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  • Writer's pictureBlair Butterfield

Weaving Mirrors

Volcanoes and Razorblade Walls as Warp and Weft in EL Salvador November 2017

Driving, gazing out the window, 12 foot walls pass by more consistently then road lines. They are topped with curly razor wire, yet the sun glimmers and sparkles through the canopies of the trees that stand just beyond. Occasionally you get a glance of the light dancing on the surface of the Lago de Coatepeque, a beautiful and visually deceptive caldera in El Salvador. The lake appears small in perception, but when you are finally able to take in the entirety and scale, beyond the frame of the walls, the view invokes sublimity.

The Lago de Coatepeque is like the womb of the surrounding Santa Ana Ilamatepec

and Izalco volcanoes, the water glistens and invites you into its sulfuric waters. There is a pyramid shaped island that captures the imagination, a place where the Mayans must have spent many nights gazing up into the night sky. A place embedded into their ancestral knowledge as a location of significant use, yet now lost.

The Lago de Coatepeque as viewed from Laberinto House.

This is the landscape where I met decedents of the indigenous Pipil people of El Salvador. These people of the Rivera and Vega family carry with them another type of indigenous knowledge, one that was on the verge of being lost, the knowledge of of backstrap weaving. They have come to Laberinto Projects, a house nestled on the ridge of the lake built by curator and gallerist Janine Janowski and now carried forward by her daughter Muriel Hasbun. Laberinto projects started as an art gallery in San Salvador during the 1997 civil war in El Salvador, providing an alternative art space for local artists to show their work. A place for artists who were making work that actively engaged in the place and time in which they lived. Now this impulse continues at Laberinto house, but Laberinto’s agenda to respond to the current time and place is themed around supporting the decolonization of El Salvador. A part of this initiative is to shift a cultural perspective, a perspective of indigenous knowledge and culture. There is a general impression that there was a time, and this gesture might still exist in another contemporary manifestation, that if you had any indigenous knowledge and practiced it you were or are looked down upon. Weaving, growing food, fishing, building, these are all perceived as occupations of the lower class, the perception that currently lives in the dominant culture (as in many places in the world) is that it is better to buy, to pay for things that are imported from such places as the United States. Yet in this ideology it requires a refutation of the very practices and exploitation of the very resources that make up your cultural identity.

Yet despite the importation of synthetic fibers and textiles from places like China, backstrap weaving has survived within the Rivera and Vega family. They have come to Coatepeque to share with the Nomad9 Interdisciplinary MFA Program from the University of Hartford the knowledge of their ancestors.

To begin: A foundation is laid before you, a series of string lemniscates (figure eight form) are made with the hand, like casting a spell, you chant numbers through your mind as your hand performs the magical shape in repetition. At 200 I have the foundation to begin, the loom can be formed with the upper and lower warp rods. Then another series of lemniscate magic is performed with the fingers, two heddle sticks are used to separate the top and bottom shed of the threads. This is by far the most complicated part of this style of weaving, every other thread is grabbed by passing an additional thread from the heddle sticks in the figure eight shape and a separation begins to occur. The heddle sticks are key to accurate backstrap weaving as they are the tools you use to make the commitment to each thread you weave in.

Yucca Fibers: The traditional fibers used in weaving in El Salvador were made from cotton, agave and yucca. This is a picture of yucca fiber brought during the workshop, I suspect, but no one was able to confirm, that the variety is Yucca whipplei, as this is prominent in the land and is about the right size to produce these fibers.

Yucca aloifolia, the more modern and prevalent Yucca variety, against a wall.

Before Heddle sticks are used to create top and bottom shed.

Heddle Sticks in place and weaving about to begin.

So it begins, I sit at the heart of the labyrinth at Laberinto house, another Salvadoran family heirloom, strapped into the loom, one part wrapped around my waist another tied to Lanerinto house. I become a medium: my body, my hands, my thoughts, my considerations, my breath, my mind all become manifest through the loom. Once the weaving rhythm is established, the threads passing in and out, the machete used to press the threads into their final place; my mind begins to bring pictures of the passing streets of San Salvador. The graffiti walls, the tags, the billboards, the breeze block, wall after wall, razor wire after razor wire, grey concrete all weaved together with tropical lush canopies, mandarins that hang just above the top of the wall, flowers that fall onto the razors that spiral across the masonry, bougainvillea of the brightest magenta contrasting black tar. We are weaving our lives. El Salvador weaves their emotional reality with concrete and metal. The growth of the canopy and the birds adhere not to the rules but become the weft of the Salvadoran tapestry.

A wall in San Salvador

My mistakes in the weaving catch up with me and prevent any further weaving, I have to go back and fix it. The inconsistencies add up, the colors I choose I am uncertain how they will look, but over time I will begin to see how they grow and fruit. The habit of every string, the thread is like a day-by-day routine. If you go steady and slow, check yourself, be aware, it becomes consistent and good, if you rush, are not attuned, it falters, there are errors, but do you stumble through? Or do you go back? It is a mirror of your inner self. The weaving shows you who you are being, who you are in the present moment. Just like the walls of El Salvador, who are the Salvadorans at the moment? The walls are the warp and the forest the weft and everything in-between their souls, their experiences, their memory, trauma, and history collectively woven into daily memory.

My weaving starting to take form.

I consider my thread choices, if only I had the wisdom or the logic to calculate the cause and effects of my choices. What will the end result be, do we ever really know?

We make choices, we move forward, sometimes we have the option to make repairs, but often it is a snag or an imperfection that we carry within our soul, it makes a memory, we can try to stich it, pull and cut it out, or live with it. Our weavings become a compilation of ourselves. As I watch the artisanal masters of Panchimalco so swiftly set up a loom and weave without missing a beat, I consider that this is not just about textiles, this is about the traits we build up inside of us. To sit and work steady and slow, to make a commitment, to breathe evenly, to be responsible, to make a gift for someone with your own hands, to make a garment to bring warmth, to take deep responsibility, these are all characteristic that are being lost to contemporary generations of people due to consumer culture. To sit in a backstrap loom is not simply to learn an artisanal technique, it is to learn a discipline, a discipline of self, to have patience and to be willing to grow and learn.

My completed weaving at Laberinto House.

As workshops like the one I participated in at Laberinto house continue, I hope that this is one tradition that regains its foothold in the culture of El Salvador and that anyone who finds themselves in the country will seek this experience for themselves. Ultimately, I hope the Salvadorans can look at the tapestry they are weaving as a mirror of themselves and in reflection set an example of a way forward in decolonizing and personal growth. My time spent strapped into the loom has certainly inspired clarity and planted a seed of integral growth as I weave my own mirror.

Self Portrait: “Weaving Mirrors”

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