Witnessing the Zapotec communities in Oaxaca is like traveling back in time to a place where what you do is truly who you are. While visiting villages in this vibrant, southern state of Mexico, we witnessed a dedication to one’s work seldom seen in the West. Families worked together towards a single goal. There was patience and quiet contentment. For some, this meant spending the day in solitude creating the highest quality rug. For others, working beneath a tree, weaving table runners with ancient symbols of power and protection; or shaping ceramics that chronicle a lost heritage.
The families make space for reflection and clarity. With pride in their lineage, and a will to make the most of what they have, they are some of the most jovial people we have met on our travels.
Our first encounter was Isaac Vazquez, a master rug weaver who specializes in pre-Columbus rug design and whose work has been exhibited at the MET. Vazquez trained under Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, two of the biggest names in the Mexican artworld, and to this day has maintained the authenticity of his art. While cheap synthetic colors have become the most viable option today, Vazquez’s studio is one of the last remaining workshops that still uses natural dyes to color their wool, foregoing more lucrative commercialization in order to stay true to their ancestors’ ways.
Vazquez took us through the process, showing us how some colors are obtained. To name a few: red comes from cochineal, a parasite that grows on cactus; yellow comes from marigold; and black from the mesquite tree. These elements are mixed with catalysts to obtain their desired property. Cochineal, for instance, must be soaked in ammonia to be affective. Though not for the squeamish, some families use the most readily available resource—their own urine! Once the pot is simmering, the wool is soaked in the dye for as long as needed to achieve the desired shade. The longer it soaks (and the darker the original wool), the darker the final color. Of course, the pee is washed away!
Vazquez stressed the importance of originality, pointing to contemporary rug weavers who choose to replicate the same designs. The craft, he said, is no longer as creative as it once was. The pleasures of conjuring up a unique design and bringing it to life over weeks and months is losing its appeal to younger weavers who want to turn a buck. While the risk of taking the route of authenticity is real, and oftentimes daunting, Vazquez said it is worth it in the end.