“Why do these guys build houses for their cars?”
The question was posed to Francisco Loza, resident artist at the Creative Alliance, by one of his close friends—a shaman of the Huichol people, a dwindling culture based in the Sierra Madre mountains of western Mexico, in parts of the states of Durango, Nayarit, Zacatecas and Jalisco.
The Huichol are a Native American people who are trying to hang on to their culture, which is dependent on tradition handed down by mouth and through their Arte de Estambre.
Loza, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, is unique in that he is an outsider who has been chosen by the Huichol to learn their art and help preserve their culture through his contact with the developed world.
Arte de Estambre—or yarn art—utilizes a waxed wooden base onto which colorful yarns are pressed to depict the dreams of shamans. These dreams, Loza says, show scenes of religious significance and represent a magic that is real and potent “if only you believe.”
“Everything is dreams,” says Loza. “[Arte de Estambre] is not decoration; it’s like a book. Everything goes from father to son, as in the days before writing.”
Huichol shamans, Loza says, are born and not made. They spend a period of five years having no contact with women, avoiding salt, and eating the hallucinogenic peyote cactus, a critical component of their religion, both as a symbol and as a tool.
By many accounts, the Huichol are a people who have staunchly resisted missionaries’ attempts to Christianize them, though, according to Loza, they take the beliefs held by much of the people of the Americas seriously.
“They respect Christianity,” explains Loza. “They know that it is the magic of the white people.”
Loza says that part of the Huichol narrative even includes a visit by Jesus Christ to Mexico.
While education and modernization certainly have their advantages, Loza contends that such forces are double edged. The power that he sees in the Huichol, Loza argues, comes from their self-created reality, quite different from the “received” reality of the developed world.
“There is TV, electric lights, music, telephones, computers,” Loza says. “We receive everything. We don’t make our own realities. Somebody tells us what we have to do, because if we don’t do it, then we’re not a part of society.”
Loza is currently hosting a Huichol shaman, Macario, 63, at his apartment at the Creative Alliance. Macario works on Arte de Estambre, dreams, and travels with Loza to spread knowledge and appreciation of his culture through art.
Macario views his surroundings with an open mind, keeping his perspective intact:
“It’s a lot of work,” he says, describing the build-up and the makeup of a city like Baltimore, “the buildings and the houses. The people I see are different from me. Everybody’s different; nobody’s the same—the faces, the dress. I’m always watching, and I like it.”
Macario himself, who dresses in exceedingly colorful traditional garb, is watched as well.
“We walk everywhere, and everybody gives a lot of respect to Macario,” says Loza.
Loza has exhibited and led workshops with his shaman friends at Baltimore public schools, the Walters Art Museum, the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, the American Visionary Art Museum and others. He has collaborated with the Creative Alliance for 11 years, and is in his fourth year as a resident artist at 3134 Eastern Ave.
While the Mexican government does not give a lot of support to the Huichol culture or art, Loza has found that the opposite is true when it comes to American people.
“Being here, I get so many opportunities,” he says.
Loza himself has become a master of the Huichol art form, though in addition to colored yarn, he has added beads to the depictions. While the shamans’ Arte de Estambre have an ethereal and deadly-serious quality—like ancient Egyptian or Mayan art—Loza’s own work includes the whimsical—fish with human faces—and the everyday—scenes from a Mexican market. He has also created portraits of the jazz musicians that inspire him, and some of his art takes on a new life through 3-D glasses.
Loza’s recent marriage has given him the chance live and work in the U.S. more permanently, and he hopes to continue to spread Arte de Estambre as well as the Huichol culture.
“Art is universal,” he says. “This speaks for me. I talk with my hands; they listen with their eyes.”
by Erik Zygmont