To celebrate the 400th anniversary of ties between Mexico and Japan the Kampo Museum is currently exhibiting the art and crafts of the indigenous Huichol people. Dominating the exhibition are the extraordinary peyote inspired yarn paintings of the late Huichol artist and shaman José Benitez Sanchez. On the 24th of January, Professor Mara Alper, award winning media artist and documentary maker, will be giving a presentation at the Kampo Museum entitled “Visions of the Huichol”. She has been kind enough to grant me an email interview in advance of this event.
DK: Could you give me a brief synopsis of your own story so far?
MA: Professionally, I’ve had a great career working in film and video for over 25 years. I started out as a film editor then learned to produce and direct videos. At the same time, I worked as a freelance writer and puppeteer and taught film, video and animation. Plus I love dancing and traveling. Since teaching video and animation in college full-time, I’ve focused on making video art and documentaries. An eclectic background all tied together by a devotion to motion!
DK: You have traveled all over the world. What first drew you to the Huichol in particular?
MA: I’ve been going to Mexico since 1981. I first met Isabel Jordan in 1986 in a small village outside of Puerto Vallarta and saw the Huichol art she collected. I met Huichol artisans who came to visit her and was impressed by their commitment to their traditions and the sacred. Their connection to the invisible realms is powerful, and that is what draws me to them.
My first visit to the mountain villages and the ceremonies was in 1998 with Isabel. I attended ceremonies again in 2006 and 2008. Since I speak Spanish, I was able to have good conversations with people over the years. I began to interview them about whatever documentary topic I was working on at the time. The first interviews were about growing older, then a few years later about forgiveness and finally about their way of life, beliefs and current situations.
DK: How close a relationship have you managed to develop with the Huichol?
MA: I first met the Huichol in 1986 through Isabel Jordan.
Through Isabel, I came to know several families and watched their children grow up over the years. There are three families in particular who I have an ongoing connection with, two artisan families and one shaman and his family. They were very comfortable with having me videotape and interview them because of my connection with Isabel and knowing them for so many years. I was also given permission by the Governors of three villages to document daily life in order for people to better understand Huichol ways.
DK: How involved have you been in their traditional ceremonies? Were you more of a witness or an active participant? Have you received “glimpses of old gods“?
MA: My glimpses of old gods have come from many traditions, including the Huichol.
When I went to the first Huichol ceremony, I was not allowed to record anything. This allowed me to be completely open to the experience. It was extraordinarily powerful. We were part of a shaman’s family group and sat with them as they chanted and danced, while the animals were blessed, when the shaman made offerings and we were all blessed with water. We stayed up all night until Venus rose in the eastern sky.
As a non-Huichol, you may be invited to be a close observer and participate in some ways, but it is a complex, sacred tradition with many aspects beyond the understanding of non-Huichol.
Here is a link to an article I wrote about my experience: LINK
DK: Have you ever tried peyote?
MA: I decided before the ceremony that I would not ask for peyote, but if it were offered to me I would take it. It was. It has a bitter taste and a clarifying effect that makes your thoughts vivid and your mind awake. We only ate one each, while the shaman may eat fifteen. Of course, everything was so completely unique and riveting that even without any assistance I would have been in another world, because I certainly was.
DK: Did you ever meet the artist Jose Benitez Sanchez?
MA: The interview about forgiveness was with Jose Benitez Sanchez in his village of Zitacua outside Tepic (north of Puerto Vallarta, west of Guadalajara). The first visit, I waited three days for him to return from an excursion. I spent each day with the village children, who were my lively, friendly guides as they played and showed me around the village. During the second visit a few years later, while I waited, I spent some time with his granddaughters. Because I taught reading to children for many years and was a puppeteer for fifteen years, I get along well with kids. Their curiosity about newcomers is heartening.
DK: When I visited the exhibition today I had a very strong sense that to the Huichol everything (all living things, their geography, their art, their language, the very rocks and streams…) is deeply interconnected and considered sacred. Also I read that they see the entire cosmos as reproduced in a small space, and conversely “what happens in a smaller environment is echoed in the entire universe.” How does this worldview affect them in their daily working lives?
MA: Yes, like many profound cultures, everything is interconnected and sacred. This is one of the many things we can learn from the Huichol and other older traditions. The form it takes in their daily life is a tremendous sense of community. Families live and work together. People in the villages build, farm and do ceremonies together. There is no isolation. Compare this to our contemporary cultures and you see a vast difference.
DK: What do you see (or feel) when you look into their art?
MA: Initially, I am drawn to the bright colors of their art and the stories it tells. But then it is a paradox that draws me in: the more I look at the art, the more I see the invisible.
DK: You are currently working on a documentary entitled “Regeneration” which explores peoples attitudes towards the aging process. Apparently the Huichol are not afraid of death. Could you tell me more about that? What’s their secret?
MA: Here is the revelatory moment I had while interviewing Celia Ruiz in the mountain village of San Andres Cohamiata. I asked her if her people were afraid of death. She told me: “We have enough to eat and we are not alone, so we are not afraid of death.” Her answer made me pensive. She asked me if my people were afraid of death and I said yes. She asked me why and all I could say was because we are not wise. Later I thought a great deal about having more and fearing more, compared to having less and fearing less.
DK: In your video “Visions of the Huichol” you speak of “modern encroachments” that are challenging their traditional way of life. What are these modern encroachments?
MA: Everything from tourists to schools that are taught in Spanish, not Huichol. The pesticides they are exposed to when they farm tobacco. The roads that cut across the sacred 300 mile walk to their sacred land of Wirikuta. The logging roads that cut through their villages. The beer and tequila that has replaced traditional corn wine. The missionary groups translating the Bible into a written version Huichol, which is a spoken language. Foreign thrill seekers pulling the sacred peyote up by the roots so it won’t grow back any more. Moves towards acculturation by the government. A partial list . . .
DK: How much have the Huichol people come to rely on the tourist industry to support their way of life? And how is contact with the outside world in this way changing their society?
MA: They are very dependent on the tourist trade to buy their art work. With the downturn in the numbers of tourists visiting Mexico these last few economically challenging years, it has been very hard for the Huichol. As with many intact cultures, contact with the outside world is something they are able to moderate through subtle assimilation due to the strength of their beliefs. However, the need to earn more money drives them from the villages to the cities and then they do not attend the ceremonies and maintain their traditions in the same way.
DK: Isabel Jordan speaks (in your video) of how in former times an artist would never sign their own name. Ego was not important. But now increasingly artists do sign their names, and simple visionary designs have become more baroque to please the tourist market. Has Huichol art been corrupted?
MA: The yarn paintings began in the 1960s at the suggestion of an anthropologist. They show the Huichol cosmology and visions but are a recent undertaking in terms of this ancient culture, not a tradition. Their visions are true and the images depicted are the traditional Huichol ways. Their belief is not corrupted.
DK: How do the Huichol, when speaking frankly, feel about their relationship with the outside world?
MA: Like any group, there are different views. For example, the village of San Andres is more open to outsiders and friendly with them because of the art trade. The village of Santa Caterina on the other hand, is closed to outsiders with a few exceptions. They do not like that San Andres is open to outsiders. It is controversial. Another aspect of their feelings is that they are the original Mexicans. They call the ones known as Mexicans mestizos, mixed blood. The rest of us are blancos, whites. Like any people, those who genuinely respect them are respected in return.
The schools built in each village by the Mexican government are controversial. I’ll explore this in the longer documentary I am making. It took me by surprise because as a teacher I think of schools as good. One of the shaman I know, told me about his concerns about the schools because they take the children away from the ceremonial commitments because of their five day a week schedule. Others spoke to me about the Huichol versus Spanish language issues. Generally when a culture loses its language, it does not bode well.
DK: Do young Huichol people dream of escaping their traditional way of life for a more urban, “modern” lifestyle with all its conveniences?
MA: Not that I saw. Some go to the cities but come back. They tend to stay with their families so if the family moves to the city, they go together.
DK: What can be done to help the Huichol?
MA: Ah, a big question. First, respect for their culture and its ways from the Mexican government and people. Without respect for traditional wisdom, there is no protection from insensitive views. Depending on the particular administration in office, strides are made or rescinded. For example, the logging roads through the villages is a current controversy. A past controversy that was reversed regarded making peyote use illegal. It is now recognized as part of the religion.
Globally, respect for earth based traditions would teach us all a great deal about living on our fragile planet. The Huichol consider themselves caretakers of the earth. Many are deeply concerned about our lack of connection with the earth and its effects.
My small part was to make the “Visions of the Huichol” documentary so that tourists who buy the art could understand more about the tribe, their life and beliefs, thus building respect. I had a grant to make a bilingual version and 100 DVDs that I gave as gifts to the families in the video and the village of San Andres Cohamiata.
DK: Finally, is this your first trip to Japan? What are you looking forward to seeing and doing here? Are there any aspects of Japanese culture that appeal to you?
MA: Japanese culture appeals to me very much because of its attention to beauty and precision. The traditional arts and style have always appealed to me. I’m very glad to be returning. In 1987, I visited Kyoto for a week on my way to Bali and enjoyed it very much. I want to visit many Buddhist monasteries and Shinto shrines, enjoy the great food and green tea and calligraphy, hopefully find an ikebana class. The blend of traditional and contemporary appeals to me very much too so I hope to take in current art and culture, cafes and jazz. I love jazz and am glad Japan has a healthy jazz scene!
Thank you very much, Mara Alper!
Mara’s lecture “Visions of the Huichol” will take place on Sunday January 24th from 2:00 pm. You can see Mara’s video “Visions of the Huichol” on youtube here. The exhibition of Huichol Arts continues until Sunday February 7th. You can find the Kampo museum on the intersection of Reisen and Okazaki streets due east of Heian Jingu. Here is a map. The museum is open everyday between 10 and 4 o’clock.