Agustina Churqui, a master Jalq’a weaver, sits working at a loom. On the upper part of it, thousands upon thousands of taut strands of fine orange and black wool thread await her inspiration. Toward the bottom is a chaotic, dark and intricate universe of fantastical — and sometimes frightening — creatures that Churqui has coaxed into existence with a horizontal thread.
“Sometimes I see in my dreams what I have to weave,” Churqui says.
People have woven in Bolivia for time immemorial. But today the country is awash with cheap folk art weavings, churned out mostly by machines and in synthetic fibers to be hawked as souvenirs. As more and more communities give up their textile traditions across the country, the weavers of the Jalq’a ethnicity are producing not only some of the finest, most complex and inspired handwoven textiles, but also some of the last.
“The Jalq’a weavings are not folk art; they are works of art,” says Jimena Montero, who works with the Anthropologists of the Southern Andes Foundation (ASUR), in Sucre, Bolivia, near the rural communities where the Jalq’a live. The foundation operates the ASUR Museum of Indigenous Art, which showcases and sells Jalq’a weavings, and a program with weavers to keep their tradition going.
All assembled like jigsaw puzzle pieces … in works that have a frenetic energy and a mesmerizing beauty.
Even when compared to other handwoven artistic textiles, the Jalq’a weavings are still unique: not symmetrical or linear, and without discernible patterns or borders. They include only two dark, but dramatically contrasting, colors — typically black and red, orange or deepest pink. And while other textiles often include animals, they tend to be real ones. The Jalq’a pieces depict a chaos of creatures: winged and humpbacked mammals, multiwinged birds, beasts in the wombs of totally different animals and devils. All assembled like jigsaw puzzle pieces — upside down, right-side up and sideways — in works that have a frenetic energy and a mesmerizing beauty.
Montero says the chaotic nature of the weavings represents the chaotic nature of humans in this world, whereas the animals and Andean devil hail from the underworld — not a hell, but a place where ancestors live and where life begins. The Jalq’a believe the devil provides them with inspiration and enables them to be who they are in this world. (I’ll take inspiration and reproduction over fire and brimstone any day.)
It was this meaning that led Veronica Cereceda, a Chilean anthropologist who specializes in textiles and semiotics, to fall in love with the Jalq’a weaving. When she first began conducting research with the group in the early 1980s, the communities were very poor and no longer had many sheep. Cereceda found many textiles in the communities, but no more weavers. She proposed a project to bring the art form back from the brink of extinction.
After the Jalq’a received permission from the mountain gods to work with Cereceda, she secured the funds needed to start the project. She and some of the elderly Jalq’a women, who remembered watching their mothers weave, re-created the technique and began teaching it to the younger generations. A creative boom ensued — the weavings grew more detailed and complex — and soon there were 1,000 Jalq’a women weaving again, and making a living doing so. In 1993, Cereceda founded the museum.
But it is one thing to revive a tradition that nearly disappeared and another to keep it alive. Today there are only 400 Jalq’a women weaving and none are younger than 28. Neither of Churqui’s daughters is interested. The younger generations prefer to go to school and university, not learn to weave, Montero says.
The foundation doesn’t think the two are inconsistent and has recently started a program teaching a weaving course in the Jalq’a public school and during school vacations. Some girls are getting interested again, but it’s safe to say the future of Jalq’a weavings is hanging by a thread.
Pieces for sale at the museum cost anywhere from $100 to $1,000. And if you want one, there is no time like the present. “There will come a day,” says Montero, “when they aren’t made anymore.”
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