Woman weaving on a backstrap loom in Concepción,
Chiquirichapa, Guatemala. (photo Matthew Looper)
Looper came to this passion by a rather circuitous route. "My dad and my brothers were all science people," he said during a recent interview, "and I assumed I'd be a science person too. At Duke, my specialty was molecular biology. But my sister was really interested in French and took art history classes, and to be able to talk to her I took some humanities and art classes."
Once the art door opened for him, it never closed. Though he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in botany, course work in pre-Columbian art, begun at Duke, drew him to the University of Texas at Austin for graduate studies. There he came under the compelling influence of the famous Mayanist Linda Schele, one of the first researchers to launch a serious investigation of Mayan glyphs and what they revealed about the culture and history of the people who carved them. Looper earned a Fulbright as well as a National Science Foundation grant to travel to Quiriguá, Guatemala, to do "a comprehensive political history" of the site, but his attraction to indigenous textiles, kindled as soon as he arrived, meant that he began investigating their origins and history as well.
At first it was an informal undertaking, but Looper soon discovered that many local textile arts in Guatemala were in danger of disappearing altogether. After finishing his dissertation and post-doctoral work in 1996, he was invited by the director of a foundation devoted to cultural rescue and preservation, Fundación Viva, to document indigenous textiles and their traditions. "So I jumped at it," Looper said. "During the rest of '96 and '97, I did fieldwork in several towns of western Guatemala." There he found many distinctive traditional costumes, each of which is associated with a particular village. "They function as local identifiers, telling people from outside the community that they're members of a particular town," explained Looper. However, the weavers of these communities, women working at backstrap looms, also interact and influence each other's styles. Extremely proficient weavers enjoy greater status within their communities. "Certain towns have more dominant textile traditions, and they'll create things that are sought after by women from other communities," Looper said, adding that most research on Guatemalan textiles up to this point has focused on the "one costume, one village" concept and overlooked much of the history and complexity of the tradition. "A lot of it just is not well understood."
And a lot of it is vanishing. The civil war in Guatemala has taken its toll, particularly on native peoples, but other forces have contributed to the art's demise as well. "There is incredible pressure, especially on the men, from the national culture and Western culture to lose the indigenous identifying features [of their clothing]." Referring to traditional men's dress, Looper said, "It's something that may totally be gone in the next twenty years." When the men leave their villages to work in the larger cities or come to the United States, they find it easier to conform to the majority culture. Add the influence of evangelical religious sects to the economic pressures and the war and what results is a recipe for cultural annihilation. San Martín Sacatepéquez, one of the villages Looper has studied most intensively, "has been very heavily beset by evangelicals in the last ten to twenty years. A lot of the shrines have been destroyed." Along with the shrines has gone traditional dress.
For men, that means "shirt, pants, and a sash, entirely backstrap woven by women," Looper writes in a report describing the costume of that village. Material for a long woolen overcoat now out of use, the capixay, was produced on foot-treadle looms in Concepción and fitted out with false sleeves in San Martín. A "large red headcloth, tied loosely in back" and "backstrap woven in two panels [with] orange and white stripes on each" fell out of use around the beginning of the 1930s. For women, only the huipil, or tunic, is backstrap woven, and it is this stand-out piece of clothing that we tend to visualize when we think of Guatemalan textiles. Employing a technique called brocading, in which extra threads are inserted into the warp during the process of weaving, women really display their gifts as weavers when they make their huipils. It's a gift that takes a toll on the body, particularly on the lower back and the eyes. "The thing about backstrap is you have the best control," Looper said. "You're adjusting the tension constantly on threads that are very, very close together." According to Looper, "In the past, the San Martín huipil bore brocaded designs in clearly defined registers; today, elaborate patterns executed in multicolored and often variegated threads break up the surface into an impression of vibrant color."
Looper feels a sense of urgency in documenting the textile arts of this area before they have been completely changed or eradicated. His concern has led him to undertake an oral history of Concepción Chiquirichapa, a major backstrap weaving center four kilometers from San Martín whose women are proficient in complicated loom configurations and who incorporate ideas from a variety of sources, such as Mexican pattern books and printed sheets that weavers of one area share or trade with weavers of another. Concepción is largely Catholic and fairly intolerant of Protestants and evangelicals. Many of the people still practice the indigenous religion, which can be combined with Catholicism in interesting ways. For instance, shamans of the traditional religion are Catholics too, and brotherhood societies known as cofradías care for the statues of the saints, which are often dressed in indigenous costumes.
That Looper himself has mastered enough Mam, the second most widely spoken Mayan language in Guatemala, to talk about textiles with nearly anyone who weaves, and also learned all the techniques himself (he may be the only outsider in San Martín who has), will undoubtedly help him interpret the data his oral history yields. He has supplied several women of Concepción with tape recorders with which to interview their grandmothers about their particular weaving histories. Says Looper, "It's great when elders in consensus talk about design." He will meet with the women of Concepción this winter when he revisits the area. Meanwhile, he is busy teaching, meeting with students, and, yes, weaving. Or getting ready to weave, at least. He is setting up a loom at home. "The main trouble is the batten," he said. "It has to be just perfect." Given his appreciation for the art, it's a good guess everything else will be perfect as well.