Schweinfurth exhibit traces Maya identity through backstrap weavings


Carol Ann Lorenz first became interested in Maya textiles when she met Marines and Lydia Perez in 1978 as the couple and a Guatemalan backstrap weaver were on an educational tour of local colleges and museums. At the time, Lorenz and her husband, Christopher Vecsey, were teaching at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

“I purchased my first Maya weavings from Marines and Lydia,” Lorenz said. “I began to learn about the textiles from them, setting me on a decades-long path of study and, eventually, collecting.”

Lorenz, currently an associate professor at Colgate University and former senior curator at the school’s Longyear Museum of Anthropology, owns many Maya weavings and articles of clothing. About 125 pieces will be on display at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn from Sept. 1 to Oct. 14, 2018, in the exhibit Maya Textiles and Identity in Guatemala.

The Schweinfurth exhibition includes weavings from more than 50 Guatemalan villages, representing a dozen different Maya languages. Maya trajes, or indigenous outfits, proclaim Indian identity and convey a great deal of information about the person wearing them. You can tell what village a wearer is from by the size, color, shape, and ornamentation of Maya garments, especially huipiles or women’s blouses. The garments also convey information about gender, age, and social and marital status.

Marines Perez hails from San Antonio Aguas Calientes, a village that is acknowledged as producing perhaps the best Maya weavings in Guatemala with designs that are noted for their fine technique and complex imagery. Many generations of the Perez family have been noteworthy weavers.

Marines’ mother, Drusila Santos de Perez, was an innovative weaver, and even wove portraits into her textiles, creating portraits of Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz Bolaños, U.S. President Gerald Ford, and Guatemalan President Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio. Her weavings and those of her mother, Marines’ grandmother, are included in museum collections in the United States.

“Over the years, we invited Lydia and Marines back to Hobart and William Smith and later to Colgate University, where I organized an exhibition from their extensive collection of Maya textiles,” Lorenz said. “They eventually settled in Santa Fe after crisscrossing the United States in their outreach efforts on behalf of Maya weavers.” Marines and Lydia opened a store in Santa Fe to sell Maya weavings.

In 2005, Lorenz visited San Antonio Aguas Calientes and met Marines’ sister, Alida Perez de Lopez. “Alida had a wealth of knowledge about the history of Maya textiles from all over Guatemala, and I learned a great deal from her,” Lorenz said. “She also helped guide the development of my collection.”

Alida was an advocate for Maya weaving as well as a master weaver herself. She founded Museo Casa del Tejido Antiguo in Antigua, the first indigenous museum and the first textile museum in Guatemala. Her museum was designed to preserve fine vintage Maya weavings for study by contemporary weavers and educate others about Maya weaving history, techniques, and styles. 

“The museum also purchased old and new textiles from weavers that could be sold in the museum shop, thus assisting the weavers economically,” Lorenz said. “Many of the textiles I purchased over the years came from the museum store.”

Alida also founded a non-profit organization called Artisanos Unidos to promote fair trade in indigenous crafts and to market those crafts globally. She taught weaving workshops and traveled around the world lecturing as a spokesperson for Maya people and to champion the indigenous artistry of Guatemala.

One of the side galleries during the Maya Textiles exhibition will feature the work of three generations of the Perez family: Drusila, the matriarch of the Perez family; three of her children, Alida, Estela, and Marines, and Natalia Rodriguez de Perez, the wife of Drusila’s late son Ovidio; and Alida's daughter, Alida Drusila Lopez Perez, who is known as Alidita. The Perez family display will highlight designs that are considered the family’s cultural property and are passed down from generation to generation.

It’s not unusual that only three generations of the Perez family are included in the exhibit. “In a scenario played out widely in Guatemala, most female members of younger generations learned the basics of weaving, but have not devoted the time to become expert or even proficient,” Lorenz said. “They do not have the skills to pass on to their own children.”

The reasons are both political and social: Maya Indians were caught in the middle of the Guatemalan civil war that raged between 1960 and 1996, with 170,000 Mayas killed. Changing society also plays a large role, with education opening up job opportunities for young people away from their home pueblos and globalization bringing cheaper, international clothing brands into the country.

“Because of these and other factors, many younger people wear non-Indian clothing on a daily basis and reserve Maya attire for special occasions,” Lorenz explained. “When weaving is no longer necessary to produce one’s daily apparel, the impetus to weave is often lost.”

The opening reception will be 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, 2018, at the Schweinfurth, 205 Genesee St., Auburn. Lorenz will give a guided tour of the exhibition at 2:00 p.m. Oct. 13, 2018, and Marines Perez will be giving demonstrations of backstrap weaving at 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. that day.