Official Blog of the Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Behind the Scenes of Woven Lives – Carolyn Kallenborn, Design Studies Dept

Walking down the street in Oaxaca Mexico (pronounced ¨Wha – Ha – Ka¨) I am often intrigued by the layering of evidence of multiple cultures. Spanish colonial architecture line the streets.  Indigenous food such as roasted grasshoppers, chilies and tamales are sold from baskets in the market. Old women with long braids down their backs and rebozos draped around their heads walk by Pizza Hut carrying a Hello Kitty shopping bag. It is the mix of the very old, with the ancient, with the modern, with the odd that keeps me fascinated with the capital city of Oaxaca.

The state of Oaxaca is located about half way between Mexico City and Guatemala. Oaxaca has rich cultural diversity with 16 distinct  indigenous populations spread throughout the rugged mountainous state. The Zapotec Mixtec, Huave, Mixe, Triqui and other people each have their own language and culture. Each of these groups also has their own distinct textiles, many of which have traditions that trace back thousands of years.

From several years I traveled with students to Oaxaca Mexico to study culture, art and textiles with Zapotec weavers outside the city of Oaxaca. It was a wonderful experience to study and work with such talented artisans. I found that when we were working and learning together, boundaries and borders tended to drop away.  Through learning and making we could understand each other even though the artists and the students were from different worlds and often didn´t even speak the same language.

After many years of traveling and working with the artisans, I applied for a grant to make a film so I could bring a bit of Oaxaca to the rest of the world.  With the help of the UW’s WARF Foundation and LACIS, I traveled to Oaxaca with a film crew in the summer of 2010.  The goal was to make a documentary that would use weaving as the thread to draw into this fascinating culture. I wanted to discuss textiles and techniques but also wanted to convey the feel of the liveliness of the streets, the calm focus of the home weaving studio, as well as the complex political and economic climate.

For two weeks, the crew and I traveled to seven different villages in the valleys and mountains around the city of Oaxaca. It was an amazing experience to have a chance to talk to the artisans and hear their passion, curiosity and how much the making of their art interacts with their lives and their cultures.

The on-site filming in the homes and studios, which were all outdoors to some extent or another, was itself was quite an experience. Oaxaca is very noisy and most interviews were interrupted multiple times with fireworks, trucks going down the road, loudspeaker announcements from the town square, and donkeys braying so loudly we couldn’t hear each other speak. I had many clips that I was unable use because we were all laughing so hard.

I love the pace of Oaxaca. We work, we talk, we eat then work more, talk more and eat more. There are always fabrics and looms nearby and there is always music playing. The chatter at the meals during the breaks in the filming was fascinating.

I was the only gringa on the crew and the others were from various parts of Mexico. The crew and the families were all curious about each other´s lives so there were a lot of questions and storytelling any time we had a break. Among other things, I learned that in one villages, the brides family has to prepare 100 turkeys for the wedding feast. In another village, for weddings, they make mole (a sauce for meat made with chocolate) in vat the size of a small bathtub.

My talented videographer, Alex Reyes from Mexico City, captured more than 20 hours of beautiful footage. The following winter, I spent countless hours in a small room back in Madison with the editor going through the film clips from Oaxaca, frame by frame, thousands of times.  We had to distill 11 hours of interviews, to about 20 minutes of screen time. Twenty hours of video images, and thousands of photographs had to be cut down to 1 hour 15 minutes of visuals. When we added the music, by Lila Downs, Ernesto Anaya and local Oaxacan musicians, the film came alive. Hearing the music, the artisan´s voices, seeing the dances, the colors and the textiles, helped me feel some of the warmth and vibrancy of Oaxaca during the long cold, icy Wisconsin winter.

The end result is the documentary Woven Lives/Vidas Entretejidas released in April 2011. This last year it has been making its way around the world with screenings in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Lithuania, Mexico, and at the Mexican Film Festival of Hong Kong. Woven Lives/Vidas Entretejidas Documentary Trailer

Since the wrap up of the film, I have been working with the artisans in other ways. In the last year I commissioned a variety of pieces from weavers in the film. I am using their work as base to dye, stitch, and embellish. Working from the theme of duality, I am making expressive pieces that interlace the traditional with the contemporary, the comforting with the painful, the beautiful with the dangerous. The final pieces will become the exhibition Tormentas y Sueños  which will be featured at the Museo Texil de Oaxaca July  5– November 1, 2012.

Written by Carolyn Kallenborn, Assistant Professor in the Design Studies Dept.

Carolyn Kallenborn is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Design Studies Department.  Since 2004, Kallenborn has been working with Zapotec weavers in Oaxaca, Mexico. The inspiration for her own artwork comes from her experiences in Mexico and learning with the artists and craftsmen there.

Tormentas y Sueños (Storms and Dreams), Kallenborn’s conceptual installations using the skills of Oaxacan textile artisans will be exhibited at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca in July 2012.