If you’re heading through Powell Library’s Rotunda and East Rotunda, you might notice a new exhibit that has been installed for the Fall 2017 quarter. It’s pretty difficult to miss; it features multiple seven-foot mannequins and some of the most beautiful hand-woven textiles you’ll ever see.
The exhibit is called Weaving Generations Together: Evolving Creativity in the Maya of Chiapas, and it’s co-curated by Dr. Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA Distinguished Professor of Developmental Psychology. It features dozens of textiles from Nabenchauk, a Zinacantec hamlet in Chiapas in which Dr. Greenfield studied how young women and girls learn to weave. Her research shows that a change in economy from subsistence to commerce-based can allow for more individual creativity amongst Zinacantec women - creativity which is reflected in their wonderfully diverse textiles.
We spoke to Dr. Greenfield to learn a little bit more about her incredible experience in Nabenchauk and the significance of this exhibit.
Why did you begin this anthropological study?
I began it as a study of culture and cognitive development, a topic I had already explored in my dissertation in Senegal and which interested me greatly. I had an opportunity to go to Chiapas as part of a large field site team called the Harvard Chiapas Project.
Did you have any idea when it began that it would span over 40 years and three generations?
Do you have plans to return to Nabenchauk in the future?
Ever since 1991, when I returned after an absence of 21 years, I have gone back every couple of years. I learned after my absence of 21 years that, in the Zinacantec Maya culture, relationships are permanent. This is very different from the anonymous and transitory relationships psychology researchers have with their research subjects. I now have comadres and godchildren in Nabenchauk; I try to conform to their understanding of relationships as best I can.
What is your favorite piece in the collection?
I have several favorites. One is a blouse that was designed by integrating and modifying several patterns from pattern books printed in Mexico City. Its design also included a zig-zag pattern she called a “mountain” design, which she said came from inside her head. Although each of the paper patterns utilized a different color scheme, she imposed a unified color scheme on the whole design. The paper patterns as well as the blouse can be seen in a book case on the south side of the east rotunda.
What were some difficulties you faced in gathering this research?
In 1970, when we wanted to videotape the process of learning to weave, there was resistance because the Zinacantecs believed that for us to make an image of them was to take away a piece of their soul. The main way we handled that was to give each subject a polaroid photo of themselves, which they saw as giving them back a piece of their soul.
What do you wish for audiences to take away from this exhibit?
The beauty of the weaving and the embroidery is the most important take-away; this is the aesthetic take-away. The theoretical take-away from my research is the idea that, as an economy moves from subsistence and agriculture to money and commerce, the concept of creativity shifts from creating traditional textile designs that identify you as a member of a community to creating innovative textile designs that identify you as an individual. This same economic shift changes the apprenticeship process by which girls learn to weave: teacher guidance becomes less frequent and learner independence increases. And with this increased independence, weavers become more innovative in their textile designs.
In your opinion, how does this exhibit reflect changing gender roles in the Maya society?
As the economy became more commercial, women began to sell their textiles. This provided them with more economic independence. In the exhibit, we see items, like the servilleta (napkin) that is woven and embroidered, to be sold only to outsiders. We also see beautiful blouses (huipiles in Spanish) that are embroidered by women in another Maya community, San Andreas, specifically for the Zinacantec market; and the Maya women from San Andreas now travel outside their community to Nabenchauk, for example, to sell. This is new geographical freedom for women.
Anything else you want to add?
There is a lot more in both the exhibit and my book, Weaving Generations Together: Evolving Creativity in the Maya of Chiapas. But this is a good start!
Thanks, Dr. Greenfield!
If you’re feeling a little worn out from studying, or if midterms are looming, or if you just want to follow the thread of current developmental psychological research abroad, make sure to come check out the exhibit. The opening reception is on October 5th, so be sure to come by to hear Dr. Greenfield herself speak about her research! We’ll see you there.