Bolivia: Textiles That Tell Stories

The people of Jalq’a and Tarabuco narrate their legends through their clothes – which speak of their origins, their cosmovision and their Andean identity.

There is no other country in South America that offers such a variety of climate, geography and culture, like Bolivia. The country, which is located in central South America, is surrounded by the Andes in the south, north and west, and by the forest, in the east. Besides, the country shares part of the majestic Lake Titicaca, one of the sacred places of the Inca Empire, with Peru.

The isolation of Bolivia from the rest of the continent has favoured the preservation of its traditions, nature, ruins, volcanoes, glaciers and the tropical Yungas. The indigenous peoples in the country constitute sixty per cent of its population, the several ethnic groups include the Tihuanaco, Aymara, Quechua, Guarani and Inca people who must struggle for their physical and cultural survival.

Native Bolivians have preserved their language, their costumes and their own way of life. They grow potatoes, wheat, cereal, beans and other vegetables and raise llamas, vicuñas and goats, whose wool is woven in their traditional looms to create unique textiles of typical Andean essence.

Textiles have always been items of exchange, as well as recipients of the millennial identity and traditions of the Bolivian indigenous peoples. A large number of the weavers of Bolivia are Quechua and Aymara, who are the descendants of the Incas.

Pre-Columbian looms were often portable and those in use today are generally similar. Many Bolivian indigenous weavers use traditional looms such as the back strap loom, or waist loom, so-called because the weaver controls the tension on one side with her waist, with the other side tied to an upright or tree.

The people of these ancient Bolivian groups use natural colours to dye fabrics and represent motifs that connect them with their ancestors.

Textiles play an essential role among these modern descendants of the Incas, because through the themes and colours they represent on their fabrics they have passed down their cosmovision through generations for 2000 years now. The clothes weaved by the people of these communities ‘tell stories’ about their origins, beliefs, legends. Therefore textiles become wordless language. The colours, the patterns of the weave tell stories about life, death and reproduction. Textiles bind the ancestors’ spirit to their descendants and they play a fundamental role in the social, political, economic and religious aspects of the community.

Clothes are so important to the indigenous Bolivians, that they are mentioned even in the myth of the origin of the Tiahuanaco people. Spanish chronicler Bernabé Cobo, in 1565, reported this myth as follows – “The Creator began to raise up the people and nations that are in Tiahuanaco, making one of each nation of clay, and painting the dresses that each one was to wear… and to each nation was given the language that was to be spoken, and… When the Creator had finished painting and making the said nations and figures of clay, he gave life and soul to each one, as well men as women, and ordered that they should pass under the earth. Thence each nation came up in the places to which he ordered them to go. Thus they say that some came out of caves, others issued from hills, others from fountains, others from the trunks of trees. From this cause, and owing to having come forth and commenced to multiply, from those places, and to having had the beginning of their lineage in them, they made huacas and places of worship of them in memory of the origin of their lineage which proceeded from them. Thus each nation uses the dress with which they invest their huaca”.

The Jalq’a textiles

The Jalq’a are a Quechua-speaking ethnic group which is spread over both sides of the border between the provinces of Chayanta and Oropeza, a couple of hours from the city of Sucre.

The Jalq’a textiles are considered among the most beautiful and enigmatic of Bolivia. They represent chaos and tell the story of the Genesis.

Black figures and strange animals emerge from the darkness. The Jalq’a weavers use only colours that absorb light to represent a disordered space, a world of darkness, death, dreams, restlessness, fear and multiplication, peopled with the unknown and an imaginary world. The mythical figures refer to an amazing pre-solar time inhabited by winged mammals, bats, birds and mythical animals that seem to emerge from very old memories. These strange figures are called Khurus, or wild animals, such as owls, frogs and viscachas.

Other characters are simply imaginary – quadruped with humps in their heads and animals with eyes in their tail. The reality expressed in these textiles is a fantastic and chaotic universe populated by few human beings lost in this fantastic animal world. The style of the Jalq’a textiles is unique, conceptual and highly appreciated by collectors in the world. For their quality, the beauty of their characters and patterns, and for their daring representation of chaos, these textiles constitute a unique heritage of humanity worthy of being considered as modern art.

The Tarabuco textiles

Tarabuco is a small Indian town about 65 kilometres east of Sucre and it is best known as the home of the traditional ‘Yampara’ culture.

The Tarabuco textiles often display designs ordered into bands, and the first thing that catches people’s attention is their clear segmentation and symmetric order.

Traditionally the Tarabuco woven cloth incorporated abstract geometric patterns, and gradually designs began to incorporate artistic expressions of daily life in colourful lines and animal shapes. The Tarabucos weave with the wool of sheep and cotton dyed in bright colours, creating intricate patterns in various colour gradations, which contrast with the background tissue in white cotton. In this way, not only colour but also fabric, highlights every detail of the pattern. The colour gradations produce characteristic light ray effects.

Horses are the most represented animals in the Tarabuco textiles, but weaving patterns also visualize shapes of condors, llamas and viscachas, zig-zag shaped rivers, rhombus shaped eyes, birds and flowers. These textiles are exhibited with pride on the occasion of the Pujllay Festival of Tarabuco. Pujllay (‘play’ or ‘dance’ in Quechua) is held to commemorate the 12 March, 1816 Battle of Cumbate, an event in which the people of Tarabuco liberated their town from Spanish forces. Along with celebrating independence, the festival is also dedicated to memorializing those who have died and to expressing gratitude and making offerings to the Andean deity Pachamama (Mother Earth). This Bolivian festival plays an integral part in preserving the Quechua -Yampara traditions.

– Catalina S. Montoya

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