things had been lost and forgotten, but that does not mean that they cannot create new meanings through what they weave. They can appropriate the technique to give new meanings. With this purpose in mind, I organized a workshop with the weavers in which we wanted to create new textile narratives from their oral history, and from the legends still in circulation about the figures in the fabrics.
Tell me about the videos you have created about Weaving and Knitting
The first short film is called Tejer Para No Olvidar (Weaving to Not Forget). Here I tell my life story, why I became a knitter, and how I changed when I started to knit. I showed this video before starting the workshops with the women weavers from Xochistlahuaca. It was my way of expressing myself through my subjectivity, and that they could see that I, too, was another woman, with similar concerns to theirs.
The second short film is called Escribiendo Sobre el Telar (Writing Over the Loom). It's a video about a Waist-loom workshop that amuzga women teach to girls in their community during the summer. The video shows the learning process, what the work of the textile cooperative is, and how important it is for girls to learn this craft.
The last video is called Telares Sonoros (Sounding Looms). I was very attracted by the sounds of the weaving activity and how the different loom processes have specific sounds. Flattening the cotton sounds like a drum, spinning sounds like a whipping top. I found sounds that the weaving women had probably never listened to before. This video is a visual and sound landscape where I wanted to show how this repetition of the processes of the loom and its sounds, connect with other cerebral, cognitive and emotional parts of yourself.
For me, there is a way to incarnate knowledge through the experience of the body, which is our first territory, from which we tell and learn. Thinking about the body as a central axis and place from where we learn, and from the senses, I began to listen to the process of weaving. I discovered that weaving is not only done with the hands, or with the eyes, but also done with the heart, with the ear, and with the touch.
With the help of my colleague Josué Vergara we recorded the sounds of the looms with different microphones and then recorded one of the last traditional violinists of the community. With him, we recorded several sones, and we found one that had a rhythm where the sounds of the loom could be inserted in a musical way. Finally, we recorded a poet of the community reciting a poem that talks about the loom. We mix the music as a base, then combine it with the sounds of the loom as if they were playing along with the violinist and finally added the poem in Amuzgo.
I'm in the final stages of editing another short film where I show the three-month trip I made with Isabel González, from the Colombian project of Textiles and Memory. Together we travel along Mexico showing the project of collective sewing workshops of the Colombian women. In Xochistlahuaca we did an exchange of embroidered letters between Colombian and Mexican women. The idea of this new video is to show the exchange and the impact that the Colombian project had in Mexico.
Mariana found in knitting and weaving a way to tell her story, and through video a way to communicate the history of many other women weavers, who see in this activity a form of expression, therapy, and connection with the feminine and with memory.
You can learn more from Mariana's work here:
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